2.1 vs 5.1 Soundbar – Differences (Stereo vs Surround Sound)

Updated on by Gavin Whitner | Please note that there may be affiliate links on this page.

Soundbars are slowly but surely becoming the norm in the average living rooms. It’s because they’re cheaper than complex home theater setups with multiple speakers and dedicated channels of amplification.

And, it’s also because they can help you save a lot of space and create a cleaner entertainment room. But when it comes to the 2.1 vs. 5.1 soundbar debate, there are some things you really need to be aware of before making a definitive decision.

Believe it or not, numbers don’t always matter and there is a place for each type of soundbar. Here’s what you need to know to find out which will serve you best.

How Soundbars Work

Although a soundbar looks more or less like a single speaker (especially a center channel speaker), in reality soundbars are designed to emulate a multi-speaker system.

A soundbar can contain a number of speakers on the same speaker cabinet – 2, 3, 4, 5, etc. The speakers are positioned as designed to simulate surround sound (usually also with the help of software). For example, the left and right speakers usually face outward from the soundbar.

In any event, it’s the various angles and positions of the individual speakers that allow soundbars to project sound waves towards the walls and have them bounce off to create a similar effect to that of a surround sound system (again, usually also with the help of software). This works because instead of hearing the sound as if it’s coming from in front of you, it will sound as if it’s coming from all around you.

What’s in the Numbers

Soundbars come in multiple configurations. As previously mentioned, it can have a minimum of two speakers. More advanced models come with three, five, and seven speakers.

2.1 vs. 5.1 Soundbars – the key difference:

A 2.1 soundbar has two speakers (2.x) and one subwoofer (x.1). In the same way, a 5.1 soundbar would have five speakers and one subwoofer. This allows a 5.1 soundbar get closer to delivering a ‘surround sound’ experience.

In some occasions, there may be a third number too. An example of this would be a 7.1.2 soundbar. The last number indicates the number of elevation speakers, which are required in Dolby Atmos soundbars. These are upward-firing speakers that take advantage of the ceiling to create overheard sound and further enhance the surround sound experience.

Upward firing speakers are not usually found in any model with fewer than seven speakers, though. There are exceptions, of course.

2.1 Soundbar Configuration

A 2.1 soundbar has two speakers, one left and one right. A separate subwoofer is also included, which can be wired or wireless. It’s as standard as you can get. It replicates a traditional stereo system with two front speakers and a subwoofer.

5.1 Soundbar Configuration

A 5.1 soundbar has the following speakers:

  • Front left
  • Front right
  • Front center speaker
  • Surround left
  • Surround right
  • Subwoofer

Note that this configuration can come in two forms. Either the surround speakers are integrated into the soundbar or the surround speakers are separate, much like the subwoofer.

In the case of having separate surround speakers, you get the freedom to place them either to the side or in the back (the latter is more common). But you’re free to experiment and find optimal placement for the speakers.

With integrated surround speakers, soundbar manufacturers once again rely on angled positioning. This means that surround speakers have to achieve an effect that has the sound coming at your ears from behind.

For this to work, the speakers have to project sound waves off the walls behind you. This can be quite difficult to accomplish in larger rooms. However, in small rooms it should work really well. That’s because there’s a shorter distance between the speakers and the walls behind you.

Rear speakers can be stereo too (independent of each other). This means that a movie soundtrack can be mixed to have you hear a sound to the right and behind you, if so desired. If the rear speakers are mono (non-stereo), both rear speakers will play the same sound.

Main Differences – Recap

Here are the most important takeaways.

A 5.1 soundbar comes with more speakers. One of the most important additions is the center channel speaker. This is the speaker where the dialog or vocals get routed to.

In addition to this, a 5.1 soundbar will also contain speakers that create the surround sound effect by bouncing sound waves off the walls behind you. For a more room-filling sound and immersive soundstage.

It’s also important to remember that a 5.1 soundbar can come with three additional components, counting the subwoofer. You may have to decide whether to have separate or integrated surround speakers.

