How is Surround Sound Different Than Stereo?

Written by
Last update:

The difference between surround sound and stereo

Surround sound is the latest step in the constant improvements in surround technology. If you’re a huge movie buff, you’ve probably been exposed to some form of surround sound at the theater, whether movie trailers have been presented in Dolby 5.1 surround sound or you’ve sipped on a Coke and watched a 4-D movie in IMAX.

Spatial sound moves beyond the left, right, front, and rear channels to make sounds appear to be coming from every direction. The technology was initially limited to movie theaters. There was no need to recreate surround sound for home use. Before surround sound, each speaker handled only one channel, so the volume, on-screen placement, and depth of the sounds were more accurate in stereo sound.

Surround sound is a more immersive experience than sharing the same channel. After all, we don’t have speakers on the sides of our couch or behind us, so a true surround sound setup in the home is designed to simulate this aspect. It’s the next best thing.

Speaker setup and audio

A surround sound system usually consists of five or more speakers: two to four surround speakers, one center speaker, and one subwoofer. Surround speakers (creatively named surround channel speakers) are speakers that stick out of the wall and are directed towards the seated viewer, with a slight upward tilt. These speakers are usually hidden behind wall decorations like paintings and plants.

The two or more surround speakers are placed behind the viewer and situated between the seated viewer and the television screen. The center channel speaker will be placed in line with the television screen and directed at the seated viewer. Surround sound speakers give the viewer a more immersive experience by being located behind the seated viewer.

To enjoy the surround sound without any hassle, first, you should ensure that your audio equipment:

{1}. Is compatible with surround sound technology.
{2}. Has 5.1 audio output.
{3}. Has the correct spacing between each speaker so the listeners can clearly differentiate between the speaker signals.

Correct speaker positioning is crucial for the surround sound to sound great and give the viewer an immersive experience. Get help from family and friends for speaker positioning to be sure you have the best setup in your home.


Surround sound is a popular home entertainment feature that effectively expands the sound experience beyond what a pair of stereo speakers can provide. For this reason, the term five-speaker surround sound is occasionally applied to systems with extra speakers, although the term "surround sound" is generally reserved for systems which "surround" the listener with three or more speakers.

The sound is dispersed in a three-dimensional manner. By having multiple speakers placed at various points throughout the room, the effect is a much more encompassing sound than the stereo sound created by the main left and right speakers. Because of this, listening fatigue is lessened, especially when watching movies for long periods of time.

The main channel speakers can be supplemented by additional speakers placed above, below, to the sides or on the backside of the listener. A more modern 5.1–system can use smaller speakers for surround channels for improved rear effects.

A 5.1 surround sound system generally includes five main speakers (left, center, right, and two surround speakers) and a subwoofer. Sometimes there will be a separate powered amplifier that feeds all of these speakers individually, but often it is placed in a single amplifier channel and some channels are joined. Either way, the receiver is the unit that controls and powers the system.

Is surround sound better than stereo?

If you are thinking of adding surround sound to your home-entertainment system, you may be curious if it will make a difference. Will it enhance your listening experience? Will it make you feel more immersed in the sound? The answer is a resounding, “Yes!” and here’s why:

Surround sound systems utilize a 5.1 system which means there are five full range speakers: two front speakers, two rear speakers, and a center speaker. These speakers are mounted in locations that surround the viewing area where a DVD or TV will be located. The sixth speaker is a subwoofer and is placed in a location where it will shake the room and add a dramatic effect to the sound.

The surround sound speakers can be placed in several locations including the ceiling, side walls, floor, and under the viewing area. This placement method is used to simulate the hearing of sound from different locations.

Now you’re probably asking, “Why is this better than using regular stereo with two speakers?”

The reason that surround sound is better is because it can trick the ears into thinking that sound is coming from all sides vs. being limited to two speakers. Some people even describe the experience as if the sound is coming from inside their head as opposed to being directed from a specific point.

It depends on what you plan on using the speakers for

Stereo for live music reproduction and entertainment sounds. For example, if you plan on purchasing a surround system for movies, where most of the sound is processed through the center channel, it will be a waste of money. The real advantage of surround sound is that you can point certain sounds towards specific speakers in order to improve the 3D impression.

In a movie theater, speakers are located in multiple directions to emphasize the action and to ensure maximum 3D effect. If you use stereo speakers at your home to watch a movie, you won’t get any of these 3D effects because the sound will be coming from the same direction. However, if you align two sets of speakers at the left and right side of your wall and two speakers up, then you will get a better 3D experience.

For movies, a surround sound setup is always better than a stereo setup. For music, however, stereo sounds are enough because the sound is not directed towards a specific area.

