Whether you are listening to a favorite album or watching a movie, your audio setup can make a massive difference in sound.
Audiophiles will go to great lengths in order to get the perfect listening experience.
Music and other forms of entertainment deserve to be heard in the best quality possible.
Surround Sound Vs. Stereo
There are a couple of major differences between surround sound and stereo sound.
Stereo sound comes from two channels, but surround sound comes from any number of channels that is greater than two.
The locations of each channel also differ.
The channel is the term for where the sounds of whatever you are listening to are coming from.
This could refer to a speaker, microphone, or amplifier.
An audio file that has stereo or surround sound will have multiple channels.
Typically, the sounds of each channel are split into the direction they’re coming from.
For example, a song with stereo sound will have two channels.
One will be projected through the left side of your headphones and the other will be projected through the right side of your headphones.
If a song has surround sound, it will have multiple channels that will come from as many speakers as you have available.
With surround sound, the music will typically have six channels.
Part of why movies seem better in theaters is thanks to their surround sound.
There are speakers all over the walls of a theater.
When a helicopter goes zooming past in a movie and sounds like it’s actually flying across the room, it’s all the different channels for the audio to come through in the theater.
The sound of the helicopter will start behind you and fade into another speaker in the corresponding direction that the helicopter flew.
Surround sound can make it easier for a listener to get lost in the entertainment, but it can be expensive and difficult to set up at home.
A stereo sound system is vastly more practical and easier to set up at home.
Both sound playback systems have their own situations that each is better suited for.
When looking into different stereo and surround systems, you may notice some numbers in the description of the sound system, such as 1.0, 2.1, or 5.1.
These numbers tell you how many channels of audio a file has.
In most at-home sound systems, there are up to seven audio channels.
The number before the decimal refers to the direction of the speaker or speakers, and the number after the decimal refers to whether or not there is a channel for a subwoofer.
Sound systems with a channel for the subwoofer will have a 1 after the decimal, but one without a channel for the subwoofer will have a 0 after the decimal instead.
Mono, Stereo, and Surround sound systems can all have subwoofer channels.
The first number in the sound system layout coordinates to however many directions the channels will be coming from.
Mono sound systems will only be represented by the number 1.
All of the sound comes from one channel.
Stereo sound systems are always represented by a 2 before the decimal.
Each direction has a number attached to it.
Channel 1 comes from the right side and Channel 2 comes from the left side.
Surround sound systems are represented by the numbers 3 through 7.
The channel directions get more complex as you add more possibilities.
The right front channel is 1 and the left front channel is 2.
Channel 3 controls your center channel.
Surround sound for the right side is controlled by channel 4 while surround sound on the left is up to channel 5.
The rear surround sound is controlled by channels 6 and 7 for the right and left sides.
In all surround sound configurations, the subwoofer is kept in the corner of the room, preferably near whatever device you are using.
History Of Stereo Sound
Stereo sound has been around a lot longer than most people might realize.
The study of stereophonic sound was first revealed in 1881 at the Paris Electrical Exhibit by Clement Adler.
Adler had put telephone transmitters in 80 different locations at the edge of the stage at the Paris Opera house.
All of the telephone receivers were placed in four local hotel suites where patrons could visit and pick up a receiver for each ear and listen to what was happening on stage from different angles.
Much of the early innovation involving stereophonic sound was in an attempt to create better hearing aids.
Until the 1920s, all hearing aids were monophonic, meaning there was no sense of direction for the sound people were hearing.
In the 1920s, Harvey Fletcher of Bell Labs created the first binaural headset for those who were hard of hearing.
By 1931, Fletcher would apply what he had learned when attempting to improve hearing aids to recording music for the Academy of Music in Philadelphia.
Fletcher wasn’t the only one learning the secret to stereophonic sound.
In England, the first British patent for stereo recording was being filed by Alan Dower Blumlein.
Leopold Stokowski, who had worked alongside Harvey Fletcher at the Academy of Music, was the first person to record stereo audio onto vinyl.
Fletcher would then go on to use Stokowski’s findings in order to transmit music to the Nation Academy of Sciences with stereo sound.
In 1934, Alan Blumlein would begin to record in stereo sound at the famous Abbey Road Studio.
Unlike Stokowski, Blumlein recorded one channel vertically and one horizontally.
By 1949, stereo sound had become popularized with help from General Motors.
The car company wanted better audio systems for their vehicles and hired Magnecord to lead the research.
History Of Surround Sound
Stereo sound was a growing success that was getting even better with more use and practice, but Bell Labs wasn’t satisfied with just two audio channels.
In 1941, Walt Disney approached Bell Labs as they were already working on the future of sound.
Disney wanted a way to make the music of his films immersive and gave Bell Labs the money to create a recording system that could capture the magic of the music in his films.
Together, Bell Labs and Walt Disney created Fantasound, film’s first multi-microphone recording system.
This innovation in audio was used for Disney’s groundbreaking movie Fantasia.
When Fantasia was released, there were only two theaters that could fully capture the audio for the film because the sound system necessary was extremely expensive.
The 54-speaker sound system cost $85,000 in the 1940s, which would be about $1.5 million today.
It was extremely expensive to record in surround sound because of all the equipment required, so there wasn’t much advancement or use of it for the first couple of decades.
Pink Floyd was the first band to ever play a concert in surround sound which, at the time, was known as quadraphonic sound.
A sound system was placed in each corner of the concert hall with the fans all standing in the middle.
Thanks to their experimental nature, Pink Floyd was the perfect band to test the effects of quadraphonic sound.
