5.1 vs 7.1 Home Theater Systems – Which One Should You Get?
Home theater systems can be wildly complicated, leaving you bewildered and confused, especially if you’re new to the world of home theater audio.
5.1, 7.1, 9.2, 11.2 - those are just some of the choices you can go with. There’s just so much to consider when getting the best home theater for you, that only the most experienced ones won’t feel discouraged.
Here we’ve made a comparison between the two most popular home theater setups - the 5.1 and the 7.1.
What are those? What are some of their upsides and downsides? How to make the most out of them, and do you even need them? Read on and find out.
5.1 or 7.1 Home Theater Systems - Overview
5.1 and 7.1 Home Theater Systems Compared
To put it simply, the difference between the 5.1 and 7.1 home theater systems is pretty apparent. And the answer lies in the numbers.
As you probably might have already heard, the 5.1 and 7.1 points out the number of speakers within each given setup.
Therefore, a 5.1 system will have five speakers and one subwoofer, while the 7.1 will have two more speakers.
Thus, you could say that 7.1 is a classic build-up of the 5.1 setups, which in turn provides more depth and sound fullness. Such a home theater setup can vastly improve your whole watching experience naturally if you have the right conditions for it.
A subwoofer has a job to provide and handle all the low-end bass sounds, while all the other speakers in the setup will handle everything else, like mids and highs. Take a look at our best subwoofer top picks.
Both systems have similar setups. Although you can place the speakers anywhere you’d like, the most typical and accepted way to place your speakers in a 5.1 system is to put the center speaker in front of you (underneath the TV) and the other two front speakers to the left and right of it.
Two Additional Rear Speakers
There are also two surround speakers that should be placed on both sides of your listening position.
Like we’ve mentioned, it’s similar to the 7.1 systems, with one significant difference. You get two additional speakers that should find their place behind your listening position.
You’re probably wondering if you can go even bigger than the 7.1? Naturally, the answer is yes.
7.1 systems have slowly become a standard over the years, and now there’s a vast selection of even bigger setups.
Now, you can opt for systems with nine or eleven speakers and two subwoofers. You can only imagine how do movies sound with such a setup.
Not to mention those even more complex systems, such as 9.2.4, which come with nine speakers, two subs and, four ceiling-mounted speakers. But, these are only for those who are really into audio and can provide a proper listening environment.
5.1 Pros and Cons
5.1 home theater systems have a couple of upsides and downsides, depending on the position you’re looking from. But if we were to look at the whole picture, then there would absolutely be more benefits.
In most cases, 5.1 systems make more sense for an average home theater owner. First of all, they are definitely more common in the market. Therefore, when you run into specific issues and roadblocks, you’ll be able to find any instructions and answers more easily online.
The community of 5.1 users is all that bigger. After all, these systems are more accessible to a much higher number of people.
Easy setup is also one of the most significant 5.1 system advantages. Usually, they come in a single package, meaning you get a home theater in a box system.
They Usually Come Self-Contained
There’s almost certainly no need to go out and purchase any additional components. That is if you don’t want to.
All that is up to you is to unbox the speakers and put them into their spots — after that, setting them up is a real breeze. This turns out to be great, especially for small-sized rooms. Not to mention that you’ll have to deal with fewer wires if you opt for a wired setup.
One of the main reasons why quality 5.1 home theater systems are the top customers’ choice is the fact that they are inexpensive. You can find a decent (if not more than that) set up for under a thousand bucks.
Even if you go and get some of the cheapest models available, it will still be a major upgrade from the sound that comes from your TV or a projector.
The difference is so noticeable when watching movies or playing games that you probably won’t want ever to go back.
Now, it would be foolish to expect them not to have any downsides. There are some, which shouldn’t concern you in case the 5.1 is the right fit for you.
First, they probably won’t perform that well in a bigger space. If you have a lot of space behind your couch or any other sitting position, you will feel the lack of those extra two speakers.
Subsequently, they also lack power. Although the speakers in the 5.1 systems are lightweight and easily placeable, that also usually means they simply won’t be adequate for a larger room.
And most importantly, they lack the precision and depth that bigger systems (like 7.1). That’s precisely the difference that those two additional speakers make.
7.1 Pros and Cons
It’s evident that the 7.1 systems have certain advantages over the 5.1 systems. First of all, they are more powerful. Those two additional speakers just add on the intensity and force.
All in all, having seven speakers means you will get a more refined and detailed sound and richness that you wouldn’t have been able to get with a smaller setup.
Unlike the 5.1, this system works best in a larger space, where sound can get lost and misplaced. Where the audio from the 5.1 system feels blurred and muddied, the 7.1 provides a much clearer and deeper output.
The benefit of two more speakers is that the rear and surround channels are not mixed together in two speakers but rather divided into four. So, you get the side sound coming from the surround speakers, while the back sound comes from the rear speakers.
Sound Coming From All Sides
Now we can talk about real surround sound since now the audio is coming at you from all sides. If you prefer, you can even position the speakers at height, or mount them on a ceiling.
Most of the best models come with a built-in receiver. And even if they do not, you need to get one, which in turn will almost certainly compel you to upgrade the entire setup significantly.
