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What’s the Difference Between a 2.1 and 5.1 Soundbar?

Once you get the TV of your dreams, your next big hurdle will be acquiring a sound system to match. Even top-of-the-line TVs suffer from lackluster speakers. Soundbar systems are a common way to elevate entertainment centers, but what kind should you buy, and what’s the difference between a 2.1 and 5.1 soundbar system?

So what’s the difference between a 2.1 and 5.1 soundbar? A 2.1 soundbar includes two speakers, usually a left and right channel, and a subwoofer. A 5.1 soundbar includes five speakers, usually front left, front right, front center, surround left, surround right, and a subwoofer.

But the answer is usually a little bit more complicated. In this article, we compare 2.1 and 5.1 soundbars, covering their features, room suitability, and surround sound quality. Additionally, we discuss pricing and brands to help you choose the right soundbar for your needs.

Key Takeaways:

  • Soundbar Differences: A 5.1 soundbar, with five speakers plus a subwoofer, offers immersive surround sound and depth. In contrast, a 2.1 soundbar has two speakers and a subwoofer, providing clear stereo sound but limited surround effect, suitable for smaller rooms.

  • Price Range: 5.1 soundbars are generally more expensive (from $200), and suitable for larger budgets and rooms, while 2.1 soundbars are more affordable (from $70), fitting for tighter budgets and smaller spaces.

  • Recommended Brands: Brands like Vizio and JBL offer quality soundbars, with Vizio known for mid-range 2.1 models and JBL for premium 5.1 options.

2.1 Soundbar VS 5.1 Soundbar: A Quick Review

Before we dive into an in-depth comparison, here’s a quick overview table for a side-by-side comparison of the two soundbar types.

Feature2.1 Soundbar5.1 Soundbar
Speaker Count2 speakers (Left and Right) + Separate Subwoofer5 speakers (Center, Left, Right, 2 Surrounds) + Separate Subwoofer
Surround SoundStereo sound; limited surround sound capabilityEnhanced surround sound experience with depth
Audio ChannelsGrouped into 2 channels (left and right)Front left, front right, front center, surround left, surround right
Sound ExperienceClear left and right audio channelsProvides a crisp sense of left and right with added depth
Speaker PlacementMostly built-in to the soundbarFront channels typically built-in; surround speakers usually separate
Room CompatibilityMay not provide effective sound in all room sizes and shapesMore adaptable to different room sizes for effective sound distribution
2.1 Soundbar VS 5.1 Soundbar

Also, check out our YouTube video that explains everything about the different soundbar channel configurations:

Different Soundbar Channel Configurations

2.1 Channel Soundbar

2.1 Channel Soundbar Diagram
2.1 Channel Soundbar = Left and Right Channels in the Soundbar + a Separate Subwoofer

A 2.1 channel soundbar includes at least 2 speakers (sometimes more) that are grouped into 2 channels, left and right, and also includes a separate subwoofer (unlike the 2.0 soundbar).

As stated above, the purpose of extra speakers isn’t just extra volume. Instead, more speakers help create a truer surround sound experience.

With a 2.1 soundbar, those two or more speakers will give you clear left and right channels of audio. That’s a great building block for your sound system, but it’s pretty standard, and it won’t improve the listening experience in a meaningful way.

You’ll get clear left and right channels, but not much more than that. Soundbars come with both “stereo” and “surround sound” settings, but with a 2.1 soundbar system, those two settings will sound more or less the same.

5.1 Channel Soundbar

With its three extra speakers or channels, a 5.1 soundbar provides a richer listening experience than 2.1. This usually includes a front left, front right, front center, surround (back) right, surround (back) left, and a separate subwoofer.

In addition to the richer listening experience, 5.1 soundbars support Dolby Atmos, adding an advanced dimension to audio with immersive, three-dimensional sound.

The front three speakers or channels are typically built into the soundbar itself and there are also two separate surround speakers.

However, sometimes, five channels are built into the soundbar. The additional 2 channels are acting as the “surround” channels, even though they are located in the soundbar itself.

5.1 Channel Soundbar with Separate Surround Speakers

5.1 Channel Soundbar with Separate Surround Speakers
Traditional 5.1 Channel Soundbar = Center, Left, and Right Channels in the Soundbar + Surround Left Speaker + Surround Right Speaker + Separate Subwoofer

This is what you would call a traditional 5.1 surround sound bar. 3 channels in the front, 2 surround channels, and a subwoofer.

The extra speakers are placed throughout the room usually to the back left and back right of the room. A 5.1 soundbar system provides a crisp sense of left and right and adds depth.

That depth immerses you in your entertainment experience, in a way that just can’t be matched with a few front speakers.

You’ll swear the explosion in that action movie actually happened right behind the couch. You’ll pinpoint video game enemies by hearing exactly where their footsteps come from.

5.1 Channel Soundbar with Integrated Surround Speakers

5.1 Channel Soundbar with Integrated Surround Speakers
5.1 Channel Soundbar w/Built-in Surround Speakers = Center, Left, Right, “Surround” Left, and “Surround Right” Channels in the Soundbar + Separate Subwoofer

As mentioned earlier, some soundbars include the 2 “surround” channels in the soundbar itself. These “surround” speakers/channels are typically angled so that they can reflect sound waves in a very specific way.

By reflecting the soundwaves off of the back of a room, you can get the effect that there are actually surround speakers behind you. When in reality, the source of the sound is actually in front of you.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t work with all room sizes and shapes. In a more boxed or closed-off room, this should work perfectly! But but is less effective in open spaces where sound waves don’t bounce as well.

