Surround Sound vs Stereo: What’s the Difference?

Capturing the most out of audio output can be a mission in and of itself. There are various options out there and some common set-ups encountered are stereo and surround sound. Quite often, the differences between these two set-ups are not fully understood. This guides aims to delve into the differences between surround sound vs stereo and how they can be used to enhance your audio listening experience at home.

What Is Surround Sound?

Creating a sound-field from different angles is the central aspect of surround sound. It covers the front, side, and rear compartments. A surround system is usually made up of five speakers plus a subwoofer (5.1) but can be even be seen in 7 or 9 speaker configurations.

Usually, three speakers plus the TV are installed on the front-facing wall. A center speaker is located above or below the TV. One speaker is placed to the right and the other to the left of the TV. The other speakers can be installed on the sides or the rear portion of the room.

Surround sound offers a perception of depth. You hear sound with intensity and volume as if you are experiencing a live event. The Doppler effect is also achieved via surround sound, where the frequency or wavelength of sound is affected by how a source moves towards or away from the listener (commonly encountered in real life when a police siren comes towards and away from you).

Surround Sound vs Stereo
Image from Teufel Audio

What Are the Functions of the Surround Sound Speakers?

The channel speaker on the center works to reproduce hi-fidelity sounds. These are usually the dialogue from the movie. These speakers are designed to be wider or flatter than other speakers since they broaden the soundstage needed for dialogue. It provides a speaker design that is best located below or above the television screen.

The speakers located in front and at the left also reproduce scene dialogue. However, these ones are typically utilized to reproduce the sound effects and the music. The right and rear speakers work to reproduce the surround sound effects and music.

When it comes to the subwoofer, its prominent role is producing low-frequency sound (which is also named as LFE).

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The Immersive Impact of Surround Sound

Surround sound is commonly utilized in action movies to provide more realism in scenes for the end viewer. In drama movies, surround sound is often used in a subtle way. For example, the system can effectively be used reproduce the chirping of birds within the vicinity which adds to the overall level of immersion.

Cinemas, entertainment rooms and home theaters often use surround sound to enhance the listening experience. Hence, its use is widespread in both the commercial and home settings.

The Pros of Surround Sound

Covers Large Rooms

Surround sound works perfectly for bigger rooms. If you want your own entertainment room to reach its full potential, you should opt for the more optimal surround sound experience. Usually, watching movies via Dolby Digital surround sound turns a simple room into a movie theater.

Gamers’ Delight

If you enjoy playing racing and action games, you would definitely love utilizing a surround sound system. The main goal of video games is to provide an immersive gaming experience where any gamer can feel a more realistic vibe while enjoying the storyline and the challenge of the game.

Special Effects

If you love watching movies, a surround sound system highlights key elements of the movie’s score and special effects. This speaker system translates the best scenes with more depth, from a simple door creaking to the biggest bomb explosions. It is safe to say that surround sound elevates the experience as the special effects are given more impact. Whether you like action movies or thrillers, you will definitely have the best time with a high-quality surround sound system.

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The Cons of Surround Sound

Surround sound also has some disadvantages. Here are they:

Cable Management

Surround sound comes with a multitude of speakers, and you need to plan their locations within the room. You have to get the best position to get the most optimal sound experience. The drawback, though, is that you have to plan where the cables would run so that they won’t be hard to manage. The more wired speakers, the more cables you need to take care of.

Not Best for Music

A majority of music and TV shows are still recorded in stereo. Hence musicians often opt for stereo sound systems for use in home studio set-ups.

What Is Stereo?

Stereo systems typically features two channels of audio – which are usually places on the right and left stages. These speakers can easily be connected to mixers that let different devices create a dynamic sound by controlling the output from the right or left speaker. For surround sound, three or more speakers make up the system.

The audio output for a surround sound system needs to be sent via a mixer in order to form a sound field. The output creates a firm or clear sound impact that a listener can easily be immersed in. When it comes to using a subwoofer, both surround sound and stereo systems can utilize and benefit from it. However, it is more common for surround systems to have subwoofers compared to stereo systems.

Stereo systems with separate subwoofers usually can be seen in PC speaker systems, and they are also typically smaller. Surround sound offers a system with multiple channels, while a stereo system usually gets limited to two channels.

Headphones, earphones, computers, portable DVD and CD players, boom boxes, and different MP3 players usually utilize stereophonic sound. Hence, their use case is typically more commonly encountered than surround sound systems.

Music usually does not require directional sound and is therefore predominantly recorded in stereo. The convenience of listening via stereo provides both cost and practical benefits since many devices today usually offer stereo speakers and two built-in audio channels.

