In terms of audio, this is a debate that will probably never be resolved. Which is better? The MONO vs STEREO argument cannot be completely decided. It is just not as simple as saying one is better than the other. It rather depends on what you are listening to, where, and how. Let’s take a brief look at both to start.
The full word is monophonic, “mono” is just an abbreviation. It derives from a mixture of ancient Greek and English, the phonic meaning “sound” being the English suffix.
You can describe it as being any sound emanating from a natural sound source. This could be a human voice or a guitar.
Every Natural Sound Is Mono
From that brief description, we can see that every sound in nature is in mono. If we record the sound, be it voice or guitar or anything else, using a single microphone, it is known as recording in mono.
Even if you record a number of sound sources using one microphone, you are still recording in mono. In the early days of recording, mono recording was the norm. However, today the sound is altered so that what we listen to is sometimes changed to stereo to make it “sound better.”
Once again, a Greek and English derivation of the word again with ‘phonic’ as the suffix. Translated, it means “full” and “sound.” We can define stereophonic as all sound that is recorded by two microphones with the signals being sent to two different channels.
Therefore, we can see that we might be recording the same mono sound. But, because it is sent to two channels, what we hear are two separate channels, stereophonic.
Returning To Every Natural Sound
As I have already said, every natural sound is a mono sound. However, we have two ears. We can, therefore, play with the sound and split the sound into two stereo tracks. From there, we can make other adjustments and add effects that “improve” the sound.
MONO vs STEREO – The Difference
Put in very basic terms, audio signals in mono have one channel. Audio signals in stereo have two. It is that extra channel that allows us to do things that change the sound that we cannot do with mono.
As we have seen, a mono signal has just one channel. It can be played using just one speaker if you choose. But, it can also be played using two speakers or any number of speakers you choose. The number of channels does not equate with the number of speakers a mono audio signal can use.
However, if you send a mono audio signal to four speakers, each speaker would play the same sound as the others. That applies to however many speakers you use.
Audio signals in stereo, as we know, have two channels. One on the right and one on the left. If you have two speakers, each speaker will play something different from the other.
To give you an enhanced sound, you can set the speakers up to best suit where you are listening from. This will give you what might be called the full “stereo effect.”
Most of the media you see today has been mixed in recording studios to make the most of this. They were able to play some interesting little games with the sound. Some were simple, some more complex.
A demonstration of the use of stereo sound. It is panning or switching between left and right channels on a track from Led Zeppelin II. This occurs towards the end of “What Is and What Should Never Be” at the start of Jimmy Page’s closing riff.
Simple, but very effective. The creative use of stereo can create a more immersive listening experience. You can hear this by listening first to a mono version of a song and then playing the stereo version.
The Stereo Image
It is possible to create what is known as a “stereo image.” You can create a situation where the sound is not coming from either speaker but from somewhere between them. By blending the sound from the right and left speakers, you can make the location of the sound anywhere you choose. This is called the “stereo image.”
Our brain uses our ears to locate the direction any sound may be coming from. We can use those sensory perceptions to create our stereo image.
A non-musical example…
Close your eyes and listen to a dog bark. Can you tell where the sound is coming from and, therefore, where the dog is? Yes, you can. That is the Interaural difference sending messages to your brain about the location of a sound source.
This refers to how you receive the sound in each ear, especially in its intensity and timing.
The Properties Of a Sound Wave
We know that the intensity of a sound wave will attenuate over a given distance. In other words, the intensity of a sound wave traveling a distance will gradually decrease and become quieter. And, the longer the distance, the more the decrease.
Heard From One Side
This can affect how we hear sound. If the sound is coming from the right, the left ear being further away, hears it quieter and with less intensity. The ears are sending information to the brain that allows it to determine the location of the sound.
Heard From Straight Ahead
If the sound source is straight in front of you, then it takes the same distance and time to reach both of your ears. Therefore, the sound will be heard equally and at the same volume.
This is the easiest and most common way to create a stereo image. Making the signal louder from one side makes you think the sound is emanating from over there.
It tricks your brain into assuming the sound is coming from the louder side. But, because of panning, it could be located on the other side.
As a result, there are several advantages to stereo recording. A few of them pertain to controlling, distributing, and perceiving the sound. Mono systems just do not have this option.
Is Stereo Automatically Better?
Looking at what we have just seen, you might be tempted to think that. However, it is not always the case, and there are situations where Mono systems work better. Let’s consider a few.
Some people like to listen to their music through earbuds. They have proven to be a safe and reliable way of doing so. But, there are some circumstances when you need to keep one ear free.
That could just be for hearing instructions or requests. You can buy mono earbuds and headphones, and these are usually significantly cheaper than their stereo cousins.
If that is the situation, having stereo sound might not be such a good thing. It will mean you will only hear the left or the right channel depending on which ear you leave connected. If you were to use a mono system, then you would hear both channels through one earbud.
In a nightclub, there might be a dozen speakers. If they were set up in stereo, then what you heard of the music will depend on where you happened to be standing or sitting.
So, if you were near speakers using the right channel, then that is what you will hear, likewise for those adjacent to the left channel. Most modern music has a definite split between channels. You would certainly miss quite a bit of what was going on. That is why mono systems are used.
This is a good example of when Mono is better than Stereo.
Restaurants and Coffee Shops
The same principles apply as they do nightclubs. In most restaurants and coffee shops, there is ‘piped’ music. Mono is going to give the room the total music experience rather than just half of it.
It is a better option for gamers. Sound is equally distributed, and being only one channel will take up less computer space than a stereo format.
If you are considering whether to use mono or stereo sound, these might be of interest:
- Single-Side Earphone Economical Mono Earbuds
- QCY HT01C Hybrid Active Noise Cancelling Wireless Earbuds, Bluetooth 5.1 Stereo
And should you need a mono to stereo adapter, this is a good option:
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MONO vs STEREO – Conclusion
Which is better? There is no straightforward answer. It will depend entirely on your environment and what you are doing.
For the average music listener, stereo is going to give you a better sound experience. The sound will be ‘wider’ and have much more detail than a mono audio track. Likewise, a surround sound experience, either for music or home cinema, will require stereo (or even more channels), and it will sound much better.
In places that have multiple speaker setups, like a nightclub, disco, coffee shop, or restaurant, then mono will be the choice. It will also be better for people who only want to use a single earbud or headphone. Both have their place and are important in the environment they are best suited to.
Until next time, happy listening.