The Difference Between Mono and Stereo with Audio Example

The Difference Between Mono and Stereo with Audio Example

Stereo and mono are two terminology that can be confusing once you've first heard about them.

That's why we have written this article. To help you understand the two major differences between mono and stereo signals.

What is the difference between mono and stereo? The differences between mono and stereo in the number of channels they use. Mono uses 1 channel and Stereo uses 2 channels. 

When using stereo you have 2 different outputs. This means you can play the left channel into the left speaker and the right channel into the right speaker. Below is a video that can help you understand if you listen to it while wearing headphones.

Stereo is useful when listening to music as you can play different sounds through each earphone or speaker which lets you create a sense of direction and can improve the listener's satisfaction.

Mono vs Stereo - What's The Difference Between Them? 

The different between monaural sounds and stereophonic sounds is the number of channels or signals they use. Mono which means 'one', 'single', 'alone', uses only 1 channel.

Whereas stereo sounds use 2 or more channels. Stereo is extremely useful for music artists and sound engineers as they can channel different sounds into each speaker. This can immensely improve the listener's enjoyment.

If you still don't understand and are having a hard time comprehending the differences (just like myself when I first learned about it), then watch the video below while wearing earphones or headphones.

You can listen with speakers too but you will need to make sure they are in a stereo setup, otherwise, you will not hear the differences!

Do you hear the differences? Mono has just 1 channel and sounds the same in both ears. Stereo has 2 or more channels and sounds can be played independently into a different earphone or speaker outputs.

Why Was Stereo Invented?

Stereophonics technology was invented by Alan Blumlein in 1930s and then he patented stereo records, stereo files and surround sound.

It was invented because our brains use stereoscopic sounds in order to detect the positioning of a sound in space. It uses the difference in the time, amplitude and phase and the time it takes the audio waves to reach our ear.

Stereo microphones are now used to pick up a realistic sound of the environment in the same way our ears would pick up the sound.

This information is very important and is used by our brain to determine the direction and location of the sound source.

How Does Mono Work?

Image demonstrating a mono signal channel

Monaural sound uses only 1 single channel. It can be played through a selection of speakers, but all speakers are still reproducing the same copy of the sound.

This means if you were listing to a mono soundtrack while wearing a pair of headphones, you would hear the exact same sound out of each headphone.

Why Should You Use Mono?

You should use monaural sound when you want to be heard as if the soundtrack was being sent from one position.

The equipment to record mono will be much cheaper and quite often much less complicated to use compared to stereo equipment.

The recordings file size will also be much smaller when compared to stereo. This is great if you want to stream online as it will use less bandwidth.

How Does Stereo Work?

Image demonstrating a stereo signal channel

A stereophonic sound will use two channels, although it can use more. The typical set up for stereo is with two speakers both feeding different signals, this can then be used to give a sense of direction of sound sources and will often make the music much more enjoyable to listen to

This means if you were listing to a stereo soundtrack while wearing a pair of headphones, you would hear two different sound sources in both ears.

Why Should You Use Stereo?

You should use stereophonic sound when you want to create space and direction within the sound. Doing this can give the user a much better overall experience.

Stereo also allows for multitrack recording, which is a method that was created in 1995 and it lets you separate recording that are from multiple sound sources to create a cohesive whole.

Although due to the stereo using 2 or more channels, the file size for stereo audio files will usually be much larger compared to mono.

What Is Stereo Recording?

Stereo recording is the process of using two microphones to record an instrument. The mono signals produced by each microphone are then assigned to the left and right channels. This creates a sense of width.

There are 2 reasons why this creates a sense of width: 

  • A difference in the timing - Due to the microphones placed in two different locations, the timing that both microphones will record the sound will be slightly different.
  • The frequency balance - If you position both of the microphones in a different direction, each microphone will record a different frequency.

A stereo recording is great when you want to record your environment. For example, you're outside and you're trying to record the birds or the seaside. When you listen to the recording back this can really help create an acoustic illusion of the space and depth and make the sounds seem more realistic, like you were actually there.

What Is Mono Recording?

Mono recording is a recording that only uses 1 single channel, it's the opposite of a stereo recording where two microphones have been used to assign each recording to the L and R channel.

Mono recording is more common compared to stereo recording. With mono, all you need is 1 microphone and most mobile phones and recording devices are equipped with that.

When using sounds built into music creation software (digital audio workstations), most of the time they will be in mono. The only time you'd use stereo for your instruments is when you want to pan sounds to your left or right channel. A stereo recording can also help the instruments sound wider and fill up more sound frequencies.

Which is Better? Stereo or Mono?

Neither stereophonic or monophonic sound setups are better. They are just used for two different things. A well-built mono setup can sound better than a stereo setup and vice versa.

Typically if you need to play audio effects down different speakers, as you would in a surround sound set up, then you'll need a stereo setup.

On the other hand, if you're perfectly happy with just being able to play 1 sound down each of your speakers than a monophonic set up would be great for you.

Sound producers and artists will need a stereo setup as their music is extremely likely to need stereo capabilities as adding stereo sounds to your tracks can really make your music come alive and give it a sense of direction. A well-done panning effect can sound great.

