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7 Reasons to Think Twice Before Investing in a Surround Sound System

A Digital Audio Expert‘s Perspective

Since the early days of "talkies" in the 1930s, filmmakers and audio engineers have been on a quest to make the cinematic sound experience more immersive and lifelike. The first known commercial surround sound system was Disney‘s Fantasound, used for the 1941 film Fantasia. It boasted three speakers behind the screen and 65 smaller speakers around the theater. The intent was to immerse the audience in a "sound field" that could localize sound effects and music, drawing them deeper into the animated action [1].

Over the decades, surround sound technology evolved and trickled down from expensive cinema installations to home theater setups. The promise of an immersive, 360-degree soundscape in your living room is undeniably appealing for movie buffs and audiophiles. But as someone who has installed dozens of surround sound systems over a 20-year career in audio/video, I‘ve learned the hard way that it‘s not always the transformative experience it‘s cracked up to be, especially compared to modern alternatives.

Before you take the plunge on a surround sound speaker system, consider these factors that may have you reconsidering:

1. Prohibitive costs add up quickly

A quality 5.1 speaker system alone will run you $500 on the low end to well over $2000 for a premium setup from brands like Bose, Klipsch, or SVS [2]. And that‘s just for the speakers – you‘ll also need an AV receiver powerful enough to drive them, which adds another $400-1000+. Want to conceal the rear speaker wires in your walls? Professional installation can tack on another $200-500. When all is said and done, even a basic 5.1 surround sound system can easily approach $2000 all-in.

Moving up to 7.1 or Dolby Atmos configurations with in-ceiling speakers balloons the cost even further. A flagship Atmos setup from Klipsch with four overhead speakers retails for an eye-watering $7,195 – and again, that‘s without the AV receiver [3]. For that kind of money, you could buy an 85" QLED TV and a premium soundbar with plenty to spare.

2. Fiendishly complex to configure properly

Even if you have deep pockets, getting a surround sound system set up properly is far from plug-and-play. Speaker placement is crucial – each one needs to be equidistant from the main listening position and angled precisely towards it [4]. Get it wrong and you won‘t get a cohesive, convincing surround effect.

Room acoustics are equally important and an often overlooked factor. Rectangular rooms with high ceilings, bare walls, and hardwood floors wreak havoc on surround imaging, creating distracting echoes and uneven volume [5]. Extensive acoustic treatments are required to tame reflections. Paradoxically, larger rooms are actually more challenging to get right than smaller ones.

Even with perfect speaker placement and room treatment, your AV receiver‘s crossover settings, distances, and channel levels all need to be meticulously calibrated using specialized microphones and software. As an audio professional, it typically takes me 2-4 hours to get a surround system dialed in just right, often with the help of pricey calibration tools like Room EQ Wizard. For the average user, be prepared to spend a frustrating weekend fiddling with knobs and test tones – and possibly pulling your hair out.

3. Dominated by a dizzying array of incompatible formats

The surround sound landscape today is a confusing alphabet soup of formats, each with their own quirks and compatibility requirements. Dolby Digital, DTS, Pro Logic, Atmos, DTS:X, Auro-3D – it‘s enough to make one‘s head spin [6].

While Dolby Digital 5.1 has been the de facto standard for DVDs since 1997, streaming services and 4K Blu-rays are increasingly embracing "object-based" formats like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X that add height speakers for a "3D" sound bubble. IMAX Enhanced is yet another format that uses proprietary encoding for IMAX-exclusive content [7].

The catch is that each of these formats has specific hardware requirements. Atmos alone comes in several speaker configurations (5.1.2, 7.1.4, etc.) that need very particular placement to work as intended [8]. Have an older Atmos receiver but want to play DTS:X content? You may be out of luck or forced to upgrade. Keeping up with the surround arms race quickly gets expensive.

4. Inconsistent content quality and sparse catalog

Even with a state-of-the-art surround setup, its potential is only fully realized with content that‘s well-mixed for the format. While most modern big-budget films and prestige TV shows offer 5.1 or Atmos mixes, a huge chunk of streaming content is still stereo-only.

Netflix, for example, offers 5.1 and Atmos on its Premium plan for "select titles", but doesn‘t disclose which – you just have to hunt and peck [9]. Hulu tops out at 5.1 on some devices and stereo on others [10]. Broadcast TV, sports, and user-generated content on YouTube is also predominantly stereo.

Upmixing stereo to fake surround usually sounds unnatural and echoey. Surround catalog titles can also be hit-or-miss in terms of mix quality – heavy-handed ones blast constant effects just because they can, while others keep 90% of the audio up front, making surround speakers pointless. There‘s a disappointing amount of content that truly utilizes the full capabilities of surround sound.

5. Surround sound can be fatiguing for long sessions

While surround sound can add an undeniable sense of immersion and realism, I find it can also be mentally taxing during extended viewing. Studies on listener fatigue have shown that the brain expends more cognitive effort to parse directional and spatial cues coming from all around [11]. Constant stimuli from the sides and rear may subconsciously put us on edge.