Sound quality

The audio quality in surround sound is based on the physical placement of speakers, the type of speakers, the shape of the area and quality of the sound.

The stereo uses two speakers that are usually left and right. These speakers have a distance of at least six feet between each. The middle of the listeners ear is the straight line that connects the two speakers. The stereo does well where the speakers don’t work together to accurately reproduce the sound.

The surround sound uses five or more speakers to fill the room with sound. When you listen to your TV using surround sound, the audio is more crisp and you can pinpoint the sounds.

It’s the advantage of surround sound that it is able to give the impression that sound is coming from every direction.

The problem with stereo sound is that it’s unclear and muffled. It’s not loud enough because it doesn’t “fill” the room. It doesn’t make it possible to distinguish the exact location of the sound.

Room size

The two main factors that determine surround sound and stereo are the room and the sound system.

First, room size. If you live in a small apartment then you’re definitely going to have a more difficult time hearing 5.1 (or better) surround sound than if you lived in a 1600 square foot house. The reason why is because the sound diffuses (changes) when it travels through space.

Next, the quality of the speakers. Now, we’ll do our best to explain this in simple terms, but if you’re interested in diving deeper into the details of surround sound, check out this article by Wharfedale audio explaining the ins & outs of surround sound.

Basically, surround sound uses four speakers in the front of the room for extra "width" and then two speakers in the rear of the room for extra "height". The more speakers a system has, the more encompassing the sound becomes. Then the trick is to have the right distance between each speaker (called speaker positioning) and to have (ideally) identical speakers (called speaker matching).

Ideally, you want the speakers to be equally spaced apart from each other and placed at the same height as your ears. Some speakers are designed to be floor standing only while others are designed to be mounted on a wall.

Can you listen to music in surround sound?

Surround sound is a reproduction technology that was designed to immerse the listener in the experience of the sounds on a recording. It adds previously unavailable layers of audio information making a listener feel like they are in the actual setting of the recording. In surround sound, there is information that is channeled to the rear speakers (surround sound speakers are in the rear of your room by the way) as well as left, right and center speakers. When listening to music, you may not always experience pinpoint sound clarity in the same way you can in stereo; however, you’ll be able to hear additional tones and details in the music playback when listening in surround sound.

6-channel audio signals incorporate extra surround sound speakers which can be placed in a few different locations. These speakers can be positioned behind or to the left and right of the listener, and in addition, there can be a speaker under the floor and in the ceiling. To get the most out of your home theater or to get the best possible listening experience when listening to music, you’ll want to get a receiver with at least seven channels of amplification. This will allow you to listen to high-resolution multichannel music and movies with top quality audio.

Tips for choosing the best speaker setup

Home theater systems can deliver more than just entertainment. Acoustically optimized surround sound systems can also provide a greater sense of comfort and peace when watching TV, enjoying a movie or playing your favorite video games. The way people feel about their home theater is what inspires them to make every experience exceptional.

So when it comes to home theater, it’s not just about the size or price of the equipment, but rather how all of the different components work together to create an experience that suits your needs.

Let’s say you grab a movie off of your shelf and pop it into your Blu-ray player. The first step is to choose your center channel and your front left and right speakers. Now that you chose a center channel speaker, you’ll likely want to select a pair of surround sound speakers to give you the spacious feeling of being in a movie theater.

The best speaker setup for your home theater depends on several factors. One of the most important is the technology of the surround sound speakers. The next one is the design of the speakers. The third one is the distance from where you sit to the surround sound speakers.

Stereo or surround sound?

Both are great, depending on your application.

Stereo and surround sound both employ multiple speaker setups to immerse the listener in the music they are listening to. But there are some very distinct differences between the two.

Are you familiar with the term stereophonic sound? Stereophonic is simply a term that used to describe a two-channel sound system. But with the introduction of Dolby Surround Sound in the late ‘50s, the term stereo began to refer to a multi-channel system. Surround sound is best described as audio that comes from anywhere and not just from a specific area. Most surround sound setups employ 5, or more, channels but some can reach up to 11 channels. Many people find the surround sound experience more intense, with more of a surrounding feeling, than the stereo yet they also find it easier to pinpoint sounds within a surround sound setup, giving it a more 3 dimensional effect.

What is the difference between Surround Sound and Stereo? The main difference between surround sound and stereo is that surround sound is capable of sending different sounds to different parts of the room, while stereo is not able to do this. Many stereo sound setups also require speakers in only two locations and the bass can only play in one location. Surround sound can have anywhere between two and six speakers (anywhere from four to 11 channels) in any location.

