- Surround sound is typically used for films, shows, and video gaming, but it can also be used for music.
- Surround sound requires a minimum of five channels, while stereo only requires two channels.
- Surround sound can provide a greater sense of depth and immersion to audio sources compared to stereo.
- Dolby Atmos is a newer innovation in surround sound that adds height to the audio mix, creating a more immersive listening experience.
Is surround sound good for music? There are a lot of misconceptions online about the different speaker configurations for home listening. Music has traditionally been mixed a certain way and is intended for listening on stereo interfaces.
Surround sound has often been the domain of films, shows, and video gaming. That isn’t to say you should avoid music if you’ve invested in a sound system, though. As with any audio subject, this is something worthy of a deeper dive.
The Difference Between Surround Sound and Stereo
Before embarking on a deeper dive into what format best suits music, it is important to understand the difference between these speaker configurations.
|Number of Channels Needed||It needs a minimum of five channels to be considered true surround sound.||Stereo is strictly two channels; subwoofers for the center bass frequencies are optional.|
|Amplifier and Receiver Required?||Yes, without power and decoding the sound quality from the speakers can suffer.||No, but powered speakers offer more volume and better overall clarity.|
|Room Size Needed||Larger rooms are ideal for surround sound, as it gives more variety for speaker placement.||Stereo is well suited in any room; it will depend on if you’re using a power amp to fill a larger room with sound.|
|Best Application||Films, games, prestige television shows, some music||Films, games, shows, music, and many other types of media.|
|Price Range||Generally, it’s more expensive, as you need multiple speakers, a subwoofer, a receiver, and an amplifier as the bare minimum for a true surround sound setup.||Can be inexpensive, and stereo speakers have been commonplace for decades. High-quality stereo speakers are on par with a surround sound system.|
Surround sound uses multiple speakers to provide a sense of depth and immersion to audio sources. Films and other media have to be mixed and engineered explicitly for surround sound, which typically has five or more channels of audio.
Just as an example, take a 5.1 speaker system and count the speakers. You’ll typically have four speakers, two on the left, and two on the right, which provide directional audio. The center channel, or fifth speaker, as it were, is usually a subwoofer.
Sound gets pumped to those five speakers, where you’ll have the audio intersecting to give a greater depth than you would have with mono or stereo sound. The overall principle is largely the same as a stereo configuration, but there is simply more of everything on offer.
Stereo sound is comprised solely of two channels. You have a left and a right channel, like two speakers in an old hi-fi system or a pair of headphones. These two directional speakers provide all the depth and spatialization in this configuration.
Now, you’ve likely watched shows and movies in stereo, and it can be a fine experience. However, it is hard to explain the awe a good surround sound setup can instill in the movie-viewing experience. When it comes to music, things get a little fuzzier.
Now, surround sound is nothing new with music, as will be discussed a little further on. However, most commercially engineered music is recorded, mixed, and mastered in stereo audio. So, conventional wisdom would dictate that the original format is the correct one, right? The answer is a little more complicated than that, as you’ll discover.
Music and Spatial Audio
So, with a little background information out of the way, it is time to see if surround sound is good for music.
Spatial Audio Clients
Currently, there aren’t a lot of native clients or methods for playing music in surround sound. Apple Music is the default option for many users. You could certainly use Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Music, or your preferred music client for use on surround sound systems.
However, this isn’t optimized or designed for surround sound. As such, it isn’t the best fit and can lead to some interesting listening. If you want actual music optimized for spatial audio, Apple Music is the only way to go. Do be aware that the audio mix is Dolby Atmos, which does have some differences from surround sound.
Surround Upmixing for Stereo Content
Depending on your receiver, you can listen to stereo music in surround sound. This is done through a process called upmixing, which can greatly vary depending on the sound source. It is a fairly complicated bit of engineering.
Essentially, upmixing relies on the relationship of audio panning, positioning, and other factors, like the gain and phase of a given sound, to try to accurately replicate stereo information in surround sound. Results can be very mixed, especially given the conventions and practices of mixing for a given genre.
Surround upmixing works best for music like electronic dance, where elements in a song are generally centered for mono sound systems. However, this works to spread audio out across the whole speaker array, rather than being deliberately engineered for surround sound listening.
Dolby Atmos is the latest innovation in the world of surround sound. Instead of being concerned with solely directional audio, it adds height to the mix. This can make for some truly impressive viewing when watching compatible media on your sound system.
Interestingly, there has been a major push from key industry figures like Apple, Dolby, and Avid to make more music available in Dolby Atmos. When properly configured, this can make for a truly immersive listening experience akin to a concert.
However, it is only currently available from one streaming service and requires an investment in Apple hardware to be used effectively. Still, if you want to hear how Fleetwood Mac sounds in Dolby Atmos, it is a viable option.
What Speaker Configuration Is Best for Music?
So, what speaker configuration actually works best for music? There is something to be said about how breathtaking it is to hear a symphony orchestra or jazz quintet in full surround sound when listening to a Dolby Atmos mix. However, you’ll find most material doesn’t translate quite as well.
Music that is deliberately engineered for surround sound can even pale in comparison to a native stereo mix. This is felt most with genres like rock, soul, and R&B. Typically, you’ll have hard panning of instruments, which ends up making it sound like you’ve got guitarists and key players surrounding you on all sides.
Listening to music in surround sound is nothing new, and has been a curiosity at best for decades. The advances in technology and audio codecs have brought it more to the masses than ever before, but there is still a way to go before it is a completely viable way to listen to music.
So, is surround sound good for music? The answer is unfortunately rather mixed. You need special music from one service to fully take advantage of listening to a natively surround song. As such, that might not be in everyone’s wheelhouse.
Still, Apple Music, an Apple TV 4K, and a Dolby Atmos-compatible system is the only real way to get an enjoyable surround sound mix out of a variety of genres. You’ll find that with most new releases, they’re going to be built for stereo enjoyment.
Thankfully, you can at least swap your surround sound system to stereo mode and enjoy the range and power that come from having a receiver and amplifier to power everything.
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