After a long day, there‘s something to be said for the simplicity of stereo, where your brain can relax and focus on the core audio elements without distraction. I know plenty of A/V enthusiasts who prefer the "2.1" life for most content and only engage surround for the occasional blockbuster.

There‘s also the obvious issue of disturbing family members or neighbors during late-night viewing, which is much harder to avoid when you have speakers pointed in all directions. Stereo is easier to keep at reasonable volumes without audio detail loss.

6. Soundbars and virtual surround are more practical for most

For viewers who lack the budget, space, or technical inclination to do surround sound properly, I‘m happy to report there are now several great alternatives that give you a taste of the experience with less fuss and muss:

Soundbars: These all-in-one speaker systems sit neatly under your TV and use advanced DSP trickery to virtualize a wide, immersive soundstage from a small footprint. Top models like the $800 Sonos Arc and $1,700 Sennheiser Ambeo deliver Atmos-like 3D audio complete with height effects that you‘d be hard-pressed to distinguish from physical speakers [12]. While they can‘t quite replicate the precise localization of true surround, the effect is convincing enough for most people and comes without the setup headaches.

3D Audio Virtualization: The PS5 and Xbox Series X consoles both offer a feature that simulates surround sound through stereo speakers or headphones using advanced HRTFs (head-related transfer functions). The effect is eerily realistic and arguably more immersive than physical surround speakers in some cases [13]. Best of all, it works with any content without special mixes.

High-end headphones: If you want complete aural immersion without bothering the neighbors or breaking the bank, it‘s hard to beat a great set of cans. Something like the $330 Bose QuietComfort 45 combines pristine, detailed sound with active noise cancellation and head-tracking surround virtualization [14]. Close your eyes and you‘d swear sounds were coming from all around you, not just your ears.

7. Surround sound is losing steam in the age of smart speakers

Perhaps the strongest sign that surround sound‘s best days are behind it comes from audio buying trends. While surround receiver sales are flat or declining, Wi-Fi speakers like Sonos, Amazon Echo, and Google Home are positively booming, with 8K units expected to ship in 2021 [15]. Younger listeners in particular are gravitating to wireless audio that‘s flexible, multiroom and controlled entirely by voice or phone.

Soundbars have also steadily eaten into surround sound‘s market share, with users favoring their sleeker looks and simpler setup. "The soundbar category has absolutely crushed the home theater in a box category," said Futuresource analyst Jack Wetherill [16]. Even A/V specialty stores report 70% of speaker sales going to soundbars. With the pandemic driving record TV sales, soundbars are poised for another blockbuster year [17].

The message from the market is clear – consumers increasingly prefer simplicity and convenience over pure performance and the bulky black boxes of yesteryear. Surround sound isn‘t going extinct anytime soon, but it‘s undoubtedly lost its luster for the mass market.


Despite the promise of transportive, cinema-like sound at home, surround speaker systems come with too many caveats and compromises for all but the most passionate and deep-pocketed enthusiasts.

Cost and complexity are the biggest barriers – doing a system properly requires not just a multi-thousand-dollar investment in speakers and gear, but also countless hours designing, calibrating, and tweaking it to perfection. It‘s simply beyond the interest and technical comfort level of the vast majority of TV viewers.

Even for those with the means and gumption to get a surround system singing, the payoff isn‘t always clear. Most streaming content still prioritizes stereo, making those extra speakers irrelevant for day-to-day viewing. The mental overhead of positional audio can become grating for longer sessions. Any household with sleeping kids or grumpy neighbors will find the surround effect a liability, not an asset.

Luckily, there are now many simpler and more satisfying ways to level up your TV‘s sound. Dolby Atmos soundbars deliver 85% of the 3D effect with a 10% learning curve. Gaming consoles and VR headsets prove that convincingly immersive sound is achievable without speaker spaghetti. Streaming services may be better served by innovative formats like Sony‘s 360 Reality Audio that work with your existing bluetooth buds.

Surround sound will always hold a nostalgic place in the hearts of home theater buffs (myself included). But as an audio professional and enthusiast, it‘s hard not to see it as a fading relic of the physical media era. In today‘s streaming-first, listen-anywhere world, a tangle of boxy speakers pointed at a fixed sweet spot just doesn‘t jive with how most people want to experience sound.

If you‘re considering taking the surround plunge, I implore you to consider the very real costs and potential frustrations that even a basic setup entails. Weigh them against your available time, budget, and the type of content you actually consume day-to-day. You may find that a high-end soundbar (or even your headphones) will scratch that immersion itch without the baggage.

And if you‘re dead-set on a speaker system come hell or high water, do your research, measure thrice, and budget triple what you think it will cost. Surround sound done right is still a experience like no other – it just might be overkill for Netflix and chill.