If you take Ubuntu Brainstorm’s word for it, one of the more popular wishes for Ubuntu, is to avoid having to adjust the volume slider up and down as you plug and unplug your headphones, but instead keep separate volumes stored for both.

Long story short, it’s a desirable feature, and we’re moving in that direction, but slowly, as the feature is more complex than it seems like at first glance.

The good news: in the upcoming Ubuntu Oneiric (11.10), this is actually working. The bad news: it isn’t working for everyone.

For external stuff, mainly USB and Bluetooth devices, this has been working for a quite a few releases now (although you might have to manually switch to your new card when you plug it in). So let’s restrict the discussion to internal sound cards, that on a typical laptop would control your internal speaker and your 3.5mm headphone jack. Here’s where Oneiric will make a positive difference for many of you (although, still far from all of you).

PulseAudio has the concept of “ports” (in your Gnome “Sound settings”, this is what’s labeled a “Connector”), and headphones and speakers would be different ports of the same card. As of Oneiric, every port has its volume stored independently, so when you switch ports, the volume will automatically change.
Now, this does not become really useful until this port can automatically switch back and forth when you plug and unplug your headphones. This feature is also now implemented in Oneiric, as you can read about in my previous blog post, PulseAudio with jack detection.

Things are not always that easy. Not everyone has just internal speakers and headphones, some have line outs instead, or all three. On the input side, some have internal mics, microphone jacks (often more than one), line ins, or any combination of those. In addition, people are different: some want headphones to automatically mute line outs, others don’t. That’s a typical case where different drivers expose very different behaviour: some do, some don’t, some have a setting you can control in alsamixer. Some drivers enable the user to have different volumes for different outputs, others don’t. Drivers label volume controls and jacks differently. Not every driver actually exposes the current jack sense state to userspace, either.

The bottom line: Is this working for you? Great! Is it not? You’re not alone. I’ll try to fix some of that up for Ubuntu 12.04, but there will – no doubt – be users who won’t have this functionality for a long time. At this point, the best you can do is to file a bug using the “ubuntu-bug audio” command, and hope for the best. Even if it might be too late for your hardware to be supported in 11.10, filing the bug sooner rather than later might help to get it into 12.04. However, manpower is always an issue, so even better would be if you could write a kernel patch yourself to fix it. :-)