Room size is important

The number of speakers in a room plays a huge role in how sounds are reproduced. Many people think that “surround” refers to how many speakers there are, but it’s actually a lot more complex than that. The number of speakers referring to multi-channel home theater systems is actually pretty straightforward. Generally speaking, you want to keep the number of speakers you have consistent with the number of seats in your room. The basic math works out, though it’s a bit more complicated than it seems.

Let’s say you have a living room that has 8 seats. The rule of thumb for home theater is that you want to have enough speakers to cover every seat. So you would need 8 speakers. If you had two large speakers that could cover 4 seats each, and six small speakers that could cover (3) seats each, you would still need (8) speakers.

In a surround sound setting, you want to have one speaker for every 15 feet or so. If you’re using an HDTV as one of your speakers, you’re going to want to sit somewhere between 10 and 15 feet away, and then adjust off of that.

Speaker quality is just as important

You can make the best movie on Earth and have the most advanced audio-video system, but it's still not going to be as good as it could be because it doesn't have surround sound. In order for an audio-video experience to be truly immersive and make you feel like you are there, the audio-visual content needs to have surround sound.

For example, watching a full-length movie in surround sound is going to be much more satisfying than watching the same movie in stereo. With surround sound, you are going to be able to hear subtle environmental sounds …the wind in the distance, the rainstorm, ocean waves, or the noise on the street outside. There’s even going to be a greater difference when you are watching a live concert, playing a game, or watching sports … you’ll be able to hear the crowd noise and the reaction from the crowd.

Surround sound is important because it is an integral part of the audio-visual content, rather than just being the audio-output component. If you can experience surround sound, you are going to be engaging more of your senses, since audio and video are synced, and your neurons are going to fire in a synchronous way. That combination is what makes the experience that much more exciting and immersive.

Do you have an upgrade path?

When you invest in a surround sound system you want to have the option to upgrade as you progress and find more ways to use your entertainment system. Once you have your home set up with a quality home theater … you should take upgrading into account so that it’s easy and economical to pursue a better listening experience.

Many systems allow you to upgrade at any time, but understand that you may need to pay attention to a few things to make sure you keep your surround sound’s functionality when you first hook the system up, and when you upgrade. Plan out how you plan to connect each of the speakers to the receiver in your surround sound system. Will you be running wires behind the walls? Plan these locations and think of where the speakers will finally end after they’re wired. The reason for this is that if you want to upgrade the speakers at any time, you don’t want to have to run new wires everywhere just to accommodate the new system you’re adding.

3D or surround sound?

Most users will confuse surround sound and three-dimensional sound because of the word 3D that they share. However, this is not the case. Surround sound and 3D sound are two different concepts. 3D sound is created by multi-speaker setups which use different channels that send different signals to the left and right ear through the sound system. This technology is also used in many gaming consoles today.

On the other hand, surround sound creates the illusion of being in the middle of an action by delivering different sounds in different directions to create an effect of the location of the sound in space.

Some final thoughts

If you're still a little confused about surround sound, don't worry. It would have thrown me into a tizzy as well once I first heard about it years ago. At first, I thought it was high-quality sound from all directions, but that's not exactly true. I also thought it was a super advanced sound technology that only very few companies could use, but that's not true either. Quite frankly, I didn't know how surround sound worked and couldn't understand how anyone could possibly derive clarity and precision from it. After years of using surround sound, I see it a bit differently now.

I enjoy hearing clear and precise sounds from all directions. I don't think that's very different from enjoying sound from the front and back of my head. I also enjoy having my sound from above and from below as well. It's a subtle but very interesting experience. After years of using surround sound, it's become a standard for me. That's why I enjoy hearing music from all directions. So, I think it makes sound better, not less. There's more of a total sound experience, a full 360-degree sound experience. I hope that helps you understand what surround sound is all about.

Share this post:

There is only one way to describe surround sound – the sound is surround you!

When I first started using surround sound, it was a completely new experience.

Years ago, before I made the switch from PC speakers to a home theater audio system, I used to have a reasonable 5.1 speaker setup for my computer.

I picked up a set of Logitech Z-680 speakers (now discontinued) and connected them to an external sound card. Technology was still at its infancy and the sound card did not support 5.1 surround sound.

So I lied and had to fake the 5.1 setup by placing the speakers around my room, but not in their respective places in the 5.1 setup (L, R, C, Ls, Rs). The subwoofer was in a corner of a room, not under my desk or near my couch.

I was happy to have surround sound and was “enjoying” the experience – for a while.

And then, I switched from PC speakers to a home theater audio system.

The difference was instantaneous and immensely satisfying.

It was like waking up from a dream and experiencing true reality for the first time.

I was astonished by the new depth and dimension that surround sound brought to movies.

Movies that I saw many times gained a whole new life. They sounded and felt different.