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Mono vs. Stereo Sound: What's the Difference?

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Every listener wants to make sure they’re getting the best sound quality. That often comes down to choosing between mono sound and stereo sound. It’s easy to assume that stereo sound is always better, but there are many reasons you might want to choose mono.

In this post, we explain the differences between mono and stereo sound and explore the advantages of each. We also provide some helpful tips on choosing the right speakers for your space. Now, let’s dive in.

What is mono sound?

Mono is short for monophonic, which means “one sound.” (In Greek, monos means “one” and phone means “sound.”)

When a speaker is described as having mono sound, that means it has a single audio channel for playback. So, when you listen to music, all the elements of a song — such as the guitars, drums, and vocals — combine and play through the same single channel at the same volume.

Because mono sound compresses audio elements together, it can sound flatter and less detailed, particularly when you listen to music, which is typically recorded and mixed in stereo. Low frequencies (bass) sound especially less dynamic.

Mono sound also has a narrow soundstage. In other words, it sounds as if it comes from a single point and direction. The further you move away from the center point of that single audio channel, the less detail you’ll hear.

Today, mono sound remains most commonly used for voice recordings because of its advantages in reducing background noise and capturing a voice in the clearest, most natural way possible. You’re most likely to experience mono sound when you’re listening to a podcast, AM radio, or someone on the other end of a phone call or video call.

What is stereo sound?

Whereas mono sound is limited to just one audio channel, stereo sound uses two audio channels: the left and the right. This creates a more realistic and immersive listening experience. (In Greek, stereos means “solid” or “three dimensional.”)

When you listen to music in stereo, different elements of a song are assigned to either channel. This creates a wider, more dynamic soundstage that mimics the experience of listening at a live concert. For example, it may sound like a bass guitar is to your right, violins are on the left, and the vocals are front and center, where the lead singer would be.

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By separating instruments and vocals into different channels, each element has more “space to shine” so it sounds clearer. The impression of depth and space also enhances the emotional power of sound, which is why stereo is the go-to recording format for music, movies, TV, and video games.

Which is better: Mono or stereo sound?

The choice between mono and stereo sound depends on the listening situation.

Generally speaking, stereo sound is better for music, home theater, and video games because it is more immersive and because these types of audio files are made specifically for stereo listening. Stereo sound, however, is not categorically superior to mono sound.

As previously mentioned, mono sound is preferable when the focus is on clarity of a single voice or instrument. So, if you primarily listen to podcasts, mono sound is great.

Mono sound is also better for background music, particularly when you have multiple speakers (like in-ceiling speakers) covering a large area. In this scenario, mono sound ensures that everyone hears the same audio at the same volume for a more balanced and consistent listening experience as they move through the space.

As a single source of audio, mono sound is also easier to process for listeners with hearing impairments.

Do speakers play mono or stereo sound?

Any standalone speaker is capable of playing mono sound. When a mono speaker plays a stereo recording, it combines both the left and right channel into one. This reduces the stereo separation of the track so the sound appears “in the middle.”

Many speakers, like Sonos Era 100, are capable of stereo playback because they feature separate drivers for the left and right channels. When a stereo speaker plays a mono recording, the left and right channels duplicate the same audio signal. This is known as dual mono.

Speakers with an identical acoustic architecture and sound profile can be paired in the same room for stereo sound. So, you can achieve a stereo listening experience with two mono speakers.

When you pair two stereo speakers, one becomes a dedicated left channel and the other a dedicated right channel for a bigger, richer soundstage overall. If you play a mono recording, each speaker will duplicate it and fill the room more evenly with dual mono sound.

Select Sonos products, such as Era 300 and Arc, feature at least one dedicated driver for a height channel to support spatial audio playback. To learn more, check out our beginner’s guide to spatial audio.

Stereo sound vs. surround sound

Stereo sound features two channels — the left and right — that recreate the soundstage of a live performance. While it offers depth and directionality, stereo sound is limited to a single plane.

Surround sound features at least four channels (usually five) for a more immersive listening experience. Surround sound also recreates the soundstage of a live performance, but it adds a sense of three-dimensionality with rear speakers that produce sounds to the sides and behind you.

Surround sound is ideal for home theater experiences, as it brings movies, shows, and video games to life in a more realistic way. For movies — which are most often mixed for this format — a surround sound system can be worth the investment if you want to feel more immersed in the story.

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Find the right speakers for your home

When choosing speakers for your home, it’s important to consider the desired listening experience, the size of your room(s), and your budget.

Listening experience:

Ask yourself if you need speakers for a specific purpose. For example, are you just interested in listening to podcasts, or would you prefer more immersive sound for music? Do you want to create a home theater system? Is portability and the option to listen outdoors a factor?

Room size:

If you’re trying to cover a large space, you’re going to want either fewer, more powerful speakers, or a greater quantity of less powerful speakers. (When determining how powerful a speaker is, it’s helpful to look at its size and the number of drivers.) For a smaller room, look for a more compact speaker that won’t overwhelm the space.

If you want to listen in multiple rooms, the flexibility to mix and match speakers is key — as is the ability to easily control your whole system.

Budget:

From an affordable mono speaker you can use everywhere to a world-class stereo system and everything in between — Sonos makes it easy to fill your home with incredible sound. You can also choose one speaker that fits your budget now, then get a second later to create a stereo pair and upgrade your listening experience.

If you know you want stereo sound from a standalone speaker, then Era 100, Era 300, Five, and Move 2.

Shop all Sonos speakers.

If you have any questions or need help selecting a speaker, get in touch with a Sonos expert by phone or chat.

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