Stereo vs Surround Sound

A lot of people don’t really understand the difference between stereo and surround sound and usually just assume that surround sound is better. Based on my research, here’s a summary of the differences.

Surround Sound

  • Intended to hear some sounds at different places around you, e.g. an ambulance zooming by in which case you’d hear the siren begin from one side of a room and end on the other
  • Most surround sound systems involve 5 speakers and 1 subwoofer (5.1 system). For long rooms, there may be 7 speakers and 1 subwoofer (7.1 system).
  • Surround sound is most often noticeable in action movies, e.g. you can hear explosions behind you. Surround sound is subtle in drama movies, e.g. you might hear the leaves moving in the background and some traffic in the distance.

Stereo Sound

  • Very little music is recorded in surround sound.
  • Stereo systems require a front left and front right speaker.
  • Stereo creates a sound-field that, more or less, is shaped like a performance stage that is situated in front of you–as if you’re sitting in a theater. Surround sound does too but adds sound at the top, back and sides of you.

Surround sound and stereo sound have to do with where we perceive the sound is coming from. They have nothing to do with the quality of the sounds, e.g. a violin sounds like a violin or a voice sounds like a voice, etc.

Given a particular budget, e.g. $500, a stereo system consisting of two front speakers would probably have better sound quality, e.g. mids, bass, lows, highs, etc, than a surround sound system consisting of 5 speakers. One way to look at it is that each stereo speaker would be a $250 speaker and each surround sound speaker would be a $100 speaker. One might argue that 5 surround speakers would make up for the lower quality of the individual speakers compared to the stereo speakers because the surround speakers can make some sounds seem to be heard from behind you or from different directions. While that may be a valid point, it doesn’t really hold up for music, which is mostly recorded in stereo, and dramas where the surround speakers (the ones on the side and behind you) are only playing ambient sounds which, in dramas, probably doesn’t happen during most of the movie. Furthermore, a 5 speaker surround system would require higher amplification than a 2 speaker stereo system. So, for the same amount of money, a stereo system would probably have higher amplification than surround speakers.

Last but not least, surround systems require speakers behind you which are often wired for power and/or the audio signal. That gets messy and can clutter your room.

Conclusion: unless you watch a lot of action movies, you’re probably better off with a high-fidelity stereo system.