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You’ve likely heard about both of these types of speakers, but do you know the difference between the two? There is a difference, but whether that difference will mean anything to you is a decision only you can make.
People design homes for more than just shelter these days. They add in the comforts they think they need to be happy, and one of those is a home theatre system of some sort. If you’re looking to get some better speakers for your TV room, these are your two options.
Many people gravitate immediately toward surround sound because that’s what they think is better. If you want a theatre-like experience, you may think this is what you need, but there are other considerations that factor into the equation.
There’s no doubt that surround sound has been hyped and you’ve been bombarded by what they’re trying to sell you. THX is a company most people know well because their advertisements (loaded with high-quality sound) are played before nearly every movie you go see.
In fact, they’re one of the primary drivers behind establishing the surround sound standards that other sound companies now follow.
However, stereo can be just as effective, depending on the space you’re using, so it’s important to know how they differ before you choose the right one.
Main Differences Between Surround Sound and Stereo
The main differences between surround sound and stereo are:
- Surround Sound systems have anywhere from 3-9 speakers, whereas Stereo systems have 2 speakers
- Surround Sound performs better during action movies, whereas Stereo systems are better for listening to music and playing video games
- Surround Sound systems cost more, whereas Stereo systems offer better quality speakers for the same cost
- Surround Sound systems can often operate in either surround sound or stereo mode, whereas stereo systems only operate in stereo mode
About Sound Systems
The most important thing to remember before buying a surround sound or stereo system is that you’re not going to get better quality audio either way. What you’re deciding on is sound placement.
These systems alter your perception of where the sound is coming from, so a surround sound system will make it sound more like you’re in a movie theatre while a stereo system will sound like you’re looking directly at the stage.
A voice still sounds like a voice and a clarinet still sounds like a clarinet either way. On a budget, you’ll get great sound quality from a stereo system. The bass is actually deeper and more articulate than in a surround sound system.
A stereo system also has more agility when it comes to highs and lows and recreating the dynamics of music more accurately. This is actually the opposite of what most people think, and for a comparably priced stereo system, you’re going to be happier with it than with surround sound.
Many people truly believe that surround sound is always superior because it has more speakers or it costs more. However, if you think about the cost per speaker, spending $500 on a stereo system means you’re getting two $250 speakers rather than five $100 speakers.
For some, listening with five $100 speakers makes up for a lack in speaker quality. It recreates a more realistic environment, which is beneficial for those who truly love action films, thrillers, and other high-intensity movies.
As film quality increased and the pastime of going to the theatre increased in popularity, the sound started getting a whole lot better. The audio evolved into surround sound, intended to provide a fully immersive experience.
Action movies are more prone to showing off their surround sound capabilities than are dramas, but nearly every movie soundtrack today is recorded in surround sound. Even horror movies have creepy sounds all around. It provides a memorable experience and one that keeps you coming back.
Surround sound can create sounds from in front, to the sides, behind, and above you. This sound field is produced by as many as 9 speakers strategically placed throughout the room. There are smaller surround sound systems, with 5 or 7 speakers, for smaller spaces as well.
They may have subwoofers to reinforce the bass, but you can also add these types of components later.
The center speaker, as well as one speaker to the right and one to the left, are mounted on the wall with your TV, also called the front wall. Then, one or two pairs of speakers are installed on the side and rear walls.
As the sound surrounds you in all directions, you’ll hear things like birds chirping in the background at the park or an arrow whizzing by your head as someone shoots it toward the camera.
If all of this sounds fun, surround sound may be right for you. But you also have to have space for it, because too much sound in a small space can be overwhelming and won’t have the effect you intended.
If you are interested in the surround sound effect, here are some of the best buying options you’ll find.
Dali Oberon 5 5.1 speaker package
This surround sound package offers some enjoyable sound in several different finishes including black ash, dark walnut, light oak, and white. It’s incredibly stylish and provides a full, warm sound with expressive dynamics.
For a true home theatre experience, you’ll find nothing better. They bring out the best in any soundtrack with fun, transparent sound and powerful, dynamic, yet subtle changes.
