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OK. This problem is really weird and it first started when I updated my Nvidia driver (previously using noveau).

The first thing I noticed was that when using headphones video playback gets muted - but only when someone is speaking - it only mutes the voice. Music playing before, after or during speech is loud.

Next I tried to see what it's like if I play a music video - I get muted vocals. Music sounds like the voice has been stripped out - kind of like karaoke music.

I tried disabling the Nvidia driver and reuse noveau and the problem persists.

This is where it gets really weird. I started playing around with sound settings and found that when I move the output balance to the left or right the voices get loud again. It seems like full left or full right both make voices the loudest but exactly in the middle will almost completely mute the voice. It seems like the balance is inverted with middle = full left for right audio and full right for left audio.

Again, this only affects the headphone - speaker audio is normal. And it affects voices but not music.

I tried playing some games and most of the sound comes out garbled - like cooked mp3s. Again, only on headphones.

One more thing. The "test speaker" function in the sound settings generate perfect output - no distortion. Only other software have the distortion.

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    To start with, A) which version of Linux have you installed (Ubuntu server, Ubuntu desktop, Kubuntu, Lubuntu, Xubuntu, Ubuntu MATE, et al.) , and B) which release number? Different releases have different tools for us to recommend. C) Which NVIDIA driver is installed? Please click edit and add that vital information to your question so all the facts we need are in the question. Please don't use Add Comment, since that's our channel to you. All facts about your system should go in the Question with edit – K7AAY May 13 '20 at 20:19
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OK. This turned out to be a hardware issue. It affected two of my headphones in exactly the same way which initially made me rule out hardware issues but a third headphone works perfectly.

The symptoms above happens when the left and right signal wires are shorted/crossed. This happening to two good quality headphones should be unlikely but I guess given enough people and enough time anything is possible.

The muting of the voice is interesting. This happens due to how voice is normally recorded. While musical instruments are normally recorded as full stereo voice is normally recorded on a separate mic and assigned as perfectly centered: that is, the left and right voice waveforms are the same. When the left and right channels are shorted the voice waveforms act to cancel itself - exactly like how noise cancelling headphones work.

I'm leaving this as a self-answer because the muted voice but loud music is an interesting symptom to debug something like this.

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