KEF Q350 Bookshelf Speaker (pair) | Smart Home Sounds
Image from smarthomesounds

The Pros of Stereo

Best for Music

Stereo is still considered as the best option for audiophiles because most, if not all, music is still recorded via stereo. This has been the norm for decades, but we can’t predict what the future of technology holds for us. At present, stereo is still the most loved and most utilized option for creating and presenting music.

No Need for Cable Management

When it comes to stereo, built-in options make it easier to set up speakers. Stereo does not usually require multiple speakers, and this helps in cable management. You don’t have to stress yourself about where to place the wires along with maintaining them. Due to its fewer requirements of speakers, the stereo won’t need management of multiple cables running from the front, sides, and rear portions of your home entertainment room. Built-in stereo speakers on different devices make it easier for music lovers alike.

More Affordable

Stereo options are often more affordable due to the typically lower level of components used. Surround sound systems are typically larger and used in more grandiose set ups such as home theaters or commercial cinemas.

Image from musicianonamission

The Cons of Stereo

And, of course, listed below are some of its disadvantages:

No Special Effects

If you have tried watching a movie with a surround sound system and revert back to stereo, you will immediately notice the difference in special effects. In stereo set-ups, they are more unidimensional with less added depth and impact than conventional surround sound experiences.

Less Immersive Experience

Without the added boost, unlike with surround sound, there is a less immersive experience when using stereo. You have to mix and alter different sound options on your amplifier just to catch the best combination of sound effects. However, stereo is quite different from surround sound in this regard.

Which is better – Surround Sound or Stereo?

Whether surround sound is better than stereo is very subjective. And it gets down to your intended use and the room size. While building a sound system, the end goal is to get the best sound possible, and the quality of sound will vary depending on the original recording of the audio.

Intended use

Audio formats vary, and each sounds great when matched with the intended player. For instance, if your home theatre setup is mostly for playing music, you’re better off with a stereo system. Simply because most songs are recorded in stereo, and those in mono will also sound great in a stereo system. Whether streaming music, playing vinyl or CDs, a stereo system wins over surround sound. Even with headphones, music is outputted in stereo, but the mixer can vary the volume and output of either channel to create a dynamic effect.

On the other hand, for movies and games, surround sound is the best. The sound effects in either are formatted for multi-channel output, and the result is an immersive and deep sound. Any surround speakers’ combinations here work fine, and it gets better with more speakers.

What if you plan on using your system for TV shows or playing a hybrid media system? Well, then go for a surround system. And the main reason is all surround systems come with an option of playing stereo, though it won’t be as great as a dedicated stereo player, thus may offer more options in mixed media playing. Even so, most TV shows’ audio is in stereo, but you can still enjoy it with surround sound.

3 Things to Consider in Choosing the Best Speaker System Option

If you are picking speakers for your very own home theater, you should get it right from the start. Some may consider it an obvious choice but you should still check out the different aspects to get the best setup.

Room Size

Upon choosing a speaker system, initially, you might think that having too many speakers will provide the best experience while watching or listening. However, you should also consider that having too many speakers will not always be a good thing as there can be a slight chance of poor sound quality. This negative effect can be a result of potential crosstalk, where the audio output from the different speakers crosses through each other. The listener won’t hear the best optimal sound because of this crosstalk.

It would be smart to consider your home theater setup from the get-go. If you have a say in planning your house, you can immediately mention this to your architect. Architects are knowledgeable about acoustics, and they can advise you on the best options for your home theater setup. Typically, conventional-sized living rooms or family rooms are able to make use of a 5.1 surround sound system. A room of smaller size, would probably benefit more from a soundbar or a stereo system.

Front Wide Speaker Layout 7-1
Image from highdefdigest

Listening to Music

The concept of listening to music via a surround sound system has lingered since the ‘70s. Modern technology has made this concept more attainable, but this does not guarantee any freedom from potential issues. The most common is that whatever the speaker output may be, music is entirely recorded in stereo. The output is basically formatted in 2 channels. That’s why the system needs work to be done. Processing the audio would require splitting it via the multi-channel system. Stereo forms a sound field that mimics a performance stage that produces an effect similar to a theater environment.  A person sitting equidistant between the right and left speakers will be able to hear the produced sound-field.

Speaker Quality

Quantity might seem important to a certain degree, but a more impotant aspect is speaker quality. The sensitivity rating of the speaker should be among your most prioritized considerations. The sensitivity rating refers to the output of the speaker with one watt of power and measured from a one-meter distance.

Less power is required for more sensitive speakers. This translates to being able to play your amplifier with a higher volume than speakers with lower sensitivity. 

