If you’re relatively new to the world of home theaters, choosing the right speakers can seem like a massive challenge. I often get newbies asking me the question, so I decided to explain it in some detail.
So, how is surround sound different than stereo?
The main way surround sound is different to stereo is the number of speakers. Stereo systems only have 2 speakers (left and right), whereas surround sound is 3 or more. While surround sound will always come with a subwoofer, not all stereo systems do.
This is really the main difference between stereo and surround sound. However, there is a bit more to it when it comes to application in a home theater. In this article, I look into a bit more detail about the difference between stereo and surround sound, along with which is better.
The difference between surround sound and stereo
If you’ve told anyone you’re building a home theater, it’s likely that one of the first things they ask you about is which speakers you’ll choose. After all, speakers are arguably one of the most important elements of the home theater system, along with the viewing device.
Check out my top recommendations for surround sound speakers.
It’s fair to say that for a home theater system, most people would suggest surround sound. However, if you’re not fully aware of the differences, then you might find that surround sound isn’t the best choice for you. Below is a bit more of an explanation into how surround sound differs from stereo.
Speaker setup and audio
Simply put, stereo systems include 2 speakers: a left and a right. This means that sound is only output in 2 channels (which is basically industry talk for a speaker). Stereo speakers can generally be connected to mixers that allow devices to vary left and right speaker output for some level of dynamic sound.
Surround sound, on the other hand, is a system with 3 or more speakers. A basic surround sound setup would be a center channel, and a left and right. That said, surround sound systems more commonly come in 5 and 7 channel setups.
Audio for a surround sound system has to be sent though a mixer so that it can create a sound field. This basically refers to the way the audio is output into the room, and creates a more immersive experience for the listener.
Both stereo and surround sound systems can have a subwoofer included, although this is much more common with surround sound. Stereo systems that have separate subwoofers will typically be PC speaker systems, meaning the speakers are usually smaller. A hi-fi system, however, will usually not have an external subwoofer.
So to summarize, the main differences between surround sound and stereo systems are:
- Surround sound features a multi-channel system, while stereo is 2 channels
- Audio is mixed into a sound field for surround sound, but only into 2 tracks for a stereo system
- Surround sound can have 3 or more speakers (typically 5 or 7), whereas stereo only has 2 speakers
- Both systems can include a subwoofer, but it’s much more common with surround sound
Is surround sound better than stereo?
When building a home theater setup, most people look for the best sound possible. However, not everyone agrees on which is the best sound system for a home theater.
Although it might be obvious to you based on the major differences, but not everyone will benefit from surround sound in their home theater.
It depends on what you plan on using the speakers for
This might sound like a silly thing to say, but not all audio is treated the same by speaker systems. This is where the difference between surround sound and stereo comes into play.
For example, stereo should be the only choice if your plan is to use your home theater for music. Whether this be listening to streamed music, vinyl, CDs, or mixing your own songs, stereo speakers will always win. This is simply because music is pretty much always recorded in stereo. There are some exceptions to this, but stereo is music’s standard format.
This is exactly the same with your headphones, regardless of whether they claim to have dynamic audio or not. Music tracks are still output in stereo, but the mixer can modify the volume and output of each channel to make the sound more dynamic.
On the other hand, surround sound is better for movies and games, but not necessarily for TV shows. While plenty of TV shows are formatted to support surround sound, this isn’t always the case. It’d be worth making sure your favorite shows support surround sound if this is one of your reasons for buying.
Along with use, it’s always worth considering what you expect in terms of sound quality. More speakers don’t always mean better sound, and it doesn’t always mean louder, either. Read my article on muffled surround sound.
Surround sound will create a more dynamic sound experience within the space, which refers to the sound traveling at you from all directions. For stereo, it’ll only come from 2 directions.
This is the main reason people upgrade to surround sound, particularly if their home theater is for watching movies. If you get a good speaker system and viewing device, you’ll definitely notice the difference in your viewing experience.
However, if you plan on having a mixed media system, meaning a combination of music and visual media, then surround sound will still be the way forward.
Surround sound systems will come with a stereo setting, which only outputs through the 2 front channels. However, this won’t necessarily be the same quality you’d get from a dedicated stereo system.
A final factor to consider when deciding which is better is the size of your home theater room. While there’s nothing stopping you from having surround sound in a small room, having 5 or more speakers working in a confined space can impact sound quality, as you’re more likely to suffer from crossover.
A large room will definitely benefit more from surround sound than a small one. Finding the balance between speakers and room size generally isn’t challenging, but small rooms will usually be much better with a stereo system. If you’re concerned about audio quality, you can always beef the speakers up with an external subwoofer.
As you can see, deciding which is the best speaker system is quite subjective. For a home theater centered on watching movies and TV, surround sound is best. However, if listening to music is going to be your main priority, then stereo will probably be your best bet.
If you’re still unsure, decide on your favorite form of media and build your speakers around that.
Can you listen to music in surround sound?
The idea of listening to music in surround sound definitely isn’t new. In fact, it’s been around since the 70s. However, with modern technology and processing, the results are much better today than they used to be. It’s entirely possible to listen to music in surround sound rather than stereo, but this does come with some issues.
The main one is that regardless of speaker output, the music is recorded in stereo. This means it’s formatted to output in 2 channels, so all of the work needs to be done by your system. By this I mean it has to process the audio and split it into a multi-channel system accordingly.
Some of the more recent developments in audio processing, such as Dolby Atmos, definitely do a pretty good job of turning stereo audio into surround sound. However, it’s still important to remember that this isn’t actual multi-channel audio, but processing power.
For that reason, if you want to play stereo audio through your surround sound setup, then I recommend getting a good amp and AV receiver (check out my top recommended receivers).
