Comparing 5.1 & 5.2 Surround Sound

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The surround sound standard has entered most living rooms that want a truly lively and authentic home entertainment experience. The main difference between the 5.1 and 5.2 standards is that the former has one subwoofer, while the latter comes with two.

Differences in setup between 5.1 and 5.2 systems

What are the advantages of an upgraded 5.2 surround sound system over the regular 5.1? Do you even need a fancy 5.2 surround sound setup in the first place? Or is 5.1 good enough for most of us?

This post will take you through the basics of 5.1 versus 5.2 systems, their setup, and the pros and cons of each.

It will help you decide if you should upgrade to a 5.2 system, or if you are happy to stick with 5.1.

Both of them are thin soundbars that are usually placed under or in front of your TV or projector screen. They have multiple speakers inside of them, which created the surround sound effect. However, the 5.2 comes with a second subwoofer. The sound is fuller because of that and it's the slightly more premium product. But the setup doesn't change between the two at all.

5.1 surround sound

Surround sound systems are increasingly standard in home theatre and hi-fi installations. 5.1 surround sound is widely accepted as the best form of home movie and music listening experience.

The first number stands for the quantity of channels, while the second number designates the number of subwoofers.The 5.1 surround sound system designates 5 channels, being front (left and right) center, and surround (left, right, and rear) and a subwoofer. This is what we know today as "5.1 surround sound".

The first number, five (5), indicates the total number of speakers used in the system.

The second number, one (1), indicates the number of subwoofers. In a 5.1 system, there are 5 speaker channels with one additional channel for low frequency effects (LFE). An LFE channel is also referred to as a subwoofer channel.

So a 5.1 surround sound system has 6 channels total.

5.2 surround sound

When most people think about surround sound, they imagine 5.1 surround sound. Rarely do they consider 5.2 sound systems. Here’s what you need to know about the differences between the two and whether you should upgrade to a 5.2 system.

For starters, 5.1 surround sound systems aren’t going anywhere even with the newer and better systems coming out. In fact, many consumers have found that the 5.1 system is still their system of choice.

However, 5.2 systems are considered a newer and much-improved surround sound experience compared to 5.1 systems. Why? Because 5.2 surround sound systems have an additional lof frequency surround channel, which gives you a more realistic surround sound experience. The sound is even fuller

I’ll be honest. It’s quite challenging to discern a difference between the two when you’re watching movies and playing games. It’s more noticeable, when there’s no action happening and you're just listening to bass heavy music.

Differences in receivers between 5.1 & 5.2

What are the differences?

Surround sound technology provides a whole new experience in watching movies and playing video games. With a proper 5.1 or 5.2 receiver, you are able to experience the full effect of surround sound.

Many people think that if they have a 5.1 or 5.2 system, it is interchangeable since they both refer to a 5 speaker setup. But they're not exactly the same. So what’s the difference?

But the 5.2 surround sound format was introduced later, and it is similar to 5.1 surround sound. It’s commonly used for broadcast sound and in the movie industry. This is because 5.2 systems are designed to broadcast sound even fuller.

If you’re looking to build a surround sound system for your home theatre, you can generally choose from either a 5.1 or 5.2 design. However, the vast majority of people choose a 5.1 design because the price of a 5.2 system is much higher than a 5.1 setup.

The good and the bad

The 5.1 and 5.2 surround sound list describes how many speakers a surround sound receiver contains. In our home theater receivers buying guide, we briefly touch on the advantages of 5.1 vs 5.2 receivers, but it’s important that we go into more detail here, because the surround sound receiver is an essential component that you need to consider when building your home theater.

If you’re building a 5.1 surround sound system then you’ll need a 5.1 surround sound receiver, and if it’s a 5.2 surround sound system, then you’ll need a 5.2 surround sound receiver.

How do these standards differ

5.1 and 5.2 surround sound systems are similar products with one distinctive difference: channel placement. 5.1 systems contain six speakers; 5.2 systems contain seven. The additional speaker in 5.2 systems makes the installation process a little harder and requires extra space. The 5.2 channel layout places the center speaker directly above or below the screen. This allows for better placement of the center speaker in front of the audience, instead of behind the audience. The 5.1 channel layout allows for a higher WAF (wife acceptance factor) since the extra speaker does not add clutter to your living room.

Usually, your front left and right speakers, center speaker, and subwoofer are the same in 5.1 and 5.2 surround sound systems. The rear-right and rear-left speakers in 5.2 systems are the same speakers as your front left and right speakers in 5.1 systems.

Setup process

5.1 and 5.2 use similar speaker terminations. The difference is in the number of separate audio channels (5.1 vs 5.2) and the number of subwoofer outputs and power amplifiers.

When setting up 5.1, you need 5 speakers and one subwoofer. A surround sound receiver with no less than six channels is required to process 5.1 soundtracks.

When setting up 5.2, you also need five speakers; however, you need a surround sound receiver with no less than seven channels. A subwoofer with two outputs (preferably, the below two) is needed to power the two subwoofer speakers and drive the bass and adds quite a bit of complexity to the setup. Also, it adds to the price due to the extra subwoofer required.