There are, of course, a couple of drawbacks. First of all, they are expensive, and you will find it hard to get a good model for a low-price. So, that’s the main reason why these systems haven’t become a standard yet.
And since they tend to cost more, not many people use them. Therefore, the user community is not so strong as with 5.1 systems, and finding a solution to your problem might be a bigger hassle than you would want it to be.
And the thing we mention quite a lot, they simply need and require more space. You simply cannot get by with having a small room and expect to get the most out of such a setup.
5.1 and 7.1 Layout
Like we’ve mentioned above, the setup and layout for these two types of home theater systems are somewhat similar. With one main, apparent difference.
The 7.1 systems come with two additional speakers. Hence, setting them up requires more time and effort on your behalf.
When it comes to 5.1 systems, they have a rather straightforward setup. There are five speakers and a subwoofer. For more info, check out this Crutchfield’s guide on home theater placement.
The central speaker should be placed underneath your TV or projection surface, facing you. Two front speakers left, and right should go on each side of the TV, preferably at the same distance.
The remaining two surround speakers will go the left and right of your viewing position. And then there’s the subwoofer, which might require the most time to set up.
But, the general idea is to have it placed in the corner of the room, but slightly removed from the walls, to prevent the bass from bouncing from the surface.
Or, if you have the time and patience, you could try to find it even a better spot. Place the sub in your preferred seating position, turn on some bass-heavy source, and then crawl around the room and try to figure out where the bass sounds the best.
Although it sounds quite strange, you’ll be more than happy with the results.
So, the 7.1 systems have almost the same setup, with the addition of a couple of surround speakers. You have two options for their placement.
You can either place them identically like the two side speakers, but behind you. Or if you genuinely want to experience surround sound, and you wish to leave the space behind the sofa free for walking, you can mount them on a ceiling, making them face downwards.
What’s Right for Your Room?
Probably one of the most important factors, if not the most, that should influence your decision on whether you should get a 5.1 or 7.1 system is the room size and its acoustics. These are the things that will determine what kind of audio you’ll be able to get.
The first issue that needs to be addressed is whether the system will be able even to fill the space, or will it be insufficient. If that’s the case, you might end up with a muffled sound.
Not to mention that you’ll have to deal with all those wires and speakers.
5.1 System For a Room Size Under 350 Square Feet
The same rule applies if you have a 7.1 system in a small room. This could leave you with muddied audio that is quite loud, but not as clear as you would expect it to be.
So, as a rule of thumb, if you have a room that is over 350 square feet, by all means, go with the 7.1 set up.
If not, talk yourself out of getting a 7.1, since it will probably be an overkill.
However, room size is not the only issue. What’s in it is equally important.
Seeing that most of us don’t have an ideal home theater environment. Having a rectangular media room, with acoustic proofing, and the best possible speaker set up is a dream. However, a dream that is difficult to reach.
Most of us ordinary folks will be watching movies in our living rooms, where we have to deal with what we’ve got. That means that the things you used to decorate your room will affect the overall sound quality.
So, try to add as many soft surfaces as possible, like cushions, carpets, and sofas. Bear in mind that hard materials like hardwood floors or cabinets don’t have a good impact on the sound, as they will definitely reflect it.
And last but not least, your listening position has a tremendous impact on the decision between 5.1 and 7.1 systems.
If your sofa is backed up against the wall, getting 7.1 system won’t make much sense, since you won’t have a proper place to put the rear speakers.
What’s Your Budget?
Naturally, when you put all your preferences aside, the main deciding factor in picking up a home theater system will be your budget. It doesn’t matter if you prefer or want a 7.1 setup if you don’t have the cash to follow through with the purchase.
And there’s no going around it - 7.1 systems are more expensive, and it is hard, if not impossible, to find a cheap, quality model.
But, I guess it’s the price you’ll have to pay for having such a rich and detailed audio experience.
There are a couple of things that make a home theater more or less expensive. For instance, you will need a receiver in order to get your system going and convert the signals from the TV to your speakers.
Now, many 5.1 setups already have a receiver built-in, whereas the 7.1 system doesn’t come often as a whole package. So, getting a separate receiver will make a dent in your wallet. Take a look at some of the best AV receivers out there.
You can, however, get a 5.1 system and gradually work to upgrading it with a 7.1 receiver and a pair of speakers.
Also, nowadays, there are many models that can perform calibration on their own. This means they can optimize the sound to best match the conditions of your room. Of course, you will have to pay more for such a model.
Getting a perfect home theater system comes down to more than just pointing your finger a choosing randomly. Well, unless you want to increase your chances of making a mistake.
The main thing is to keep a cool head and think rationally. Don’t let yourself be caught into the endless circle of getting new and improved tech gear. Buy only those things you would benefit from.
No doubt, having a 7.1 home theater system would be an excellent addition to any household. But if you can’t afford it or simply don’t have the proper conditions for it, there’s really no need to force it.
So, take a deeper look at your needs and wants, and then choose accordingly. After that, all that is left is to enjoy the new and improved audio experience.