2.1 vs. 5.1 vs. 7.1 Surround Sound

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2.1 vs. 5.1 vs. 7.1 in home theaters

1 Surround Sound systems use 5 speakers carefully placed around your room – a center speaker (or two), two front speakers, and two rear speakers. The two surround speakers deliver distinct, non-directional audio that envelopes and completely surrounds you, with left and right channel audio in both the front and the rear. The center speaker provides all the dialog and is critical in creating the phasing effect and balance for the sound. An additional .1 speaker can be added to the 5.1 surround sound setup for a more immersive experience.

The 7.1 surround sound system is a relative newcomer to the home theater system family. It includes all the features of a 5.1 surround sound system except the rears channels are now split into two. The .1 behind the listener and there is also .1 on either side of the listener for fading audio to the sides to create an even more immersive feel.

At Triode, our mission is to make home entertainment simple. We've worked with hundreds of customers and can help you understand the basics of home theater design, compatibility, tips on placement, and selection of products and more. Call us for a consultation and let us design your dream system.

About Channels n Home Theater

The difference between 2.1, 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound speakers is the number of channels available. Each of these surround sound speaker systems differ in the audio channels they possess. 2.1 speakers support two woofers, a mid-range speaker and a tweeter, 5.1 surround sound speakers have five channels, which are two woofers, a mid-range speaker, a tweeter, and a center channel unique to 5.1 speakers, while 7.1 surround sound speakers have two additional channels to the 5.1 format with a subwoofer source and a low-frequency effects (LFE) channel.

So when it comes to choosing a surround sound speaker system, you need to consider the room size, number of speakers you want to place throughout the room, and your audio budget. Generally, it’s best to opt for a 7.1 speaker system if you can afford it but a 5.1 surround sound speaker system is more than adequate when it comes to mid-range audio quality.

Budget

1 and 2.1 Sound Systems

Deciding to get a 5.1 or 2.1 surround sound system, is a matter of personal preference. If you’re a movie buff or someone who likes a lot of high quality audio in music, you will prefer the 5.1, if not 7.1 surround sound system. If you listen to the sound through headphones more often, than you’ll want to go with a 2.1 or more traditional directional speaker system.

The 5.1 system offers a significantly bigger sound. However, it’s not the only system that offers a full surround sound experience. A 2.1 system will provide you with great sound. Depending on the quality of the speakers that make up the 2.1 surround sound system, you might not notice a significant difference.

1 Surround Sound Setup

Ease of Installation

Surround sound systems are usually pretty easy to install. Far easier than a basic home theater system, for sure. While you’ll typically find 5.1 surround sound systems that come with a home theater receiver preinstalled with only the speakers to be connected to it, you can also set up 5.1 surround sound systems with a surround sound receiver and individual speakers.

The receiver acts like a hub for all of the features of the surround sound system. You connect your TV, Blu-ray player, gaming consoles, and other items to the receiver and then synchronize the settings to create surround sound.

What is a 2.1 channel system?

A 2.1 channel system refers to two speakers and a subwoofer. A lot of modern home theater systems, soundbars, and Bluetooth speakers come with at least 2 speakers. A subwoofer is almost always included in a 2.1 surround sound speaker system.

The bass speaker doesn’t handle high frequencies and the smaller speakers handle the mid and high range. Although there are some 2.0 systems that include speakers only, they are becoming more and more common.

The subwoofers are designed for those extra deep bass tones and usually have an output power between 50 watts and 100 watts. The bass you hear in movies and music, depends on the quality and setup of the subwoofer, or in other words, the subwoofer setup is what makes a difference to the sound of a movie.

The speakers, on the other hand, are what make music sound crisp, clear, or tinny and the quality of your speakers will affect the acoustics of any home theater system. You can use a subwoofer and two speakers for a surround sound system, but in some cases, additional speakers are needed to create a full surround sound experience.

Pros and cons of a 2.1 channel system

Today's 2.1 speakers are typically 2 speakers and a subwoofer. In general, most users complain that providing only 2 channels (left and right) is not enough for a true surround sound experience. But others argue that if you combine a good subwoofer with the stereo pair, you will get a decently accurate and responsive soundstage. Of course, your room and speaker placement will play a key role here.

Two channel setups are cheap and simple. You don’t have to deal with wiring and other confusing stuff such as speaker placement. So you can kick back and relax while watching a movie without the hassle of wires spreading everywhere, spoiling your beautifully arranged room.

But another downside that you may experience with a 2.1 channel system is the incomplete low-frequency response. If your setup doesn’t include a subwoofer, then the low end (which usually makes the impact in movies) may fall short of what you need.

