360-degree audio: Is it stereo or not?

The market for loudspeakers has been reinvented in the last few years, with Apple, Sonos, Amazon and now Huawei supplanting more traditional brands like Wharfedale and Harman Kardon.
Huawei's new speaker plays music in 360 degrees but not stereoHuawei's new speaker plays music in 360 degrees but not stereo
Huawei's new speaker plays music in 360 degrees but not stereo

These new-age speakers connect to your music player wirelessly via Bluetooth or wi-fi – and most have something else in common: they no longer come in pairs.

Conventional wisdom has always been that you needed at least two speakers in order to get a stereo effect. In recent years, the advent of cinema-like surround sound has increased the count to five or seven, plus a subwoofer, strategically placed around the room.

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But the latest innovation turns that thinking on its head. Instead of placing the listener at the centre of a circle surrounded by speakers, 360-degree audio places the speaker at the centre. The sound – all one channel of it – emanates from all directions because the speaker units contain an array of woofers, tweeters and midrange drivers mounted on a circular chassis, some pointing up; others down.

But how does a single unit – in some cases a very expensive one – compare with a conventional setup?

That’s hard to answer conclusively because no one speaker sounds like another. It all depends on the design and the quality of the components. But what is beyond question is that most 360-degree speakers have been built for convenience first and quality second.

That’s not to say that many of them are not extremely good – but they can never be a match for speakers many times their size.

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It’s not entirely the point, though. The market has moved away from catering for audiophiles who liked to while away their evenings positioning their equipment to get the best possible reproduction of their Dire Straits LPs. Today, portability is what manufacturers think we all want, and people who stream music from their phones to a single speaker, placed wherever everyone can hear it, are the customers they are after.

In this respect, 360-degree audio is a good idea. You can take the speaker with you – most come with a pouch for that purpose – and fill any room with loud, thumping sound. Many don’t even need to be plugged into the mains as they can run for hours from an inbuilt rechargeable battery. The fact that what you’re hearing is mono is neither here nor there.

In the home, any number of people can connect their phones or other devices to the same speaker, and you can create a network of them to stream music to different parts of the house. You can also pair two of them together to create stereo, just like the old days.

Sonos was the pioneer of systems like this a decade or so ago, and its latest speaker, the £400 Move integrates two amps, a downward-firing tweeter and a mid woofer into a compact unit that can be controlled by voice assistants like Amazon Alexa and will run for 11 hours on a single charge. Sonos doesn’t use the phrase 360-degree audio but tellingly, it doesn’t use the word stereo, either.

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Huawei’s new Sound X, produced in partnership with the French audio company Devialet, costs £100 less and is mains only but it packs into its six-and-a-half inch diameter no fewer than six full-range speakers and two woofers, delivering 65 watts between them. This, the theory goes, is as good as stereo, if not better.

It isn’t the first time the audio industry has tried to tell us what is good for us. I’ve always sworn by the 1980s graphic equalizer hooked up to my hi-fi, no matter how many experts tell me it makes the sound “impure”. Whether you will be able to believe your ears this time around is no less subjective.

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Thank you

James Mitchinson

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