In this article, we will discuss and compare 5-channel stereo vs surround sound. We will cover what each of these is, the pros and cons, and in what circumstances each is most useful.
What is 5 channel stereo?
Before we can describe a 5-channel stereo we need to firstly describe what we mean by channel or audio channel.
A channel is a representation of sound coming from or going to a single point.
A single microphone can produce one channel of audio, and a single speaker can accept one channel of audio.
Music that is mixed for headphone listening is saved as a file with two channels – one sent to the left ear, one sent to the right, while surround-sound movie audio is often mixed for 6 channels. (Source wild life acoustics).
A receiver with 5 channel stereo mode plays music through all 5 speakers without any echo or delay.
So, with a 5-channel stereo, all 5 speakers are getting the same signal at the same time.
You may be wondering what the relevance is of “without echo or delay”.
For instance, with receivers that play multi-channel playback modes, many play stereo sources through surround speakers with Digital sound processing mode (DSP).
The center and rear speakers play a derived signal whilst the right and front left speakers will play a normal stereo signal, resulting in an inconsistent sound.
For the most part when we speak of 5 channel stereo we interchangeably mean 5.1 sound.
The difference is that a 5.1 system denotes the addition of a subwoofer. It would be futile to speak of 5 channel stereos and not mention 5.1 channel.
A 5.1 channel stereo is the primary format for creating and delivering surround sound.
It’s widely used in movie theaters, digital television, DVD-video and audio, and even the latest game consoles.
Source signals have the five main channels and one LFE (low-frequency effects) bass channel.
Playback systems usually have five main speakers and one subwoofer.
Advantage of 5 channel stereo
Whereas with the audio image with a 2-channel system you must be seated in the center, for the audio image to extend from the side of your head to where the speakers are.
In a multi-channel system, the front-back image can be extended to behind you and produced a far more balanced sound.
One thing that makes multi-channel better is that it can provide more detailed high frequencies, more dynamic range and a lower noise floor.
This is because of the higher sampling rates and deeper bit depth.
Disadvantage of 5 channel stereo
Whilst the surround speakers may sound pretty good for home theater, they are not best suited to music.
Home theater speakers tend to be wide dispersion speakers whilst music lovers prefer rear speakers that match the fronts.
Many receivers will take 2-channel music and perform various ‘tricks’ to route the sound to 5.1 speakers.
Some of these are kind of a gimmick (like “Hall” and “Church” settings), but others do a decent good job.
So just be aware that there is a bit of ‘attitude’ against 5-channel sound (unless it’s a 5-channel disk of course.
What is surround sound
In simple terms surround sound is a system of stereo phony involving three or more speakers surrounding the listener to give a more realistic effect.
Surround sound technology has greatly enhanced the movie going and movie watching experience.
Surround sound, as the name suggests is self-explanatory. You are basically able to here sound coming from all angles and directions.
This technology was once almost employed exclusively by movie theaters, but in today’s day and age you can bring the experience directly into your home.
Sound played through speakers on either side of a listener are known as 2 channel recordings/stereo sound.
Let’s dig a little deeper into surround sound
This is the standard format for home stereo receivers, TV’s and FM broadcasts.
Binaural recordings, which are simple 2 channel recordings are produced using 2 microphones at a live event, replacing 2 human ears.
Listening to these 2 channels on separate speakers produces the sensation of being at the event itself.
With surround sound, the sound emanates from 3 or more directions. This is accomplished through the addition of further audio channels.
In colloquial terms surround sound is often understood in the context of home theater multi-channel sound systems.
Movie Surround soundtracks are generally developed in a mixing studio.
What is a surround sound system?
A surround sound system cloaks the sound around you. It achieves this by using 3 or more channels and speakers in front of and behind the listener.
What does a surround sound system consist of?
Unless you are planning on buying a movie ticket every time you want to watch a movie, it is highly recommended that you get your surround sound fix from a home theater system.
You want a home theater system that provides memorizing audio experience, that gives soul to your favorite movies.
You should first consider the display of your home theater system. This could take the form of a projector/projection screen combo or a flat screen/TV.
You will also need a system that provides the enveloping audio. The simplest surround sound speaker system is the 5.1 channel system.
The 5 refers to the number of speakers. Essentially you have 2 left and right speakers (one in the front and one in the rear, as well as a center speaker).
The .1 refers to the accompanying subwoofer that helps accentuate the bass, which comes in handy when listening to action movies with explosions.
It has become fashionable of late to go for a 7-channel speaker system, to achieve a thorough surround sound experience.
Advantages of surround sound
The visuals are brought to life in unimaginable ways. Many people believe that surround sound makes movie watching amazing.
Whilst this is true there are so many more benefits to having surround sound.
You practically feel as if you are live at a sports game. The crack of the baseball against a baseball bat and every tackle in a football game is heard as if you were right there in the stadium.
The instruments in a concert sound so much more crisper and you can hear all the subtle notes with such amazing clarity.
If you are playing games, you can hear the footsteps of a character as if they were in the room, and explosions, will have you taking cover.
Disadvantages of surround sound
When considering the display devices, receivers and other equipment necessary to power your surround sound system.
The costs can be significant. Depending on your circumstances, i.e. weather you want to build a home theater or you just want to have a surround sound system in the living room, the systems can cost anywhere from $1000 to $50000.
Also, technology changes often so you want to make sure that you have one that can connect to a multitude of devices and will not be out of fashion in the next year.
Most music is also not optimized for surround sound, so the listening experience will be slightly poorer with surround sound.
So, which is better and why
In my experience, music coming out of a multi-channel system sounds richer than surround sound. I think for music lovers multi-channel stereo produces fuller bass as well.
This is because multi-channel stereo delivers complete stereo audio (left and right) through both the front and rear speaker channels.
Surround modes on the other hand use the rear channels to produce surround sound.
So, the rear and center speakers replicate the same sounds as the front speakers in a multi-channel system. Hence it is perfect for music.
Also, your music should sound louder on a multi-channel device.
So, for pure music pleasure better a multi-channel system,
Surround sound systems are optimized for movies as they track sounds from different positions and produce those sounds as if they were in the relevant place.
Meaning if a sound is meant to be coming from behind you, it will be emphasized in the rear speakers etc. or if someone is talking on the right side of the screen, then the sound will come from the right.