Surround Sound vs Stereo: What are the Differences?

One of the things that people who are relatively new to speaker systems and home theatres struggle with is finding the right speaker setup. You need the right audio setup for a fantastic home theatre experience.

You will, therefore, have decide on a stereo or surround system. Do not worry if you do not know what these two are. We are here to help you make the best choice and give you a better understanding of stereo and audio surround systems.

The Differences between Surround Sound and Stereo

1.    Number Of Channels

A stereo system has only two output channels normally placed on the left and right side of the music system or receiver. These are normally two speakers.

You will see these systems in recording studios, musical concerts and at times, DJ booths. These are the typical huge speakers placed on the right and left side of the stage during concerts. Through this arrangement, music comes from two directions, left and right. This has been around for quite some time.

Surround systems, on the other hand, have more audio channels. These systems were designed to create a heightened and more realistic audio experience while watching. Most surround sound systems have 5-9 speakers, ensuring that you are fully immersed in your home theatre.

The basic surround system consists of a centre, left and right channel.

2.    Sound Projection

Surround systems have many speakers compared to the stereo systems and therefore project sound from any direction, giving you an immersive experience. The main idea behind their formation was to have the channels or speakers ‘surround’ you. This is why avid gamers use them for online play, creating a more realistic experience.

On the other hand, stereo systems only project sound from the left and right sides. Therefore, sound projection is quite defined and less immersive. They are mostly used by people whose main intent is to listen to music only.

3.    Subwoofer

Surround sound systems have many speakers that are supplemented with one or two subwoofers. These boost the bass in the audio, improving the experience tenfold. While this is a necessity for such systems, not all stereo systems come with a subwoofer.

A good example is the speakers used in concerts. Most of the time, they are connected to an external receiver for sound projection. However, hi-fi systems, which are the most common stereo systems, normally have an external subwoofer.

Please note that even though both systems can come with a subwoofer, they are mainly common with surround systems.

4.    Audio

A surround system’s audio must be sent through a mixer to create a sound filed. This is why these systems create a more immersive experience for listeners, allowing them to enjoy their home theatre sounds fully.

For stereo systems, the audio is only mixed into two tracks that allow them to vary sounds from the left to right speaker and vice versa, thus creating a dynamic sound.

Surround Sound System

Which One Should I Settle for, Surround or Stereo?

This here is the elephant in the room. Several buyers and home theatre owners want to know what they should go for between surround sound and audio systems. This is normal since we all strive to have the best sound quality for our home theatres.

Whereas we may be more inclined towards surround systems because of the notable differences, note that not everyone benefits from them. What makes one system better than the other is what you plan on using the speakers for.

1.    Purpose

If you plan to use your home theatre for playing music strictly, the stereo system will serve you well. This does not mean that surround sound systems suck at playing music. Stereo is the standard format for playing music. Whether you are streaming, mixing your songs, using vinyl or playing from CDs, a stereo system will give you the best experience.

This remotely compares to the headphones. In case you are wondering why we have made this assertion; it is quite straightforward. Often, music tracks are still output in stereo. The mixer modifies each of the channels’ volume and output, giving you a dynamic experience, which is good for music.

If your intention is watching movies and playing games, the surround system is what you need. The audio is sent to a mixer to create a sound field, giving you a more immersive experience. You definitely want sound filling the entire room with no definite projection point while watching your favourite horror movie.

However, note that there is a limitation when it comes to this.  Even though surround systems are most preferred for movies and gaming, they are not great for TV shows. Some TV shows are formatted to work on surround systems, but the experience is quite disappointing for most of them. Therefore, make sure that your TV show is formatted for surround sound before channelling all your funds to acquiring one.

2.    Sound Quality

What do you expect in terms of sound quality? Keep in mind that more audio channels do not automatically guarantee higher sound quality or volume. Therefore, do not be shocked to find that a relatively cheaper stereo system is louder than your high-end surround sound.

Away from that, note that surround systems create a more dynamic and immersive sound experience in a defined space, be it a room or a classroom. This is because sound travels from all directions, whereas stereo systems only support two directions.

This is one why surround sound systems tower over stereo systems when it comes to watching movies. There is a notable difference in viewing experience if you try out these two. If you plan to use your home theatre for both music and movies, settle for surround systems for the best quality.

However, if you are playing music, stereo systems offer the best sound quality. Even though most surrounding systems also come with a stereo setting, the sound output cannot match a dedicated stereo system when playing music.

