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What’s the Difference Between a 2.1 and 3.1 Soundbar?

I remember, over a decade ago, hearing experts saying that TV was going to go extinct. Ironically, they were saying this on TV at the time. I don’t think anyone predicted the incredible range of TV streaming services that would become available. TV is bigger and better than ever!

But what’s the one thing holding TV back from being incredible?

The sound, oh man, the sound! Most TVs these days still use crappy little built-in speakers. A sound system is an answer, but what sound system is best? You could splurge on a full surround system or just shell out on some great floor-standing speakers. But the best new thing in TV audio is a soundbar.

I’m going to answer the questions “What’s a soundbar?”, “What’s the difference between a 2.1 and 3.1 soundbar?”, “How many speakers do I need?” and more. So let’s get into it.

What’s a Soundbar?

What’s a Soundbar

Now, if you’re already hip to the jive, skip on ahead. But for those of us who are a little older and a little less tech-savvy, here’s a great new gadget to check out.

A soundbar has nothing to do with counters or alcohol…

This device is the home stereo industry’s answer to poor TV sound paired with the ever-expanding widescreen. The result is a single long, slender speaker cabinet designed to sit at the feet of your TV. And take up hardly any more extra space than the TV’s footprint already does.

Generally, soundbars can be wired or work without wires as Bluetooth devices. They’re pretty much like really long stretched-out Bluetooth speakers. They come with their own remotes to adjust sound levels, just like an outboard stereo system would. Except with soundbars, the amplifier, receiver, and speakers are all packed neatly into one tight little unit.

How Does the Numbering System for Soundbars Work?

If you’ve ever had a poke around online shopping sites for soundbars or looked into them at a store, you will have noticed a strange numbering system. Soundbars are generally classified based on a strange numbering system that can be confusing.

You may have seen soundbars with numbers like 2.0, 2.1, 3.0, 3.1, 5.1, 7.2, and on and on. You can be forgiven for thinking these are manufacturer’s model numbers or else different versions of the devices, like software. But that’s not the case.

Here’s how the numbering system works…

The first number, on the left of the dot, tells you how many different channels are in a soundbar. The bar might have a whole bunch of speaker cones inside, but the channels we’re talking about would be left and right for a 2.0 soundbar like the TCL Alto 6, or left, center, and right for a 3.0 soundbar like the Bose TV Speaker.

Now, if a soundbar has a number after the dot, then we’re talking about the number of subwoofers in a soundbar. So a 2.1 soundbar has two regular audio channels and one subwoofer. A 3.1 bar has three audio channels and also one subwoofer. Got it?

But there’s more to know…

But there's more to know

The subwoofers can either be built-in, like the Yamaha SR-C20A, or separate, like the Polk Audio S2 Soundbar. Bigger, heftier sound is going to be found coming out of beefy external subs, while built-in subwoofers will only work well relatively close up.

So What’s the Difference Between a 2.1 and 3.1 Soundbar?

Glad you asked! As you already know, the main difference is going to be in the number of channels expressed by the main bar. A 2.1 soundbar has left and right channels plus a subwoofer that can be built-in or external. A 3.1 soundbar will have left and right channels, a center channel, and the same sort of subwoofer.

So what’s better?

For starters, 2.1 soundbars are going to be comparatively smaller. In general, anyway. This can be important if you have limited counter space and also if you don’t need a lot of volume.

This means that 2.1 soundbars work great in smaller rooms for watching TV, or else in front of your computer monitor for gaming and other noisy applications. You’re also going to save money with a 2.1 soundbar.

On the other hand…

A 3.1 soundbar is going to be a better choice if clear audio, most especially dialogue, is important for you. As we age, it can become harder to pick out the sounds of voices from among the exciting background effects and music of today’s excellent programs.

A center channel can help with this issue to some extent by focusing the sound directly towards you. Of course, you will have to sit centered on the soundbar for it to do that. But that’s fine – claim your throne and let the easier-of-hearing sit to the left and right where they’ll still be comfortable.

What About 5.1 and 7.1 Soundbars?

What About 5.1 and 7.1 Soundbars

While there are some great devices out there, the numbering gets a little deceptive here. A 5.1 soundbar doesn’t always have five channels all built into the bar. Instead, it will probably have 3 (left, center, and right) built-in and then probably two “surround speakers” that communicate via Bluetooth and can be moved around anywhere. And a subwoofer, of course.

The JBL Bar 5.1 is set up this way. It has two stereo speakers that can be disconnected from the bar and placed around the room. They can come back to the bar to charge.

But that’s not all…

There are some 5.1 soundbars out there that have all five channels included inside the bar itself (but still have an external sub-woofer). For example, Samsung’s HW-Q60T is five channels inside the bar. You get the regular left, center, and right channels you’d expect from a 3-channel bar.

