Deciding on which soundbar to buy alone is difficult enough with all the brands and models. It can get even more confusing when you have to compare the configurations and types of soundbars. Case in point, the 2.1 vs 3.1 soundbar debate is particularly heated.
Some might say that the difference is not noticeable while others argue that the two types are miles apart in terms of audio quality. This article will give you a clear overview of what makes the two different and why in some cases one is better than the other.
Table of Contents
- What is a Soundbar?
- What Do the Numbers Mean?
- 2.1 Soundbars
- 3.1 Soundbars
- Main Key Difference – Midrange Quality
- Size Comparisons
- Pricing Concerns
- Active vs. Passive Soundbars
- Does The Number of Channels Matter for Placement?
- Which One Should You Pick?
- Is an Entry-Level 5.1 Soundbar Better Than 2.1 or 3.1 Models?
- Final Thoughts on Standard Soundbars
What is a Soundbar?
A soundbar is a loudspeaker that comes in the form of a long and short speaker box. Within that speaker box resides multiple independent speakers to simulate multiple channels of sound.
This offers a compact solution to home audio and home theater systems and multiple convenient mounting options.
As such, a soundbar armed with multiple channels of speakers can emulate anything from the standard stereo systems (2 speakers) to home theater systems that use 5.1 or 7.1 speakers.
Don’t Mistake Them for Soundbases
Since both are designed for the same purpose, it can be easy to confuse a soundbar and a soundbase.
While a soundbar is a thin rectangular speaker designed to be mounted over or in front of the TV, the soundbase is a different beast. It is a much larger speaker with the size to hold a TV sitting directly on top of it – and therefore the base in the name.
The soundbase has more room for speakers and also to move more air. It’s capable of much deeper bass and perhaps better stereo imaging but it’s going to cost more and take up more room.
What Do the Numbers Mean?
Back to soundbars.
They are designated as 2.0, 2.1, 3.1, 5.1, and so on. This is the same as what’s used to describe surround sound systems.
The first number indicates the number of speakers. The second number indicates the presence of subwoofers: .0 is no subwoofer, .1 is one subwoofer, and .2 is two subs.
For example, a standard 5.1 speaker system means it requires five speakers and one separate subwoofer. As decoded by a surround sound processor, the audio will be routed to two front speakers, two back speakers, one center speaker, and a subwoofer.
This is exactly the same when applied to soundbars. The first number indicates the number of speakers that the soundbar is simulating and the second indicates if the soundbar also has a subwoofer channel.
Note that most soundbars don’t actually build the subwoofer into the speaker cabinet. The subwoofer is likely to come separately for placement on the floor.
This is because it’s hard to shield the subwoofer driver perfectly such that it won’t interfere with the TV. It’s better to put the subwoofer on the floor, where it’s also going to enhance the bass and distribute it better.
The Third Number
You may have seen this on some occasions – 5.1.4 soundbars. What is the purpose of that third number? It is there to indicate whether the soundbar supports Dolby Atmos surround sound technology or DTS:X technology.
Simply put, the last number should indicate how many dedicated drivers the soundbar has. Those dedicated drivers can emulate projecting sound at the ceiling, bouncing off the walls, and so on. This type of technology creates a more immersive soundstage that’s supposed to simulate a movie theater.
However, it is unlikely to find anything under 5.1 that works with discrete surround sound decoding like DTS or Dolby Digital EX and above.
A 2.1 soundbar has a left channel and a right channel plus a subwoofer.
This type of model will always be a step up from standard TV speakers.
A 3.1 soundbar has a left channel, a right channel, and a center channel in addition to a subwoofer (.1).
Main Key Difference – Midrange Quality
Both 2.1 and 3.1 channel soundbars have the ‘left’ and ‘right’ channels, as well as a subwoofer, but the key difference between a 2.1 soundbar and a 3.1 soundbar is the absence of a ‘center’ channel in the former.
So, what’s the purpose of this additional channel in a 3.1 soundbar?
Its main goal is to play dialog or vocals. Or at least that’s what the sound processing will send to the center.
With a 2.1 soundbar, you will have to rely on the stereo imaging of the left and right speaker drivers to get the dialog or vocal in the middle. It won’t have a dedicated channel and it may not be as crisp and clear as it could be.
