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Introduction to Home Theatre Surround Sound – 5.1 or 7.1?

5.1 or 7.1 Sound System – Which One to Choose?

When trying to decide whether to invest in a 5.1 or 7.1 sound system one of the questions that often appears is, whether the sound is improved noticeably or the extra speakers are just unnecessary? Some people think the sound quality is much better, others don’t agree but at the end it is up to you to decide based on your own personal preferences. However, before you decide it is good to learn something more about the differences between these two sound systems.

What’s the difference between 5.1 or 7.1?

The total number of speakers in a 5.1 system is 6 while a 7.1 one uses 8. The two extra speakers in the 7.1 system are usually placed at the sides of the listener and we often refer to these as side surround speakers. They work perfectly well for large living rooms but if you are planning to install this system in a smaller room you it may happen that the space is not sufficient and your system won’t reach its full potential. It is not that easy to calculate the minimum room size for such system because the room acoustics, size and furniture also play a great role in the quality. However, if you have a room which is about 30 square meters and larger you will be able to see the excellent performance of a 7.1 system. The best position to mount the surround speakers is at ear height of the listener. Just as important, is that they shouldn’t be placed too close to the listener. Pay attention to separate these speakers from the wall, at least 10cm. As for the front and center speakers they should be directed towards and positioned symmetrically equidistant around the listener.

Audio sources for 7.1 systems

The majority of media today is produced for 5.1 systems. However, some newer movies will be designed for 7.1 systems so check whether some of these are written on the package: DTS-HD Master, Dolby Digital Plus or Dolby True HD. If you are wondering whether your 7.1 system will reproduce a 5.1 source properly you have nothing to worry about. Some 5.1 movies will sound great on a 7.1 system because there are technologies like Dolby Pro Logic IIx which can convert the 5.1 sound to 7.1.

Do 7.1 systems really sound better?

In case you are upgrading from a 2.1 system to 5.1 or 7.1 you can be sure that the difference will be pretty amazing. This is even more noticeable if the soundtracks are specifically designed for 7.1 systems but the main condition that has to be fulfilled is the size of the room once setup correctly. This actually means that if you are using a 7.1 system in a very small space, the effects will most likely be worse than using a 5.1 system.

What about AV receivers for 5.1 or 7.1 sound systems?

As for the AV receiver it is important that it supports every channel in the setup. It will have to have enough outputs for the system. With some AV receivers you have to manually set the system you are going to use, but there are AV receivers that will automatically recognize it. If you are sure that your 5.1 system is exactly what you need it is much more affordable to buy an AV receiver for a 5.1 system so think whether or not you are going to upgrade soon.

Can you get 3D audio with 5.1 system?

The truth is that a 7.1 surround sound system will deliver truly amazing listening experiences. However, if you want to experience some 3D audio, you will have to use a different setup. For example, Dolby Atmos is designed to use either the Atmos reflection speakers or ceiling mounted speakers to deliver audio to the listener. The ability to move sound objects between channels will provide a unique 3D audio experience.

To Sum Things Up

We hope that it is now much easier to decide whether to invest in a 5.1 or a 7.1 surround sound system. So, let’s take out the most important points.

  • For most smaller and even larger rooms the 5.1 system is a standard today.
  • If you want to sense some immersion and better atmosphere the side speakers of the 7.1 system will do the job.
  • If your room is more than 30 m2 large it is recommended to invest in a 7.1 system.
  • Most movies are mixed at 5.1 sound, but with specific codecs the 5.1 audio can be up-mixed to 7.1
  • A compatible 7.1 AV receiver is needed for 7.1 systems

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Sam Hughes
Sound designer and voice actor who has worked on various media titles over the years. Always believing in audio, I try to share the wealth of knowledge from my colleagues and veterans of the industry to help audiophiles grow and evolve as a community.

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