Surround sound smackdown: What's wrong with just plain stereo?

·7 min read

Linda Ronstadt should not sound like her head's in a bucket.

Reneé Fleming should not seem like wandered to the back of the orchestra.

David Gilmour’s guitar should not sound wimpy.

But depending on how your car stereo is set, they could all be like that.

Most cars these days offer name-brand sound systems, typically as an upgrade. It’s a trend that’s expanded from mass-consumer brands like Sony or Bose to more esoteric audiophile choices; we learned recently that venerable English speaker maker KEF is pairing with venerable English automaker Lotus. The partnership that got everyone’s attention is Jeep and hi-fi legend McIntosh, with the superb result you’d expect.

Vehicle sound systems now pump out hundreds of watts through a dozen or more speakers. (The new BMW 7 Series B&W setup has 36 of them!) So why, then, does car audio sometimes sound … kind of meh?

It might be because you have “surround sound” switched on.

I first realized this years ago when I owned a 2014 Toyota Highlander. Music through its JBL Entune system sounded mushy. Deep in the menus was a surround sound checkbox. Uncheck that, and a veil was lifted.

Until discovering that hidden setting, I hadn't realized the car had surround sound. And you might not be aware, either.

Let’s take a moment here to explain that what’s being called “surround sound,” or in some cases “3D” sound, is not the same as the 5.1 or 7.1 surround of your home theater. Movie soundtracks are actually recorded in surround, and your home A/V receiver can replicate that. But music, with rare exceptions, is recorded in stereo.

Surround sound in a car is something different. It’s signal processing — in which a stereo recording is not reproduced in two channels out of two speakers (or left-right sets of woofers-tweeters-midrange) as the recording artists and engineers had intended.

A more immersive sound is the intent.

The trouble is, signal processing can compromise clarity. Voices get diffused, shifted away from a clear focal point on the dashboard.

Why? Automakers and audio engineers believed they had problems that needed addressing. When listening to a home stereo, you sit in a sweet spot facing two speakers, and they stereophonically generate an “image,” aka the soundstage, that replicates what your two ears would perceive if you were attending a live performance. (At home, you can also employ that other music-enhancing device, a glass of wine.) In a car, however, no one can sit in the sweet spot. Never mind that even at home not everyone can sit in the one exact best chair.

Another challenge: A car interior is a small, sealed space with a weird mix of hard surfaces like windows and soft surfaces like occupants and seats.

So, using signal processing, engineers try to improve the listening experience throughout the cabin — even to create a “concert hall” feel. (One system is touted as replicating the "power" of a stadium concert. Now, when did you ever hear good sound in a stadium?)

Anyway, a more immersive sound is the intent. The trouble is, signal processing can compromise clarity.

I recently spent a couple of hours toggling between surround and stereo on a Harman/Kardon system in a 2021 Volvo XC60. It’s a 600-watt, 14-speaker, $800 upgrade from one of the biggest audio companies. (Harman is owned by Samsung and in turn owns JBL, Infinity, Mark Levinson, Revel and many other brands.) So, it’s a decent middle-market system for a listening test. (Volvo’s top-line system is from Bowers & Wilkins.)

I streamed lossless tracks via home WiFi while wired into Apple CarPlay. Bass, treble and midrange sliders were set to the neutral middle setting. Surround was generally turned up high since that's what we're testing. I sat in the driver’s seat — the chair that's always occupied, so in my view that’s where music should sound best. Granted, surround sound might be preferred if you’re sitting in back.

Ronstadt, in older recordings via surround, was muted and echo-y. “Long Long Time” was less heartbreaking. The opening of “Hurts So Bad” was less intimate, and the cries of “No! No!” less raw. Her later recordings at Skywalker Ranch or with Nelson Riddle, however, were interesting in surround, seeming more spacious with reverb.

The purest substance in the universe is Dolly Parton’s voice. For whatever reason, surround sound could do her no harm.

Radio announcers, like those on an NPR newscast, gained reverb too, as if standing in an empty concert hall instead of a broadcast booth. Kind of a strange effect.

