If you’ve listened to music for any length of time, you’ve probably heard the terms stereo and mono bandied about, but the differences may not be readily apparent. To educate yourself better about musical quality, it helps to know about stereo and mono, so what are the key differences?
Mono sound only has one channel of sound, whereas stereo uses one channel for each speaker or headphone. Moreover, mono was widely used in the past and is sometimes still used, but stereo has generally replaced it because stereo gives an impression of higher quality and realism.
In this article, I’ll be going into further detail about both stereo and mono sound, how they’ve been used in music, and which is better for you as a music listener.
What Is Mono Sound?
Monaural sound or mono is a method of producing music or audio using one channel. Mono is easily accomplished with as little as a single microphone because all the sound it records will go into the recording.
As a result, it is easier for someone without much technical knowledge to make their own recordings or music in a mono format.
Let’s say you have two speakers or earbuds, and you listen to a song recorded in mono. No matter which earbud you use, the song will sound exactly the same because mono only has one channel of sound. This can be useful if you only use one earbud, which some people do at work or while exercising to retain the ability to hear people around them.
The main drawback of mono recordings is that there’s less ‘depth’ to the produced music, which is why it’s seldom used in recent years. For simple amateur recordings, mono is the go-to format of choice.
Uses of Mono Today
Mono sound has largely been phased out of use in films and music, but it is still the format of nearly all phone providers and AM radio stations – FM stations use stereo.
Some talk shows on the internet use monaural sound, but that’s more of a cost-effective solution rather than a purposeful choice.
What Is Stereo Sound?
Stereophonic or stereo sound is a way of recording music into two different channels, giving an impression of depth. With stereo, different speakers play different sounds that come together to form a more realistic sound.
Before stereo, mono sound only offered one track of sound that was ‘flat’ sounding, offering little depth across multiple speakers because every speaker played the same track.
For film, this offers increased immersion, making viewers feel as if they’re ‘in’ a movie. Music produced with stereo sound has more depth because two headphones or speakers will play different sounds, offering unique experiences not possible with mono.
To best understand what I mean about immersive sound, watch and listen to this video of Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen with headphones and note how the sound is different in each ear, changing and seeming to ‘move’ throughout sections of the song.
The main challenge of stereo sound during its first few decades of life was that the equipment for recording and playing it wasn’t as widespread as the equipment for playing and recording mono – few movie theaters were equipped with stereo speakers entering the ‘60s, and stereo record players were less common than mono players.
The main drawback of recording sound in stereo is that some technical knowledge and special equipment are required.
While mono can use as little as one microphone, stereo recordings necessitate the use of multiple microphones, spaced in a particular way to create the best recordings.
Uses of Stereo Today
Stereo is everywhere – it’s the sound of choice in FM radio stations, CDs, digital music, film, and television.
It has also been used to create other forms of audio like ‘surround sound,’ which uses three or more speakers spaced around a listener to create a more immersive listening experience.
A Note About Quadraphonic Sound
The most well-known audio format other than mono and stereo was quadraphonic sound, but it was still somewhat of a niche form of audio reserved mostly for audiophiles.
Quadraphonic sound was a relative rarity back in the days of vinyl records and was a method of recording that placed microphones at all four corners of a recording room to create audio with four channels of sound.
Quadraphonic never became as popular as stereo because recordings were difficult to calibrate and highly specific equipment and knowledge were necessary to create recordings. Not only this, but quadraphonic recordings could only be played with specific four-speaker setups, which were difficult and expensive to implement.
To compound those problems, not many bands ever recorded in quadraphonic, so there was little reason for consumers to break the bank for an expensive quadraphonic record player that would only be used to play a handful of vinyl record albums.
To this day, quadraphonic record albums are generally considered an antique collector’s item, and quadraphonic record players are even rarer.
Modern surround sound systems can be considered a spiritual successor to quadraphonic sound, but don’t operate with the same equipment.
Stereo Vs. Mono: Which Is Better?
Stereo sound is superior to mono sound in almost all cases. It creates a richer and more detailed listening experience because more audio is recorded versus mono, and it’s presented in a more organic way. Unless some other superior form of sound recording is right around the corner, stereo is definitely here to stay.
Mono is still the form of sound in our telephone conversations and AM radio stations – largely informational uses.
For entertainment purposes, you would really only benefit from mono sound if you exclusively used one earbud. In such a case you wouldn’t get any of the benefits of stereo and in fact, would lose out on the other audio channel of a stereo track.
A Bit About the History of Sound Recording
Mono was the original format of recording for music and audio recordings and was revolutionary for its time. Radio became an entertainment powerhouse and the fledgling silent film industry quickly saw its potential in creating ‘talkies,’ movies with sound. The first movie with sound was The Jazz Singer, released in 1927.
However, mono sound was not the end-all-be-all of sound. In the early ‘30s, Alan Blumlein created stereophonic sound, which offered a richer and more dynamic listening experience with the addition of not one, but two channels of audio.
Stereo’s applications in film and music were quickly realized. The famous musician Les Paul pioneered stereo’s use in multi-channel music. As for the film industry, the first movie to use stereo sound was Fantasia, released by Disney in November of 1940.
After this, stereo was used more frequently, but the equipment wasn’t very widespread. Most records until the 60s were released in both mono and stereo formats so people with both sets of equipment could listen to albums.
Mono record players were more commonly owned in the average household, while stereo players were a bit more of an investment.
Between the 40s and 60s, magnetic tape technology made cassette tapes possible, which took the world by storm in the 60s. They were the first method of storing and transporting technology in a compact way and were essentially heralds for the digital era of music.
Before then, records were the only way to play music, so the far more portable cassettes became an important invention.
While mono was once a revolutionary format of presenting audio that changed entertainment forever, it’s been replaced by stereo in all entertainment formats and only remains for radio and phone communication.
For more information, check out which is better: high or low impedance.