Arguably one of the main reasons people jump into the world of home theaters is for the upgrade to surround sound. The standard formats you’ll come across are 2.1, 5.1, and 7.1, but what do these mean, and which is best? These are questions I’ll cover in this article.
The main differences between 2.1 vs. 5.1 vs. 7.1 channel systems are the number of speakers with the .1 part being the subwoofer. Apart from the subwoofer, 2.1 systems consist of two speakers, whereas 5.1 systems have five speakers, and 7.1 systems have seven speakers.
Here’s a handy table to help clarify the main differences between these 3 speaker systems:
|2.1 channel||5.1 channel|
|Number of speakers||3||6|
|Info||Consists of left and right channels and subwoofer||Consists of left and right front and rear channels, center channel, and subwoofer|
|Ease of installation||Easy, generally plug in and play||Easy to moderate depending on specific system|
In this article, I’ll look at a more detailed comparison between these 3 types of speaker systems, along with a sound comparison and some information regarding the best room sizes for them too.
2.1 vs. 5.1 vs. 7.1 in home theaters
It’s fair to say that better audio quality is the reason many people start building a home theater. However, with several options available (not to mention soundbars), it can be a bit daunting to choose your first sound system. So which is right for your needs?
The biggest difference between these 3 speaker systems is the level of immersion they offer. This is the fundamental reason surround sound exists: to create an immersive sound experience that’s similar to what you experience in a movie theater.
Before we go any further, it’s worth clarifying a few terms and things to consider.
About Channels n Home Theater
- A channel is simply the technical name for a speaker. Each speaker needs its own channel from the receiver, hence the name.
- The .1 in the speaker description refers to the subwoofer. As it’s the speaker reserved specifically for bass it’s given its own separate channel.
It almost doesn’t need to state that a 7.1 channel system will offer the highest level of immersion, while a 2.1 channel system offers the lowest. Immersion is probably the most important factor to consider when choosing your sound system, but there are other things to think about too.
The second most important factor is probably the budget. Although cost isn’t necessarily directly related to the number of speakers, it’s fair to assume that the more speakers you plan on buying, the more expensive a system will be.
However, this isn’t always the case. For example, a high-end 5.1 channel system could cost a lot more than a moderate 7.1 channel system, and the loss of 2 speakers would definitely be compensated for in the overall sound quality.
Ease of Installation
The other important factor to consider is the ease of installation. 2.1 and 5.1 channel systems are generally fairly easy, as rear channel speakers can either be wall-mounted or positioned on plinths.
7.1 channel systems, however, can be that much more difficult to install, but this will depend on where you position the extra speakers. For example, if you simply have an extra pair of rear or surround speakers, then it won’t be any harder than the other systems.
On the other hand, if you decide to use the extra channels as ceiling speakers then you’ve got a larger job ahead of you. That said, you can position the speakers wherever you want, so it only needs to be as complicated as you want it to be.
What is a 2.1 channel system?
Before we start looking at sound comparisons, it’s worth defining the different speaker systems we’ll be looking at. Let’s start at the bottom of the pack with 2.1 channel systems.
A 2.1 channel speaker system is arguably the most basic level of external sound system, aside from soundbars. It’s only one step up from your TV speakers in that it adds a subwoofer.
These systems still use stereo sound, rather than surround, but you get the benefit of extra bass from the subwoofer. For some, this is a big enough step up from their current sound system.
There’s quite a range of 2.1 channel systems on the market, although many of these are aimed at computers rather than home theaters. This is because most manufacturers work under the assumption that home theater users will buy surround sound.
That said, if you’re just looking for a slight jump up from your standard TV audio, there’s no reason why a 2.1 channel system won’t be a good idea. Similarly, if you’re big on music, then this type of system will be ideal.
Pros and cons of a 2.1 channel system
- A 2.1 channel system will be the most budget-friendly option
- Will result in greater audio quality than standard stereo TV speakers
- The extra bass makes a noticeable difference to audio quality
- A good option for those short on space
- Can be upgraded to a surround sound system at a later stage using the right speakers
- Doesn’t provide surround sound
- Most 2.1 channel systems aren’t optimized for home theater use
What is a 5.1 channel system?
A 5.1 channel system is the first level of surround sound and is more complex than a 2.1 channel system. As the name implies, it features an extra 3 channels: a center channel and 2 rear channels.
The center channel is generally used for voices and dialogue, the front 2 speakers work as normal, and then the rear 2 channels act as surround sound by outputting “extra” sounds.
Similarly to a 2.1 channel system, 5.1 channel systems also feature a subwoofer for improved low-frequency response. Overall, a 5.1 channel system will provide a good level of sound immersion, although this is also based on the quality of the speakers themselves.
