5.1 vs. 7.1 Surround Sound: Which is Better?
Updated: July 27,2022
When building a home theater system or a gaming cave, aside from picking the biggest and sleekest-looking TV set, you should also pick the right audio system. After all, what’s that picture clarity worth if the bass thumps are muddled and you can’t even hear dialogue properly? Luckily, there are many impressive surround sound solutions available today.
Shopping around, you’ll notice a lot of debate around 5.1 vs. 7.1 speaker systems. Everyone’s discussing which is better for movies, gaming, and music, so we’re here today to compare the two and provide the final answer to this ongoing debate.
Main Differences Between 5.1 and 7.1 Surround
Before we delve into the technical aspects of our comparison, we need to explain the main differences between these two standards for surround sound.
Obviously, the main difference comes from the sheer number of speakers in these two audio standards. A 5.1 setup has one subwoofer and five additional channels, for a total of six speakers capable of outputting different audio channels.
The standard 5.1 surround sound setup has a subwoofer and one additional speaker in the center, two front speakers slightly to your left and right, and two surround speakers on your sides but further back. If these components are positioned correctly, you’ll be sitting in the very center of the soundscape produced by this setup.
The 7.1 setup contains one subwoofer and seven speakers that go around the room, for a total of eight sound channels. The arrangement will resemble that of 5.1 surround, with the two extra speakers going even further in the back. Those speakers are often called surround back speakers.
5.1 vs. 7.1: Speaker Setup
We’ve mentioned the positioning of speakers in 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound setups, so let’s explain the differences between the two systems, noting how the soundscape is formed in each. Now, we’ll be talking about the ideal conditions and achieving the perfect sound from each setup. As every home has a different layout, the results you get may vary if you have a lot of furniture.
What is identical in these two setups is the positioning of the three front speakers. You want the central speaker to sit right above the screen, with the two front speakers positioned no more than 30 degrees from the center. That way, the speakers are creating a wall of sorts. As for the subwoofer, it should sit on the floor and within that arc you’ve just created.
Once we move past the front speakers, the differences between the 5.1 surround vs. the 7.1 surround become apparent.
In a 5.1 setup, the remaining two speakers should be slightly behind the line where you’ll be sitting, at a 110-degree angle each. If your couch or sofa is against the wall, you can mount these speakers at a 90-degree angle (from the center speaker) but facing towards where you’ll be sitting.
You’ll remember that there are two extra speakers in a 7.1 system. Although they’re referred to as “back” speakers, they don’t go right behind you. Instead, they should be in the same line as the side speakers but even further back - ideally at 135-150 degrees from the center. Of course, they should be pointed at you.
7.1 vs. 5.1 Surround: Formats and Devices
There are more differences between these two systems than the number of speakers. For starters, the way you connect these speakers to your TV, home theater, or gaming system is different. Just like with any technology, certain requirements must be met for everything to work as intended.
If you’re not hooking up your surround sound speakers to a PC, chances are you’ll need to get an A/V receiver so as to be able to connect the whole setup. These devices take the HDMI input from your blu-ray player, console, or TV, and then decode that audio input and split it properly among the available channels.
It goes without saying that your surround sound system should be able to properly connect to the receiver. This is especially important in case you’ve got a 7.1 set, as you might have to shop around until you find a compatible receiver. Since 5.1 is a standard, not a lot of these devices support two additional speakers.
When it comes to using proper audio sources, keep in mind that most streaming services and blu-rays are limited to 5.1 audio, so the sound will be mixed up to 7.1 using codecs from DTS and Dolby.
To get the full immersive experience, you’ll have to purchase movies with 7.1 surround support. Luckily, the catalog of such movies is growing rapidly, so it’s getting easier to find compatible ones to watch in the comfort of your own home. On top of that, most modern consoles support both audio formats, so the choice of 5.1 vs. 7.1 surround sound is a matter of pressing a single button in the console menu.
