You’re finally going to do it. You’ve been saving up, and now you’re going to get the home theater system of your dreams. Your dreams, however, have been a little bit vague and left you questioning exactly what kind of sound system to get. In particular, you can’t choose between 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound.
A 5.1 surround sound system consists of a front left, front right, front center, surround right and surround left speakers along with a subwoofer. A 7.1 surround sound system is the same as a 5.1 system, except it has an additional set of rear surround speakers.
So which is better? The short answer, unfortunately, is “it depends.” Whether a 5.1 or 7.1 system is appropriate for you depends on a number of different variables. Some will depend on the room you’re setting up in, and some will depend on personal preference.
Things like room size, furnishings, and listening position will all affect which sound setup is appropriate for you. In this article, we’ll discuss the differences between 5.1 and 7.1 sound and the factors impacting whether you should be going for a 5.1 or 7.1 sound system.
What’s the Difference Between 5.1 and 7.1 Surround Sound?
Quite simply, the difference between a 5.1 and a 7.1 surround sound system is two speakers. A 5.1 system consists of five speakers and one subwoofer, while a 7.1 system consists of seven speakers and one subwoofer.
A 7.1 surround sound system builds upon the 5.1 system to give you two additional surround sound speakers to add depth to your sound. In the right room, this can be an incredible listening experience. Set up in the wrong room or improperly, a 7.1 system can sound muddled.
The most common set up for a 5.1 system is to place three speakers at the front of the room–right, left, and center–and two surround sound speakers at either side of the listening area. A 7.1 system improves upon this by adding two additional surround sound speakers behind the listening area. For more on the details on various configurations for your home theater system, check out this article.
5.1 Surround Sound Pros and Cons
A 5.1 sound system has several advantages and disadvantages. Despite the diminished size relative to a 7.1 system, a 5.1 system could make more sense for your particular home theater.
At a basic level, 5.1 systems are more common than 7.1 systems and therefore it’s easier to find troubleshooting instructions online. In addition to having a bigger online community, 5.1 systems often come as packages that can be set up right out of the box also known as a home theater in a box system. If you plan to use wires to hook up your system, a 5.1 system will have two fewer wires to hide. For most rooms, a 5.1 sound system is sufficient.
For bigger rooms, however, a 5.1 sound system may not be sufficient. If there is a lot of space behind your listening area, the surround sound may not feel as enveloping as it might in small rooms. Although it’s rare, some media comes ready for 7.1 sound which a 5.1 system would not be able to deliver as clearly and efficiently.
For most applications, a 5.1 system will do, However, there are several disadvantages that might make upgrading to a 7.1 system more appealing.
7.1 Surround Sound Pros and Cons
A 7.1 sound system also has its advantages and disadvantages. Despite the added power of two additional surround speakers, a 7.1 system may be detrimental to your listening experience.
A 7.1 system is a great choice for larger rooms where sound may get lost in the space. It provides a deeper surround sound listening experience. Theater quality media designed for a 7.1 system will come through clearer than it would on a 5.1 system.
Still, there are several disadvantages to a 7.1 system. In smaller rooms, the additional surround sound speakers may make the surround sound channels dominate over the front channels. This will make the dialogue and front-side sound effects difficult to hear.
In addition, few 7.1 systems come as a ready kit and will require you to buy components separately. Because of this, it’s difficult to find an online community to help troubleshoot your system since the components will be unique to your setup.
A 7.1 sound system makes sense for larger rooms and will add depth to your sound. At the same time, they are more expensive and more difficult to set up and troubleshoot. Ultimately the choice between a 5.1 or 7.1 sound system will depend on your particular situation.
5.1 and 7.1 Surround Sound Layout
As previously mentioned, the difference between a 5.1 surround sound system and a 7.1 system is two surround speakers. These additional surround speakers add depth to fill large rooms with theater-quality sound.
A 5.1 system has a fairly standard setup. There is a center speaker that goes below your TV or projector and two front speakers that go on either side of the TV. Last, there are two surround speakers that are placed on either side of the listening area.
A 7.1 system adds two speakers but is otherwise set up the same way. The five speakers the system has in common with a 5.1 system are set up the same way. The additional surround speakers are designed to go behind the listening area at a different angle than the first set of surround speakers.