Their 1967 concert sound trick wasn’t used again because live sounds are surround sounds.
Through the 1980s, Dolby Labs would figure out how to create more channels.
Digital Theater Systems became more popular through the 1990s.
As the technology got more use in the early 2000s, it would soon become the surround sound people know today.
Which Type Of Sound Is Better For Music?
Although surround sound may be more advanced, stereo sound is better for music.
Most audiophiles want to make their audio reproductions sound like they are exactly where the music was recorded, whether it be the feeling of standing at a concert or relaxing in a recording room.
If you were to go to a concert, you are only going to hear the musician from two directions: the left side and the right side.
Even if you were to stand in the middle of the recording room, you are only going to hear a left and a right side coming from similar directions.
This is because of how close the musicians are standing to each other.
The band’s proximity isn’t the only reason that music is best kept in stereo.
When most bands record their music, the audio is recorded in mono.
Then the song is later mastered in stereo.
In trying to stretch that sound into a surround system, the music often loses its definition, and the sound quality can suffer.
If you are someone who believes that stereo isn’t good enough for your music, then you may want to look into multi-channel stereo which uses four speakers, similar to surround sound.
Multi-channel stereo is different from surround sound because it still only uses two channels of audio.
The audio is simply being duplicated and sent through two speakers instead of one.
Surround sound is different from multi-channel stereo because each speaker is receiving its own channel.
This type of sound system doesn’t duplicate channels, but it may have extremely similar channels.
Music with multiple layers may sound flat when played in monophonic sound, but stereo can give the layers of audio the separation they need in order to properly portray the full sound of a track.
What Type Of Sound Is Better For Movies?
While stereo may be superior for music, nothing beats surround sound for movies.
Surround sound is best paired with audio-visual experiences.
The immersive nature of movies creates the perfect opportunity for surround sound to thrive.
Film and gaming companies have put a lot of research and resources into figuring out how to best immerse their consumer into the world of their movie or game.
When given the chance to have the audio of their story fill a room, this only increases their ability to bring the viewer deeper into the world they’ve created.
If an audiophile is looking to replicate the sound of the world from a movie, they’re going to need multiple channels coming from as many directions as possible.
A bustling scene from a movie is best felt when you can hear the sound of the hustle all around you.
The scene from Disney’s movie Wall-E where Wall-E and Eve are floating through space serves as an excellent example of how movies benefit best from surround sound.
In the scene, Wall-E uses a fire extinguisher to float around space with his flying friend, Eve.
With surround sound, you can hear the rumbling vacuum of space and you feel the sound fill the room.
As soon as Wall-E blows through space, you can hear the puttering of his fire extinguisher move across the room.
Even with the sound of space and the robots flying around, you can still separate all of the sounds from each other and from the background music.
This is thanks to the multiple channels of surround sound.
Having surround sound available in your own home can give your at-home movie-watching the theatrical feel that you desire.
All you need to do is dim the lights and prepare the popcorn.
Which Type Of Sound Is Better For Video Games?
Similar to movies, video games are audio-visual experiences.
Surround sound is the perfect way to upgrade your gaming experience, although stereo sound is much easier to set up.
Gamers who don’t mind putting in the time and effort to set up surround speakers will find their gaming experiences to be much more immersive.
Surround sound allows players to use another one of their senses in order to tell where enemies are, relative to their location in the game.
In shooters, a player can more easily tell where bullets are coming from.
A surround sound system can also intensify the environment of a game for a player.
With multiple channels and speakers, a player can hear the breeze blowing around them or ghastly footsteps creaking down a dark hall.
Many modern games have begun to use surround sound to their advantage.
One such game is Alien: Isolation.
With surround sound, you can hear your character’s faint steps on the metal floors and malfunctioning hall lights buzzing and flickering.
In the distance, you can hear banging in the hallways and pipes aboard the ship where a Xenomorph lurks.
When the Xenomorph is chasing you down the halls, you can hear its feet and claws running behind you before capturing you in its lethal grasp.
Surround sound is also being used in games for those who are visually impaired.
Through a combination of clever sound design and surround sound, blind gamers are able to tell where enemies are and where their character is relative to the world they’re exploring.
While a majority of games for the blind are shooters, audio gaming companies are looking to expand into different genres.
So far, some of the most popular blind-accessible games are The Nightjar, Three Monkeys, Blindside.
Effect Of Room Size On Sound
When considering whether to go with a stereo sound system or a surround sound system, you need to factor in the size of the room in which the sound system is to be installed.
Too many speakers in a small area will cause the sound to come as one, big blur.
The rule of thumb when it comes to room size is that a 5.1 sound system is going to need a minimum of 350 square feet.
This is just enough room to avoid all the audio channels from becoming a flat wall of sound.
Placement of speakers in your room is extremely important and can help to properly spread out the noise.
For the best speaker placement, your front speakers should be directly to the left and right of your display, which should be located at least 28 inches away from where you plan to sit.
Your surround speakers should be set up at least 56 inches away from where you are sitting, with one each to the right and left.
The way your speakers are facing can make a massive difference in sound quality as well.
Your front speakers should be facing the center of your seating area at a 22- to 30-degree angle.
The side surround speakers should be facing at a 90- to 100-degree angle.
The best direction for the back surround speakers is at a 135- to 150-degree angle.
The amount of effort you put in directly correlates to how much of a difference you are going to get between mono, stereo, and surround sound.
Each type of audio has the proper situation that it prospers in.