Surround Sound vs Stereo — Which Will Suit You Better?

surround sound vs stereo

You’ve already invested in a TV for your home theater system. Now, you are weighing in on which one is better, stereo sound vs surround sound system? To avoid complications, and spend on an expensive system, our audio team will break down the differences between these audio systems. This way, you can finally identify which method of audio really suits your needs, surround sound vs stereo?

Stereo vs Surround Sound

Both stereo sound and surround sound systems come with their own benefits and downsides. Which is better for music? Which is better for games? Which one gives a better home theater experience? Here is a rundown on what they’re supposed to be with the many benefits they provide.

But first, let’s discuss how both systems work.

Surround Sound

Surround sound systems work by splitting the audio into five or more channels provided by high-quality speakers that surround the listener. You need to have a 5.1 or 7.1 system and above to be considered true surround sound like in movie theaters. 

Logitech Z906 5.1 Surround Sound Speaker System

Then, the sound is channeled in many directions (and sometimes above) of the listener, passing through an audio conductor to create an aural ‘illusion’ that the sound is literally moving or coming from that direction.

A multichannel sound system typically consists of a subwoofer and five surround speakers. The goal is to create an immersive experience where the user is right in the middle of everything, or that a band is playing directly in the area and as you move around, instruments get louder while others get softer based on the position of the instrument.

A center channel keeps the audio quality consistent if the listener is in the middle of a home theater.

Stereo

Most sound systems include an AV receiver or amplifier and matched pair of stereo speakers. A stereo audio system features two audio channels placed on the left and right of the display or stage. Sometimes a sub woofer which is a speakers component enhances bass and depth, but more often than not, it usually revolves around two speakers only. The listener is at the center of everything and the sounds are being channeled by two speakers to the left and right ears of the listener.

Sony STR-DH790 7.2-ch Surround Sound Home Theater AV Receiver

Other options include headphones or even soundbars. These make it better for smaller home theater speakers and speaker setup, too. For small to medium-sized spaces, bookshelf speakers provide loud amplification and solid sound.

Main Differences of the Two

There are many differences, but the primary variation between a surround sound speakers and stereo speakers is that the surround sound system splits the sounds into a wider soundstage using more components, while the stereo system attempts to create the soundstage using more condensed audio using only two components.

Sound Quality

Sound quality is usually dependent on the audio equipment. It’s quite obvious that a $200 speaker system would sound better than a $100 one as usually, the more expensive ones are made from better components. However, audio equipment isn’t the only thing to get the ideal sound quality for your setup. 

One thing you should also take into account is the space of your system. If you’ve got a nice and wide space with few obstructions for your home theater setup, you would do well with a surround sound system. If you’ve got limited space, a stereo sound system will be better due to the more condensed sound mixing-in surround sound for playback on an audio system using speakers.

living room with home theater setup

Money is also something to be taken into consideration. As mentioned above, a $200 speaker system would sound better than a $100 one, but what if that was the cost of each speaker? The typical surround sound home theater system may cost you over $800, and that’s without the installation fee. 

As for the actual audio, the truth is that most audio is recorded as stereo directly from the recording studio. This means the audio is more compressed, leading to better overall sound quality when played through their intended sound system. Playing these through surround sound would only serve to distort the audio quality.

Usage

In this section, let us break down which audio system would work best in certain scenarios:

Movies

For movie theater realistic sound, the surround sound system is king. Most of the time, the audio recorded for a movie is set to surround sound (surround channel) as its goal is to have the audience ‘immersed’ into whatever it is they’re watching. 

In this setting, the best-case scenario would be in the actual movie theater, where all eyes are on the tv screen and no one would be talking to each other, texting, making calls or playing games on their phone.

Family watching the tv with audio from Roku Smart Soundbar

Users would be able to tell where the dialogue is coming from, the direction of the speakers, the screeching of the car tires on burnt asphalt in action movies, bullets whizzing by from the foreground to the back, and so much more. The surround sound speakers give the movie audio a realism putting the listener directly into the scene.

Gaming

This depends on what game you play. Most people and websites would tell you that surround sound is the way to go when playing games, but that isn’t always the case.

Some games, such as single player RPGs, side scrollers, fighting games and rhythm games simply sound better with a stereo audio system as these games tend to focus on the music more. Since game soundtracks are intended to be stereo tracks from the very beginning, the audio experience would be ruined if one were to force these to play in a surround sound setup.

Gamer in a gaming set-up

On the other hand, for competitive esports titles or first-person shooters where player action and reaction are most important, there is less emphasis on the music tracks and more emphasis on the direction of sound effects such as explosions, opened doors, enemy footsteps and gunfire. It’s these situations where a surround sound system delivers a superior experience.

Music

For music listening scenarios, between stereo sound vs surround sound, stereo system setup wins here. Most music tracks have been recorded and were intended to be heard in stereo sound. There are only very few situations where music is recorded naturally as surround sound, with market research saying this doesn’t even amount to 1% of all music tracks in the world.

Others

For other home theaters audio-listening situations, such as background music, youtube ads and 3D sound directly coming from TV speakers, in this stereo vs surround match, stereo wins again. These are more generalized experiences and creators would tailor their audio for a more common situation.
vinyl records, player and speaker

Audio tracks meant for common use and repeated play would have no reason to be recorded in five or more channel audio as most devices have only one or two speakers, so for these scenarios, stereo is king.

Others

The room size and space of your home theater is an important aspect to consider when determining which is better. Although there’s nothing keeping you from getting surround sound in a small room, It is hard to balance the number of speakers in such a small space or settings and may have an effect when listening to music.

Surround sound would certainly help a large room more than a small one. Finding the right balance of speakers and room size isn’t difficult. Surround sound will provide a more dynamic sound experience within the room, with sound coming at you from all sides.

Sony STR-DN1080 7.2 ch Surround Sound Home Theater AV Receiver placed in a living room

But in this stereo vs. surround match, small rooms benefit greatly from a stereo system. If you’re worried about stereo setting, an external subwoofer may be used to supplement all the speakers.

FAQ

What is the difference between stereo and surround sound?

The difference between stereo and surround sound comes down to how many components used and the size of the performance stage. Each type can enhance movies.

Surround sound systems feature multiple components and a wide soundstage to give listeners an ‘immersive’ audio experience. Stereo sound systems and even speaker systems typically delegate the audio to just two channels, namely a left speaker and right speaker.

Is stereo or surround sound better for gaming?

Stereo is much more suited than surround sound to people who play single player games, side-scrolling platformers or non-shooter third-person action. These games tend to focus more on the background music. Most of these tracks are produced in stereo to begin with, so having a stereo-based sound system will make these tracks sound more natural and surround.

Conclusion

If your plans align more to gaming and music, go for stereo audio systems. If you’re more into movie nights in the living room sofa, a surround sound system would be a better choice. If you’re playing games on a PC or console, you could go either way. 

As exemplified above, there are tons of options. Hopefully, this stereo vs surround sound comparison breaks down the best-use scenarios for you. 

For related topics, you can also check the pages below: 

Amp versus preamp

Soundbase versus soundbar

Willie Greer

Willie Greer is the founder of The Product Analyst. A cinephile, he has made it a personal quest to achieve the awesomest home theater possible. He now shares what he has learned through the years on the site, and has enlisted the help of tech-savvy colleagues in providing more insight about today’s most sought-after gadgets.
Willie Greer

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