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How Many Audio Channels Does Bluetooth Support? (2.0, 2.1, 5.1, etc.)

Bluetooth is great. It can do so much, and standards are always advancing, making the system increasingly more efficient and convenient. But like anything, there are limitations. Limitations that make the playback system usable. So how many channels does Bluetooth even have?

Bluetooth can only transmit audio in mono (single channel) or stereo (2 channels). Bluetooth does not support 2.1 channels of audio or any surround sound formats. Bluetooth can’t provide the bandwidth to support more than the left and right channels of audio.

Bluetooth is all about convenience, and Bluetooth speaker manufacturers understand this. But even so, you might see speakers that sport a “surround sound” tag on the box. So, are these speakers surround sound? Can you get a multichannel experience from them? Read on to learn more about Bluetooth and surround sound.

Does Bluetooth Support 5.1 Channel Audio?

So you’re looking to add audio support wirelessly, the first option you may come across is Bluetooth. But Bluetooth isn’t the best choice for every application. In fact, Bluetooth is rather limited with what it can transfer wirelessly. So if you’re looking to add 5.1 channel audio to your home theatre system, can you count on Bluetooth to deliver?

The fact is, Bluetooth can’t handle 5.1 channels of audio. This feature is not available with Bluetooth playback and isn’t going to be added anytime soon. Bluetooth is great for a lot of things, but surround sound wireless playback is not one of them.

This is an inherent drawback of Bluetooth. If you know how Bluetooth works, it actually makes sense that these devices can’t connect in that way. You need to remember that surround sound is much more than just audio; there’s also all that extra speaker information to worry about.

In most cases, you need extra bandwidth to get things to work.

What are the Limitations of Bluetooth Audio?

In most general audio playback environments, Bluetooth is really great. It can reliably transfer wireless audio across the room, to your car, in the park, etc. But what makes this playback protocol not so great for things like surround sound?

Bluetooth has built-in limitations. This is due to the fact that Bluetooth creates its own wireless piconet to connect devices. This means you don’t need an external wireless network to use it, but also means that the bandwidth it uses is limited.

The compression codecs that Bluetooth uses means you can stream audio using a single channel. Dual channels are out of the picture, and this is for a good reason. To transfer even the double data would mean you’d need more aggressive compression, which would degrade the audio quality. So, more channels equal more audio degradation — it’s really that simple.

Can Bluetooth Use Surround Sound?

You may have seen the word “surround sound” being thrown about with the term Bluetooth. But, what do these speakers sound like? Will they actually provide surround sound?

The reality is that surround sound for Bluetooth is impossible by today’s standards. While there are plenty of high-quality Bluetooth speakers, they are always going to play audio back in mono or stereo.

So when you see surround sound on the packaging, sadly it’s probably just a marketing gimmick. If you’re not seeing the actual channel breakdown (i.e., 5.1, 2.1, etc.), you’re unlikely to be getting true surround sound if you are using Bluetooth to send the audio signal.

While products out there, like the Echo Studio (on Amazon), do offer some revolutionary audio playback with a proprietary speaker design, most Bluetooth speakers just don’t sport the kind of juice needed to perform in a surround sound environment.

Can you Upgrade a Bluetooth Soundbar or Speaker to Surround Sound?

Bluetooth can serve quite a few purposes (even for older music systems), but unfortunately, surround sound just isn’t one of them. If you want to add this feature to your system, you won’t be able to use Bluetooth to do it. But what about other wireless surround sound systems?

If you want to add surround sound to your home and keep it wireless, you still have options. For these purposes, you’ll need to utilize your existing wireless network. This will allow for more data to be transferred on higher bandwidths of Wi-Fi.

This is how the Sonos (on Amazon) works, and this is also how Apple AirPlay works. They need the network to function; without it, they just won’t. This is one of the downsides of these systems.

If you want the portability of Bluetooth, you’re going to have to sacrifice some audio playback for surround sound. Not only can Bluetooth not manage the extra data needed, but it also lacks the ability to transfer metadata. This metadata is essential for providing the surround sound system details about which speakers get which audio channel.

You could say, use a Sonos Amp (on Amazon) to utilize your multi-channel speaker setup. But even then, you won’t be avoiding the previously mentioned playback issues of Bluetooth. In fact, you’re going to hear the same exact playback from each speaker. So, you’re essentially making your entire Hi-Fi system a mono playback system — which defeats the entire purpose of it.

Wrapping Up

So if you’re looking for surround sound, it’s an easy mistake to make thinking that Bluetooth will provide you a solution. The reality is that the limitations that make Bluetooth so convenient also make it so you can’t use the playback system with surround sound.

There are just inherent drawbacks that make it impossible. The main one, of course, is the bandwidth issue.

But, if you’re looking for wireless surround sound playback, you still have options. Products like the Sonos, or even Apple’s AirPlay, all use a wireless network to transfer audio data more efficiently. So, if you’re looking for a wireless surround sound option, you have a few — but Bluetooth sadly isn’t one of them.