We select and review products independently. When you purchase through our links we may earn a commission. Learn more.

Why Surround Sound Doesn’t Make Sense for Music

A home theater with surround sound speakers.
Ali Ender Birer / Shutterstock.com

Due to a growing interest in home theaters and “Spatial Audio,” surround sound music is back on the map. But I believe that this is just a trend. Music sounds awful in surround sound, and without massive advancements in technology, stereo will remain the format of choice.

Just to be crystal clear, I’m talking about surround sound audio. Your massive 7.1-channel speaker system can play music in stereo, and in fact, it will sound great when doing so.

What Is Surround Sound?

Modern audio is usually recorded in stereo. It’s a very simple format—you have a left and right channel, and each channel corresponds to a speaker. Carefully mixing audio across these channels creates the illusion of depth or width, which makes music feel more energetic or lifelike.

But surround sound adds a couple of extra audio channels to the mix. A 5.1-channel setup includes a left and right speaker, a center speaker, a subwoofer, and two “surround” speakers that sit at an angle behind the listener. This provides more separation for audio frequencies, but more notably, it gives you a “3D soundstage” with audio that comes from all directions.

A 7.1-channel surround sound system.
A 7.1-channel surround sound system. Zern Liew / Shutterstock.com

Things get even wackier when you use a 7.1-channel system, which adds rear-firing speakers behind the listener. And the next step, a 7.1.2-channel setup, adds two upward-firing speakers that bounce audio off the ceiling.

Surround sound is primarily intended for movies. And generally speaking, each speaker in a surround setup serves a purpose. The center-channel speaker, for instance, is supposed to provide clarity for dialog.

But over the last two decades, music listeners have slowly grown more interested in surround sound. And the rise in Apple’s Spatial Audio format has only added fuel to the fire.

Surround Sound Doesn’t Make Sense for Music

Nearly all of the recorded music on Earth was written, arranged, and mixed for stereo. But listening to music in stereo isn’t the same thing as hearing a live band in real life. Stereo imaging has limitations and strengths, which often dictate the instrumentation, structure, rhythm, and effects used by an artist.

Surround sound has a unique set of pros and cons—you get a wider soundstage, but you’re also forced to fill more “3D” space. Certain audio frequencies have more room to “breathe” in surround sound, but the format can be unkind to the midrange, which is where we traditionally get a song’s “energy.”

In order to take advantage of surround sound’s limitations and strengths, artists need to make music specifically for the format. But that’s not how things work, at least not today.

Most songs available in surround sound were originally made for stereo. Someone just decided to remix these tracks for surround sound. And the results are usually awful. Taking advantage of the expanded soundstage means panning instruments willy-nilly around the listener, leaving uneven gaps where instruments used to meld together and create lushness.

A center channel speaker.
BobrinSKY / Shutterstock.com

Rear speakers are often the most annoying part of these surround sound remixes. In a perfect world, rear-firing speakers would reproduce the sound of a room, giving you a better feel for the environment where something was recorded. But it’s hard to produce this effect after something’s already been recorded.

In the end, rear speakers are often the dumping ground for “less important” instruments, such as tambourines. If you’re lucky, a surround sound remix will use the rear speakers to swirl something around your head. But unless you’re listening to someone like Jimi Hendrix, who pioneered similar effects in stereo recordings, the “spinning around my head” thing feels like a cheap trick.

Artist intent is also a factor in this conversation. If a song was originally conceived in stereo, then remixing it for a different format may obscure the artist’s original ideas or goals. (Admittedly, this is at the bottom of my “things I care about” list. Artists don’t get to choose which songs I enjoy, I just feel bad for them when their work is butchered.)

Again, I’m not telling you to throw away your Dolby Atmos setup. Stereo music sounds great on multi-channel systems; you just need to set your receiver to “stereo” mode. And hey, maybe surround sound music will be worthwhile some day.

But Surround Sound Could Be the Future of Music

An abstract illustration of surround sound.
ioat / Shutterstock.com

There’s nothing worse than being a purist. Music has always developed alongside technology, and dismissing surround sound as “something that only works for movies” is a very narrow-minded way of thinking.

It took decades for stereo audio to become the industry standard. And stereo started off with the same “problem” as surround sound—if a track wasn’t recorded with stereo in mind, it sounded like a gimmick! (Just ask any of those hardcore Motown or Beatles fans who swear by the mono mixes.)

Classical music was the first genre to really take stereo seriously. Large orchestras benefitted from increased separation, and more importantly, stereo provided an experience more akin to seeing a concert in person. Surround sound follows a similar trajectory; I rarely see complaints when this technology is utilized for live concerts, but albums are (rightfully) a controversial topic.

At some point, the benefits of surround sound may be impossible to ignore. We’re talking about a technology that offers much wider separation than stereo. Artists could fit more information into a recording without losing clarity, or they could create songs that are incredibly open and lifelike.

It will take a ton of work and problem-solving, but surround sound has the potential to replace stereo.

Here’s the hurdle; large 5.1-channel audio systems are expensive and take up a ton of space. If surround sound is the next step for music, it won’t come around until single-channel or dual-channel systems can emulate the sound of a larger setup. That would require some ridiculous advancements in beamforming speakers, virtualized Dolby Atmos, and other technologies that are still in their infancy.

What About Spatial Audio?

An illustration of Apple's Spatial Audio system.

Over the last few years, brands like Sony and Apple have pioneered “virtual surround sound” systems for headphones and earbuds. These systems are unique from brand to brand, with names like “Spatial Audio” and “360 Reality Audio.” But they all perform the same basic task—they deliver a surround sound experience through regular headphones and earbuds.

Now, most people assume that Spatial Audio is just a software trick. But that’s only partially true. Spatial Audio takes a real surround sound recording, smothers it in algorithms, and outputs a stereo audio signal that seems “3D.”

For music listeners, Spatial Audio presents the same problems as surround sound. But it also comes with a unique and frustrating problem—listening environment emulation.

Platforms like Spatial Audio need to replicate the sound of a room with a 5.1-channel or 7.1-channel setup. To do this, they apply audio effects to each channel of a surround sound track. And in my experience, these effects often make instruments sound distant, dull, or echoed.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure that mixing engineers can really get around this problem. Platforms like Spatial Audio and 360 Reality Audio are far from identical. Even if you mix a song specifically for Apple’s Spatial Audio, there’s no guarantee that it’ll sound good on a competitor’s platform.

As a fan of music, it’s hard for me to see Spatial Audio technology as anything more than a novelty. But I have a feeling that it’s a stopgap for future developments (which hopefully don’t suck). Again, developments in Dolby Atmos virtualization and beamforming speakers could revolutionize music—it just won’t happen any time soon.

Andrew Heinzman Andrew Heinzman
Andrew is the News Editor for Review Geek, where he covers breaking stories and manages the news team. He joined Life Savvy Media as a freelance writer in 2018 and has experience in a number of topics, including mobile hardware, audio, and IoT. Read Full Bio »