3.    Size of the Room

How big is your viewing or home theatre room? Surround systems have many audio channels and are, therefore, best used in large rooms. However, this does not mean that you can have your surround system in a small room.

It is just that having seven or more speakers in a small room may have an impact on the sound quality, barring you from enjoying your music fully. For a small room, a stereo system will serve you better than surround sound.

However, if your main concern is the audio quality, do not fail to connect your speakers to an external subwoofer so that they can take advantage of the in-built mixer. You can also play around with both sound systems and find one that will work best for you.

How Do I Choose the Best Speaker Setup for My Home?

Even though this is one of the most important processes for home theatre owners, it does not have to be complicated. There are given factors that you need to consider. Keep in mind that you will also need to choose the right size and number of speakers apart from the setup.

Therefore, before getting s speaker system for your home or room, take some time and come up with a detailed budget. Here are some of the factors that will help you settle on the best speaker setup for your home:

1.    Room size

We discussed this when comparing stereo and surround sound. Well, room size is equally important when choosing your speaker setup. You are better off with fewer channels if you have a smaller room than someone with an extensive theatre.

Many speakers in a small room can lead to crosstalk, which normally occurs when audio from the different channels cross over each other before striking your ears. This is something that you should avoid.

For the normal-sized home theatre, a 5.1 surround sound system will work the magic. However, for small rooms, you can either settle for the stereo setup or the soundbar. The latter improves your experience by giving you dynamic sound and saving on space. Your home theatre will also look quite neat.

2.    Stereo or Surround?

We will not go back to pitting these two against each other, as that was the gist of the article. However, when settling for a speaker setup, you need to decide whether you will get the stereo or surrounding system. We have seen the differences between these two and their applications.

If your intention is building a home theatre, settle on a surround system with five channels. You definitely want an immersive experience where the sound comes from all corners of the room instead of two defined directions.

3.    Speaker Quality

Your speaker setup will only work well if you buy quality speakers. Do not just pick anything you come across in the store. Therefore, take some time and find out about the speakers’ sensitivity rating. What is the speaker’s output when connected to 1 Watt of power?

Keep in mind that a more sensitive speaker requires less power to produce volume and, therefore, support loud sounds. However, if the volume is not your priority, you do not have to dwell on the sensitivity, even though you are better off considering it.

Laos, consider the speakers’ range, and if possible, settle for higher quality mid-range bookshelf speakers. These will properly fit your room for the best theatre experience.

4.    Future Upgrade

Do you plan to upgrade your system? If yes, how do you plan to do that? For your first setup, you can get good stereo bookshelf speakers instead of a full surround system. You will be in a position to customize your set to meet your set standards.

You can also use these speakers when you upgrade later in life, helping you cut down on costs.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1.    Can I Enjoy Music on a Surround Sound System?

Listening to music in surround sound systems have been happening for quite some time. Thanks to technological improvement, people now get better sound quality. Well, even though you can listen to and enjoy music in surround systems, certain issues arise.

Music is normally recorded in stereo regardless of the speaker output. Therefore, your music is meant to be played in two channels and not the five channels surrounding sound. This places more work on your system as it has to split the audio to fit a multi-channel.

2.    Can I Turn Stereo Audio into Surround Sound?

Yes. You can convert stereo audio into surround sound using technologies such as Dolby Atmos. However, that does not give you multi-channel audio but only offers more processing power. The only way you can beat a dedicated stereo system when it comes to playing music is by getting a good amplifier and AV receiver, which may be costly.

You should still note that this may successfully work for digitally processed music only as old recordings may have noticeable issues such as less clarity and extensive audio drops.

3.    Does Digitally Processed Music Sound Better in Surround Systems?

There is a huge debate around this, and people have different views. However, if you are a keen listener, you will notice that surround systems offer digitally processed music more depth and a generally immersive experience.

If you prefer streaming your music, you will notice that surround sound does a pretty good job. However, if you are the old school type of guy who prefers recordings and vinyl, use s stereo system and enjoy your music.

4.    Does Surround Sound Measure Up to 3D Sound?

3D sound is quite different from surround sound. However, that does not mean that it exclusively has good tidings. It only uses two speakers to relay similar audio output as the surround sound. This is made possible through phasing, delays and mixing.

The truth is, 3D speakers, do not improve the audio quality. A good surround system is all you need.


The main difference between surround sound and stereo systems stems from the number of output channels. However, as we have discussed, these systems work best for different purposes. Therefore, pick the right one based on your intention and some of the factors we discussed.

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