Surround Sound vs. Stereo: What’s the Difference?

photo of Jarrett Ziemer

by Jarrett Ziemer on October 4th, 2021 in Learn

A Horse versus a Donkey. A Donkey versus a Mule. Poison versus Venom. Jam versus Jelly. Ahhh, the age-old questions that keep us racking our brains. The same, same, but differents of the world.The things we know. Or we think we know… But, wait, do we know?

Out of all the same same but different questions, there is no question quite as deep and persistent as the one that has stayed with us all. The one that’s been there since the first time we sat cross-legged in our friend’s basement while his parents were at work and listened as he cranked up his dad’s music player, REO Speedwagon blasting so loudly through the speakers the old lady next door called in a noise complaint at noon on a Monday.

The question: Is this system a stereo? Are we hearing a stereo system? Or is this surround sound? Is there a difference? Surround Sound vs. Stereo, what’s the difference?

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Surround Sound vs Stereo: What’s the Difference?

In simple terms, surround sound is an audio system with multiple speakers (3,4,5 or more) designed to surround the listener in an audio experience.

A stereo audio system uses 2 speakers, a left and right, and is designed to deliver the audio to the listener from basically one direction.

Now let’s dive a little deeper.

Surround Sound

If you’ve ever gone to a movie theater, for you kids out there, that’s a place your parents and grandparents used to go pre-pandemic and streaming to watch moving picture films with famous people in them, you’ve experienced surround sound. That immersive experience you get in the theater is brought to you by an advanced surround sound system.

When it sounds like there are footsteps behind you or to the right or left of you, that’s due to the sound mixing through multiple channels(speakers). The location of the speakers in the large room creates a sound field with the listener at the center.

Stereo

A stereo is an audio system with only two channels(speakers). Although some more advanced systems may include a subwoofer, 2 is the magic number. If you were that kid listening to your best friend’s father’s music in the basement, blaring on two monster speakers set in front of you, you’ve probably had a great stereo experience. If you haven’t had that specific  audiophile headphones. Headphones, with two speakers, a left and a right, are also stereo.

Which is better?

As with all things, there is a right tool for the job and pros and cons to stereo and surround sound systems.

Surround Sound

For all you movie lovers, surround sound is for you. There’s a reason high-end movie theaters not only use but feature surround sound. Surround sound can give you an immersive three-dimensional, dynamic sound experience. Because of this, movies and video games are actually developed with surround sound in mind.

With that in mind, if you’re setting up your home entertainment system, something you’ll be enjoying movies on, or multiple forms of entertainment (though television is actually still recorded in stereo), you’ll want to opt for surround sound. It will give you not only that movie theatre feel, but it’ll give you the closest thing to what the director or video game creator was going for.

Now, because the audio from surround sound is traveling to your ear from multiple directions, you’ll want to keep in mind the size of the room when you set your system up. In a large room, the benefits of surround sound will be more noticeable and almost necessary if you’re looking for a bit of richness.

Keep in mind when looking at a surround sound system that many have a stereo setting, enabling you to listen to music through multiple speakers. It will do the job, though the audio quality may not be up to par with a stand-alone stereo system.

Stereo

If surround sound is so dynamic, where does the need for stereo come in?

Although with modern upgrades in surround sound technology, you can listen to music on some surround sound systems, all, or most, music is actually recorded, and thus sounds better, in stereo.

A band will often even opt for one audio signal to carry the vocals and the other to carry the musical accompaniment.

The recording in these instances takes into account the combination of the two channels to deliver a seamless high definition audio experience. If you’ve ever listened to headphones with one ear off and realized you were missing something, you’ve experienced the downside of this equation.

Now, music is often recorded in stereo for a number of reasons.

One reason is that whether you’re listening to music on a CD, a downloaded file, or streaming, the music is delivered to you in stereo. See, although many listeners do have surround sound available in their living rooms, the majority of their listening experience is via a 2 channel system. Your cell phone speakers, headphones, and computer speakers all deliver sound through the two channel system.

Another reason music is recorded in stereo is the directional formation of the stereo sound system.

Although at a live show, music may bounce off of walls before it hits your ears, generally, you hear a live band on stage with the sound coming from one direction. whether the sound is acoustic or amplified, it’s generally coming from in front of you.

And even if a DJ or producer lays down a background track for an artist to perform over, that’ll be coming at you from that one direction, too. That means it not only makes sense for them to record their own music in stereo, but it will also feel more natural for you to hear any recorded music that way on your own.

Can you listen to music in surround sound?

The answer here is yes, with some caveats. If you’re looking for the best audio quality, unfortunately, you just won’t get it. A surround sound system will play music, but the surround sound will often add more volume but not more clarity and may even cause some distortion. There are surround sound systems with programs to send audio signals to multiple channels, but in the end, these programs are imitating an actual multiple-channel recording.

So, should you purchase a surround sound system or a stereo system?

When choosing between either surround sound or stereo, you’ll want to consider a few basic things.

Room

A small room just might not need a surround sound system or fit one. Surround sound systems can take up a good bit of space, and if space is a commodity, you may consider the fact that in a small space, a stereo system will fit your needs. And you’ll be able to rock out with no sound quality loss, especially if you prep the room properly.

Use/Purpose

The most important consideration should be what you will be using the sound system for.

If you are going to watch movies exclusively, you’ll want to go with a surround sound system. Watching television? Well, although some streaming services like Netflix offer select titles in 5.1 surround sound, your basic cable television is only provided in stereo. So if you’re a television watcher exclusively, stereo is the way to go.

Is the system for a family in a family room, or is it one that will be used for multiple things? In this scenario, you’ll also want to consider surround sound. The benefits and versatility offered by the surround sound system will allow various entertainment options. If possible, opt for a system with a built-in stereo to surround sound software conversion program. Of course, the stereo won’t stand up to a stand-alone system, but it will be passable.

Finally, if you’re an audiophile or will use the system exclusively for music, there’s no question that you should go for a stereo system. And if you’re serious about getting the best out of the system, opt for one with a subwoofer as well. There are even wireless subwoofers nowadays to keep the clutter down in small spaces.

Cost

When considering cost, you may be thrown off by the similarities in prices between systems. After all, a surround sound system may have as many as ten speakers delivering you that magical soundscape versus the two speakers you’ll get with a stereo system.

Keep in mind that although you’re only getting two speakers when purchasing a stereo system, the difference will often be made up for in quality. Surround sound systems do it all and create an encompassing atmosphere; stereo speakers have one job to do, deliver you front row music, and they do it well.

Conclusion

The long and the short of what a surround system is and what a stereo system is, comes down to multiple speakers versus just two.

When looking to outfit your listening lab with the best possible setup, though, don’t consider speaker numbers; consider use.

If you’ll be occasionally listening to music and mostly watching movies, go surround sound.

If you watch a bit of Netflix but would rather close your eyes and listen to every note of that dope Vivaldi song you heard on the intro of Chef’s Table, stereo is for you.