I often get asked about surround sound systems and whether they are the same as stereo. Buying the right home theatre system for your home is crucial to the overall enjoyment of the experience. So, today I will try to set the record straight and answer the question, “How is Surround Sound Different Than Stereo?”
What is Stereo Sound?
Stereo sound was invented in the 1930s. Although a different form of stereo was present and used since the 1880s. To put it plainly, the stereophonic sound is the recording of sound played back through two audio channels, left and right. This gives the listener the illusion of a horizontal plane. Essentially allowing sound to move from left to right or the other way around.
Modern music files like MP3 and WAV files have two channels of information embedded within the encoding. When played back, both the left and right channels are played together to create the effect.
A set of stereo speakers allows humans to locate the position of a sound within a space. Or at least it provides us with the illusion of sound source localization. A great example is this video of a barber cutting hair video on YouTube.
The thing about stereo…
Our brains trick us into believing that the sounds come from around us. We can even perceive sound as coming from the middle by letting the two speakers play the sound at equal volumes.
Another thing to note is that we hear different frequencies at different heights. Or at least it seems that way. Low-frequencies, like the bass and drum kick, will sound lower than high frequencies, such as the hi-hats that seem to magically float above the rest of the mix.
What is Surround Sound?
Unlike stereo speakers that only make use of two speakers, surround sound speakers use a large variety of different speakers placed around the listener. So, let’s learn more about the difference between surround sound and stereo.
There are plenty of different variations of surround sound with any number of channels. The most basic example is a 5.1 surround sound. This means that there are 5 speakers around the listener (full bandwidth channels) and 1 sub-bass speaker (low-frequency effects channel).
The more channels you add, the more speakers there are, and the more directions sound can come from. Most movies feature 5.1 surround sound. Keep in mind, adding more than that usually requires a processor to feed the extra speakers. These are usually built into the amp.
Is Surround Sound Better?
Yes, it certainly is better in most cases. Surround sound works great for watching movies. Offering a much more immersive experience than standard stereo by giving you a much wider and more versatile audio field.
Surround sound works with video games as well. You have a better idea of where the sounds come from than when you use a stereo field.
That said, for music, it isn’t always the best option. Music is still mixed with stereo for the most part, apart from live music, where surround excels in making the listener feel like they are at the concert. So, if someone asks you, “How is Surround Sound Different Than Stereo?” have them listen to a live concert with and without surround sound.
Getting your movies to sound great…
It’s not just about buying a surround sound setup. It will also depend on where you are watching the movies and the quality of the drivers inside the speakers.
You can now purchase soundbars that sit underneath your TV that feature surround sound. These point the speakers in different directions, using walls to bounce the sound towards the listener, giving the illusion of surround sound.
As I just mentioned, some speakers rely on the walls to bounce the sound around the room. If you have small speakers in a large room, they might not be able to get the sound to bounce back effectively, lessening the listening experience.
If you use larger speakers…
A larger room will benefit the most from a decent surround sound system. So, why are large rooms best for surround sound? This is because there is more space for the sounds to come from, allowing for a wider listening field. Stereo speakers are unlikely to fill a large room.
Listening to Music in Surround Sound
There are now many streaming services offering surround sound options for music, like TIDAL and Deezer. These options are found in their premium packages and offer a wide variety of hi-res music options, surround sound being one.
I have a TIDAL HiFi account. It comes with Master authenticated albums as well as Dolby Atmos and 360 reality audio music. The surround sound options are limited, but live albums benefit the most from this.
Listening to a live Elvis performance with surround sound makes it feel like you are there. You can almost smell the cheap perfume and sweat amongst the rest of the crowd as he howls away into the concert hall.
Looking for some great Surround Sound Speakers?
We have some of the best. Check out our in-depth reviews of the Best High End Home Theater Speakers, the Best 7.1 Home Theater System, the Best Ceiling Speakers For Dolby Atmos, the Best In-Wall Speakers, the Best In-Ceiling Speakers, the Best Sonos Speakers, and the Best Smart Speakers you can buy in 2021.
Also, take a look at our comprehensive ELAC Debut 2.0 F6.2 Floorstanding Speaker Review, our Sony HT-S350 Soundbar Review, our Klipsch R-26FA Review, our Pioneer SP-FS52 Floor-Standing Loudspeaker Review, and our Sony SS-CS3 3-Way 4-Driver Review for amazing items currently on the market.
How is Surround Sound Different Than Stereo – Final Thoughts
This is the most difficult question to answer. I allowed countless friends to listen to my Sony WH-1000XM3 with the Dolby Atmos-enabled music on TIDAL, as well as at home with my sound system.
What seems to usually blow them away the most is the audio quality instead of the actual surround sound itself. It seems that crisp, clear audio quality on great-sounding speakers still trump the effect of surround sound.
So, is it worth it?
If you watch movies a lot, especially on Blu-ray, or subscribe to a Dolby surround sound-supported streaming service like Netflix, then yes. It is worth the investment.
If you enjoy listening to music, though, it doesn’t add much to the listening experience. Buying a great-sounding pair of headphones or speakers is more important than the surround sound itself.
Until next time, turn it up.