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The term 'stereo' is thrown around a lot, but what does it really mean and what are the alternatives to stereo?
The word ‘stereo’ has become synonymous with home entertainment. We often use it when talking about our speakers and hi-fi equipment - “turn up the stereo, would you?” Yet, the term actually derives specifically from the way the sound is produced: ‘stereo sound’, or ‘stereophonic sound’, describes a pair of speakers playing two separate audio channels, which combine to create the sounds of your favourite music.
Stereo speakers have been the norm for decades; however, the advancement of technology means that there are now better options for those who want the best possible audio quality in their home. How, then, should people go about moving on from stereo? Ultimately, evolving from stereo requires thinking differently about the way we experience music today – not as static listeners, but as socially active and mobile human beings.
To show the need to move on from stereo and embrace a new kind of audio technology, we’re outlining how music has been listened to through the decades, and looking ahead to a future where the limitations of stereo sound could be a thing of the past.
Until the emergence of stereophonic sound in the later half of the 20th century, monophonic sound was the most common method for recording and listening to audio. Unlike stereo sound, which separates a recording into two separate channels (left and right), monophonic (or ‘mono’) sound only uses a single channel. This meant that the audio coming through each of your speakers were identical. This resulted, however, in your music lacking a rich, balanced, and true-to-life nature - one that stereo sound would later produce.
To show what mono lacked, think about the importance of the different elements of a modern pop song. With stereo, there can be a guitar part panned to left speaker, a keyboard melody panned to the right, and the lead singer panned to the centre (both speakers at once).
With monophonic audio you miss out on this sonic complexity; instead are forced to listen to every instrument through a simplified, single-channel mix. With better options available, you’ll rarely come across a speaker that uses this kind of technology nowadays.
The limitations of monophonic sound eventually led to a revolution in the recording and reproduction of audio, from which stereo was born. For years, stereo has been the most common method for audio playback. From hi-fi’s to headphones, modern audio equipment uses stereo to reproduce music and other recorded content in a balanced and multi-faceted way.
There’s no doubt that stereo was a big step forward for audiophiles when it was invented by British engineer Alan Blumlein in the 1930s. The story goes that Blumlein wanted to create an audio technology for cinema that ‘follows’ actors across the screen. Where monophonic sound would blare out the speech of actors from a single speaker no matter where they were placed on screen, stereo had the capability of using sound to mimic the placement of the person on camera, bringing the video to life, creating a more realistic and immersive viewing experience.
The benefits of stereo weren’t limited to the film industry, though. Music listened to in stereo sounds richer and more refined than it would through monophonic means. Audio engineers can ensure that every subtle nuance of sound is heard, panning different instruments to the right or left of the mix to create a full and balanced sound.
Yet there are still limitations to listening to music in stereo. Notably, there’s the ‘sweet spot’ problem – with two speakers playing different sounds at once, the listener needs to be equidistant from each speaker in order to experience the perfect balance of audio. At parties or social occasions where people are spread around the room and in closer proximity to one speaker than the other, this means that only a select few will get to experience the music it was intended to be listened to. In order for everyone to experience the same high quality sound, we need to move beyond stereo sound to a new type of technology.
Not every advancement in sound was trying to achieve equality, though. People were increasingly wanting something more epic - a fully immersive experience, one that would replicate the grand, booming sounds of a cinema that engroses you. This spawned surround sound systems: it was realised that, by placing a number of speakers around the room, you can emulate the all-encompassing audio experience that movie theatres provide.
While advancements in surround sound technology have been impressive, there are still some unavoidable issues with it. For one, surround sound is only really suitable for audiovisual entertainment where you’re sat in one place – with numerous carefully-positioned speakers required, you’ll need to remain static and engaged with what’s happening on screen for the full effect.
Another issue is the intrusiveness of surround sound systems. Not everyone wants their living room to be dominated by speakers, which can be bulky and require long stretches of cabling to operate effectively. That’s not even considering the cost of a surround sound system, which can easily run into the thousands.
So, if you’re after audio that offers the reliability of mono, the sonic detail of stereo and the cinematic sound quality of surround sound, what’s your best option?
After becoming frustrated with the limitations of stereo sound during his career in the music industry, Orbitsound founder Ted Fletcher made it his mission to develop a new approach to audio technology. His invention, Airsound™, is the answer: a method of sound reproduction that allows music to be experienced as it was intended, without requiring the listener to locate themselves in the sweet spot.
Orbitsound creations like the Dock E30 and BAR A70 come with Airsound™ built in. Sound is fired in all directions, from both side and front-facing speakers, resulting in a rich and complete audio experience no matter where you’re stood in the room.
We believe that Airsound™ is the next logical step forward for audio technology. Whether you’re a passionate audiophile or simply want a speaker system that delivers high quality sound no matter where you’re stood, Orbitsound speakers can take your home entertainment to the next level.