Operatic voices like Jessye Norman or Reneé Fleming, while still powerful, lost a few megawatts. Nina Simone and Ann Wilson, too. Delicate vocals like Shawn Colvin’s became thinner. Voices get diffused, shifted away from a clear focal point on the dashboard.

A famous story goes that when German engineers were developing the MP3 format, they played Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” thousands of times as a benchmark track, attempting to capture the nuances of her a capella. (Vega, also famously, told them they hadn’t.) So, I tried that song for kicks. In surround, she practically vanished.

There were exceptions: The purest substance in the universe is Dolly Parton’s voice. For whatever reason, surround sound could do her no harm.

Male voices like Johnny Cash lost a little presence but not much. Leonard Cohen’s “You Want It Darker” was almost a relief in surround because it took about 10% off the intensity level. You want it darker, play it in stereo.

And you wouldn’t think anything could blunt a David Gilmour guitar solo. But some of the bite was lost.

Orchestral music gained fullness in surround, but here too instrumental solos lost presence, and ensemble got muddy: In the fourth movement of “Pines of Rome,” it was hard to distinguish among the bass instruments’ ominous rumblings. (Same goes for the orchestration in Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.”) However, Respighi’s antiphonal brass section called the Roman army to war from the back seat, so that was cool.

I did a wide sampling of tracks, and compiled opinions in the list below. This of course is all very subjective.

Modern recordings may be taking signal processing into account. Bass seems to lose some punch in surround; the bass on Jon Baptiste’s Grammy-winning “We Are” was overwhelming in stereo, better balanced in surround. Other current recordings like Kacey Musgrave’s and Orville Peck’s seem to take advantage of surround’s reverb qualities.

So what’s the winner here? Really, it differs from recording to recording. Surround sound is occasionally a neat trick. Obviously I prefer the simplicity and clarity of stereo. But your car, your music, do your own test. You’ve only got two ears, though, so good old stereo might be hard to beat.

Tracks that sounded best in stereo:

  • Jessye Norman, Richard Strauss, “Four Last Songs.”

  • Renee Fleming, Strauss “Four Last Songs,” Samuel Barber “Knoxville: Summer 1915.”

  • Ottorino Respighi, “Pines of Rome”

  • Maurice Ravel, “La Valse”

  • Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 1, “Titan.”

  • Howard Hanson, Symphony No. 2

  • Pink Floyd, “Comfortably Numb,” “Wish You Were Here,” “Pigs (Three Different Ones),” “Have a Cigar,” “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2”

  • Linda Ronstadt, “Hurts So Bad,” “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me,” “Long Long Time”

  • Shawn Colvin, “Shotgun Down the Avalanche”

  • Nina Simone, “Wild Is the Wind,” “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”

  • Suzanne Vega, “Tom’s Diner”

  • Karrin Allyson, “Goodbye”

  • FKJ and Santana, “Greener”

  • Brandi Carlile, “Broken Horses,” “The Story”

  • Fleetwood Mac, "Rhiannon," "Dreams"

  • Heart, “Dog and Butterfly,” “Stairway to Heaven”

  • Bruce Springsteen, “Thunder Road”

  • Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “Red Right Hand,” “Into My Arms”

  • Steely Dan, "Deacon Blues," "My Old School"

Tracks that sounded about as good or possibly better in surround:

  • Dolly Parton, “Jolene,” “Little Sparrow,” “The Seeker”

  • Johnny Cash, “Hurt,” “Redemption”

  • Leonard Cohen, “You Want It Darker,” “Suzanne”

  • Orville Peck, “Dead of Night”

  • Kacey Musgraves, “Star-Crossed,” “Justified”

  • Linda Ronstadt, “’Round Midnight,” “Cry Like a Rainstorm”

  • Tracy Chapman, “Mountains of Things,” “Across the Lines”

  • Jon Baptiste: “We Are”

  • Daft Punk, "Get Lucky," "Lose Yourself to Dance"