The Negative Connotation of Mono, and The Real Reason Stereo is Superior

Why is mono sound regarded as inferior?  Back in the day, people listened to mono sound coming from a single speaker.  As stereo recordings and broadcasts became popular, the use of two speakers for playback became common, and stereo was widely regarded as superior to mono. But for many listeners, and in many listening situations, I argue the real difference and advantage of stereo is not the two channel recording, it is the multispeaker playback.

There are recordings where the difference between stereo from two speakers and mono from two speakers is only subtly different.  But mono from two speakers and mono from one speaker is significantly different.  Said another way, if you are listening to a two channel audio system with two loudspeakers, and you switch the source from stereo to mono, the difference might not be obvious, but if you switch from using two speakers to just using say the left speaker the difference is both dramatic and obvious.  Now, whether mono from two or three speakers is inferior to stereo from two or three speakers is another matter.  As an oversimplification of the complete results, to be discussed in a later blog post, the little science experiment on stereo versus mono showed that listeners were only correctly aware of  a difference in stereo versus mono playback about 50% of the time, which  is about the same as random guessing.  Of course, there might have been different results if the listeners had been trained and told to listen for the difference between mono and stereo, but that just points out that it’s not a natural and obvious difference.

It is interesting to see how the notion of mono sound as inferior keeps showing up in the media.  For example, unless you have little interest in techie gadgets, you have read about Apple’s new iPad Mini.  Among its alleged shortcomings – mono sound! Horrors to imagine that such a small device would not have stereo speakers!!!  For example, see: http://9to5mac.com/2012/10/31/phil-schiller-clarifies-ipad-mini-has-stereo-speakers-following-amazons-kindle-comparison/.  I would claim this is all kind of silly – the tiny, tinny speakers in these little tablets can’t possibly sound very good whether they are mono or stereo, if you want decent sound you’ll need headphones or a larger external speaker system.  And, I would happily prefer to listen to a single, superior mono speaker instead of two inferior stereo speakers, especially when the separation between the speakers is a few inches.

Steve Guttenberg, who writes the CNET blog Audiophiliac, also touched on the subject of Mono in a recent post: http://news.cnet.com/8301-13645_3-57530433-47/poll-is-stereo-on-its-way-out/.  He argues that as we see more all-in-one loudspeakers, sound reproduction is becoming essentially monophonic (there is little difference between 2 loudspeakers close together compared with a single loudspeaker).  Maybe if “mono” didn’t have such negative connotations in the minds of consumers, we would see higher quality mono loudspeaker systems instead of inferior stereo ones.

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One thought on “The Negative Connotation of Mono, and The Real Reason Stereo is Superior

  1. One thought occurred to me when pondering on how stereo must have seemed to listeners when it was first introduced, and that was that with amplifiers (valve) and speakers (single driver) that suffered from bad intermodulation distortion, stereo would have been the first time that listeners had heard instruments reproduced without them coagulating into mud. True harmonic distortion is not too bad, but amp/speaker distortion is only ‘harmonic’ if it’s applied to a single source; it turns almost exclusively to horrible intermodulation distortion when it is blanketed over a mix of many sources. So if the stereo was hard panned left and right (as lots of early stereo recordings were), the foulness of IMD may have been reduced greatly, making early stereo sound even more impressive than it might otherwise have done. Or that’s what I was thinking, anyway.

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