Although it may not seem like that big of a difference to the uninitiated, 5.1 and 7.1 speaker systems can deliver very different results. On paper at least, the 7.1 surround sound system is considerably superior in terms of quality and performance.
But make no mistake. There are many other factors that need to line up for that to be the case. As such, you’ll soon find out that you may actually benefit from fewer speakers in certain situations. Here’s what you need to know about the 5.1 vs. 7.1 surround sound systems.
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Let’s Talk Similarities
To better understand the differences, big and small, it’s best to first get all the similarities out of the way. 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound systems are obviously better suited for home theater than anything else that has fewer speakers.
Both systems include a subwoofer, designated by the .1. Both have a dedicated center channel speaker that enhances the midrange (vocal and dialogue). Both systems have a way of bouncing off sound waves so that it seems as if you’re hearing something that’s happening behind, in front, and to the side of you.
And, both 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound systems can make use of a huge variety of speakers, components. technologies. From here, things can be quite different and the implications big when going with one configuration over the other.
Reach and Room Size
In general, 7.1 surround sound systems have more reach than comparable 5.1 systems. The extra two channels or speakers can theoretically fill out bigger rooms.
What many people may not understand is that bigger and more speakers aren’t necessarily always a good thing.
Using a 7.1 surround sound system in a small room can actually have a negative effect. Apart from taking up more space, having too many speakers can actually muddy the sound if there’s not enough distance between the walls for the sound waves to bounce off without too much crossing over.
Just because you have a multi-speaker configuration doesn’t mean that you can take full advantage when playing a movie. For the time being, the majority of movies are released with audio mixes for a 5.1 speaker configuration.
Because of this, adding two additional speakers may not guarantee any discernible boost in audio quality. However, there are also plenty of players that work with 7.1 systems and many consoles support it too.
You will be able to find a 7.1 home theater system for cheaper than a comparable 5.1 system. However, that’s if you compare apples to apples. Needless to say, a 5.1 system made up of high-end audiophile speakers is going to sound better and potentially cost a lot more than a mass market 7.1 system.
Fewer speakers mean you can save money on two speakers. Apart from the actual number of speakers, the technologies used in a 7.1 surround sound processor can also drive up the price.
For example, 7.1 systems come with DTS-HD Master Audio or Dolby TrueHD DSP processing. These technologies will require newer chipsets and higher licensing fees and therefore they’re more expensive than DTS or Dolby Digital 5.1 formats.
To recap, here’s the key difference between 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound:
A 5.1 system comes with six channels. It has a subwoofer, front and rear speakers (left and right), and a center channel speaker.
A 7.1 system comes with the same six channels as the 5.1 and two additional speakers. This means that a 7.1 system has both a pair of side speakers (placed to the side of the listener) and a pair of rear speakers (placed behind the listener).
Whereas in a 5.1 system, you have a choice of placing the pair of surround speakers to the side or the rear. If you’re using a tiny room, for example, you may not have enough room to put the surround speakers in the back so you might just have to settle for the side.
However, the additional speakers in 7.1 configurations can also be height speakers. Height speakers are useful because they can create an overhead sound effect. These speakers blast sound waves into the ceiling, at an angle, so that the sound will appear as if coming from above or behind you.
It’s one of the simplest tricks to create an immersive audio experience. And very similar in a way to how rear speakers work. They just add another dimension to the sound.
Installation and Placement
For 7.1 systems that come with height speakers, there’s a lot more to consider in terms of placement. First of all, you’ll need more space to fit in all your speakers. Secondly, you need to figure out a way to elevate those speakers.
One option would be to mount the speakers on the wall, perhaps above your TV. Unfortunately, that won’t always look great. And, it can be even harder to pull off with a wall-mounted TV setup.
An alternative would be placing the height speakers on bookshelves or on speaker stands. But since these speakers aren’t usually big by any means, using speaker stands might be awkward. But then not everyone has bookshelves near the TV.
Another issue would be whether you own or rent your place. If you rent, you may be hesitant to drill holes and such, though this usually isn’t a problem in the US where most homes have drywalls that are easy to fill with putty.
Which Speaker Configuration Do You Need?
As previously stated, the industry standard in music, cinema, and gaming is still the 5.1 speaker configuration. Due to how the audio is mixed, this type of system will almost always be more than enough.
Just for reference, Disney is the only studio that has promised to only release content mixed for 7.1 from now on. So, unless you’re only watching Disney releases, chances are that not all of your movies will be able to fully benefit from a 7.1 speaker configuration. Even then, they’ll always come with 5.1 audio mixes too.
If you’re a console gamer or PC gamer, a 5.1 speaker system will serve you well. As long as you’re not installing in in a large, long room.
If your room is long then you might need the extra oomph from the additional side or height speakers.
How to Pick Your Speakers
Always check your Blu-Ray player, console, A/V receiver to see what kind of speakers they can support. What’s the maximum configuration?
Then you want to start thinking about the installation. Also, wire management. Wire management can be a pain even with a 3.1 system. No one wants to see wires everywhere and not everyone has proper means for concealing speaker cables.
Therefore, you could also consider wireless alternatives, for either a 5.1 or 7.1 system. As previously stated, 7.1 systems sound noticeably better than 5.1 systems when many factors align, such as having ample room, quality speakers, access to a 7.1 processor and audio mixes, etc.
The Brand Matters
Some home theater audio systems manufacturers are just ahead of the pack by leaps and bounds. In the case of 5.1 and especially 7.1 speaker systems, the price tag can be a very good indicator of the level of quality you can expect to get.
Furthermore, it’s no secret that the well-known brands carry a certain assurance of quality and perhaps better customer support and warranties. Besides, as previously mentioned, a cheap 7.1 system is not going to be better (or cheaper) than a 5.1 system full of audiophile components.
Consider Other Options Too
Height speakers are very nice to have. But, what if your room is just too packed and there’s not enough wiggle room to experiment with different speaker positions.
In some situations, you can squeeze in a 7.1 speaker system into a smaller or more crowded room if you look for in-ceiling speakers. In-ceiling speakers can complement the standard six-channel configuration and provide a room-filling experience without muddying the audio. Not to mention that the overhead effect can be very immersive.
How to Approach Speaker Positioning
Once you figure out which configuration you’re going for, the fun part begins. You see, slapping a soundbar under or above your TV is very easy. All you have to really do is play with the subwoofer positioning until you find the sweet spot.
With multi-speaker configurations, you have your work cut out for you. You won’t always be able to rely on a symmetrical spread of speakers using your TV as the central point. Lots of things may come into play, such as the seating area, furniture, carpets, window size, and so on.
However, our advice is to just go with a standard installation and then play around with the placements later. You’ll be surprised to discover that even angling your front speakers toward the listening position can make a noticeable difference.
You might also want to factor in the décor in this situation. If you’re running your speakers throughout the entire room, as you probably should if you can, there’s a lot to consider. Not everybody has the freedom to locate the speakers and cables wherever they like. You might have a spouse and family who may not agree with your aesthetic sense.
Closing Thoughts on Surround Sound Systems
Unless you’re content with using a soundbar, picking between a 5.1 and a 7.1 surround sound system is something you’ll eventually have to do. While soundbars are great upgrades from stock TV speakers, they can’t match the realistic and palpable effects of a multi-speaker configuration.