I remember a little over a decade ago, having surround sound in your home was the coolest thing. People would crank up the volume during the THZ opening tones, and purposely rent movies based on their friend’s review of the surround audio. While it certainly seemed novel at the time, I haven’t owned a surround sound system since 2003. This isn’t because I’m cheap, or don’t care about quality audio. To the contrary, a quality audio system is the first thing I think about when putting together a home theater. For whatever reason, the stereo systems I’ve come across produce a better sound to me. When you think about it, there are a few reasons for this.
For starters, sound engineers mastering your favorite television shows are keeping in mind that the vast majority of home users are listening to their shows using the stereo speakers built in to their television sets. Because of this, they are mastering to that audience. You may have noticed that even with surround sound, television programming sounds pretty much the same as it would if you got rid of the back speakers entirely.
For many home theater users, their audio system is really only used during movies. This makes sense, as many movies are mixed with surround audio in mind. Surround sound does give you the sense of audio coming from all directions that stereo may come close to, but doesn’t truly recreate. A scary movie, space fighter, or any other scenario that requires a sense of action on all sides can certainly benefit from the extra channels.
Digital sound projectors and other virtual surround systems can mimic the effect of surround setups without the need for extra speakers. Whether or not these systems work is up to each viewer to decide for themselves.
For PC gamers, having a ton of speakers surrounding your desk can create quite a clutter. For them, there are some great headphone alternatives that replicate 7.1 and 5.1 surround sound in a smaller headphone-friendly form factor. The Logitech G35 is one of these headsets, allowing the user to hear Doppler-specific tones from all sides thanks to a technology that recreates the feeling of sitting in the middle of seven speakers and a subwoofer set up perfectly for the spot where the player is sitting.
Ultimately, the decision on whether or not to go with surround over stereo is up to the preferences of the user. There is no true better or worse in the world of perceived audio. While many of us may believe that Bose headphones are the best, some still prefer the white earbuds that came with the iPod they purchased years ago.
The hassle of setting up the extra speakers, and the extra costs involved with a good 5.1 or 7.1 setup, can be a small price to pay if you really enjoy the extra audio coming from all sides. For me, a decent stereo 2.1 (two speakers with subwoofer) setup is enough to satisfy my entertainment needs.