The downsides of stereo audio files are that the filesizes can be considerably larger than compared to a mono file. If you were to set up a radio station or a podcast, you may want to use a mono setup and dive deeper into which system would be more suitable for your needs. Streaming large stereo files can be demanding on your internet. Mono files are smaller so a mono setup might be more suitable for a podcast or audiobooks.

When Should I Use Stereo?

Listening to stereo is great when used in a situation where you have two speakers.

Computer speakers, car speakers and even next to your television is a great place to have a stereo set up.

When producing music, stereo can be used when you want to pan a certain sound. Audio pan or panning is when you change the percentage of how much sound gets outputting on the Left or Right Channel. Panning can really enchant your music and make it more enjoyable to listen to. Voices and instruments are often panned in songs.

Should instrument tracks be mono or stereo?

It really depends on what you're recording. Instruments such as kicks, basses and other drums don't have many purposes in stereo unless you're going after a particular sound.

Most of the time you will want your instruments to be in mono. If you need a stereo sound, you can always duplicate the soundtrack and then change the panning and you'll have a stereo set up.

Instead of using a stereo instrument track, if you were to duplicate the tracks and then at certain points in the track change the stereo field it would actually make your final results sound wider instead of just having two stereo tracks.

It really depends on what end result you're trying to achieve. The best advice would be to try both and see what you prefer.

How do I convert stereo to mono?

Most digital audio workstations and other music creation software will have the functionally where you can bounce/export your audio tracks into mono.

It will be different for each software. If you can't find it you can always use an online stereo to mono converter such as to convert to mono.

Are Stereo Speakers Worth it?

This question will have a different answer depending on what you're trying to achieve.

If you're a musician that is thinking about buying a pair of stereo speakers, then they may be a great investment as it will help you mix your music accurately.

You'll be able to hear the panning of your recordings.

Musicians should use a pair of stereo studio speakers as they are unlikely to have any added effects such as bass or treble and will allow you to hear a very clean mix.

If you're a gamer or film lover then you too could benefit from a pair of stereo speakers.

Can stereo speakers be used for surround sound?

Not unless you have other speakers you can hook them up to.

Stereo is no surround sound. Surround sound is designed to create a virtualization of sound that is all around you. Normally a surround sound system will need 5 speakers.

It will need a front Left and Right, a front middle and rear left and right to make a complete setup. A stereo set up only has 2 speakers that are left and right.

Surround Sound or Multichannel Audio?

Surround sound or sometimes called multichannel audio, is often used in home theatres to create an effect that the sound is traveling from all around you.

It is created by using at least four to seven audio channels. Each channel is linked up to a different speaker that is either placed in front of or behind the listener. The purpose of doing this is to make it feels like the listener is surrounded by the sound. It can make audio much more enjoyable and really intensify the listener's experience.

Surround sound or multichannel audio can be configured by either using 5.1, 6.1 or 7.1 surround sound.

How Does 5.1 Surround Sound Work?

5.1 surround sound is found on film and music discs. The two most popular 5.1 surround sound formats are DTS Digital Surround and Dolby Digital 5.1.

It uses five channels of sound and a sixth channel for the subwoofer. This is also called the point-one channel and is used for special audio effects and extra bass.

5.1 surround sound systems consist of a center channel speaker that is placed between a pair of stereo speakers and two surrounds sound speakers that will be positioned behind the listener.

Can stereo be converted to 5.1?

Stereo sounds have a left and right audio track. 5.1 channel sounds are different as they create a surround sound effect. 5.1 is multi-channel.

Stereo can be converted to 5.1 but you will need specialized software such as VLC or video converter studio to convert the audio track for you. Even then it may sound strange as certain sound effects may have not been positioned correctly. For example, a sound that was supposed to be coming from the front speakers might be positioned on the back, causing the audio to sound weird.

When done correctly, converting stereo to 5.1 audio can give a better experience for the listeners and viewers.

How Does 6.1 Surround Sound Work?

6.1 surround sound is a sound enhancement to 5.1 surround sound. It consists of an additional speaker that is located in the center. Usually between the two surround sound speakers that are positioned behind the listener.

It provides a more of a completed surround sound experience.

How Does 7.1 Surround Sound Work?

7.1 Surround Sound is similar to 6.1 surround sound. It has two additional speakers that are located on the side of the listener. 7.1 surround sound can be used for more accurate positioning of the sound.

Which is better stereo or mono? This would depend on what you are trying to achieve. If you want your audio devices to have the capabilities of playing different sounds in each output then you would want a stereo set up.

Are headphones stereo or mono? The majority of headphones on the market would be capable of stereo, and depending on whether your headphones are stereo or mono will depend on the model of your device. You can quite easily check by playing a stereo audio file and listening whether you can hear different sounds in each ear.

Should I use stereo or mono for my podcast? Most of the time stereo isn't necessary for podcasts unless you're using special sound effects. Stereo file sizes are also larger compared to mono files and therefore may not be as suitable for streaming.

About the Author

Portrait of Stephen Miles. The man author behind
Stephen Miles

Stephen fell in love with music production as a young adult and has since been producing and experimenting with sound production. Over the last several years, he has created a music studio where he produces and mixes music with Logic Pro and Ableton.