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At some point in setting up your perfect home theater or your gaming rig, you might stumble upon a dilemma of audio headphones. Should you use stereo sound, or is surround sound just inherently better?
Surround sound headsets are designed for immersion, critically needed for use cases such as watching movies and playing first-person games while stereo headsets are preferred for music.
Read my article: Should You Listen to Music in Stereo or Surround Sound?
Why is surround sound or stereo sound more preferred in different use cases? To know the answer, read on.
Also, check out my article, How is Surround Sound Different Than Stereo?
Surround Sound Vs Stereo Headsets
Sound enthusiasts and sound engineers alike have long debated on whether which one is better than the other. For this article, let us first discuss what really separates the two. After all, both seem relatively similar.
Surround sound is a type of technology developed to deliver an immersive experience to the users.
It is made possible by using many drivers (or, in layman’s terms, speakers) in various sections of a room (for home theater setups) or different areas of the earcups (for headphones).
First use in movie theaters, the surround sound listening experience is made to emulate the way humans hear sounds – from multiple directions.
Stereo sound or stereophonic sound, on the other hand, is another sound technology developed through the use of two audio drivers (most of the time) to provide a 3D listening experience.
While surround sound delivers sound in many directions such as above, below, front left, front right, front center, rear left, and rear right, stereo sound mostly has two sound channels: left and right.
Types of Surround Sound
The debate on stereo sound versus surround sound is, frankly, not too easy to investigate, especially since surround sound is a fragmented sphere and has many variations.
In this section of the article, we will tackle the different types of surround sound technologies.
1. Surround sound on a budget: virtual surround sound
Many people debate whether virtual surround sound is a stereo technology or a surround sound technology.
The truth is, virtual surround sound is the use of software to emulate a surround sound experience. For simplicity, we will put virtual surround sound as part of the surround sound technology.
Virtual surround sound is playable on stereo systems. This technology is executed by “fooling” the brain that the sound a stereo device produces is actually surround sound.
To do this, audio manufacturers have software that adds milliseconds of delay to other sound elements while also adjusting volume.
Virtual surround sound is suitable for those looking for a surround sound experience on a budget.
Since virtual surround sound still uses two sound drivers and uses innovative software (not hardware), it is easier to manufacture and thus the lower prices compared to authentic surround sound.
2. A more ambitious listening experience: authentic surround sound, 5.1 surround sound technology
This surround sound technology is renowned for its use of five drivers (thus the name) on the two headset drivers and adding another sixth driver for the bass.
Because of the five or six drivers that this audio technology utilizes, headphones bearing this type of technology are pricier than stereo and virtual surround sound. This technology uses five channels: front left, front right, center, rear left, and rear right.
3. To the extremes: authentic surround sound, 7.1 surround sound technology
There is a typical phenomenon that happens to technology and pricing. The cheapest technologies offer the highest value for money as they deliver most of the technology’s experience, only lacking in some factors.
The mid-tier or midrange category offers a premium experience for a higher price. In most cases, the mid-tier is the most appropriate of them all as they deliver you the experience that one needs to experience premium technology.
The highest tier is the overkill or high-end tier, which has a significantly higher price and offers the best experience, but the value for money significantly worsens.
Maybe the experience in this category is not as significant or not noticeable compared to the mid-range tier. With this in mind, this phenomenon also happens to audio equipment.
7.1 surround sound technology offers a beast of an experience theoretically and has premium prices. However, the question of if the 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound experience is significantly better (or even noticeable) is very important to consider.
Most of the time, especially for untrained ears, 7.1 is not significantly better than 5.1 to justify the price tag.
7.1 surround sound offers two more drivers compared to 5.1 surround sound. Among those are the usual front left, front right, center, rear left, and rear right with the additional above and below.
Is Surround Sound Better Than Stereo Sound?
This question is not as quickly answered as some may think. There are many ways to answer this question, such as value for money and use cases such as movies, music, gaming, and pro gaming.
Virtual surround sound is most often more than enough to deliver your needs for movies and casual gaming.
The additional features in 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound technologies are not very useful in real-time use, especially when your movie or game is not optimized to deliver on such technologies.
For music, most of the time, stereo delivers a better sound quality compared to surround sound. The reasoning behind this is that while surround sound has an extreme laser focus on the immersive experience, stereo sound is built to deliver the highest-fidelity sound possible.
Pro gamers use stereo sound most of the time as often they are enough.
Additionally, the audio tweaks reinforced by specialty software on virtual surround sound may affect the gaming performance and competitive advantage to the equipment-sensitive gaming professionals.
Three Frequently Asked Questions About Surround Sound And Stereo Headsets
Do I need 7.1 surround sound?
Most of the time, no. For most general applications 7.1 surround is overkill. However, for true movie audiophiles, you might want to immerse in the full experience.
If I use my headphones for most of my tasks, what would you recommend?
Stereo sound is the best to use for multiple use cases. Not only that, but standard stereo headphones are pretty inexpensive.
When was surround sound first used?
In the 1940s, Disney used surround sound for their movie Fantasia. It was one of the first widespread public uses of surround sound ever.
- Do I need 7.1 surround sound?
Most of the time, no.
- If I use my headphones for most of my tasks, what would you recommend?
Stereo sound is the best to use for multiple use cases.
- When was surround sound first used?
In the 1940s, Disney used surround sound for their movie Fantasia.