As for the audio standards, the 5.1 systems use Dolby Digital and DTS for audio reproduction. Dolby’s format is the more popular of the two, despite DTS offering better audio quality and less compression. On the 7.1 front, the most common standards are Dolby True HD, Dolby Digital Plus, and DTS-HD Master audio.
Dolby Atmos and 3D Sound
In recent years, Dolby has been promoting its new, groundbreaking audio format called Dolby Atmos. It provides superior immersion into your favorite movies, adding vertical layers to the soundscape of your room by bouncing the sound from the ceiling.
It doesn’t matter if you’re using a Dolby 5.1 vs. 7.1 setup, you can’t switch on the Atmos effects and gain immediate benefit from the expanded audio spectrum. Instead, your entire setup (the receiver and all the speakers) needs to be Atmos-certified. Along with the audio source, naturally.
Then, you need to rearrange your speakers so they match the 5.1.2 or similar setup requirements. If you were to leave your speakers in a circle, as you would with traditional surround, then you’d lose on sound quality.
Pros and Cons of Surround Sound With 5.1 vs. 7.1
The logical conclusion many people have is the old saying that “bigger is better.” Seven is more than five, so it follows that a setup with 7+1 speakers is better than the one with 5+1. Right?
On paper, 7.1 is certainly a better choice. The system adds two more sound sources, thus creating a fuller soundscape for better immersion into movies and games. It also uses more advanced formats with less audio compression.
Still, that doesn’t make it an ultimately better choice for everyone. First of all, not a lot of manufacturers offer out-of-the-box solutions for this format, meaning you’ll have to purchase additional speakers. The surround sound setup is more complicated with 7.1 speakers, requiring not just more cables and a compatible receiver but an adequate room to house all the components properly.
If your designated home theater isn’t spacious enough, it may be better to go with fewer speakers as the rear speaker surround may actually muddle dialogues.
On the other hand, 5.1 systems are quite common, and pretty much every streaming service, DVD, blu-ray, and gaming console supports this format. That’s why it’s more affordable to invest in a good 5.1 gaming system instead of purchasing extra stuff just to get two more audio channels.
For larger rooms, though, this kind of surround setup might not be able to provide enough power. The 5.1 speaker placement is great for most living rooms and similarly sized spaces.
The Final Word
Nowadays, everyone can set up a home theater in their living room without breaking the bank. Surround sound used to be an expensive hobby, a privilege of sorts, but now even the cheapest speakers can blast your socks off with a sound that’s loud and clear at the same time.
Of course, if you can cough up the money for a 7.1 setup, you’ll definitely get some benefits that you can hear. That is, only if your living space can handle such a setup without degrading the audio quality.
Frequently Asked Questions
Usually, for speaker systems, more is more. This is especially true with technologies like Dolby Atmos that are able to take full advantage of multi-speaker systems and individual channels. If you have ways to reproduce such audio, including compatible sources, then the 7.1 system is a better choice.
The main difference is in the number of speakers - six compared to eight. These two additional speakers that come with the 7.1 system mean you can place them behind the listening position, enhancing immersion if you can provide good 7.1 speaker placement.
Yes, 7.1 audio is better than the 5.1 due to the fact that there are two extra speakers. Additional speakers, if placed properly, will provide a superior audio experience. It’s worth noting that this improvement requires a bigger room so the sound unfolds properly to reach its full potential.
PCs and gaming consoles can produce surround sound of the highest quality, including support for 7.1 setups. And as we mentioned in our 5.1 vs. 7.1 comparison, adding two extra speakers improves audio immersion - an important factor for enjoying the latest gaming blockbusters. So, yes, 7.1 is better, if you have room for it.
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With a degree in humanities and a knack for the history of tech, Jovan was always interested in how technology shapes both us as human beings and our social landscapes. When he isn't binging on news and trying to predict the latest tech fads, you may find him trapped within the covers of a generic 80s cyberpunk thriller.