Difference Between a 2.1 and 5.1 Soundbar

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

In Soundbar by Jonah Matthes6 Comments

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.

The front channels are usually all built-in to the soundbar, while the surround speakers are usually separate speakers. But the answer is also a bit more complicated. More speakers don’t just add more volume, they enhance the surround sound experience and build a more cohesive entertainment environment.

That doesn’t mean a 5.1 soundbar system is for everyone. There are several factors to keep in mind when shopping around for the perfect sound system for your home.

Check out our YouTube video that explains everything about the 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. 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

A 5.1 soundbar system, with its three extra speakers or channels, will create a much richer listening experience. This usually includes a front left, front right, front center, surround (back) right, surround (back) left, and a separate subwoofer.

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 system. 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 soundwaves 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 if the room is very open, then it’s very unlikely for the soundwaves to bounce correctly.

Don’t get me wrong though, 5.1 soundbars with integrated “surround” speakers still sound absolutely 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 doesn’t necessarily mean better speakers. 2.1 soundbars can include high-quality speakers that would please any audiophile. 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 really boils down to the quality of the speaker drivers and soundbar enclosure.

Before shopping, you’ll want to figure out what sound aspects are most important to you, and how those priorities fit into your budget. 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?

Check out our ultimate soundbar buyer’s 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).

With a 5.1 soundbar, you get even more out of your audio experience, with just a few extra speakers to hook up. You can splurge on Bluetooth-enabled speakers to simplify the installation process and cut down on the clutter of wires.

Compare that to the effort involved in setting up a traditional surround sound system, including all the speakers that need to be hooked up to each other and all of the cables that need to be ran. If you’re looking for the easiest way to elevate your listening experience, a soundbar is your best bet.

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 utilize RF (radio frequencies) and connect to the soundbar via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.

When using a TV’s built-in speaker, do you ever notice the audio becoming distorted or fuzzy? That’s because the standard speakers can’t handle the pitch extremes, from the high squeals to the super low rumbles.

A subwoofer is a dedicated bass speaker, so your bass comes through clear and strong. The floor might rumble from the bass, but the subwoofer will hold strong, so the sound doesn’t suffer.

Not Everyone Prefers 5.1 Soundbar Systems

If you’re all about convenience, a 5.1 soundbar system might not be the best option for you. A 2.1 system is much easier to set up for the simple fact that there are fewer speakers.

Even though a 2.1 system technically has two speakers, both speakers are combined within the soundbar, which is installed just below your TV.

Sure, there’s a subwoofer, but setting up just two pieces of hardware in exchange for such superb sound is a worthwhile tradeoff. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better balance between convenience and quality than what a decent 2.1 soundbar system offers.

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. It comes back to that budgeting question of speaker quality versus surround sound experience.

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 set up.

JBL is a reputable speaker company that offers a great wireless 5.1 soundbar with detachable surround speakers (on Amazon), but 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, it’s not hard to get a standard 2.1 soundbar for about $100. If you’re really trying to save cash, you can push that down to $70, but a middle-of-the-road model might cost more like $150 or $200, like this Vizio soundbar (on Amazon). If you’ll settle for nothing less than the best speakers, you can expect to spend $400 or more.

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.

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 quality 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.

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