When you listen to music or watch TV, sound comes at you in two ways. It can flow toward you directly or wrap around where you are to create an acoustic environment.
How can you tell if you’re listening to mono or stereo sound?
The primary difference between mono and stereo sound involves the number of channels used to distribute audio. Mono uses one channel, while stereo uses more than that. Mono tracks on multiple speakers use the same feed to create a direct listening experience.
Stereo sounds separate the tracks to create different acoustic waves from the left and right speakers. This design is a more accurate reflection of how live music or vocalizations occur. The mono approach is more simplistic.
History of Mono vs. Stereo Sound
Mono recordings remained a popular option until the 1940s, despite the viability of stereo being demonstrated as early as 1881. The first commercial movie using stereo sounds was Fantasia in 1940.
It took musicians a little longer to adopt this technology. It wasn’t until magnetic tapes for cassettes became available that stereo sound recording made sense.
By the 1960s, bands were releases mono and stereo LPs to accommodate the different technologies that people were using.
Movies went through a transitional period at the same time because some theaters weren’t equipped with stereo speakers.
Mono sound recording was simple in the early days of film, TV, and music because it required one microphone and a single loudspeaker. If multiple components record audio, the paths get mixed into a single signal before transmission.
That signal contains no phase, arrival, or level data to simulate or replicate directional cues. It forces everyone to hear the same thing at an equal volume.
Mono makes it challenging to hear individual voices or instruments because no distinctiveness is available. That’s why this sound option is easier and more affordable to record.
Stereo recording requires multiple microphones to produce an audio track. Each signal provides a phase relationship and specific levels to create a suitable reproduction of each source material.
Although more skill is necessary to produce results, the outcome is an authentic replication of what was initially heard.
Mono is compatible with AM radio, early vinyl records, phonography cylinders, and several microgroove recordings at various RPMs.
Most FM radio, VCR, and TV formats currently use stereo sound, along with older audio CDs and 8-track tapes.
Mono vs. Stereo Sound Comparison Table
This comparison table shows you the similarities and differences found with mono vs. stereo sound.
|MONO SOUND FEATURES||STEREO SOUND FEATURES|
|Introduction||Mono (monaural, monophonic) sound reproduction intends for all acoustics to be heard as a single-channel recording. |
It is perceived as being in a single position.
|Stereo (stereophonic) sound uses acoustic reproduction techniques that produce the illusion of multi-directional sonic perspectives from more than one area.|
|Cost||Less expensive for reproduction or recording needs.||More costly for reproduction or recording needs.|
|Recording||Simple recording method involving essential equipment, requiring as little as a single microphone and amp.||Requires knowledge to record apart from equipment, understanding the relative position of sounds, events, and objects.|
|Critical Feature||Audio signals from mono sound get routed through a single channel.||Audio signals from stereo sound get routed through a minimum of two channels to create acoustic direction, depth, and realism.|
|Representation||Recordings before 1940 are almost all mono sound. |
The transition away from this approach started in earnest in the 1960s and 70s.
|Unless specifically rendered for mono, only certain AM radio applications and select recordings do not use stereo today.|
|Use||AM Radio, Telephones, Mobile Communication, Public Address Systems||Movies, TV, General Music, FM Radio|
Mono vs. Stereo Recording
Recording sounds from a single source enables you to capture separated audio channels. That information plays back through one speaker or multiple ones with the same data. It sounds the same, no matter which playback method you use, because there is one stream to play.
Unless the microphone used for a recording has a stereo sound feature, stereo acoustics require at least two mics to capture the audio. Once the track is in the system, it can pan to the left or right based on the device capturing the sound.
When you use two microphones to capture stereo sound, it is called the XY technique. The benefit of choosing this option is that it creates a realistic effect while still being useful as a mono track.
You don’t need fancy equipment to create a stereo recording. Most handheld devices that record audio today have dual built-in microphones to create this experience.
Information from the left mic gets saved in the appropriate channel. At the same time, the data from the right goes into its destination.
When playing back the recording, you’ll receive an authentic representation of what got picked up during the experience.
You can use a DAW or audio editing software to add pan and additional effects that further the result.
The XY technique is not the only one used to collect a stereo recording. Three other options are available to use.
1. AB Technique
This option uses two parallel microphones without specific directional requirements. They’re kept a further distance apart than with other recording options, creating amplitude and arrival variations that add depth to the collected acoustics.
2. MS Technique
Choose this option to create a broad range of collected acoustic frequencies for a lifelike experience.
TVs and movies use this option more than musicians because one microphone faces sideways while the other stays at a 90-degree angle to the audio source.
Musical recordings with this technique tend to sound pitchy and hollow because on mic picks up more than the other because of the positioning.
3. Hybrid Technique
Sometimes called the “near-coincident technique,” it combines the methodology of the AB and XY methods to create a suitable playback option over stereo speakers.
Mono vs. Stereo Audio Files
The audio files recorded from a mono setting create a single track. Every sound picked up by the microphone gets fed into the one channel for future playback.
You can still edit the audio, compressing it to reduce background noise and interference. Still, there is no way to remove individual sounds without impacting the overall recording.
Stereo recordings create a left and right channel to produce two waveforms instead of one. The file sends the audio from each mic to the appropriate storage area to create two (or more) acoustic channels based on the pickups available.
