Let’s face it, flat-screen TVs sound terrible. The argument goes that they are too thin to incorporate a decent pair of speakers. It’s obviously true that you won’t get the bass you want from small thin speakers, but I think the manufacturers don’t even try anymore to make you buy external speakers. Either way, you’ll need to splash out on some external speakers if you want a cinematic experience.
One of the most popular ways to improve your TV’s audio quality is by buying a soundbar. These come in either a 2.1 or a 5.1-channel setup. But what’s the difference between a 2.1 and 5.1 soundbar? And, which is the best one for you? I’ll cover that and a whole lot more in the rest of this article, so let’s get started…
The most obvious difference between the two is the number of channels and speakers they incorporate. A 2.1-channel system has two channels, left and right, and a subwoofer channel. They normally comprise of two or more speakers built into the soundbar to compliment the subwoofer.
A 5.1 soundbar adds more channels into the mix for a more complete surround experience. A center channel and two rear channels are added to the two side channels (left and right) and the subwoofer. The center and the side channels are always built into the soundbar. Whilst the rear channels can be built-in, or more often, placed externally.
As a result of all those extra channels, a 5.1 soundbar is much larger than its 2.1 channel brother. If space is at a premium, you may want to opt for a 2.1 soundbar. These generally fit snugly beneath your TV and are easier to wall mount due to their lighter weight. Therefore, you have more placement options with a 2.1.
A 5.1 soundbar will generally require a lot more room. The subwoofers that normally come with a 5.1 setup are also usually larger. And if the rear speakers are external, you’ll have to find room for them too. You’ll want to make sure your room is suitably large enough if you’re going to go 5.1.
There’s an added advantage of a 5.1-channel soundbar with two external rear speakers. You can play around with their position to achieve the most effective placement for the room. Placement options are limited to under the TV with a 2.1-channel soundbar setup.
Both 2.1 and 5.1 soundbars often feature a display and a control panel on the exterior. Whether you go 2.1 or 5.1, this is a pretty handy feature when it comes to setting up your soundbar. And helps with reading the settings when things are up and running.
A 2.1-channel soundbar is easier to set up than a 5.1 system with external rear speakers. You don’t need to worry about the positioning of those external speakers and the extra cabling.
Sound Quality Differences
The good news is that whichever system you opt for, it’s going to be a significant improvement on the basic sound of your TV. However, when answering the question “What’s the difference between a 2.1 and 5.1 soundbar?” sound quality is the most obvious.
A 2.1-channel soundbar only has a left and right channel aside from the subwoofer. So, it’s not going to give you the immersive experience of a dedicated surround sound system. It will, however, give you good left and right channel separation.
With the addition of the Latest Dolby or DTS technology, you can significantly raise the overall sound quality. Irrespective of channel numbers.
A case of bigger is better
A 5.1-channel soundbar should, and usually does, offer way more of an immersive experience than its smaller cousin. The center channel is dedicated to delivering greater vocal clarity, a real problem when using the TV speakers.
If the rear speakers are external and not built into the bar, you have a traditional 5.1 surround sound setup. This adds a layer of depth that just can’t be achieved when the rear speakers are incorporated into the soundbar.
Built-in surround or rear speakers reflect the sound off the rear wall to create the surround effect. This works well enough in a room that is the correct shape for the technology. But if the dimensions aren’t right or the room isn’t a traditional box shape, the technology fails somewhat.
Both types of soundbars also generally come with the usual preset sound settings designed to complement whatever it is you’re watching. Expect the usual modes for movies, music, news, sports, etc.
In summary, if you have the space, you’ll get much better results installing a 5.1-channel system with rear external speakers. However, if you’re just looking to improve on the basic TV speakers and aren’t too concerned about full immersion, a 2.1 setup should suit you just fine.
Obviously, this is dependent on the brand and the quality of the speakers and parts used. However, it’s safe to say that the price of a 5.1-channel soundbar will set you back more than a 2.1-channel soundbar.
At the cheaper end of the scale, you can expect to pay a minimum of around $200 for a 5.1 system. Whilst a cheap 2.1 setup will cost you around $100. The top 2.1-channel soundbars retail for around $450, whilst the premium 5.1 soundbars can go for substantially more than that.
Regardless of which system you go for, soundbars offer a level of convenience that you just won’t get by opting for a traditional surround sound speaker setup. If your soundbar is Bluetooth-enabled, installation is an absolute breeze when you don’t have any wires to worry about.
Soundbars are also more economical than separate speaker setups. Yes, you can spend a fortune on either. But, at the lower end of the price range, there is more value to be found when buying a soundbar.
Looking for Great Soundbars or Other Speakers?
We can help with that. Take a look at our detailed Sony HT-S350 Soundbar Review, our Klipsch R-10B Review, our Samsung HW-R650 Review, our Yamaha YAS-207BL Review, our Yamaha Audio YAS-109 Review, and our VIZIO SB3821-C6 Review for superb soundbars currently available.
You may also like our in-depth reviews of the Best PC Soundbars, the Best 7.1 Home Theater System, the Best High End Home Theater Speakers, the Best Floor Standing Speakers, the Best Wireless TV Speakers, and the Best Sonos Speakers you can buy in 2022.
And don’t miss our handy guides on What’s the Difference Between a 2.1 and 3.1 Soundbar, How to Mount a Soundbar to a TV, and Connect a Soundbar to TV Without HDMI or Optical for more useful information.
What’s the Difference Between a 2.1 and 5.1 Soundbar – Final Thoughts
Whether you choose a 2.1 or a 5.1 channel soundbar will depend on what your priorities are. You may just want your TV to produce respectable, distortion-free, and understandable audio. Something most TVs are incapable of. In this case, you’ll probably be happy with a 2.1-channel soundbar.
That’s not to say that you can’t get excellent sounding 2.1-channel soundbars. If you spend enough, the top models have excellent quality speakers that will vastly improve your experience. However, if you’re not bothered about surround sound but want outstanding 2-channel audio, this would be the best choice for you.
If you require an experience closer to the fully immersive surround sound that you get at the cinema, then there’s no doubt that you should opt for a 5.1-channel soundbar with external rear speakers. Yes, the setup is a little more complicated, but it’s definitely worth the effort.
A worthwhile investment
Whatever you choose, it will be a world of improvement over the dreadful excuse for audio that TV manufacturers get away with. Fortunately, you also don’t have to spend a fortune on a soundbar to improve the sound your TV offers.
So now you know the fundamental differences between 2.1 and 5.1-channel soundbars; what are you waiting for? It’s time to make that upgrade.
Until next time, happy listening.