The range of the speaker should also factor in. For a surround sound system, the channel speakers usually consist of bookshelf or mid-range satellite speakers. Some might offer tower speakers, but these are not instantly included on a surround sound system setup. It is wiser to choose a set of mid-range bookshelf speakers with high-quality instead of opting for lots of tower speakers that claim to have ‘full range.’ These tower speakers tend to cut back on the mid-range frequencies and even result in speaker dips and muddy sound.

Considering bookshelf speakers would be smarter, especially if you place them at the most optimal locations within a room and combine them with a subwoofer. This provides a better range of frequencies and tends to avoid distortion better. The KEF LS50 Series of speakers are examples of excellent sound quality bookshelf speakers without breaking the bank.

Image from KEF

3D vs Surround sound

3D and surround sound work in different ways to achieve the same end goal of a dynamic and
immersive sound. Physically, the 3D sound will have two speakers while surround sound has more.

Of course, surround sound is pricier, but the sound output is better than in 3D. So, how is 3D sound different from surround sound? 3D sound uses the concept of virtual surround sound. Meaning, it creates multi-directional sound by combining phasing and delays of signal and volume going to each of the two speakers. It also adds verticality into sound, such that it sounds more natural. It’s a common technology in surround sound headphones.

Generally, the 3D sound produces a dynamic stereo sound, but not a true surround sound. On the other hand, surround sound has speakers and designs to produce a true surround sound. In reality, 3D tech does not improve audio quality. It’s more of a marketing gimmick meant to make a system more appealing. If you’re after dynamic audio, go for a good surround sound system.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What does a good surround sound system consist of?

In order to operate a good surround sound home theater system, you will need a home theater AV receiver with five channels or more plus one subwoofer. It would be nice to check out an AV receiver from Dolby and get seven channels instead of five. Gauge the room if five would be enough to cover your requirements.

Are soundbars as good as surround sound?

Soundbars are smaller compared to surround sound speaker systems. They can’t exceed three elements even though they can consist of one or two surround sound systems. Soundbars usually offer a minimum of six speakers, including the subwoofer.

What is stereo short for?

The word stereo is short for stereophonic. It describes something that is recorded with the use of two or more channels. The sound usually provides an effect that surrounds the listener and comes from more than a single source. The word can also be broken down into the Greek roots, stereo, “solid or three-dimensional,” and phone, which means “voice.”

Is 5.1 or Stereo better?

A 5.1 surround sound contains five speakers and a subwoofer, while a stereo has two speakers and possibly a subwoofer. If correctly set up, a 5.1 system will deliver more immersive sound than a stereo. However, whether 5.1 or stereo is better depends on what exactly is being played and in what room size. What it means is, if you have a large room, then 5.1 fills the room better with sound than a stereo, but for a small room, a stereo is the way to go. Also, a stereo plays music better, whereas a 5.1 is better for gaming and movies.

Is Stereo or 7.1 better?

It depends on the room size and what is being played. Stereo sound doesn’t match a 7.1 in sound quality, depth, and immersive experience. But if your room size is small, you won’t enjoy sound in a 7.1. Also, while a 7.1 can play any audio format fairly well, a stereo plays music better, especially if the audio is in stereo. All in all, with a large room and good setup, a 7.1 is better than stereo, any way you look at it.

Surround Sound vs Stereo: Conclusion

Always consider the purpose when you decide on surround sound vs. stereo. The cost will definitely factor in as well because these two usually have a significant gap in that aspect. Making an informed decision can help you save money. Never invest in a costly sound system that you won’t use often.

No one wants to have an appliance at home being left there to gather dust. Make your decision and also your money count. Even though you have future considerations, always take into huge consideration your preferences for the present. Technology keeps on improving each year, and speakers are not exempted from that. Thus, it would be wise to always keep a lookout for the newest trends and the most beneficial improvements. Nevertheless, you should prioritize your current needs.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected a lot of aspects of people’s daily lives. It affected the movie industry as social distancing plus health and safety protocols have forced movie houses to close. This has pushed the rapid need for home entertainment. More households are tuning in to streaming services such as Netflix, HBO Max, Disney+, and Amazon Prime. Making your home a literal home theater should be the best option. You can achieve this with surround sound and stereo. Though the former provides an edge over the latter, quality, room size, and cost should be considered.

Being able to finally answer which is the right one for you will depend on different factors. You have every right to consider the pros and cons of stereo and the pros and cons of surround sound. You also have to consider future-proof plans, especially if you opt to upgrade your equipment from time to time. Both surround sound and stereo can offer a lot of benefits. Thus you should be able to finalize the best one depending on your most urgent requirements. Just keep in mind that it would still be best to consider the quality above anything else. You should consider this among the top priorities whether you are looking for stereo or surround sound systems.

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