What is a 5.1 channel system?

The 5.1 channel surround sound system is the most basic and common system used today. Some theaters employ 7.1 channel surround sound as well, but this is less widespread.

A surround sound system is a method of creating sound or reproducing an audio channel so that it appears to be emanating from multiple positions or locations. The main purpose of surround sound systems is to create the sound as realistic and immersive as possible.

In the traditional, home theater, market, the 5.1 channel has been the most commonly used for quite some time. But in recent years, with the growing thirst for high functionality and realistic, immersive sound, the popularity of the 5.1 channel system has diminished and the 7.1 channel system has risen to take its place. Although a true 7.1 system is still relatively rare, you can find it in many top-quality homes. So what’s the difference between a 7.1 channel system and a 5.1 channel system?

1 Channel Surround Sound System

A 5.1 channel surround sound system has five channels of sound including left, right, surround, front center, and subwoofer. The fifth channel, the subwoofer, usually reproduces deep bass sounds.

Pros and cons of a 5.1 channel system

The 5.1 surround sound system has five main channels (front left and right, center, rear right and left) and one subwoofer to produce surround sound effects. The extra channels give the system a fuller sound and better bass response.

The disadvantages of a 5.1 setup are that 5.1 becomes more congested than stereo (2.1) or a 7.1-channel surround system. Thus, a 5.1 system will require a more powerful amplifier, especially if you use the subwoofer for music. This makes 5.1 systems more expensive than a 2.1 system running on the same amp.

Pros

When most people think of surround sound, they think in terms of the popular 5.1 and 7.1 formats – but a similar system was introduced many years before.

Surround sound like many other technologies has seen a number of improvements over the years, and it’s become more versatile. But the most important thing to keep in mind is that all versions of surround sound work in a similar manner. What differs is the number of speakers used, and what you already have to work with.

Let’s take a closer look at the three surround sound versions you're most likely to come across.

Cons

Production and entertainment have adapted to the digital age and media consumption has changed accordingly. New technology with smartphone apps is changing how people are interacting with media – for better or worse — and how they are making buying decisions.

Sound is extremely important in media consumption. It can separate a good movie from a great movie, a good music album from a great. With today’s variety of available entertainment platforms – TV, computer, tablet, smart phone, and more – the sounds are coming from more directions than ever before. So is it any wonder that consumers are becoming extremely demanding of sound quality?

In the last decade, the music industry has shifted intensely to a digital model and the majority of music is purchased and owned digitally. Technology has advanced the way people are consuming digital music, resulting in a rise of two primary music streaming services – Spotify and Pandora. Both companies offer a free advertising supported model, with pays plans and Pandora has also developed a paid ad-free subscription option for users.

At the same time, movie studios are offering consumers the opportunity to experience their films in new ways. With digital sound systems, surround sound and cinematic theatrical experiences are becoming mainstream.

What is a 7.1 channel system?

A 7.1 channel system is a multi-speaker surround sound setup that includes the seven channels we are all familiar with – left, center, right, left rear, right rear, left surround and right surround. It also includes a dedicated channel for Atmos.

The main purpose of the Atmos channel is to be used for overhead sound (think, flying airplanes, rain, storm sounds, etc.) and to give height to sounds coming from the front of the sound stage.

Unlike a 5.1 channel system where all speakers are at the same distance from the listening position, the surround speakers in a 7.1 channel system are at different distances from the listening position. The left and right surround speakers are generally at least 60% further away from the listening position than the left and right surround speakers.

A 7.1 channel system also has two additional channels. One is reserved for height and is primarily at the back of the sound stage, and the left and right front channels include a dedicated audio channel for the center speaker at the top of the sound stage.

A 7.1 channel system also allows for left and right distortion speakers to be placed at the front of the sound stage (just to the left and right speakers), because they don’t need to carry the center line (dialogue), thus making them sound very accurate and allowing them to move more freely.

Pros and cons of a 7.1 channel system

1 channel systems are the digital equivalent to a multi-channel analog sound system. In a 7.1 channel surround system, seven speakers are required to provide a surround sound experience at home. Two more speakers compared to the 5.1 channel systems…

So what does a 7.1 channel system provide, that a 5.1 channel system does not?

It's simple. Some might call it an overkill, but rightfully so.

The extra two speakers added in the surround system are the center rear surround speaker (CS) and the low-frequency effects channel (LFE). The LFE subwoofer adds the deep bass to environmental sounds in the film. It is very effective when used with the 7.1 channel system in that the bass sounds are produced on the right and left main speakers as well as from the subwoofer. The 7.1 channel system potentially provides the best audio experience for film lovers.

