When it comes to audio, stereo has been the go-to solution for decades now. Most hi-fi and TV systems come with in-built stereo speakers, and that's how most of us are used to hearing sound being broadcast. Not only that, but recorded music is mixed and optimised to be heard in stereo. Nowadays though, most modern movies and TV shows have the added capability of being heard in surround sound, allowing you to achieve a full 360 degree cinematic surround experience from the comfort of your own home.
So before you dive in and make a decision between stereo and surround, you first need to figure out what you will mainly be using your setup for.
When should I choose stereo?
If you rarely find yourself watching TV and instead will be mostly listening to music in one room, then two front speakers will be fine. After all, that's the way recorded music is designed to be heard.
If music is your primary use but you often entertain roomfuls of guests, then a surround sound system may be a better choice, as it spreads the sound evenly around the room. And if you're likely to have large gatherings, or find you are often moving around the house, a distributed multi-room audio solution is an even better solution.
Stereo also works well for casual, occasional TV-watching, or in a room that doesn’t necessarily get occupied often, and which is not a dedicated media room.
When should I choose surround sound?
If music is more of an afterthought, and your first priority is to recreate an ear-melting cinema experience in your home, surround sound is the only option - stereo just won’t cut it. Surround sound does exactly what it says – it surrounds you and immerses you in the middle of a 3D sound environment.
For example, when you're sitting in a cinema watching a film, surround sound lets you watch the sequence on the screen and hear the sound of the action all around you, as if you were actually in the movie. Multi-channel surround sound applications encircle the viewer, rather than relying solely on audio distributed through the speakers at the front of the cinema.
What's the difference between 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound?
The different specifications of surround sound (5.1, 7.1) basically refer to the number of speakers/subwoofers in a room. For example, 5.1 surround sound consists of five speakers and one subwoofer (two speakers and one subwoofer at the front, one in the centre and two behind), while 7.2 surround sound consists of seven speakers and two subwoofers, and so forth.
So even though music is not necessarily designed to be heard in surround, many people prefer to listen to it this way and find that it is much more practical to have the sound distributed when having a party or entertaining guests. Most surround sound systems also have the added capability to switch over to stereo so you can get the best of both worlds.