5.1 vs 7.1, Dolby Atmos & More!

These days there is such a wide variety and combination of speaker setups, your shopping experience may end up being a little overwhelming. Whether you’re just starting your journey into a home theater system, or consider yourself a seasoned vet, you should first figure out just how immersive of an audio experience you want. While there is a numbering code for a particular setup, it’s not meant to be a sacred code that causes confusion. In fact, the number designation for a home theater system will help you communicate with other home theater and audio enthusiasts and decide which options will best suit your needs. Let’s jump to the basics like 5.1 vs 7.1, before going through the ever-expanding 3D audio configurations like Dolby Atmos.

What is 5.1?

What is a 5.1 setup you ask? It is the standard number of speakers used to create a surround sound system. A 5.1 system refers to five speaker channels, typically at ear-level, and one subwoofer channel (the sub being the .1). If you have two subs, that is considered a 5.2 system with the second sub being the “.2″. This number of speakers you want to use in your system is the primary starting point when you are graduating from a soundbar or a pair of speakers for your TV to a surround setup.

The 5.1 speaker system is comprised of the front left and front right speakers, a dedicated center channel and two side surround speakers. With respect to your listening position, both the type of speaker and physical location of your surround speakers are important.

Keep in mind the two basic listening formats are Surround mode and Stereo mode. Surround will utilize all of your channels and mainly used while watching movies. Stereo mode will use the front left and right speakers which is primarily for music listening.

During movies, the center channel is the work-horse because of its constant usage. Of course, all movies tell a story and most of the dialogue you see on screen is mixed into the center speaker. This speaker should be placed above or below the video display. Your center speaker will also handle sound effects and even some of the music while watching Netflix, Amazon or your Blu-ray collection.

As for the musical score during films, this is primarily taken care of with the front left and right speakers. If you’re just hanging out at the house listening to music by streaming on Spotify or Tidal, spinning your vinyl or (dare I say it) playing CDs, most likely your receiver is in stereo mode.

Many people when they first upgrade from a soundbar or just TV speakers go for an all-in-one package, aka a Home Theater In A Box (or HTIB). By no means are we “knocking” the HTIB because they definitely offer a convenience factor, however they aren’t so friendly at integrating with a new receiver. They’re typically a proprietary offering that is designed to only work with the components that were originally in the box. This could unfortunately halt your dreams of expanding your audio experience to a more immersive surround format. Upgrading to a system with more channels than just a typical 5.1 system is something that can pay big returns down the road.

7.1 – What’s the big deal?

So what does a 7.1 setup consist of? Take your existing 5.1 setup, and add two more speakers as rear speakers and boom! 7.1 system. Again adding an additional sub is considered 7.2… Are you starting to catch the number system trend?

Experiencing 5.1 is just the starting point for immersive sound. But if you have the room, the additional rear speakers can add an incredible amount of depth to the sound field. Often times, the sound design team at the film studio will use these channels to convey the sensation that something heading at you from behind, or disappearing far off in the distance behind you.

Many people have their room arranged so the couch is up against a back wall, which doesn’t allow the needed space for an additional pair of speakers behind the listening position. But don’t worry, you can simulate a 7.1 sound field by using Bipolar speakers as side speakers in a 5.1 configuration. The rear firing speaker will ultimately bounce off your back wall and can trick your ears into hearing a speaker behind you, even when there really isn’t one there. However, if you do have the luxury of additional space behind your listening position, taking the next step to 7.1 is very impressive.

While 7.1 adds a whole new dimension of sound, 5.1 is still considered the surround sound standard. If you sift through your Blu-ray collection and look on the back of the cases, you’ll notice that a majority of your Blu-rays or DVDs say “Dolby Digital 5.1”. That means that there is specific information for each speaker in your 5.1 system. When you see it has 7.1 listed, then you know disc will have specific info for all seven of your speakers.

So what happens if you have the source content is only available in 5.1, but you have a 7.1 speaker setup? Most receivers these days have a function to up-mix the source content. Basically, your receiver can create the effect of a soundtrack mixed in 7.1 from one that is natively in 5.1.

What is Dolby Atmos? Can’t I just go to a real movie theater for this?

With over 120 movies available in Dolby Atmos, this format definitely worth investigating. After all, Dolby Atmos can deeply immerse you in sound, making your home theater experience just that much more realistic. We were even having a chat here at Aperion about the impact that sound can have on a movie, and we’ve determined that it makes a HUGE difference.

Dolby Atmos is considered a 3-dimensional sound format. There are other formats like DTS:X and Auro-3D as well. Sure, you could go to the movie theater, but that’s an entire experience in itself. Not only the stress of getting there early enough to get all of the amenities, but also depending on the theater you may need to arrive early to reserve your seat, and to top it off inconveniencing those around you when it’s time for a restroom break and missing part of the movie. There’s something special about being in the peace and quiet of your own home and with speakers that are specifically placed for your enjoyment. And the best part is being able to hit pause!

Adding more speakers ultimately leads to a more immersive sound field, when they are placed properly. You’re probably thinking “How can you possibly add any more speakers to my home theater?” For these 3-dimensional sound formats, generally the extra speakers will be installed in the ceiling, placed up high, or aimed toward the ceiling to provide precise reflective properties. But for now, let’s cover the basics of a Dolby Atmos setup.

Depending how many overhead speakers you are adding (2 or 4), stick to the numbering format discussed previously and just add an extra digit to the end of our format. For example, a 5.1 setup with two overheads would read: 5.1.2. The two most popular Dolby Atmos setups consist of 5.1.2 (5 ear-level surround, 1 sub, 2 overhead), or 7.2.4 (7 ear-level surround, 2 subs, 4 overhead). There are numerous amounts of speakers you can add to the setup and you can find more details on these expansive setups in our blog here: Choosing Your Surround Speakers.


Some Helpful Hints

  • If your room is 15′ x 20′ or larger and you have room for two speakers in the back of the room, a 7.1 system makes the surround effect much more impressive, even if most of your source content is 5.1.
  • If your couch is right up against the back wall, then a 7.1 system probably is not worth it as the rear speakers won’t have the proper spacing from the side surrounds.
  • If you use bipolar surround speakers in the side surround position, you may not need rear surround speakers right away. Bipolar surround speakers reflect enough sound off the back wall and somewhat emulate a 7.1 setup.
  • At this point, there is an increasing number of movies available in Dolby Atmos format. We don’t see this format going away any time soon because of the traction it’s gained over the past few years.
  • If you do decide to unleash a Dolby Atmos setup, be sure to do your research to understand what additional speakers and amplifier components you might need.
  • Most receivers have 7 amplifier channels, so if you’re planning to go bigger than a 7-speaker setup you will need a receiver with more amplifier channels. Otherwise you’ll need to be sure that it has enough processing channels and capacity to hook up to another external amplifier.

Now you know!

Surround sound will always be evolving and at this point it looks like 3-dimensional sound doesn’t seem to be just a trend that will fade away. While 5.1 systems still remain the most common, if you can and your room will support it, we highly recommend expanding to a 7.1 setup! If you have any questions about any of the topics discussed here, just give us a call, drop us an email or chat in with us and we’d be happy to discuss which system configurations might work best for you.


Curious about which speaker to choose? Read on - Choosing Your Surround Speakers

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