Mono V. Stereo Playback
Human hearing can identify a sound source position within a specific space. You can practice this sense right now.
Close your eyes for a moment. When you hear a sound, think about where it originated. Was it in the same room? Did the noise come from outside?
The issue with mono playback is that you lose this trait in the final acoustics. Everything blends on one track like an audio smoothie.
You know that everything is there, but you can’t always pick out the distance or timing elements that stereo would produce.
The stereo sound feels more natural because you have two distinguishable waveforms coming at you.
Imagine that you’re sitting in front of a stage as a band plays a song. The drummer is on the left, while the lead guitar is on the right.
- You’re going to hear the percussion from the left side, while the guitar melodies are playing on the right.
- Your brain puts both sounds together to identify the noise it hears as music. You can localize both sounds to create a stereo effect, even if the lead singer is right in front of you with more of a mono experience.
- You feel like you’re being surrounded with sound instead of getting blasted in the face by it.
Stereo systems replicate that concert effect by creating sound source localization from one speaker.
It plays two different waveforms, even if they sound similar, to create that surrounding effect that makes listening an enjoyable experience.
Mono vs. Stereo Audio Compatibility
Mono compatibility is an essential element of modern recording. You don’t know what equipment someone will use to listen to your music, podcast, or independent film. The final product must sound as good from a mono system as it does in stereo.
Far too often, audio mixes that sound incredible in stereo fall flat when collapsed to mono. Having sounds pan out to the edge of the track in mono changes the listener’s experience.
Phase issues are primarily to blame when this problem occurs. If you place multiple microphones at various distances from a solo instrument, you may need to correct some issues during the final mix.
You must be methodical about identifying potential phase issues. The most common problem when collapsing a mix to mono is that the bass and kick aren’t aligned.
When you build upward from these elements, it creates a foundation for success. It also helps to check that your instrument groups follow a similar alignment.
Correcting a phase issue when found is rather straightforward. If you align your waveforms from each element to reduce variations, the collapse to mono works surprisingly well.
Does Stereo Sound Better than Mono?
Most people think they hear stereo when the opposite is what happens. Unless you sit equidistant between the right and left speakers, you won’t hear the complete mix as intended.
Stereo is a delicate process. You only need to be 12 inches off-center to change the listening experience.
If you listen to mono, it doesn’t matter where you are. The track is going to have the same acoustics from any distance or angle.
That’s why an excellent pair of stereo headphones is a wise investment if you love the stereo sound. Your head becomes the equidistant source between the speakers to create a lovely acoustical experience.
When you hear a stereo mix as intended, it contains a spatial depth that mono cannot replicate. That three-dimensional quality simulates what it is like to listen to a live performance.
FAQ on Mono and Stereo Sound
Understanding the differences between mono vs. stereo sound can get confusing across multiple applications.
When you know that you have two mics or cables at home to record, stereo acoustics are possible. If you only have one cable or microphone, mono is your sole option.
These frequently asked questions can provide some of the answers you may need when determining your overall experience.
■ Is YouTube Stereo or Mono?
YouTube videos can play in mono or stereo. The result users receive depends on the quality of the upload and the settings on their computer, laptop, or mobile device. The site will force stereo acoustics into a mono format if that is your preference.
HD videos typically preserve stereo audio. Anything of lesser quality is likely mono sound.
■ Can Bluetooth Transmit Stereo?
The Bluetooth A2DP gets associated with mono audio transmissions for phone calls and basic audio. This technology is also an essential wireless solution for stereo speakers, headphones, and playback devices. When you take a call with it, your voice transmits in mono.
Most Bluetooth products provide mono sound. If you have stereo headphones or two speakers that become the left and right playback, it can be transmitted in stereo
■ Is Alexa Stereo or Mono?
Amazon made stereo pairing available for the second-generation Echo, third-generation Dot and Studio, and all versions of the Echo Plus. You must pair the same speakers together to get this effect. If you only have one speaker, Alexa does not offer a stereo feature.
Alexa products on their own do not provide a stereo experience.
■ Should a Guitar Get Recorded in Mono or Stereo?
Equipment availability dictates whether to record a guitar in mono or stereo. If you only have one microphone or a single cable, it is your only choice. Stereo recordings require two inputs for a successful experience.
You may find your sound to be more artistic or full by collapsing the stereo feed into a mono mix for your instrument.
■ Is an iPhone Mono or Stereo?
The Apple iPhone plays all audio in stereo by default. You can change the settings through the iOS to use mono if that is your preference. If you make that change, the left and right speakers from the device will transmit the same acoustics.
■ Is the Bose SoundLink Stereo or Mono?
The Bose SoundLink transmits stereo sounds to the listener. Because of its overall size, the effect becomes mono-like if you stand far enough away from the device. Most systems lose their stereo effect after a few feet of distance because of how soundwaves move.
■ Does It Matter If You Listen to Mono or Stereo?
Each person chooses their preferred audio source when listening to pre-recorded sounds. It could be a movie, television, music, or something else – mono is just as enjoyable as stereo.
Most devices record and play stereo sounds today because of the quality that technique produces. It adds depth and character that mono cannot provide with its one-directional quality.
The best decision to make, whether listening or recording, is to choose the style you prefer. Once you select what you like, it is much easier to find a way to relax!