If you’re buying a 5.1 channel system for the first time then it makes sense to buy a complete system in one set. More advanced home theater users can consider building their own set, but this involves things like timbre matching that are a bit more complex.
5.1 channel systems have the benefit of being the most common form of advanced audio that’s offered on media. A very large number of films and TV shows offer 5.1 surround sound, including on a number of streaming services.
Pros and cons of a 5.1 channel system
- Widely available format on home media, including both TV and film, and is found on DVD, Blu-Ray, and streaming services
- Can be boosted further with a range of digital audio processing tools, such as Dolby Pro Logic
- Massive availability of products on the market
- 5.1 channel systems are optimized for home theaters
- Offer a noticeable jump from standard TV stereo audio
- Offers surround sound
- Speakers need to be matched to provide the best audio quality
- Can be a significant cost if you’re looking for a good quality system
- Not ideal if you focus on music, although 5.1 channel systems can be used for stereo audio
What is a 7.1 channel system?
As you may have already guessed, a 7.1 channel system is simply a 5.1 channel system with an extra 2 speakers! This makes it currently the most advanced speaker system available for home theaters.
The extra 2 speakers can basically be positioned wherever you want. For example, they can either be used as side speakers to compliment the front and rear channels, or hidden in the ceiling for a different dynamic level.
When combined with the right audio processing software, ceiling speakers can make a massive difference to the level of immersion. Although we talk about surround sound, it’s also considered to happen on the horizontal plane. Ceiling speakers, therefore, offer a more 3D sound experience.
The way a 7.1 channel system works is that it takes the rear channel signals and splits them into 4, rather than 2. This is then sent to the side and rear speakers to produce the highest level of immersion possible in a home theater setting.
The biggest drawback to a 7.1 channel system is that it’s currently the least common audio format available on home media. Not all DVDs and Blu-Rays offer it, so look into this if you’re considering making the jump.
However, a 7.1 channel system will still support stereo and 5.1 channel modes, and can then be used for 7.1 channel when available. Also, it’s fairly easy to upgrade a 5.1 system to a 7.1 because ceiling speakers can be integrated differently.
Pros and cons of a 7.1 channel system
- Offers the highest level of immersion from home theater equipment
- You have a level of control over where you integrate the extra 2 speakers
- Using ceiling speakers moves your sound experience off the horizontal plane
- It’s not too difficult to upgrade a 5.1 channel system to a 7.1 channel system
- Can still play stereo and 5.1 channel audio formats
- The most expensive speaker system if bought in one go
- 7.1 channel audio isn’t a commonly supported audio format and currently doesn’t exist on any streaming platforms
Sound quality comparison
When we’re talking about speakers, it’s always important to consider a sound quality comparison. After all, the purpose of speakers is to get the best sound quality for your budget, so it’s worth thinking about carefully.
That said, comparing sound quality is always a difficult thing because it relies too heavily on the actual quality of the speakers. Considering we won’t be able to compare 3 sets of identical speakers, we’ll compare them over things like the level of immersion.
Overall it’s fair to say that you’ll get the best audio from a 7.1 channel system. This is because it’s considered the closest to a movie’s original theater audio and uses audio processing software like Dolby TrueHD for lossless audio. In the home theater world, this is the best you’ll get.
However, a 5.1 channel system can do much of what a 7.1 channel system can, and some would even argue that you wouldn’t notice the loss of 2 speakers if you use the right system.
5.1 channel systems also use audio processing, which will generally be Dolby Digital or DTS. DTS doesn’t compress the audio as much, and so can be considered truer to the source, but Dolby Digital is more common.
A 2.1 channel system will arguably offer the worst audio quality, simply because it isn’t surround sound. The lack of immersion is noticeable, and although a high quality set of speakers will offer good audio, you don’t get the level of separation you experience from surround sound.
A 7.1 system offers the best sound quality whereas a 2.1 arguably offers the worst.
If you’re looking for the best audio quality then I’d definitely recommend a 5.1 channel system. It’s the most widely available type of speakers, meaning you have a massive range to choose from and so should get more for your money.
While 5.1 channel systems don’t offer lossless audio in the same way a 7.1 system does, the difference is hardly noticeable if your system is configured properly. It’s definitely worth investing in a better quality 5.1 system than a lower quality 7.1 one.
Similarly, sound quality isn’t decided purely by speakers, although these obviously count for a lot. You should also consider investing in a good quality receiver so that your audio tracks are processed properly. This would be a much better use of your money than a 7.1 channel system with a poor receiver.
