The icing on the cake for any home theatre enthusiast is a top-notch surround sound system. TV speakers just don’t cut the mustard these days. To get that fully immersive cinematic experience, you need a multi-speaker setup.
But what do you go for? A 5.1 or a 7.1 system? Which is the best surround sound setup? We’ll aim to answer those questions and more by comparing 5.1 vs. 7.1 surround sound systems to see which one comes out on top.
The Fundamental Difference
The difference between the two systems is simply the number of speakers. A 5.1 surround system has a total of 6 channels. This is made up of five speakers and a single subwoofer. A 7.1 surround system consists of eight channels – seven speakers and a sub-woofer. So, a 7.1 setup adds two more speakers to potentially increase the immersive experience.
You’ll need to position all the components correctly to get the best out of your surround system. On top of the sub-woofer, a 5.1 setup consists of a central speaker, two front speakers, and two surround speakers. A 7.1 system has the same components plus an additional pair of surround speakers, usually positioned behind the listening position.
In both set-ups, the central speaker is placed under the TV. The left and right front speakers should be placed at an equal distance on either side of the central speaker, at roughly a 30-degree angle. The two surround speakers should be horizontally level with the listening position, at a 90-degree angle from the central speaker.
The additional rear speakers in a 7.1 system should be placed behind the listening position at an angle of 140-degrees from the central speaker. If there isn’t any space behind where you’ll be seated, there’s little point in getting a 7.1 system, because the rear speakers will not be in the optimal positions.
Some surround sound systems have room calibration technology. This tunes each speaker according to the characteristics of your room. Soft and hard furnishings can change the way sound gets reflected around the room. Therefore, calibration can help the speakers deal with this.
It works by sending test sounds from the various speakers, which are picked up by a microphone positioned in the listening area. The receiver then fine-tunes the equalizer settings of each speaker to compensate for any deficiencies in the room design.
You’ll generally find this technology in more expensive systems and usually as part of a 7.1 setup.
The size of your room will play a big part in whether you go for a 5.1 or a 7.1 system. If your room is smaller than about 350 square feet, there is little point in investing in a more expensive 7.1 setup. Too many speakers in such a small area will generally lead to a muddying of the sound, the opposite of the clarity you were going for.
At the same time, using a 5.1 system in a massive room might well cause the surround sound to get a little lost in all that space. This is where a 7.1 system makes far more sense.
Format and Device Support
This is a major area of importance in the 5.1 vs. 7.1 Surround Sound debate. Most movies, games, and music are mixed for a 5.1 channel setup. There are a growing number of titles that have been mixed for 7.1 playback.
However, 5.1 is the industry standard for surround sound systems. This means that media mixed in standard DTS and Dolby Digital works with 5.1 systems.
This means that at the moment, only a few titles will be able to take advantage of the true benefits of 7.1 surround sound. Media mixed in DTS-HD, Dolby TrueHD, and Master Audio works with a 7.1 system.
All surround systems will require a receiver. It converts the audio signal from your TV into something playable through your speakers. Nearly all 5.1 systems come with a receiver as part of the package.
Generally speaking, only the more expensive 7:1 systems include a receiver. This is because 7.1 systems are often something you build yourself by adding components to a 5.1 system.
There’s a big price range in the surround sound market. You can spend very little or a veritable fortune.
5.1 systems range from as little as $100 up to $6000. If you want something that sounds half-decent, then you should be looking to spend upwards of $500.
7.1 systems are naturally more expensive due to the extra components. You can pick them up for as little as $300. But to guarantee a better product, you’ll need to look in the plus $1000 range. Some of the most expensive brands can cost upwards of $10,000.
As mentioned, most 7.1 systems do not include the receiver, but if you have the space and want full 7.1, then go for the…
This is one of the best value for the money 7.1. surround system reviewers on the market and is guaranteed to provide you with theater-like sound to enjoy your favorite movies, TV shows, and music in the comfort of your own home. Featuring Dolby Atmos as well as DTS: X, it will deliver multi-dimensional and object-based surround sound for the ultimate immersive experience.
But you’ll also need a set of…
This expertly timbre-matched seven speaker system also features a powerful 10″ subwoofer and will surround you with every brilliant nuance that the soundtrack composer intended you to experience. It delivers a powerful cinematic sound that ensures natural, distortion-free audio that offers the purest of listening experiences.
For more great options, check out our in-depth review of the Best 7.1 Home Theater Systems on the market.
However, if your room isn’t that large and you’ve decided on a 5.1 System, I would highly recommend either the…
This is a fantastic value for money all in one package from one of the best audio manufacturers there is. It includes the AV receiver as well as all the speakers – one center channel, two front channels, two surround speakers, and a subwoofer. Delivering a clear, balanced sound for a quality listening experience. Or the…
If you’re after something more affordable, this system from Polk could well be it. It also has the benefit of being smaller in size, so it’s a great option if you don’t have the room for large floor standing speakers. However, regardless of the lower price and smaller size, it still creates an impressive soundstage which is not quite of the standard of the bigger systems but far less expensive to buy.
Need Great Speakers for Your Surround Sound System?
We have some nice options for you to choose from. Check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Home Theater Speakers, the Best In Wall Speakers, the Best Powered Speakers, the Best Floor Standing Speakers, and the Best Bookshelf Speakers you can buy in 2021.
Also, have a look at our comprehensive Polk Audio TSi500 Review, our ELAC Debut 2.0 F6.2 Floorstanding Speaker Review, our Sony HT-S350 Soundbar Review, our Fluance Signature Series HiFi Review, and our Definitive Technology BP9020 & CS9040 Plus Center Channel Speaker Review for more awesome items currently available.
5.1 vs. 7.1 Surround Sound – My Verdict
The vast majority of people do not need a 7.1 surround system because their living rooms are too small. There is zero point in trying to cram a 7.1 system into a room that’s too small. It will harm the overall sound quality, with too many speakers fighting to be heard and clashing with each other.
Rooms under a certain size are perfectly well served by a good 5.1 setup. Therefore, there is no need to waste money on something that isn’t suitable for your room anyway. Also, not much material is mixed in the 7.1 format, because 5.1 is still the industry standard. Therefore, you’re generally not getting the added benefit of 7.1 HD sound anyway.
That being said, if you have a large enough room, it may be necessary to go for a 7.1 system just so the sound doesn’t get too lost in all that space. Even if most material doesn’t come in 7.1 format yet, those extra speakers can make all the difference. You’ll also be able to enjoy the 7.1 HD audio formats that do exist, and there’s sure to be a lot more in the future.
Until next time, happy listening.