So what re the cons of a 7.1 channel system?

The extra channels added to the system also add to the cost. In addition, you will need to set up the system in different walls, floors and ceilings of your home. Also, although LFE produces some good bass sounds, the bass isn’t profound. To get that, you will still need a 5.1 or 7.1 channel bass subwoofer.

Sound quality comparison

7.1 vs. 5.1 vs. 2.1

As home cinemas have grown in popularity, consumers have enjoyed greater choice than ever when it comes to how they want to experience sound. 7.1 surround sound is the latest technology and is now prominent on the market. It’s often a feature that many AV receivers come equipped with. However, there are lots of people who aren’t sure what the differences are between the three types of surround sound.

A lot of consumers are naturally drawn to 7.1 surround sound due to its increased channels. However, it’s important to know the benefits of each setup to be able to purchase the best compatible AV receiver.

{1}. 1 surround sound systems
{2}. 1 surround sound systems use a pair of satellite speakers to surround the viewer with stereo, while subs add a third channel to the mix. The most common format is a 2.0 system with a subwoofer. This setup is perfect for those that don’t want the cost or complication of additional channels.
{3}. 1 surround sound systems

2.1 vs. 5.1 vs. 7.1 room requirements

Although home theaters can be great for watching movies, the quality of sound can differ greatly between different rooms. And this is something that you must consider when planning to build your very own home theater.

A bit of background:

Surround sound is a movie experience.

{1}. 1 surround sound refers to the five main speakers plus one subwoofer arranged in a specific configuration.
{2}. 1 surround sound refers to the two main speakers (left and right) plus one subwoofer

A 7.1 surround sound configuration consists of adding two more speakers to the 5.1 surround configuration.

In order to create the best home theater experience, you must consider every aspect of the room.

Here is a simple trick to visualize the difference between the three different configurations: think of an equilateral triangle with the left and right speaker seated at the top.

The center speaker will be the apex of the triangle, and the subwoofer will be the triangle’s middle base.

A true 5.1 surround sound configuration will have the left and right speakers on or near the wall.

A 2.1 surround sound configuration will not include the center speaker since it will only have two main outside speakers.

2.1 channel system room requirements

Also see: 5.1 channel system room requirements and 7.1 channel system room requirements.

For home theater applications, 2.1 channel systems are the most simple to install since they require the least amount of room treatment and correction to form a balanced, cohesive, and immersive surround sound experience.

Here are the room requirements for a successful 2.1 channel system setup:

A 2.1 channel speaker system can be optimized at any reasonable listening position in a rectangular listening room with a minimum volume of:

  • 100 cubic feet with an 8-foot ceiling
  • 120 cubic feet with a 9-foot ceiling

A 2.1 channel system will work poorly and should be avoided in listening rooms that are less than 100 cubic feet or with ceilings below 9 feet.

Pioneer recommends placing the subwoofer away from the main listening position to diminish the negative effect of the bass being perceived as too tight and too localized.

The most common distance between a subwoofer and the closest listener is about 4-6 feet.

5.1 channel system room requirements

A 5.1 channel surround sound system is commonly used for watching movies, playing video games, and a big part of your home theater experience.

The first number in the 5.1 surround sound refers to the 5 speakers, while the second number refers to a subwoofer. This arrangement is referred to as a 5.1 channel system.

If you plan on buying a home theater system for watching or listening to movies, you may notice that the 5.1 channel surround sound is the most commonly used for a home theater. The 5.1 channel surround sound provides you with the optimal home theater experience.

A 5.1 channel surround sound setup consists of 5 speakers and a subwoofer. In addition, each speaker will have its own power amplifier. The subwoofer’s amplifier is larger than the other speaker’s amplifiers and is commonly referred to as the “power amp.”

7.1 channel system room requirements

Now, let’s take a closer look at the 7.1 surround sound system, simply referred to by its channel count (7.1). We’ll compare it to the 2.1 system, which uses two front channels, two rear channels, one center channel and one subwoofer, and the 5.1 system, which uses five channels – three front, two rear and one center channel.

Surround sound speaker systems are usually identified by the number of channels included.

The more channels you have, the more speakers you’ll need.

The 7.1 channel surround sound system is the most commonly used surround sound system on the market. It uses seven speakers – two front, two center, two surround, and one subwoofer – and a dedicated processor. Many mid-range and high-end home theater receiver systems contain a 7.1 surround sound channel configuration.

From an installation standpoint, the 7.1 system is relatively simple due to its compact form.

What else should you consider?

While determining which surround sound format to go with is a fairly easy decision, what else should you be considering to pick the best system?