When to Pick a 2.1 Soundbar

A 2.1 soundbar is often the most economical way of boosting your TV audio in a small room. It’s also a great way to save space and declutter your wiring situation. It’s the ultimate space-saving solution for superior TV sound quality.

This device is as cheap as soundbars can get, not counting the even simpler 2.0 soundbar. A high quality 2.1 soundbar can be a good choice for those who listen mostly to music. Especially for the purist, regular music played in surround sound can sound really weird.

When to Pick a 5.1 Soundbar

One of the main reasons to pick a 5.1 soundbar is because you want or need surround sound. The rear speakers can provide that for you.

Another reason to pick a 5.1 soundbar is to get clearer vocals. While a 2.1 soundbar can replicate a center channel speaker by way of its stereo imaging, this usually works best for those who sit in the sweet spot (like in the middle of the listening couch). For those who sit off-axis, having a dedicated center channel can make a big difference.

Moreover, you can also consider a 5.1 soundbar if you’re not limited in space.

When a 5.1 Soundbar May Not Be Convenient

If your room and TV setup call for an above TV soundbar placement, then a 5.1 configuration may not always be best. It’s possible to lose some projection from the rear speakers and not get the full surround sound experience.

If you’re not able to invest a lot in your entertainment center then a 5.1 soundbar may also be out of the question. If 2.1 and 3.1 soundbars are somewhat similar in price, a 5.1 soundbar will come with a big difference in price.

Most people choose soundbars because they’re convenient and make cable management a breeze. But, with one subwoofer, a wider soundbar, and potentially two extra rear speakers, all of a sudden you have so many more wires to conceal.

And, room acoustics matter too. A 2.1 soundbar is more or less something that you can set and forget. You may only have to play with the subwoofer’s position and that’s it.

In contrast, a 5.1 configuration with separate stereo/rear speakers means that the installation won’t be that quick. You’ll also have to figure out where to put the rear speakers.

In the end, however, a 5.1 soundbar can totally sound better. You can also set a 5.1 soundbar to play with 2.1 channels, like when you don’t want to listen to music in surround sound. Of course, the same can’t be said of a 2.1 soundbar – you can’t set a 2.1 to play as a 5.1.

What to Look for

Whenever you buy a soundbar, you should look at more than just the number of speakers. Look for Bluetooth connectivity to be sure that cable management won’t become an issue.

Also look at the power rating and any manufacturer recommendations regarding the space that the soundbar can fill. Some manufacturers offer recommendations for room sizes that would work best for the particular soundbar.

With respect to your room size, you should never get an undersized soundbar. It’s not going to sound as good and in an attempt to play louder to fill a room that’s bigger than recommended, you’re also more likely to blow something in the soundbar.

If you’re looking for a new soundbar, these are the ones that I recommend.

Pricing Concerns

It is possible to find very cheap 5.1 soundbars, perhaps even cheaper than an audiophile 2.1 soundbar. But very cheap soundbars don’t come with the best speaker drivers. This also means that if sound quality is important to you and you can’t afford to buy a good 5.1 soundbar, you might want to consider getting a high quality 2.1 soundbar for the same money.

Closing Thoughts and Recommendation

When the right conditions are met, a 5.1 soundbar can be considerably superior to a 2.1 soundbar. But then, it’s not going to be the best choice for everyone. Not only is it pricier but it may rely on other factors to live up to its full potential.

Installing a 5.1 soundbar configuration, with or without external speakers, in a subpar room can be a waste of money, if you ask me. But when everything comes together, a 5.1 soundbar will blow away a 2.1 soundbar, at least when watching an action movie in surround sound.

If you want to get closer to a home theater experience, then the 5.1 soundbar is the way to go. Just make sure that you’re getting one powerful enough for your room size.

Gavin Whitner

About Gavin Whitner

A guitar player, songwriter, composer, and also the lead editor of MusicOomph, Gavin is one of the four musician friends behind this site. Outside of music, he's an avid sports fan and hardly misses anything from football (soccer) to F1.

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