5.1 Vs. 7.1 Home Theater Explained
Home theater can be crazy confusing, especially if you’re just starting out. And one of the biggest decisions you’ll need to make is whether to go for a basic five-speaker system (plus a subwoofer, because who wouldn't want that bass?) or a more powerful seven-speaker system. While anybody who has experimented with speakers and amps for a while can probably skip this particular How-To, beginners and intermediate users will probably pick up a lot of good information. Even if you just have a desire to get yourself some slightly better sound than your TV is giving you, you’ll probably get plenty of use out this, and we've included plenty of tips and tricks. So let’s jump right in, and talk about the differences between 5.1 and 7.1 systems.
Pros And Cons Of 5.1 And 7.1
When we talk about a home theater system, we always preface it with a set of numbers. The most common are (as you will know already if you’ve read the title of this article and are only mildly awake) 5.1 or 7.1. Both refer to the number of speakers in the setup. A 5.1 system consists of five smaller speakers and one subwoofer. The subwoofer handles the bass, while the five additional speakers handle everything else In this particular setup, you will have a center speaker that sits directly in front of your listening position, underneath your TV. On either side of it will be two front speakers - these can either be smaller satellites, or big floorstanding speakers. The remaining two speakers usually sit to either side of your listening position – so one on each side of your couch. The subwoofer can occupy various positions, but is most commonly placed in a corner, or to one side of your TV.
One of the big advantages of 5.1 systems, which we'll go into in a little more detail below, is that they are self-contained. You can buy them in a single box, without any additional equipment needed. A good example? Try the Onkyo HT-S7800, a simple set of speakers that comes with its own receiver – which, by the way, is the hub that you’ll run everything into, and which connects your speakers to your TV.
Then there’s 7.1. Now, very obviously, this is the same set up with two additional speakers added – only this is where things start getting complicated. Those two additional speakers could be identical to the ones on either side of your listening position, only placed behind it. They could be height speakers, that are bolted to the wall, facing downwards. This is where you really start to get the full surround sound effect. If you’re looking to get involved with this many speakers, try something like the Infinity Reference 7.1 Home Theater Speaker Package It doesn’t come with its own receiver, but that’s not uncommon among bigger systems.
Of course, you can go bigger. Much bigger. By now, you’ve probably worked out the numbering system, so if we tell you about a 9.2 or 11.2 system, you’ve almost certainly got a good idea of what this entails. It can actually get quite complex – we’ve seen systems that are 9.2.4, which is nine surround speakers, two subwoofers, and four speakers installed in the ceiling. On a related note, Mad Max: Fury Road sounds badass through that system.
Whichever home theater system you decide to go for (and were going to stick to 5.1 and 7.1 here, otherwise we’ll be here all day) you need to be aware of the pros and cons.
5.1 first. It’s got several distinct advantages: the systems usually come in a single box, as we’ve mentioned, meaning there’s no need to invest in additional components - although of course, that's always an options. They are also relatively easy to set up and place, which can be a real boon for smaller rooms. They are inexpensive – it’s possible to get a good 5.1 system for under $1,000 – and depending on the receiver they come with, eminently customisable if you ever decide to go that route. And even if you buy the cheapest one available, it’s going to be an immediate upgrade to the sound coming out of your TV. You’ll notice this the moment you watch a movie, or play a game, or load up a series on Netflix, or do anything that has surround sound capabilities.
You're also far more likely to find wireless systems here - and for anyone who has ever spent an afternoon stripping and twisting speaker wire, that's probably a huge relief. If you’re into checking out wireless systems, they come in both 5.1 and 7.1 variants. For 5.1, try the Enclave Audio Cinehome HD 5.1, and if you fancy adding some rear speakers, we recommend the Axiim Q HD. It’s a 5.1 system, but can easily be upgraded to 7.1.
Of course, they do have a downside. A couple, actually. They can feel underpowered, compared to bigger systems, and they simply don’t have the depth or precision of those setups. More importantly, if you are in a larger room, they are simply not going to be adequate. For the most part, these systems are composed of satellite speakers, which are small and light, and can be placed easily. That’s fine – but it does come with the caveat that they aren’t going to be nearly as powerful. In addition, while wireless systems are far more convenient, in that they don’t clutter up your listening room with wires, sound quality can sometimes suffer, and you will need to plug each speaker into a power socket. Wired speakers almost always sound better, but do have the disadvantage of needing ugly speaker wire, which you’ll almost certainly have to purchase separately.
7.1 systems, on the other hand, make their advantages known immediately. Increasing the number of speaker channels gives you richer surround sound, and at the price ranges they usually operate at, the speaker build quality and audio capabilities are usually way, way ahead of any 5.1 system. While not all packages come with the receiver, they do demand that you have one, and any you invest in will almost certainly allow you to easily upgrade your existing system, should you choose to.
Downsides? 7.1 systems can be expensive. Actually, scratch that can – in almost all circumstances, they are pretty pricey. The only way they wouldn’t be is if you take a 5.1 system, swap out the receiver for something with a bit more meat and more channels, and add in a couple of additional satellite speakers, but this Frankenstein -like configuration is never going to be a patch on a purpose-built 7.1 system. And if you try to deploy a 7.1 setup in a small room, you’ll quickly find that the sound becomes muddy and unfocused, as you need a little bit of distance between you and the speakers to get the effect you’re looking for.
So, here are the key things to bare in mind when choosing:
How big is your room? If it’s larger than around 350 square feet, consider a 7.1 speaker setup. If it’s smaller, a 5.1 may be more appropriate.
Where is your listening position? Do you have room behind it? If so, consider a 7.1 setup.
What type of furnishings are in your listening room? How many flat surfaces do you have in relation to the number of soft surfaces or bookshelves? We'll go into this a little more below.
Are you likely to want to upgrade your surround sound at any point? Could you see yourself investing in height speakers? If so, go for a 7.1 system, with a compatible receiver.
Do you prefer wired or wireless systems? If you need excellent sound and don’t mind wires, then go for wired. If you can compromise a little on sound, and have multiple plug points available, go for wireless.