Surround Sound Vs. Stereo: What’s the Difference?

If you’ve just purchased a new television, you’ve probably heard that you need a surround sound system to get the best sound possible. But you’re happy with your current stereo system, it’s OK to wonder if a surround sound system will be that much of an improvement.

The cost between speaker systems, both stereo and surround sound, are pretty similar. That could leave you more confused than when you started.

How is it possible that a surround sound speaker system with seven speakers can be relatively the same price as two speakers and a subwoofer?

You have questions, and we have the answers you’re looking for. In this article, I’ll walk you through all the differences between surround sound vs. stereo.

Surround sound speakers vs stereo speakers

Surround Sound vs. Stereo: Number of Speakers

Let’s start with the obvious difference: the number of speakers.

Stereo systems have two speakers, a left and a right. Some stereo systems come with a subwoofer or bass to focus on the low frequencies. This type of stereo system is referred to as a 2.1 sound system.

The number of speakers in a surround sound speaker system usually ranges from three to seven speakers. There are crazy home theater surround sound systems that have more than that. However, for this article, we have to draw the line somewhere. So we’re going to limit ourselves to seven speakers or less.

That means three to seven channels, speakers, and wires to connect. You’ll need to figure out where you’re going to place the speakers and what you’re going to do with all those wires, so you don’t risk anyone tripping over them.

Here’s a breakdown of how each speaker setup works:

3.1 Channel Sound

With a 3.1 channel setup, you have left, right, and center speakers connected to a subwoofer. The addition of the center speaker gives you more depth and clarity to dialogue in any program you’re watching.

5.1 Channel Sound

A 5.1 channel setup is the standard sound format for music and movies. In addition to the front left and right speakers and the center speaker, you have a rear left and right speaker.

When looking at 5.1 channel sound systems, most will have either DTS Digital Surround or Dolby Digital 5.1. They are by far the most popular audio formats.

5.1 surround sound speaker layout with floorstanding speakers, subwoofer and rear channel speakers.

6.1 Channel Sound

A 6.1 channel setup is an improvement from the 5.1 setup, adding a rear center channel. That gives you a full range of sound behind you as well as in front.

7.1 Channel Sound

The 7.1 channel setup is a further improvement to the previous setups. In this setup, two left and right speakers replace the center speaker.

Surround Sound vs. Stereo: Price

It’s easy to assume that a surround sound speaker system will cost more than a stereo speaker system since you’re getting more speakers. The thing that most audio experts will tell you is that you want quality over quantity.

It’s actually really common to find surround sound systems for less than $200 and stereo speakers that cost $1000.

If you have a budget of $500 for your new sound system, you’ll have to decide if you want five speakers that are worth $100 each, or would you prefer to have two $200 speakers with a $100 subwoofer?

What option will provide better sound?

Surround Sound vs. Stereo: Uses

The question of better sound depends on what you’re using your speakers to listen to. If you mainly watch action movies and thrillers, a surround sound system makes you feel like you’re right there in the movie.

Surround sound is also great for gamers, especially those that love to play first-person shooter games or racing games. When you have opponents coming after you with guns, it’s great to clearly hear the bullets coming from different locations.

Surround sound systems are excellent when you want to distribute sounds in a large room, whether for movie watching or large parties.

However, if you mainly listen to broadcast TV or music, then good quality stereo speaker system may be the better option.

At the end of the day, television programs and music aren’t recorded for surround sound. If you’re a music enthusiast, you’ll be able to listen to your music with better sound quality. You’ll even get more force in the bass and treble.

If you’re not an action or thriller movie watcher, you may be better off getting a good stereo system for the money that you would spend on a surround sound system.

Personally, I’d rather buy two better quality stereo speakers than five lower-quality surround sound speakers.

2.1 stereo speaker layout with two floorstanding speakers and a subwoofer

Surround Sound vs. Stereo: Installation

Setting up a stereo system is straightforward. You connect your left and right speaker to your television and subwoofer, and you’re good to go.

You don’t need to buy stands or install shelves to place multiple speakers. Plus, there won’t be a mess of wires to organize and keep out of sight.

Surround sound systems are a bit more work.

Depending on your room layout, you may have to hire someone to install your system and run wires through the wall. In general, the cost of labor to install a surround sound system can be at least 2.5 times greater than a stereo system.

Finally, to get the most out of your new speaker system, it needs to be calibrated to the audio receiver. Some receivers can do this automatically, but many need additional tools to do it.

