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What is the Difference Between 2.1 and 5.1 Surround Sound?

Sound is one of the most important aspects of your home theater experience. Along with a quality television, having a top-of-the-line sound system will set you well on your way to an amazing setup that feels similar to a real theater experience. There are a lot of things to consider, such as speaker type, brand, and arrangement, but have you considered what type of surround sound you want to get? There are multiple types of surround sound, including 2.1 and 5.1 surround sound, and the different types have very different effects.

So, what is the difference between 2.1 and 5.1 surround sound? 2.1 surround sound often use two speakers in stereo and sometimes a subwoofer for a lower frequency range. On the other hand, 5.1 surround sound systems use five speakers placed strategically around the room to create a more immersive surround sound. There usually have a left, center, and right channel, along with left and right surround channels and a subwoofer. 

While the 5.1 often gives the superior surround sound experience, it is important to remember that it won’t work for everyone. You must keep in mind space limitations, pricing ranges, and personal preferences when picking a good audio option for you. Both are very valid options, so let’s discuss the pros and cons of the two systems.

Differences Between 2.1 and 5.1 Surround Sound

2.1 and 5.1 Surround Sound Setup

The main difference between 2.1 and 5.1 surround sound are the number of speakers within the setup. In a 2.1 surround sound setup, you will have two speakers, usually one on the right of the display and one on the left. This kind of setup will also include an additional subwoofer for better low-frequency ranges. This sound system works great in a room that is far too small to have a full surround sound setup, or in the case that there is a significant need to keep the price lower. This is much better than just a television’s built-in audio, however, it is still a basic end audio setup and will not give a very immersive surround sound feel.

In a 5.1 surround sound setup, you have five speakers spread around the room. Like the 2.1, you will have a right and left speaker to the sides of your television. In addition, you also will have a center channel, and two rear surround sound speakers to the right and left. These are positioned behind the listener to give an extremely authentic and immersive surround sound experience. The difference with something like a 5.1 surround sound is the depth of the audio experience. If a character is speaking behind the camera, you will feel like they are standing right behind you.

Some systems also have a third number, this indicates any upward-firing 3D speakers or ceiling speakers. The idea behind these is that the sound bouncing off of your ceiling, creating the effect of sound coming from above you. This is most often seen in something like a Dolby Atmos surround sound setup. The first number, when talking about surround sound, always indicates the number of speakers that are at ear level. The second number is the number of subwoofers in the surround sound setup. So, for example, a 5.1.2 surround sound setup has 5 total ear-level speakers, one subwoofer, and two upward-firing speakers or ceiling speakers. Check out our article explaining everything about surround sound channels (with pictures) for more information about channels.

It is important to note that though 5.1 has more speakers, it doesn’t mean that it is better audio. You can have 5.1 surround sound setups that have extremely poor quality speakers that can be abrasive. On the other hand, you can also have 2.1 setups with extremely high-quality speakers that sound better than an average 5.1 setup. Because of this, it is important to weigh pricing with the quality of the speakers and the number of speakers you want in your setup. A 5.1 will always have an easier time creating an immersive surround sound experience, but will not always be as cost-effective as a high quality 2.1 system.

Benefits of Surround Sound Systems

Home theater speaker system

You may be asking, “Why get a surround sound system at all? Is it worth the extra money?” Well, if you want the most immersive audio experience then there really is no better way to achieve that then a quality surround sound system. Next, we’ll discuss the different benefits of having a surround sound system.

In short, here are the main reasons to use a surround sound system instead of a television’s built-in speakers or even a standard 2.1 sound system:

  • Better audio immersion
  • Directional audio 
  • An increase in property value
  • Add or replace pieces rather than replacing the whole set
  • Has multiple price tiers and options (5.1, 7.1, 9.2, etc.)

Better Audio Immersion and Directional Audio

Some people go with a 5.1, which gives a solid surround sound experience, however, some people go for a 7.1 or even a 9.1 system. Both of these will provide even more directional audio and immersion into the viewing experience.

A lot of people say that they stop going to movie theaters once they have their high-quality home theater surround sound setup. The quality really can bring that theater experience into your home, and turns a normal movie into a full experience. This is also applicable to sports events and video games, it will feel like you are right in the middle of the crowd or like you’re actually in the game.

Increase in Property Value

On a more monetary note, having a professionally installed surround sound system will increase the value of your home. It can be a great bonus to your home, and if well furnished can significantly increase your property value. This only grows exponentially as you get nicer sound systems and theater setups that can appeal more to potential buyers. 

Add or Replace Pieces Rather Than Replacing the Whole Set

Another bonus is that you can replace bits and pieces of the system without replacing the entire system. If you want to upgrade just one item, you absolutely can, however, be careful with mixing different speaker brands and speaker types. In something like a soundbar, you are unable to easily replace one component, usually, you have to replace the whole soundbar and the subwoofer that connects to it. This gives you a lot of customizability that other systems don’t allow for.

Price Difference Between 2.1 and 5.1 Surround Sound Systems

As we mentioned briefly, more speakers are going to often mean a higher price. 5.1 surround sound systems have more hardware involved, and because of that, they are often more expensive although not as much as 7.1 which we’ve talked about before. You can sometimes get good bundle deals on these sets, but it does not diminish the fact that more speakers are more expensive. This is especially true when looking at anything over a baseline speaker. 

Something else important to mention is that a 5.1 surround sound system can be pretty hard to install without proper knowledge. This is especially true if you want the speakers to be compatible, as well as, making sure that they are properly positioned and low profile. It is wise to hire a professional to assist you. They will make sure that everything is set up correctly. This, of course, adds on to the higher price of a 5.1 surround sound system.

To ease the worry of speaker compatibility, be on the lookout for a home theater in a box system. Home theater in a box systems are extremely useful for beginners because all of the equipment is compatible and will work together extremely well.

There are occasions where 2.1 surround sound could be more expensive than 5.1 systems. If you get very high-quality speakers for your 2.1 surround sound, it may end up costing as much or more than the average 5.1 system. This, of course, is a quality choice and isn’t the norm. A 5.1 surround sound system with the same quality of speakers as a 2.1 system will always be more expensive. Check out our article explaining the difference between cheap and expensive speakers. It expands on the topic of if more expensive speakers are actually worth it or not.

Not Everyone Prefers 5.1 Surround Sound

There are a few things to consider as downsides to a full 5.1 surround sound setup, although, needing a receiver isn’t one of them (as we’ve explored before). First, unsurprisingly, is the price point. Since a 5.1 surround sound has more components, often it is more expensive, especially if you want higher-quality speakers. Using professionals to install the system can also raise the total cost. A 2.1 system could potentially be more expensive, but only if you are attempting to buy extremely high-quality speakers compared to lower quality 5.1 speaker setup. Overall, you most likely will save money with a 2.1 surround sound system. 

Installation is more difficult for a 5.1 system, to the point where many people suggest getting a professional to install it for you as previously mentioned. If incorrectly positioned, they can be ineffective and throw off the surround sound audio. If you want a low profile having a professional help you wire them can make them less noticeable and easier to replace or remove later. On the other hand, a 2.1 system can easily be installed by the buyer without too much difficulty, and are easy to wire without expertise. 

Space is another thing to consider. If the space you are installing the surround sound in is extremely small, then a 2.1 system may be better to consider. While 5.1 surround sound systems don’t need an extreme amount of space to function, it can be much more difficult to properly set up the rear speakers in a much smaller room without it feeling claustrophobic.