Room size and room placement are big factors, but so is price. Bigger packages usually equal bigger savings.

If you're looking for the best sound quality possible, 3-way speakers with separate woofers, midrange drivers, and tweeters create a more balanced sound. But all-in-one 5.1 channel packages may be more affordable.

If you're considering a subwoofer for your system, make sure the subwoofer that matches your other speakers has bass management features. This will allow you to manage the bass at both the sub and the speaker level so that you don't end up with an overpowering or bass heavy sound.

Choosing the right size subwoofer can be key to getting a balanced sound. To determine the best subwoofer size for your system, it's best if you calculate your room's subwoofer requirements.

Also, when it comes to the rear surround speakers, forget the old school rectangular boxes, go wireless and hide them in your walls or in your ceiling.

Before you buy, consider how much surround sound really enhances the movie or music you're watching. Its greatest value is in action films like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. Those type of movies can use the extra speakers to make the experience as real as possible.

Receiver

Speaker & Subwoofer Basics.

There is more to the anatomy of your surround sound system than you think. Your receiver is probably the most important part of the system; it lets you change settings on the fly, as well as provide power to the speakers. The speakers are crucial, as they are responsible for the sweet, sweet sounds that come from your system. There is the subwoofer, which does exactly what it sounds like – it makes the bass.

Now, when it comes to surround sound system speaker numbers, there are basically three sets of numbers you’re going to see. There’s 2.1, 5.1 and 7.1.

Each number represents how many channels there are. The first number represents how many speakers you have, while the second number represents how many subwoofers there are. So if you see a 5.1 sound system, that means you have five speakers and one subwoofer.

If there is one tip that we could leave our readers with, it would be this:

Calibration

The level of surround sound in the playback will depend on the calibration of the sound system. Most of the time when we talk about calibration, we’re referring to the equalization or frequency balance. Equalization is the tweaking of the sound frequencies using an equalizer to make the whole system sound right. This will depend on the sound system that you use.

In order to maximize surround sound, all channels must output an audible audio signal. You can confirm this by turning off the center channel, turning up the surround channels and listening for where the audio drops out. If you do not hear anything in the center channel, then that means the center channel speakers are not outputting sound. Incorrect channel setup can be a problem for a number of reasons. One is due to an improper calibration of the system which makes the system sound less realistic than possible. When the sound doesn’t feel right, then you are not enjoying the full surround sound experience that your system can produce.

Surround sound capability is determined by the loudspeaker channels that are included in the audio playback system. Therefore, the type of surround sound output by your system will depend on the number of channels available.

Longevity of system

1, 5.1, and 7.1 systems have the same basic structure:

  • The center speaker is used for dialog in movies and TV, and is often placed on top of the TV.
  • The two front speakers provide most of the channel separation for movies and TV, and have flexible locations.
  • The surround speakers are used to provide high-frequency sounds and special effects in movies and TV. They can be placed on the ceiling and should be directed towards the front of the listener.

Each system adds speakers and additional components. A 5.1 system adds two surround speakers and a subwoofer. A 7.1 system adds two more surround speakers and another subwoofer. The extra speakers and components add more output, but not necessarily better sound.

The extra speakers and components add weight and expense to a system, but they provide better sound quality when high-quality speakers and electronics are used. A 7.1 system may be better for someone who cares more about the quality of their sound system and the position of the speakers than the cost. A 5.1 system is a good selection for most home users. A 2.1 system adds more subwoofers and additional speakers, but there would probably not be enough space in most home theater rooms for more than one subwoofer.

Some final thoughts

I don’t want to lose to much of my home theater credibility, but I have to say that I don’t really like the idea of 3-D audio. I think the term 3-D audio conjures up images of virtual sound coming from speakers on your ceiling or walls … it’s a completely unnatural experience that gives a movie a surreal feeling. What’s wrong with good old-fashioned front, center and rear channels that have been working just fine for decades?

The only possible application that I can see for 3-D audio is to get 3 channels of audio playing out of one speaker. If your kids are playing a game where they need to be sitting in different places, you could theoretically set up two speakers in different rooms and have the sounds switch between them depending on where the player is sitting. While this is more likely to happen in the future, I think it’s still far away and I don’t think 3D audio makes the most of your existing home theater speakers. I’d be more excited about 8K resolution or wireless surround sound.

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When purchasing a home theater system, there are a few different types of sound system configurations to consider: 2.1, 5.1 and 7.1.

In this post, we’ll explain the differences between them.

First, let’s make sure everyone is on the same page. The term "sound system" refers to a multimedia device that produces sound but does not have a screen. This encompasses everything from a sound bar system for TVs to a home theater system.