On top of that, they give you angled left and angled right speakers that send the sound out wider into the room. This can increase the “surround sound” effect without actually surrounding you with speakers.

More channels mean more sound…

More channels mean more sound

A 7.1 system will normally have seven channels based on five channels inside of the bar, plus two outboard speakers, and of course, the sub. The Shockwafe Pro 7.1 DTS-X/Atmos by Nakamichi is one such unit. Here you get five channels in the soundbar. You get a sub, of course.

And finally, you get two outboard 2-way speakers to position anywhere, though ideally behind you. The 2-way speakers each have a tweeter and a woofer in them, so these two drivers give the 2-way description.

Why Choose a Soundbar?

I’ve answered the questions “What is a soundbar?” and “What is the difference between a 2.1 and 3.1 soundbar?” And the number of speakers you need is really up to you and depends on the price you’re willing to pay and the sound you want.

Why choose a soundbar?

After all, your TV comes with speakers already. Yeah, but they’re usually not very good. You won’t get the rumbling bass you can feel in your stomach from any TV speakers. It might also be hard to make out the dialogue, especially if your TV only offers you right and left channels.

A soundbar can be a very good option for any TV-watching household. They’re sleek and compact but still pack a serious enough punch to make shows and movies really pop. You can get anything from a 2 to a 7-channel soundbar, depending on how immersive you want the experience to be.

Soundbars are usually affordable…

Soundbars are usually affordable

You can normally get a 2.1 soundbar like the JBL Bar 2.1 for between $200-250. A 3.1 bar like Samsung’s HW-T650 can cost a little more at about $350. But if you compare that to the option of buying a set of floor-standing speakers for your TV, you’re going to find the bars a lot cheaper. One bar can cost about the same as only one good quality speaker!

Soundbar Features to Look Out For

So you can see why soundbars are popular these days. People are watching a lot more TV and movies at home and want a good sound to accompany the sharp pictures now available.

But there’s a lot more you can ask for from your soundbar…

Most soundbars these days are going to offer wireless connection, though wired technology is still more reliable. Bluetooth is becoming an industry standard. Also, many bars let you connect to multiple devices. That means you can use your soundbar to watch TV, but you can also play music from it from your smartphone.

Digital assistants like Alexa are also being built into some soundbars. That saves you the trouble of having an extra device – the bar simply doubles as your assistant.

Lights and effects are also new features being added to soundbars, especially led by JBL. If you’re into the futuristic glow and color-changing lights that follow your music, this might be a feature to look out for.

Looking for a Great Soundbar or Other Speakers?

We can help with that. Check out our Sony HT-S350 Soundbar Review, our VIZIO SB3821-C6 Review, our Samsung HW-R650 Review, our Yamaha YAS-207BL Review, our Yamaha Audio YAS-109 Review, and our Klipsch R-10B Review for awesome items you can buy in 2023.

Also, have a look at our in-depth reviews of the Best Floor Standing Speakers, the Best Smart Speakers, the Best Sonos Speakers, the Best 7.1 Home Theater System, and the Best High End Home Theater Speakers currently on the market.

And don’t miss our handy guides on Soundbar HDMI vs OpticalConnect a Soundbar to TV Without HDMI or OpticalCan You Add Surround Sound Speakers to a SoundbarHow to Make a Soundbar Sound Better, and Soundbar vs. Soundbase for more useful information.

What’s the Difference Between a 2.1 and 3.1 Soundbar – Final Thoughts

Now that you know the differences between 2.1 and 3.1 soundbars, it’s time to hunker down and think about what you want. If it’s coming down to the age-old problem of what you want vs. what you can afford, I say don’t sweat too much.

I’d recommend that you just pick up something you can afford now. Because in just a few years into the future, I bet soundbars will be way better than they are right now. They’ll have better audio, more features, better connections, and probably lower prices as well.

This way, you can try out using a soundbar with your TV and invest more later if you find out that you love it.

Until next time, happy listening.

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About Jennifer Bell

Jennifer is a freelance writer from Montana. She holds a BA in Creative Writing and English, as well as an Associate of Applied Science in Computer Games and Simulation Design.

Her passions include guitar, bass, ukulele, and piano, as well as a range of classical instruments she has been playing since at school. She also enjoys reading fantasy and sci-fi novels, yoga, eating well, and spending time with her two cats, Rocky and Jasper.

Jennifer enjoys writing articles on all types of musical instruments and is always extending her understanding and appreciation of music. She also writes science fiction and fantasy short stories for various websites and hopes to get her first book published in the very near future.

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