The τ–ω model of microwave emission from soil and vegetation layers is widely used to estimate soil moisture content from passive microwave observations. Its application to prospective satellite-based observations aggregating several thousand square kilometres requires understanding of the effects of scene heterogeneity. The effects of heterogeneity in soil surface roughness, soil moisture, water area and vegetation density on the retrieval of soil moisture from simulated single- and multi-angle observing systems were tested. Uncertainty in water area proved the most serious problem for both systems, causing errors of a few percent in soil moisture retrieval. Single-angle retrieval was largely unaffected by the other factors studied here. Multiple-angle retrievals errors around one percent arose from heterogeneity in either soil roughness or soil moisture. Errors of a few percent were caused by vegetation heterogeneity. A simple extension of the model vegetation representation was shown to reduce this error substantially for scenes containing a range of vegetation types.