Surround Sound vs. Stereo Sound – What’s The Difference (Really)?

We have been in the gaming headset business a long time, so we know there are (mis)conceptions and (mis)information about surround sound and stereo sound, especially as they pertain to headsets. We have a strong point of view on the subject, so we wanted to share it.

First things first, if you’re like most people, you have two ears. You don’t have six or eight different ears in various positions around your head yet, still, you can tell where sounds originate. That’s because, as far as your brain is concerned, the only type of sound that exists in this world is stereo sound. Your brain takes all the signals your ears send to it and makes sense of them. And the way that our brains can tell where sound originates is by use of some pretty amazing biological computation that can tell which ear heard the sound first, how many surfaces it reflected off of, and how much it decayed since it was made. Your brain essentially functions like a surround sound decoder, only it’s the most powerful one we know of.

Now, on to the part about headsets. It’s not uncommon to hear people assert that when you listen to stereo, you can’t hear the sounds that are in front of you or behind you. That’s just not true. You don’t lose any sounds just because you’re listening to stereo. Every sound, no matter whether it’s in front of you, behind you, underneath you, or inside of you in the game will be played through a stereo headset.

The difference between stereo and surround sound Is something called spatial accuracy. Let’s say you’re playing a first person shooter, and there’s a sound in front of you and off to the right, maybe at about one o’clock. In a surround sound headset, that audio is going to sound more off in the distance, and it’s going to be more accurately nuanced from left to right. In a stereo headset, it will sound more like it’s “inside your head,” and a little off to the right. In a surround sound headset, if that sound were coming from behind you, it would sound more like it was really coming from behind your head. In a stereo headset, it would just sound a bit quieter than if it were in front of you, and less like it were really behind you.

Is surround sound better? Well, yes — we think it is. But that doesn’t mean that stereo is bad. There is good stereo and bad stereo, just like there is good and bad surround sound. Ever sit in front of a TV and play a game through the TV’s speakers? You can barely tell left from right, much less front from back. And just forget about nuanced differences in sound. But, that’s stereo, too.

When we make a stereo headset our goal is always to make a great stereo headset. A headset that will give you awesome clarity and balance, a headset that’s tuned well, and isolates your left from right so there’s not crossover that confuses your brain. With a well-made stereo headset, you will still have a great audio experience.