2.1 vs. 5.1 vs. 7.1 room requirements
Along with the immersion level, another key factor to consider when choosing your speaker system is the size of the room you’re using. It’s worth noting that while it’s more common for speakers to be too small for a room, it can work the other way round too.
Talking about room size can be a bit ambiguous when trying to decide on speakers. To make it slightly easier, I consider 2 factors: the largest size room for the speakers and how far away you’ll be sitting. So here are my recommendations for room requirements.
2.1 channel system room requirements
As we’ve established, 2.1 channel systems are the most basic speaker systems available. For the most part, too, they’re most suitable for small to medium rooms. However, this will also be dependent on the size of the speakers.
By small to medium rooms, we’re talking about you sitting between 6 and 12ft from the speakers. In other words, this can equate to a room with around 140-160 square feet of floor space.
That said, speaker size is also a big factor to consider here. For example, in small rooms, you’d be best with a small set of bookshelf speakers, as anything larger might create too much distortion in the space.
5.1 channel system room requirements
A 5.1 channel system is best in a medium to a large room, which I’d consider to be a standard size family room. You need the room to be large enough to handle all 6 speakers, but small enough that they don’t fade out from you being too far away.
In other words, I’d consider a 5.1 channel system if you’re going to be sitting between 12 and 18ft from your TV (or the front channel speakers). A good set of surround sound speakers should be able to comfortably fill a room under 350 square feet.
Another way of thinking about the dimensions is that you’ll find the best level of immersion in a room 20ft long by 15ft wide, ideally with ceilings around 8ft high. This will give enough space for the sound to travel but not cross over itself.
A good set of satellite speakers should comfortably fill this size room with sound, and you won’t need to invest in large floor-standing speakers (unless you want to). Anything larger than this could still handle a 5.1 channel system but you’ll need to invest in larger speakers.
7.1 channel system room requirements
Choosing the correct size room for a 7.1 channel system is slightly harder because the extra speakers don’t necessarily add more volume, but rather output the audio in a more dynamic way.
Essentially, this means that the room requirements for a 5.1 channel system are still fine. However, using a 7.1 channel system means you can fill bigger spaces, such as larger than 350 square feet.
I would generally advise against putting a 7.1 channel system in a room that’s medium sized or smaller. This is simply because having 8 separate speakers in a small room can create a lot of cross over, which can result in muddy sound.
On the other hand, a large room will allow you to get the most from your extra speakers. This is particularly true for ceiling speakers in a high-ceiling room, as this can add an interesting level of sound dynamics.
What else should you consider?
Throughout this article, I’ve covered what I consider to be the main factors involved in choosing the right sound system, aside from the number of speakers. In short, budget, room size, and desired level of immersion are the important 3.
However, there are a few more things to consider, although these aren’t as important. That said; bear these in mind when you’re shopping for your new speakers.
Considering your receiver is the central hub of your home theater, it needs to match up with all of your other devices. This is important here because your receiver needs to have the right number of channels.
Not all receivers come with 7 speaker channels, so check this before buying. If you already have a receiver then buy the number of speakers it supports. If you don’t, then just make sure you buy the right receiver.
Similarly, if you’re buying a 5.1 system now but might upgrade in the future, then consider buying a receiver with 7 channels so it’ll be an easy jump.
Calibrating speakers is crucial for getting the best sound. It’s entirely possible to calibrate speakers manually, but some systems come with internal calibration. This shouldn’t be a deal breaker but is more common on 7.1 channel systems.
Longevity of system
This is an important factor to consider because a good set of speakers can last for years, if not decades. The reason this matters is dependent on when you next think you might be upgrading your home theater system.
For example, if you’re just starting out in the world of home theaters, then a 5.1 channel system might be best. Not only is this the most common audio format, it’s also easier to buy an entry-level system that you won’t begrudge trading in at a later date.
However, if you’re thinking of upgrading your current 5.1 channel system, then why not make the jump to a 7.1 channel system? You’ll still be able to play 5.1 channel audio on it, but you’ll have those extra speakers in the future for when it becomes a more common audio format.
Some final thoughts
Choosing the right speaker system depends on a number of factors. I’d recommend focusing mainly on things like budget and room size, as immersion doesn’t make that much of a difference once you enter the realm of surround sound.
That said, a 7.1 channel system can be a good investment for more advanced home theater fans. Ultimately it depends on your needs and what you’re looking for from your next home theater project.
Jason is a home theater expert with over 10 years of experience in setting up home cinema rooms and systems. What started out as a hobby soon transformed him into an authority in the audio-visual field. He is passionate about providing readers with accurate and up-to-date information on the latest audiovisual technologies and their applications for home theaters. Read more about Jason.