The 3.1 soundbar introduces a dedicated center channel for this purpose. There’s no longer any need to route the dialog/vocal to the left and right speakers.
This can have a considerable impact on how you will be able to hear movie dialogue. With a 3.1 soundbar, you can even tweak the sound level of the center channel separately.
Looking to get a new soundbar? You can check out my complete buying guide and top recommendations on the latest soundbars.
With all things equal, a 3.1 soundbar is going to be bigger than a 2.1 soundbar. Not necessarily in height but in width. It needs to accommodate a third speaker for the center channel.
However, this may not be an ideal choice for everyone. Not everyone has room for a wider soundbar or will be pleased by a larger speaker. Room aesthetics may matter more to some people than others.
The most basic 2.0 soundbars are not extinct but they’re not as popular anymore. Therefore, the 2.1 soundbar could be considered the basic soundbar these days.
A larger soundbar, with better internal bracing, better projection, and most importantly, an extra speaker will be more expensive. For the most part, you can expect to pay up to one and a half times more for a 3.1 soundbar than a comparable 2.1 soundbar.
All modern 2.1 and 3.1 soundbars can have optic and HDMI inputs. HDMI is obviously preferred as it supports more audio formats. But, with the limitations of 2.1 soundbars, an HMDI 2.1 soundbar may not always be worth the money.
Either type can support Bluetooth streaming. This has nothing to do with the speaker configuration but the manufacturer’s design choices.
However, I will point out that getting a Bluetooth subwoofer is going to be much more convenient. If you’re trying to eliminate the cable clutter.
I should also mention that it is possible to get a simple soundbar and pair it with your own favorite subwoofer. Just make sure that a connection can be established.
Active vs. Passive Soundbars
Both active and passive models are available for 2.1 or 3.1. However, active soundbars are way more popular because soundbars in general are designed to upgrade TV speakers. They are for people who don’t already have a receiver or amplifier, which is what you’re going to need to power a passive soundbar.
Does The Number of Channels Matter for Placement?
The number of speakers in a soundbar shouldn’t influence the placement in any way. Soundbars can be mounted on a TV stand or on the wall, usually below the TV.
The size of the soundbar shouldn’t matter in this case but the weight may limit your installation options.
That said, most soundbars are designed to project sound to the front and slightly upwards. That’s why the recommendation is to install it below the TV or in front of the bottom of the TV.
Which One Should You Pick?
As with many other choices in audio equipment, the choice between a 2.1 soundbar and a 3.1 soundbar may come down to budget.
2.1 soundbars can be considerably cheaper. Nearly any soundbar is going to sound better than your TV speakers. But if you’re an audiophile on a tight budget, a 3.1 soundbar will be more appealing.
That extra center channel speaker will do a great deal of work, especially for the vocals.
Is an Entry-Level 5.1 Soundbar Better Than 2.1 or 3.1 Models?
This is an interesting topic of discussion. On paper, a 5.1 soundbar should always eclipse configurations with fewer channels.
However, I feel like this is all relative. An entry-level 5.1 soundbar can easily not sound as good as a 3.1 soundbar made by a reputable speaker manufacturer.
The engineering and component quality can make a lot of difference. Plus, it’s generally true that the rear channels aren’t going to make as big of a difference as the front channels as well.
But, this also raises another question. Should you upgrade to a 3.1 or a 5.1 soundbar from a 2.1 configuration.
Upgrading to the former can make a big difference if you’re buying a quality soundbar. However, I’d also point out that saving up for a direct upgrade to a 5.1 soundbar is worth considering too.
Final Thoughts on Standard Soundbars
I feel confident enough to call a 3.1 soundbar standard. Either of these two options will do well, especially in smaller rooms.
But it’s important to manage your expectations either way. While they can sound great, they won’t get you close to a home theater experience. Even with a 7.1 soundbar, you’re still simulating side and rear speakers from the front.
That said, if you’re on a budget but you still want to experience great audio, some of these smaller soundbars will pleasantly surprise. Especially if you’re able to find the right soundbar and subwoofer placement for your room.