If you’re looking for a sound system for your home theatre setup, you’re probably wondering which sound system to choose. High-quality sound is essential for a great viewing experience after all, and the difference between the two common options—5.1 and 2.1—isn’t immediately clear.
Is 5.1 or 2.1 surround sound better? In this article, we explain the differences between these two systems and make a side-by-side comparison of their cost, setup, support, and how good they sound. By the time you’re done, you’ll have a much better idea of whether to choose a 5.1 or 2.1 sound system for your home.
What is 5.1?
5.1 surround sound setup. Image from Denon.com
5.1 is surround sound that uses five speakers (full bandwidth sound), and one subwoofer (low-frequency sound). There’s usually three speakers at the front with the television, placed on the left, centre, and right, and two speakers behind the couch on the left and right. The subwoofer is also placed with the television, but the position is less important because bass frequencies are omnidirectional, travelling in every direction. You can get 5.1 soundbars too, with the three front speakers all contained within the bar.
5.1 has the minimum number of speakers needed for “true” surround sound, because it’s enough to literally surround you with sound1. There’s configurations that use many more speakers (10.1, 10.2, etc.) but they’re rarely needed for regular home theatres.
What is 2.1?
2.1 sound setup. Image from wikiHow
2.1 is sound that uses two speakers (full bandwidth sound), and one subwoofer (low-frequency sound). 2.1 is not surround sound because there aren’t enough speakers to surround your seating position, but this doesn’t mean that the audio quality is bad. The two speakers are usually placed to the left and right of the television, and when combined with the subwoofer, there’s usually more than enough audio power to create a lively experience.
Soundbars are a type of 2.1 sound system, with the bar itself using two speakers placed on either end, and a separate subwoofer for bass.
What is the difference between 5.1 and 2.1?
5.1 uses five speakers and one subwoofer that are placed around the couch to produce surround sound. 2.1 uses two speakers and one subwoofer that are placed with the television, to produce sound that comes from one direction. The front speakers in both types of system can be separate units, or contained with a single soundbar.
Is 5.1 or 2.1 surround sound better?
When comparing 5.1 and 2.1 systems, we consider the most important factors: how good the sound experience is, how difficult the systems are to set up, how well supported the types of sound are in modern media, and the cost of each.
With five speakers that surround the listener, 5.1 surround sound creates a more immersive experience that puts you “in” the scene of the movie. When the film’s loveable main character steps into a dark alley for the final scene of the movie, and a creeping sense of worry washes over you, the assassin’s shot will blast itself out of the speaker directly behind you and send you flailing about like the inflatable man at the car dealership. Or when a creeping zombie steps onto a stick that appears to be directly next to your wife on the couch, you’ll need to be careful not to leap at it like a man possessed, or risk a cold shoulder for the rest of the night.
One of the biggest disadvantages to a 5.1 surround sound system is the setup. In a wired 5.1 system, every speaker needs to be connected to the AV source, and also requires its own power. So if you want your home theatre to be tidy and safe, you’ll need to run the wires inside the walls, which can be inconvenient and expensive. Wireless 5.1 systems usually include transmitters that send the audio signal from the AV source to the rear speakers, but those speakers still need a power source, so aren’t truly wireless.
2.1 systems don’t have this problem. With only two speakers and one subwoofer all positioned around the television, the wires are neatly hidden behind the speakers or the television itself, without the need for drilling holes in the wall, or installing baseboards to contain them. If you choose a 2.1 soundbar (a popular choice), the setup is even neater because the two speakers are contained within the soundbar.
5.1 surround sound also requires a “regular” shaped room where the television can sit in the centre, the couch opposite, and the speakers positioned in the correct places (as shown in the image in the “what is 5.1” section above). If this isn’t possible, you won’t experience the surround sound in the way that the producer of the movie or show intended.
While most movies will be optimised for 5.1 surround sound, it remains a rare choice for home theatre setups, so some people believe that movie and television sound producers are neglecting the extra work needed to create a truly immersive experience. This includes dialogue panning for characters, a lack of atmospheric effects, and using rear speakers solely for explosions and other intense sounds. While this is certainly not proof, it’s worth considering when deciding between 5.1 and 2.1.
Netflix claims to support 5.1 surround sound for its shows and movies2, but there’s no indication on their app which are supported, so this is unclear. The same goes for Disney+3.
Video games, on the other hand, are well-supported and highly optimised for surround sound. So if you’re wanting a surround sound system for games, you may get more value out of it.
In Australia, 5.1 surround sound systems start at around $900, and can reach $10,000+ for the highest quality manufacturers. Installation costs vary depending on the complexity of the job, with the room’s walls, available power sources, and your preferred look all important considerations.
2.1 sound systems are much cheaper, starting as low as $150. They can also be set up without the help of a professional.
2.1 or 5.1 for music?
Most modern music is recorded in stereo, which uses two channels—one left, and one right. So a 2.1 sound system is the best choice for listening to music. You can certainly listen to music on a 5.1 surround sound system, but unless the music’s producer has specifically created the music for this type of system (highly unlikely), there’s no extra benefit over the 2.1 system.
- Mark Casey, 2021, What Is Surround Sound Audio?, Lifewire
- 5.1 Surround Sound on Netflix, Netflix
- How do I use Stereo Surround or Dolby Atmos with Disney+?, Disney+