Quality of the sound

The most commonly used audio format for home theater systems is 5.1 surround sound. It consists of 5 speakers and a subwoofer. There are various brands available in the market that produce home theater systems in 5.1 surround sound. The pricier models offer greater sound quality and a more powerful bass.

Now, the 5.1 comes with more sound channels hence you will get slightly different sound quality. This is because the two extra speakers add to the quality that the front speakers has. This exists for both the left and the right speakers.

A 5.2 surround sound system adds an extra speakers over the 5.1 surround system. These speakers are smoothening out the variations in low frequency sounds better, hence the other-worldly surround-sound experience. The two speakers improve the channel separation. So now, the surround and the back sound separation is much more than the 5.1 surround.

Difference in format

We can get a bit technical here. Let’s start by looking at the two sound formats you might come across: Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.2. The 5.2 format is newer and designed to provide better sound quality by making surround sound recordings. In essence, it is not so much a new format as part of the same one. The 5.2 format usually features more channels delivering sound than the 5.1 format, which is why it offers improved audio quality. You won’t see the number 5.1 used in announcing films anymore, but you will see the number 5.2. Various Blu-Ray players and movies are starting to offer Dolby Digital 5.2 surround sound and some are going with the even better Dolby Digital Plus.

The basis of Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound is that it has 5.1 speakers giving you 6 discrete speaker channels to work with. There is a standard center speaker channel for dialogue and sound effects, and are usually accompanied by at least two satellite speaker channels, one for the left side and one for the right. The third channel is for the subwoofer speakers and the fourth and fifth channels are for the center speaker, left, and right.

Which devices are supported by each

For 5.1 surround sound, the number "5" indicates that there are five full range speaker channels and one subwoofer channel. A full-range speaker channel, for the layman, is the kind of speaker you find in a home theater or a boom box. You have a woofer (big, bass producing speaker), a tweeter (the high sounding speaker) and two mids (the speaker in between the woofer and the tweeter).

The "1" indicates that there is one subwoofer.

The notation 5.1 is also referred to as multi-channel surround sound.

5.1 surround sound is the channel configuration used in movie theaters and is the number one choice for home theaters.

In comparison, 5.2 surround sound adds one more speaker channels for a total of seven … for a total of five full range speaker channels and two subwoofer channels.

If you don’t have a dedicated subwoofer channel, you may want to add one to your system for fuller sounding bass.

Why are two subwoofers better than one

Most home theater systems include a 5.1 channel system, which means two front speakers, two surround speakers, one center speaker and one subwoofer. This type of surround sound setup works well for most applications, but the bass that comes from movies are often weak and lack volume.

By adding a second subwoofer to your 5.1 channel surround sound system, you can enjoy richer, fuller and stronger bass that makes the movie experience more immersive.

Get the best sound anywhere in the room

The basic idea behind 5.1 and 5.2 surround sound systems is that they offer more listening options, but in very different ways.

5.1 surround sound systems come in several variants, but the original, comprised six speakers (from the acronym), was designed for recording in digital stereo. Thus, it’s the preferred method for listening to movies (and the like), and for recording in digital stereo.

Having more speakers means having more listening options without the need to move your speakers. Instead of needing to place all of your speakers within earshot of your listening spot, you can place some of them behind you, surround you, or place one or two sets out in the living room if you have a large room.

If you’re buying a home theater system, the chances are good that 5.1 surround sound is the format you’re most interested in. After all, this is the format most others recommend and use currently.

More difficult to locate speakers

The newer 5.2 and 7.1 surround sound systems have emerged to make it much easier to localize the sound source. While 5.1 surround sound include six sound channels, 7.1 surround sound include eight curved sound channels. These surround sound systems don't have an exact specification for placement of the speakers but they do recommend 7-10 foot spacing behind the listener and 5-7 foot spacing to either side.

5.1 surround sound gives you more options for speaker placement in your room. You can have the center channel behind the listener or place it above. You can put the rear channels behind the listener with the addition of a separate subwoofer. Or you can add a separate subwoofer in the right or left channel. All of these options improve the depth and sound quality of your music while maintaining ease of use.

Improved overall sound experience

A 5.2 channel surround sound system, compared to a 5.1 channel, delivers greater overall sound output to the listener.

In order to achieve a 5.2 sound setup, a surround sound speaker system typically utilizes an extra low frequency speaker.

Improved looks

The two subwoofers can usually be a little smaller than the one big one of 5.1. So it depends if you want to put one big one in your room or rather two smaller ones. This can affect the look of your room dramatically and you don't really want to change your mind a few months into ownership of your surround sound system.

Conclusion

Upgrading from normal stereo to surround sound is a move you won't regret.

More channels means you experience more of the sound.

If you only use stereo (2 speakers) you’ll miss out on much of the sound effects.

And if you just have a center, you’ll miss a good portion of dialogue (Movies, TV shows).

You’ll get even more channels with a 7.1 or 8.1 system. But they’re more complex and costlier. Both 5.1 and 5.2 are amazing choices that will make you happy for a long time to come. It really comes down to your preference for depth of sound.