You can set it up for either 5.2.4 or 7.2.2 Dolby Atmos, and if you add an extra amp, you’ll get 7.2.4, so you’ll have everything covered.
It makes use of 11 drivers to create this powerful sound, many of which are angled to project sound across the room and bounce off of walls and ceiling.
If you’re simply listening to music, the tonality is balanced, but it may sound more direct. It’s a great sound system for the money.
- Awesome sound
- Great value
- Lots of components
- Complicated setup
Q Acoustics 3050i 5.1 Cinema Pack
You’ll immediately notice some enjoyable sound with this system that comes in grey, black, white, or walnut. The sound is fun and bright, but it also has plenty of rumble at the low end, too.
Sound is immediate, but it sounds natural and the center speaker that handles dialogue gives you an effortlessly engaging experience. If you want to step up in performance at all, you’d likely have to spend almost double what this system costs, so you’re definitely getting a fantastic value.
- Booming bass
- Bright sound
- Great value
- Not quite as stylish as others
Monitor Audio Silver 200 AV12
This 5.1-channel system includes a 500-watt subwoofer and comes in black, black gloss, white, rosewood, walnut, and oak. Take your pick for the look that suits your home theatre the best.
The speakers have smaller chassis and minimal performance variance, no matter where you put them. This makes installation easier and gives you a modern look.
It has stereo and surrounds sound capabilities, so it’s a great option for people who want to watch movies and listen to music.
- Balanced audio
- Versatile placement makes it easy to install
- Not stylish
Stereo systems get a bad rap. People think they’re inferior, but really, they work better for specific needs. These systems have two audio channels placed to the right and left of your TV or entertainment system.
It’s a more suitable option for playing music, gaming, and recording. Just like at a concert, where you see two large speakers to the left and right of the stage, at home, there are two large speakers on either side of your TV.
It creates a feeling of music coming from both directions, just like you would experience at a concert, a live theatre production, or other in-person performance or event.
These types of systems sound best when you’re sitting equidistant from the speakers on either side and at least as far away from the speakers as the speakers are from each other. This sound field reproduces what it would be like to sit in a music hall.
As you move around the room, the sound changes, much like it would if you moved from the left side of the stage to the right side. It alters the sound, depending on which sounds you’re standing nearer to.
If you’re looking for a stereo system, you’ll likely save some money. Here are your best options.
Bose Wave SoundTouch Music System IV
Bose is typically top of mind when it comes to stereo systems, and for good reason. These products are fun and innovative, but they also have great features. This system is one of the best products on the market.
This dual speaker system has advanced internal processing and offers the best audio experience at this size. The bass response is impressive, but if that’s not your thing, you can adjust the bass response manually.
Other sounds are crisp and the speakers are clear and intelligible. There’s no shortage of inputs, a Wi-Fi connection, and the seamless design makes it super stylish. You can even set it up in your bedroom, thanks to the alarm system.
Sony CMT-SBT100 Micro Music System
This speaker system offers a more classic look in a compact design that won’t take up too much space but still offers great sound. With a combined 50 watts of power, you get some pretty impressive sound for the size.
It’s not very bassy, so if you’re a fan of low-end sound, you won’t find it here. However, mid-range is clear and benefits those who like dialogue-heavy podcasts or radio.
There are also plenty of input options and a Bluetooth connection. The front of the receiver has all of the buttons you’ll need, but for some, this may be unattractive.
- Impressive sound
- Compact design
- Lots of inputs
- Not bassy
Denon D-M41 HiFi System
Denon is another one of the best brands in sound systems that you’ll find. It’s not going to be as loud as Sony or Bose, but you’ll get a clean, precise sound for sure. This system is an upgrade to the Denon D-M40, which was insanely popular.
The system includes a 60-watt amp, giving you tight bass and low-end definition, but everything else is well-balanced and has great clarity.
Inputs abound, the controls are neatly laid out, and it will pair nicely with any set of bookshelf speakers you like.
- Great quality
- Excellent balance with tight bass
- Plenty of inputs
- Maybe too pricey for some
Which is Better?
Only audiophiles with a keen ear will care about the differences between surround sound and stereo. For most people, either is perfect.