Surround Sound vs. Stereo: Pros and Cons

To help you make your decision, here are some advantages and disadvantages of each system:

Surround Sound System Pros

Surround sound systems are more realistic. Special effects in science fiction, thrillers, and action movies will jump out at you, making you feel like you’re in the movie. It’s great for gamers as well, because they’ll hear the action coming from all sides.

You can use also use a surround sound speaker system in a large room for parties. It won’t be as loud near the rear speakers, but you’ll be able to distribute the sound throughout the room.

Surround Sound System Cons

Getting more speakers for the same amount of money usually means the quality isn’t going to be as good. That’s true here as well. In general, you can get better quality stereo speaks for the same price as a budget surround sound system.

Wiring can be tricky. If you’re unsure about setting up your system, you may have to hire an installer. There are few options that allow you to set up a surround sound system on your own.

Finally, don’t forget that music and television shows aren’t recorded in surround sound. You might not need a surround sound system if you’re using it mostly for television watching and listening to music.

Pros of a Stereo System

You can always add on to stereo speakers later on and turn them into a surround sound system.

That’s the route I’m going, personally. Even though I’d love a full Dolby Atmos system, my next home audio purchase is a set of good floorstanding speakers. Then, I’ll add a subwoofer, center channel speakers and rear speakers when I have the money to do it.

Your stereo system won’t go to waste if you decide to move to a surround sound system in the future. Home audio speakers last for decades if they’re treated right. You can always upgrade your system when you’re ready.

A stereo system is perfect for someone wanting a simple solution to improve their sound without breaking the bank. Any stereo system is an improvement from the integrated speakers in your television.

If you’re a music lover, you definitely want to consider a stereo system over a surround sound system.

Finally, you’ll save money on installation since you don’t have as many speakers to set up.

Cons of a Stereo System

Unfortunately, with a stereo speaker system, you won’t be able to enjoy the special effects in movies the same way you would with a surround sound speaker system. The gamers in your home won’t be able to get sound from behind when competing in their video games.

If you’re throwing a party in a large space, you may have to rent more prominent speakers to fill the room the way you’d like. You won’t get the same level of speaker coverage with only two speakers in the room.

Things to Think About

We’ve talked about the differences between stereo and surround sound systems. Hopefully, you have a better idea of what each sound system offers in terms of audio.

Here are four things to consider before you make your final decision.


What size is the space you’re planning to set up the speakers in?

The bigger your room, the more robust the system will have to be. Of course, a more extensive sound system will require a budget to match.

On the flip side, smaller or oddly-shaped rooms might be difficult to place a surround sound system in. Will you need stands or shelves for the speakers? Or will you have to drill holes and mount them to the wall? Depending on your home’s construction, that might not even be possible.

How You’ll Use Them

You also want to give some thought to how often you’ll be using the speakers, and what you’ll be listening to.

Do you enjoy romantic comedies and owning a surround sound speaker system won’t add anything to the movie? Or are you someone who loves to watch action and thriller films and wants to feel like you’re in the movie?


Consider the following questions:

  • Why are you looking to buy speakers? 
  • Are you looking for better speakers to listen to your music?
  • Or do you want to change the way you watch movies at home by giving it a theater experience?
  • Does the sound system need to be affordable, or are you looking for something with all the bells and whistles? 

Remember that even if you start with a stereo system, you can upgrade to a surround sound system using the two speakers you already have.

If you’re old school and still love listening to vinyl, you may want to consider quadraphonic sound, a 4.0 surround system. The 4.0 surround system is the type of setup used back in the 70s for record players. There’s no subwoofer, just four speakers, one placed in each corner of the room.

The Verdict

If you’re considering a surround sound system, you’ll have to keep in mind that your budget needs to include the setup of the speakers and possibly equipment to mount the speakers. You may also have to pay someone to install the system for you if you’re not an audio-video expert.

Remember that a surround sound system requires a decoder or an amplifier. You don’t get an amplifier when you purchase your surround sound speaker system, which will be an additional cost that you will have to include in your budget.

You also want to keep in mind what the cost breaks down to per speaker when choosing your speaker system. If you have a budget of $500, do you think you’ll get better audio from two speakers valued at $250 each or five speakers valued at $100 each? You’ll want to do your research on the quality of speakers you’re getting when considering your options. You want to feel good about your investment, whatever choice you make.

Tim Wells