Sound – Mono, Stereo, and Surround

Mono

Monophonic (Mono) is a system in which all audio signals are mixed together and directed through a single audio channel. Mono systems can have multiple loudspeakers, and even multiple widely separated loudspeakers. The key is that the signal contains no level and arrival time/phase information that would replicate or simulate directional cues. Common types of mono systems include single channel center clusters, mono split cluster systems, and distributed loudspeaker systems with and without architectural delays. Mono systems can still be full-bandwidth and full-fidelity and are able to reinforce both voice and music effectively. The big advantage to mono is that everyone hears the very same signal, and, in properly designed systems, all listeners would hear the system at essentially the same sound level. This makes well-designed mono systems very well suited for speech reinforcement as they can provide excellent speech intelligibility.

Stereo

True stereophonic sound systems have two independent audio signal channels, and the signals that are reproduced have a specific level and phase relationship to each other so that when played back through a suitable reproduction system, there will be an apparent image of the original sound source. Stereo would be a requirement if there is a need to replicate the aural perspective and localization of instruments on a stage or platform, a very common requirement in performing arts centers.

This also means that a mono signal that is panned somewhere between the two channels does not have the requisite phase information to be a true stereophonic signal, although there can be a level difference between the two channels that simulates a position difference, this is a simulation only. That’s a discussion that could warrant a couple of web pages all by itself.

An additional requirement of the stereo playback system is that the entire listening area must have equal coverage of both the left and right channels, at essentially equal levels. This is why your home stereo system has a “sweet spot” between the two loudspeakers, where the level differences and arrival time differences are small enough that the stereo image and localization are both maintained. This sweet spot is limited to a fairly small area between the two loudspeakers and when a listener is outside that area, the image collapses and only one or the other channel is heard. Living with this sweet spot in your living room may be OK, since you can put your couch there, but in a larger venue, like a church sanctuary or theatre auditorium, that sweet spot might only include 1/3 the audience, leaving 2/3 of the audience wondering why they only hear half the program.

In addition a stereo playback system must have the correct absolute phase response input to output for both channels. This means that a signal with a positive pressure waveform at the input to the system must have the same positive pressure waveform at the output of the system. So a drum, for instance, when struck produces a positive pressure waveform at the microphone and should produce a positive pressure waveform in the listening room. If you don’t believe that this makes a tremendous difference, try reversing the polarity of both your hifi loudspeakers some day and listening to a source that has a strong centre sound image like a solo voice. When the absolute polarity is flipped the wrong way, you won’t find a stable centre channel image, it will wander around away from the centre, localizing out at both the loudspeakers.

Surround