Make sure you research the available technologies for audio processing and check the devices have appropriate EQ settings.
After this, it’s simply a case of playing around with your settings until you find an output you like. It shouldn’t take you too long to find a good balance between the audio outputs. Also, some AV receivers might come with guides to help set this up.
It’s worth noting that this will work much better with modern, digitally processed music. Old recordings, such as CDs and vinyl, can still be processed into surround sound, but you might notice some loss of clarity and drops in the audio.
Digitally processed music, however, may even benefit from being played in surround sound. While some true audiophiles might not agree with this statement, surround sound can provide digital music with much more depth and a more immersive sound field.
Whether you’re happy to try listening to music in surround sound depends largely on how much of a purist you are. Those who stream most of their music will probably be more than happy to listen to immersive audio. However, those who prefer physical media will probably still benefit from a good quality stereo system.
Tips for choosing the best speaker setup
Choosing speakers for your home theater is easily one of the most important things, so you need to get it right. While it might seem like an easy choice, you should factor in quite a few things to choose the right size and number of speakers, along with the best setup.
As always, it’s worth planning your room size and budget before buying a speaker system. Along with this, though, you should consider room size and the future of your home theater. Below are some tips to help you choose the best speaker setup for your home theater.
1. Stereo or surround sound?
I’ve already covered the main differences between the systems, along with the applications for each. If you’re building a home theater, then the best option is probably a 5.1 surround sound system.
Even if you want to listen to music, a good surround sound system will serve you well. The audio will output through the front 2 speakers, and some systems will include more powerful speakers for this purpose. It’s always worth shopping around to see which system will suit your needs best.
2. Room size is important
Your first thought when buying a speaker system might be to get as many as possible. However, this isn’t always the best thing to do, as too many speakers can result in poor sound quality. This is because of crosstalk, which is where the audio output from speakers crosses over each other before reaching the listener.
It’s fair to assume that if you’re building a home theater setup then you have a reasonably sized room. Most “typical” size living or family rooms will be big enough to accommodate a 5.1 channel surround sound system. For example, a room 3 x 3 x 2.5m could happily house this speaker setup.
However, a smaller room (2.5 x 2.5m or under) would probably benefit more from a stereo system – or a soundbar. Soundbars can be a good idea in smaller spaces, as they provide some dynamic sound without taking up too much space.
Larger rooms can choose between adding more channels, or simply using larger speakers. I generally wouldn’t recommend 7.1 channel systems in a room smaller than 3 meters squared, as this could create problems with sound quality.
3. Speaker quality is just as important
While quantity is important to a degree when it comes to choosing a multi-channel system, speaker quality is just as important. As I always say, proper research is key, and one thing you should always check for is the speaker’s sensitivity rating.
This number refers to the speaker’s output when given 1 watt of power, measured from a distance of 1 meter. A more sensitive speaker needs less power from the amplifier to produce volume, which means you can play them at higher volume than a comparable speaker with lower sensitivity.
Also consider things like the speaker’s range. In a surround sound system, most channel speakers will be mid-range satellite or bookshelf speakers, although some larger systems might include tower speakers that claim to be full range.
Given the choice, I’d definitely recommend a set of higher quality mid-range bookshelf speakers over full-range tower speakers. Many tower speakers claiming to be full range cut back on mid-range frequencies, which can result in muddy sound and speaker dips.
A good set of bookshelf speakers properly placed in the room, combined with a subwoofer, offers a much better range of frequencies with much less distortion. And there’s absolutely no reason for you to miss out on volume, providing you buy speakers with a high sensitivity rating.
4. Do you have an upgrade path?
Another important thing to consider when buying speakers is how you plan to upgrade your system. For example, you don’t necessarily have to buy a complete surround sound system as your first setup.
Instead, you could buy a good set of stereo bookshelf speakers and then add more into your system at a later date. This can simply be done with a bit of wiring and there are plenty of guides online about how to upgrade a surround sound system.
This also allows you to customize your set to your liking. You could always buy a set of tower speakers at a later date, or add in different speakers as your center channels. While wiring speakers together isn’t necessarily difficult, it can take some practice to understand the layout.
That said, many people wanting a quick setup will prefer an all-in-one system. These are a much more convenient option, and usually come with most of the wiring and components needed to get started. However, the downside to this is that you have less ability to customize your speakers.
5. 3D or surround sound?
3D sound is a term thrown around by some companies in an effort to make products sound more appealing. But is it any different from surround sound? Yes, but not necessarily in a good way.
While surround sound uses a multi-channel system to produce dynamic and immersive audio, 3D sound tries to do the same thing in different ways. A 3D sound system will often try to mimic the audio output of surround sound but only using 2 speakers.
It does this through a combination of phasing, delays and mixing to make it sound as if the audio is coming from different directions. This is the same kind of technology used in surround sound headphones, which generally have dynamic stereo output.
Although it’s unlikely you’ll see many systems advertised as having 3D sound, it’s a term best avoided. Like many other things it’s a marketing gimmick that doesn’t actually improve audio quality. Instead, stick with a good surround sound system if you’re looking for dynamic audio.
Also read: how to watch 3D movies at home
Some final thoughts
The difference between surround sound and stereo is pretty simple, but choosing the right speakers definitely isn’t. As you can see, there are plenty of factors to consider when deciding, and it’s always worth doing plenty of research before picking the right speakers for your home theater.
Jason is a home theater expert with over 10 years of experience in setting up home cinema rooms and systems. What started out as a hobby soon transformed him into an authority in the audio-visual field. He is passionate about providing readers with accurate and up-to-date information on the latest audiovisual technologies and their applications for home theaters. Read more about Jason.