How To Play Music From An External Hard Drive- Step By Step Guide


Hard drives provide us with an efficient way to store files, protecting them from potentially being lost, and in the process saving space on a computer or laptop. They’re great for keeping all of your digital music files in one organized place.

So, is it possible to play music directly from an external hard drive?

Playing audio files from a hard drive is possible. The simplest method would be to connect the hard drive to a computer and play the files through that. If this isn’t an option, you’ll need a receiver that facilitates USB mass storage devices.

There are some key factors that come into play when you attempt to play music straight from a hard drive.

These include the connectivity that the playback device you are using facilitates, the format of the music files on the hard drive, and whether you can potentially use a computer or laptop with your hard drive.

In this guide, we’ll explore each of these points and more, so that you can start enjoying music directly from your hard drive.

Music Playback & Hardrives

Unfortunately, it’s not possible to simply connect a hard drive to a set of speakers, hit play, and enjoy the music. This is because, the hard drive does not contain the necessary components for playback, such as a DAC or amplifier. They’re also unlikely to have audio cable connectors.

Despite this, there are some tried and trusted methods you can use to play music directly from a hard drive.

Before we dive into them, I’d highly recommend that if possible, you consider using a computer or laptop as the middle ground between your hard drive and speakers.

This is by far the easiest way to enjoy the music on your hard drive.

All it requires is for you to connect the drive to the computer or laptop via USB, then select the music you’d like to play, and you’re done. You can choose whether to simply play the music from the hard drive, or move it onto the computer so that you can create playlists from it.

If for whatever reason you can’t use a laptop or computer to play music from your hard drive, you may need to acquire some additional equipment if your setup doesn’t facilitate direct USB device playback. Thankfully, many modern receivers, hi-fi systems, and car stereos do facilitate this.

Before you attempt to connect the hard drive to your playback device, you’ll need to check that the connectors are compatible. I’ll assume that your hard drive uses a USB connection, as most of them do. If you’re using a receiver as part of your setup, the first thing you should do is check to see whether it has a USB port built into it.

If the receiver does have a USB port, this is a good sign. However, don’t get too excited just yet, as this could merely indicate that the USB port is solely for the purpose of charging external devices, such as mobile phones or tablets.

If possible, check the specifications of your receiver or other playback devices to see if it is compatible with USB mass storage devices. Many good-quality devices do offer this possibility, but older or less capable devices may lack it.

Connecting Your Hardrive to a Playback Device

As I previously mentioned, in order to play music directly from a hard drive you’ll need to pair it with a device that includes both a DAC and an amplifier. Without these two essential components, digital audio files simply cannot be played back through speakers or headphones.

A DAC is a device that converts digital signals into analog waveforms. The music files stored on your hard drive are in digital form, whether they are MP3, WAV, or another file type. Digital files consist of a series of 0s and 1s, and therefore they must be converted into an analog format for playback.

The digital format of your music files affects sound quality, as you can see from the table below:

File TypeBitrateOpen SourceMetadata Supported
WAV1,411 kbpsNoNo
Flac1,411 kbpsYesYes
AIFF1,411 kbpsNoYes
WMA768 kbpsNoYes
MP3320 kbpsYesYes

All playback devices, including phones, laptops, and audio interfaces have a built in DAC and amplifier. A hard drive lacks both of these components, and this is why you can’t simply hook it up to a set of speakers or a pair of headphones and listen to music directly.

Most hard drives connect via USB, which is not an audio cable. However, if the playback device, such as a receiver or stereo system has a USB input and is capable of reading the files on the hard drive, then you can connect it using this simple method.

For this to be possible, the device that you intend to connect your hard drive to will need to have some form of a display screen so that you can toggle through the music stored on it. In some rare cases, it may be possible to simply use the buttons to toggle through the tracks, but this will make it difficult to identify the ones you want to listen to.

Check out this 1TB external hard drive here on Amazon.

How to Use a Computer to Play Music from a Hard Drive

If you’ve moved your music files onto a hard drive to free up space on your computer or laptop’s inbuilt drive, you might be wondering how to play the files now that they’re not stored on your device.

The easiest way to do this is by using the free Apple software, iTunes. If you already use iTunes for music playback, you’ll need to rearrange some of the folders in order to direct the software to the audio files which are now stored on the external hard drive.

Currently, iTunes will be set to play files from a specific folder on your computer. This may be the default folder that is created when you installed the program, or a different one if you’ve manually changed the folder in the past.

The first thing to do when moving any files around is to back them up before starting. This cautious approach prevents you from losing any important files through corruption, misplacement, or some other computer error.

It’s best to store the files from your default iTunes folder on a separate hard drive to the one from which you intend to play music from, if possible. Once that’s taken care of, you’ll need to connect your hard drive with the music files on to the computer or laptop.

Once the hard drive has been successfully connected to the computer, open iTunes. Find the preferences menu and the advanced tab. Here, you can change the iTunes Media folder so that it is directed to the hard drive where your music files are stored.

Take a look at this YouTube video that shows you how to do this.

You can then create playlists using the music from your external hard drive. If you disconnect it, the next time you reconnect iTunes should automatically find the music files in the hard drive.

It’s also possible to perform this same process using another media player on your computer, such as Windows Media Player. If it doesn’t matter to you whether the music files are synced to the media player, another option is to simply open the hard drive on your computer and select the files individually.

The music files will simply be opened using the default program on your computer which is allocated for that file type. The only downside to opening them in this manner is that it’s more difficult to create playlists or use the sorting tools in the media player to categorize the music by artist, album, or genre.

I have written an article on DAC you can find more information here.

  • To summarize, the two methods you can use to play music directly from a hard drive are either to connect the drive to a receiver or other playback device which has the capacity to work with USB mass storage devices, or simply hook it up to a computer and use a media player.

Related Questions

Is there a difference between an external hard drive and a backup drive?

Backup drives are used for the purpose of storing important files and data to prevent them from being potentially lost in the event of a system failure or other unexpected event. External hard drives are used to free up space on your computer.

Is it OK to leave an external hard drive plugged in all of the time?

Yes, leaving an external hard drive constantly plugged in is fine, and shouldn’t cause the drive any damage. In fact, this can be an effective way of increasing the amount of space you have to save files.

What is the difference between SSD and HHD hard drives?

An SSD is considered to be quicker and consumes less power than an HDD drive. However, HDDs are generally more reliable and are more suitable for storing large amounts of data from your computer.

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