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Surround Sound vs. Stereo – Which is Better?

You’re considering upgrading your sound setup; the same question appears for everyone. Surround sound vs. Stereo sound, which one should you choose?

The answer is not that simple, but with a couple of descriptions and analyzing each setup’s pros and cons, you’ll quickly understand what works better for you, including budgets. It’s safe to say most people will end up with a stereo setup, but we’ll review all the conditions and explanations to help you make the best choice. Let’s go over the basics first.

What’s the difference between Surround and Stereo?

The main difference between Surround and Stereo sound is the number of speakers you need and how the audio is recorded.

With stereo sound, you usually have a 2 speaker setup (left and right). Sometimes it comes with a bass or sub-woofer that focuses on low-range frequencies (check how frequencies are categorized in the EQ here), and it’s called a 2.1 sound system.

With surround sound, you have 3 or more speakers. The most common speaker setups are 5.1 and 7.1, which means you have 5 or 7 channels plus a sub-woofer. Surround sound includes:

  • Left speaker
  • Right speaker
  • Center speaker (focuses on voices)
  • Sub-woofer
  • Rear left
  • Rear right
  • Mid rear left (7.1)
  • Mid rear right (7.1)

As you can see, when building a surround sound system, you need more speakers and space to install them. Also, you’ll need to deal with cable management, and trust me, managing 8 different cables going to a central console will be a hassle for most people.

Stereo speakers on the other side usually have 2-3 cables, and since you place them all in front of you (similar to a soundbar), it’s easy to hide them and connect everything behind the TV or below the TV cabinet/stand.

surround sound vs stereo - cable management

And because you must buy more speakers, the price is also essential. Let’s talk about it.

Price – Surround sound vs. Stereo budgets

It’s safe to say surround sound systems are more expensive than stereo setups. However, it’s not all black and white. You can find cheap surround setups for under $200 and pay $1,000 for stereo speakers. You need to remember here the quality of each speaker instead of quantity.

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Imagine you have $400 to build your sound setup for your entertainment system. If you’re getting a stereo setup and buying 2 speakers, you can spend $200 on each. Or perhaps you want a separate woofer, so you spend $150 on it and still have $125 for the left and right speakers.

Now let’s make some calculations for the surround sound setup. Assuming you want to go for 5.1 channels, the most common setup for living rooms, you need to buy 5 speakers + a sub-woofer. Assuming the woofer costs $150 again, you’re left with $250 for the rest of the speakers or $50 per speaker.

Which speaker do you think is going to sound better? The ones you paid $125-200 for, or the speakers cost $50 each?

In this round, the stereo setup gives you more for your budget. However, audio quality isn’t everything. Some people enjoy surrounding audio, while others argue it isn’t important. Let’s see which type of person fits in each category now.

Surround sound – Who is it for?

As mentioned, some people prefer surround sound, while others are eclectic and prefer stereo forever. Who are they, and why? Well, the answer is simple. If you prefer surround sound, it must be because you’re taking advantage of it, even if it isn’t as much as you think, but you value it more than everybody else.

People who love action movies or thrillers are good examples of surround sound lovers. You want to enjoy your movie as closely as you were in the movie theatre. Surround sound is important because you’ll be able to hear explosions from behind or ambient sounds from above and below.

While many people who love movies might want to move to a surround sound setup, it’s primarily people who watch action, fiction, and thrillers because you can’t appreciate surround sound while watching sitcoms, dramas, or other types of movies.

Another profile who enjoys surround sound a lot is gamers. Whether gaming on your PC desk setup or playing on your PS/Xbox in the living room, surround sound can give you an edge on gaming if you’re playing compatible titles.

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surround sound vs stereo - gaming

Some examples are FPS (first-person shooter) games and also racing games. FPS games are probably the best example because you’ll hear bullets coming from different locations, and it’s fantastic to know where your enemy is hiding just by pinpointing the sound coming from that left rear channel.

Finally, another profile that benefits from surround sound speakers is people who want to distribute sound in a big room, for parties, for example.

If you love to party hard and want to fill the room with music, you probably don’t mind if the quality isn’t the best as long as you can place a speaker in each corner of the house. Music isn’t recorded in surround setups, so you’re playing just the right and left channels all over your surround setup. Still, it makes a difference when you’re hosting dozens of people dancing around your house, and you want to cover each spot with your favorite songs.

And since we already mentioned music isn’t recorded in surround mode, let’s talk about stereo now.

Stereo sound – Who is it for?

Stereo sound is not only the easiest in terms of cable management but also the most affordable in terms of quality per speaker based on a similar budget.

Because you get access to higher-quality speakers, you can also enjoy your music with higher quality and get more punch in your bass or trebles. Think about this, when you’re going to a concert, where is the music coming from?

Yeah, music comes from the front area, although if the stage is huge, other speakers can repeat the same sound in different parts of the scenario to cover all sides.

surround sound vs stereo - music

Music, in general, is recorded in 2 channels, and you don’t get extra sounds or special effects from rear or mid-rear speakers. That’s why stereo speakers are the better choice if you care more about getting the best audio quality and you love watching musicals or just playing music on Youtube from your smart TV.

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TV shows are also primarily recorded in stereo mode, which means no love for surround setups. Most people use the integrated speakers from their TVs which are also stereo speakers, albeit with much lower quality.

Surround sound vs. Stereo – Pros and cons

In conclusion, let’s talk about the pros and cons of each sound setup:

Surround sound Pros

  • Better for large rooms
  • Suitable for parties where filling the room is more important than quality
  • Great for PC or console gamers who enjoy FPS, racing, etc.
  • You can hear special effects from action movies, thrillers, science fiction movies, etc.

Surround sound Cons

  • Lower speaker quality for the same budget
  • Not as many options unless you go DIY (which can be very expensive)
  • Cable management can be a hassle
  • Music and TV shows aren’t recorded in surround mode

Stereo sound Pros

  • Higher quality audio for the same price
  • Great for music lovers and audiophiles
  • More options available
  • It can be upgraded in the future with a proper amp or AV receiver to surround mode
  • More affordable in case you’re just looking for a simple solution (still way better than integrated speakers)
  • No cable management is needed. All fits in your TV furniture
  • Easier to install and connect
  • Most TV Shows, sitcoms, dramas, and comedy movies don’t benefit from surround sound

Stereo sound cons

  • Won’t reproduce special effects from surround-sound movies
  • Won’t take advantage of sounds from behind for gamers
  • It might not fill a big party room, but most people don’t care

Surround sound vs. Stereo – Wrapping things up

To wrap things up, if you enjoy music and are an audiophile who cares about quality, get a stereo setup. Also, if you’re on a budget or want to upgrade from integrated speakers, this will make a huge difference.

If you care much about your video games and special effects from action movies, go for surround sound. Leave a comment if you have questions below!