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Firefox Goes PulseAudio Only, Leaves ALSA Users With No Sound

A change they left out of the release notes

firefox pulseaudio alert bar

Many Linux users are seeing this banner alert

If you’re a Linux user who upgraded to Firefox 52 only to find that the browser no longer plays sound, you’re not alone.

Firefox 52 saw release last week and it makes PulseAudio a hard dependency — meaning ALSA only desktops are no longer supported.

Ubuntu uses PulseAudio by default (as most modern Linux distributions do) so the switch won’t affect most — but some Linux users and distros do prefer, for various reasons, to use ALSA, which is part of the Linux kernel.

Lubuntu 16.04 LTS is one of the distros that use ALSA by default. Lubuntu users who upgraded to Firefox 52 through the regular update channel were, without warning, left with a web browser that plays no sound.

Lubuntu 16.10 users are not affected as the distro switched to PulseAudio.

Reader Adam Hunt is among those affected by the decision.

“Firefox 52 arrived in the Ubuntu repositories yesterday on 08 March 2017, and so I took some time out from testing Chromium to see how it worked. It didn’t take long to discover that the audio was broken, with Firefox suggesting, via a browser pop-up bar, that I needed that I needed to install PulseAudio to the fix the problem, as ALSA audio is no longer supported,” he writes in a post on his blog.

So what’s going on?

Wasn’t Mentioned in Release Notes

It’s no surprise that we (like many Linux users) were idly unaware of the change. Mozilla makes no mention of it in the Firefox 52 release notes, and you’d need recall an obscure blog post from 2016 (one with no timeline) to even know dropping alsa was on the roadmap.

Firefox, for their part, cite ongoing problems and maintenance issues for dropping ALSA support, explaining in the original bug report to track the change:

Make Pulse Audio a hard dependency on Linux so that we reduce the problems and maintenance associated with maintaining multiple audio backends

Many Firefox users don’t buy this explanation, while others, noting that “ALSA code is still present in the new build” feel making the audio backend selectable would’ve been a more suitable approach.

Mozilla: “[Supporting ALSA] isn’t going to happen. Sorry.”

‘making trade offs is a necessary part of making a good product,’ say Mozilla

A Launchpad bug has been filed against Firefox, but is as-yet unassigned. Firefox itself does, somewhat helpfully, prompt users to install PulseAudio to the enable sound playback, but for ALSA users it’s not a particularly practical suggestion for all use-cases.

Responding to the criticism Mozilla engineer, Anthony Jones, says: “making trade offs is a necessary part of making a good product”. When asked to restore ALSA support in the the rep replies: “[that] isn’t going to happen. Sorry.”

‘Installing Pulse Audio fixes all the known issues with the ALSA backend’, he explains, and cites telemetry usage as having informed their decision. When it’s pointed out that Ubuntu flavors disable telemetry by default, he quips that such a move ‘…is not without disadvantage’.

For now only real “solution” to get sound working in Firefox on ALSA systems is to either downgrade to an earlier version of Firefox; switch to Firefox ESR (which still has ALSA support at the time of writing); switch to a different browser entirely (Chromium plays nicely with ALSA) — or suck it up and install PulseAudio.

Thanks Adam H.