In fact, if you’ve ever been to a drive-in theatre where the speaker simply hangs on your car window, you know that watching the film will place the sound where it goes. That’s the way our brain works, so there’s no point in putting too much emphasis on one being better than the other. They’re simply different.
However, if you do care about this type of special accuracy, even a surround sound system won’t be exactly right if you don’t mount the speakers in the right place, so it’s a big job. Often, people hire professionals to install these systems for them, because placing is key.
As a general rule, surround sound works better for watching a lot of movies while stereo performs better when listening to music.
Transforming your living room into a home theatre requires the right surround sound system and installation, but if you would rather have a home music studio, a stereo system will give you the sound you want.
For families, surround sound generally works best because it caters to a lot of different needs. You can watch movies, play video games, and enjoy the theatre-going experience without actually going.
Musicians or those who don’t watch a lot of TV or play a lot of games will benefit more from the stereo system. You can have dance parties, replicate your favorite live event, or simply enjoy some soothing music in the background throughout the day.
No matter what you’re using these systems for, you have to have space for them. A large surround sound system will completely overwhelm you and the quality of the audio won’t be good if you install it in a room that’s too small.
You can get smaller, 3-channel surround sound systems if you still want the experience, but your space just isn’t big enough.
However, if you really don’t have the space for surround sound, the stereo will sound just fine in a small living room, extra bedroom, or den. You truly won’t miss much of the experience, and you won’t be detracting from it, either, by hanging too many speakers in the space.
Sound systems can be a large investment, especially if you want quality. For your speakers to perform to their full potential, it’s important that the sound system and all of its components are the best they can be.
From the speakers themselves to the cables that connect them, make sure you replace anything that doesn’t seem like it’s made with quality. Your set will likely come with everything you need to install it, but you can add your own components as well.
Most people care about cost, and for the average person, it’s a big factor. Larger, higher quality systems will cost more. However, you’ll get better sound, and the system will last longer if you can afford the next step up.
While stereo may cost less because it’s a smaller system, there are still large, high-quality stereo systems that cost quite a bit.
Alternatively, you can get a smaller surround sound system at a more affordable price, but the size and the quality of the system will impact the total cost. You also have to be prepared for a professional to provide installation, which will add to the cost as well.
If you’re considering a high-quality audio system, you may still be trying to understand which is better for you. Here are some frequently asked questions that may help.
Question: Which is better, surround sound or stereo?
Answer: While surround sound can create a more dynamic effect, it depends entirely on your space and your budget. Surround sound will be more expensive if you want the same or better quality speakers.
You also shouldn’t put a large surround sound system in a small room, so if you don’t have space, it’s not a great purchase.
If you truly want to transform your basement into a movie theatre, and you can afford it, then surround sound is a fantastic choice. But for most people, a high-quality stereo system will work just fine.
Question: Is stereo or surround sound better for gaming?
Answer: They make plenty of surround sound headsets, it’s important to consider that most gamers don’t use them, because they’re just not very good. A high-quality stereo headset is much better for gaming.
If you do a lot of gaming, a stereo system is likely a better purchase and this is what most gamers use.
Question: Are soundbars as good as surround sound?
Answer: Another viable option to improving the sound in your small space and replicating the surround sound experience is purchasing a soundbar. It can provide you with a similar effect in a smaller seating area.
They don’t work as well for large spaces, but if you have a small living room or bedroom you want to make into a TV room, a soundbar may be more affordable and give you the desired effect.
Question: Can a surround sound receiver play stereo?
Answer: If you’re still having trouble deciding, there’s some good news! A surround sound system can typically also operate in stereo mode, so you can pick and choose when you want to use which depending on what you’re doing.
If you anticipate you’ll use both modes at some point, a surround sound system is a versatile option, as long as you can afford it.
Often, people who originally thought they wanted surround sound will change their minds after learning that it’s not necessarily better. Your circumstances will dictate which you choose, but for most people and most homes, stereo is a better buy.
If you really want to revamp your space and make it a full theatre experience, surround sound is worth the cost if you get it installed correctly. Otherwise, you and your bank account will be happier with a stereo system, and likely won’t even be able to tell the difference.