Don’t get me wrong though, 5.1 soundbars with integrated “surround” speakers still sound amazing!

What if There’s a 3rd Number?

Some 5.1 soundbars add in a third number (i.e. 5.1.4) which means some of the speakers direct their sound upward. That bounces the sound off the ceiling, adding a new dimension to the surround sound.

The Nakamichi Shockwafe Pro 7.1.4 (on Amazon) incorporates this type of technology using its satellite speakers, and let me add, it does it extremely well!

Conclusion Between 2.1 and 5.1 Soundbars

More speakers don’t necessarily mean better speakers. 2.1 soundbars can include high-quality speakers that would please any audiophile and can be just fine for your Home theater system.

Those same high-quality speakers can be found in a 5.1 soundbar system, but you can also find 5.1 systems with sub-par speakers. It boils down to the quality of the speaker drivers and soundbar enclosure.

Is it worth it to sacrifice surround sound depth for top-quality speakers? Or vice versa, would you prefer adequate speaker quality with a rich surround sound experience? Take a look at the table below with the pros and cons of each soundbar, to help you make a decision.

Soundbar TypeProsCons
2.1 Soundbar– Compact and easy to set up
– More affordable
– Suitable for smaller rooms
– Good for music and basic TV watching
– Limited surround sound capability
– Not ideal for cinematic experiences
– Sound may lack depth and directionality
5.1 Soundbar– Immersive surround sound experience
– Better for movies and gaming
– Offers directional sound
– Suitable for larger rooms
– More expensive
– Requires more space and strategic placement
– More complex installation
– Can be overkill for smaller spaces or basic audio needs
Pros and Cons of 2.1 and 5.2 Soundbars

Check out our ultimate soundbar buyer’s complete guide! It’ll help you understand what exactly to look for when buying a soundbar and it also contains an updated list of our favorite soundbars on the market.

Benefits of Soundbar Systems

Sonos Playbar Soundbar

You might still be wondering, why go with a soundbar at all? Soundbars are popular for their mix of convenience and quality. The 2.1 soundbars, for example, offer a true quality sound with just a single soundbar (and the subwoofer).

A 5.1 soundbar enhances your audio experience with a few additional speakers. Opting for speakers with Bluetooth connectivity can further simplify installation and reduce wire clutter.

This setup is simpler than a traditional surround sound system, where connecting many speakers and handling lots of cables is required. For an easy upgrade to your listening experience, a soundbar is a convenient choice.

Benefits of a Soundbar’s Easy-Setup Subwoofer

Subwoofers come with traditional surround sound setups, as well as soundbar systems (they’re the “.1” in 2.1 and 5.1), but it’s worth mentioning why they’re valuable. In a traditional surround sound setup, a cable will need to run to where the subwoofer is located.

But in almost all soundbar systems, there is no need to run a cable to the subwoofer. They use RF (radio frequencies) and connect to the soundbar via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.

Audio from a TV’s built-in speaker can become fuzzy or distorted, as these speakers struggle with extreme pitches, both high and low. This is where subwoofers come into place, as a dedicated bass speaker, so your bass comes through clear and strong.

Price Difference

Now for the inevitable question: “What’s all this going to cost me?” It should come as no surprise that more speakers come at a higher cost.

But depending on what you’re looking for, the 5.1 soundbar might not be that much more expensive than a 2.1 soundbar option.

If you’re hunting around for deals, you can probably find a 5.1 soundbar for less than $200. If you’re not worried about a tight budget, you can easily spend hundreds of dollars more, especially if you’re looking for quality speakers with a wireless setup.

JBL is a reputable speaker company that offers a great wireless 5.1 soundbar with detachable surround speakers (on Amazon), but if you’ll pay for that quality. You can also opt for bigger systems, like a 7.1 soundbar if your wallet can handle it.

On the other end of the price range, a basic 2.1 soundbar costs around $100, with budget options as low as $70 and mid-range models around $150-$200, like the Vizio soundbar on Amazon. For top-tier speakers, prices often start at $400 or higher.

For more soundbar recommendations, check out our complete buyer’s guide for soundbars!

Related Questions

What does 3.1 mean on a soundbar?

The three means that the soundbar includes 3 channels. It has a left, right, and center channel included in the soundbar. The one means there is a single sub-woofer connected to the soundbar system.

Usually, the soundbar and sub-woofer connect wirelessly, but this isn’t the case all of the time, which is why we have other guides including for the Echo Dot specifically. You can also peruse our full article comparing 2.1 and 3.1 channel systems.

Are standard TV speakers really that bad?

The short answer is “yes,” but a better question might be, “Does speaker quality matter that much to me?” Casual TV viewers may not mind some distorted voices or blown-out bass, especially since they’ll only notice it at high volume.

But if you want reliable sound at any volume, most experts will recommend an external sound system.

Are soundbar systems the only alternative to standard TV speakers?

Not at all! Speakers come in a wide variety, and a person’s preferred setup is usually just that – personal preference. Musicians may opt for vintage analog speakers to match their vinyl collection.

Tech lovers may opt for smart speakers, which communicate with smart home systems and combine superb audio formats with voice-activated software like Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home.

But again, soundbars are a great option for someone who’s looking for quality sound with a convenient, fairly affordable installation process.

Jayakumar R

Saturday 9th of January 2021

Excellent, very educational info. Thanks and gratitude to you.

jannatul fardous

Friday 28th of February 2020

Very helpful blog. Thanks


Saturday 8th of February 2020

this article really helps


Wednesday 29th of January 2020

Great and explicit explanation


Sunday 26th of January 2020

Thank you for your info and honesty