It’s not uncommon for these speakers to be mounted in the ceiling. The advantage to ceiling mounting besides the interesting sound experience is that it keeps the area behind the listening area free for walking.
What’s Right for Your Room?
Several factors are going to affect whether a 5.1 or 7.1 sound system is appropriate for your room. Just because you want enormous, theater-quality sound from a 7.1 system doesn’t mean you will get it in just any room. There are three major characteristics of a room that will determine what kind of sound system is right for it.
Room Size: Additional speakers are meant to fill up larger rooms. In smaller rooms, large numbers of speakers can create a muddy mix of sounds that sound louder than they are clear. Generally speaking, if your room is smaller than 350 square feet, you should probably not be looking at 7.1 systems.
Listening Position: The major distinction between 5.1 and 7.1 systems is that the larger system puts speakers behind the listener, giving them a full surround sound experience. If you don’t have much space behind the listening area, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to be putting speakers back there.
Furnishings: Hard materials like tables, desks, cabinets, and wood or tile flooring will reflect sound and may ruin the effect of additional speakers. Soft surfaces such as bookshelves, couches, and carpeting will help prevent sound reflection keeping the sounds in the parts of the room where they are supposed to be.
Features and Your Budget
There are several other things to look out for when picking out your ideal sound system. Most of these things will be a matter of weighing your budget against the perks of a better setup.
By and large, a 7.1 system will be more expensive than a 5.1 system. It has more components and is capable of a richer sound experience. That said, there are different factors that will impact how expensive your system will be.
Receiver: In order to run your sound system, you will need a receiver to convert line-level signals from your TV into speaker-level signals for your speakers. Many 5.1 systems come with a receiver included, but few 7.1 systems come as an all-inclusive package. Although not as ideal as getting a coherent 7.1 speaker set, you can always start with a 5.1 system and upgrade to a 7.1 receiver and two additional speakers later.
Wires: Another factor you may want to consider is how you intend to hook up your sound system. Most systems come with wireless capability, making setting up speakers around the room less of a tangle. However, what you gain in convenience you lose in sound quality. Direct wired signals will always be higher quality than what you can get from a wireless connection. Ultimately, you will need to decide whether the tangle of wires that you will likely have to purchase separately is worth it.
Calibration: There are many systems on the market that provide their own internal calibration. These systems optimize your sound by sending test tones from each speaker to a microphone you set up in the primary listening area of your room. These systems are more expensive and are more common with 7.1 systems.
Price Differences Between 5.1 and 7.1 Surround Sound Systems
One of the deciding factors between whether to get a 5.1 or 7.1 system is price. If you’re looking to save money, you can snag a 5.1 surround sound package for a very fair price.
Of course, you get what you pay for, so these systems may not be sufficient for your needs. Top of the line 5.1 sound systems from a top of the line brand like Klipsch can run you over $6,000. This system will promise high definition, theater-quality sound and come with the receiver included.
If you’re planning to go with a 7.1 surround sound system, you can expect to pay at least $500 for a decent system. Obviously, this won’t get you a very good system. For a good 7.1 surround sound system with a receiver (although you don’t necessarily need a receiver as you’d know if you’ve read our guide), you can expect to pay over $1,000 and up to $13,000.
Upgrading from a 5.1 to a 7.1 surround sound system, there is more of a variety of in-wall or in-ceiling speaker systems to choose from. Although these might look better aesthetically, they will likely require a professional to install. Another drawback is that upgrading to a different system means pulling speakers out of the wall/ceiling and patching the hole.
So What’s the Verdict?
Building the home theater of your dreams can seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be confusing. To make your hunt easier, consider making a list of must-have features and another list of features that would be nice to have. It’s also a good idea to come up with a budget before you start browsing. Check out our recommended picks for home theater speakers.
The key is to be honest with yourself about your needs. A 7.1 surround sound system might seem like a cool status symbol, but placed in the wrong room, you may ruin the sound. Make sure you keep in mind the features of the space you’re working with to choose the best system for you. With these tips, you will be well on your way to creating your perfect home theater experience.