5.1 vs 7.1 vs 9.1: Which is Best for You?

Remember the first time you even heard of “surround sound?”

I recall sitting in my cousin’s lounge as he fiddled with an electronic box. Then, suddenly he jolts over to sit down as this huge sound builds up and blows our eardrums out.

Ahhh... the THX test tone that used to be at the start of surround sound DVD's.

Most people know that surround sound systems are a killer way to enjoy cinema at home. What they don't know is what the heck 5.1, 7.1, and the rest of it truly means.

That's what we're going to talk about right here.

In this easy-to-read article you will learn:

  • What’s the difference between 5.1 and 7.1?
  • Is 9.1 surround sound a good idea?
  • How ATMOS and DTS:X work
  • How AV receivers give you surround sound
  • What kind of speakers are best for surround sound?

What is the difference between 5.1 and 7.1?

What you’re playing is important

Surround sound setups play certain sounds from certain speakers. That means WHAT you’re playing has to have surround sound tracks on it.

Those old DVD’s you might remember can have 5.1 audio tracks on them. But they never have 7.1 tracks. The technology wasn’t available.

To work around this, AV receivers can simulate 7.1 using those 5.1 tracks. Sometimes this is called “upsampling.” You turn this on by setting a particular “surround mode” (more on that below).

Most modern audio sources (like Netflix and Blu-ray) do have the audio tracks for proper 7.1 sound.

When those audio tracks are present, there are discrete sounds that play to create an immersive soundscape in all 7 locations around the room.

Is 5.1 or 7.1 right for me?

If you have a tiny room, 5.1 may be the go. If the side and back speakers are super close together, they often perform like a single pair anyway.

If you have a bigger room (or you want to go LOUD), 7.1 is the better option. It will give you that extra immersive effect and it will fill your room with more sound.

Is 9.1 surround sound a good idea?

Now that you know what 5.1 and 7.1 are… what about that pesky old 9.1???

Actually, the Dolby setup possibilities go on up to 11.2.8…

Wrap your noggin around that!!

But I’ll stay on track here. 9.1 is what we’re interested in.

9.1 surround adds two more speakers to the mix. They get placed to the side of your seat and forwards.

What’s more important though… is the fact that almost zero content has audio tracks for these extra speakers!

Plus, most receivers don’t really accommodate them either.

The vast majority of systems top out at 7.1. And that’s what I’d recommend sticking to.

The only time I’d recommend thinking about a 9.1 system is if you listen to a LOT of live music shows on Blu-ray. Or if you’re going whole hog and want to be ready for future content that might add these channels in.

What is ATMOS (and DTS:X)?

If you’ve looked at surround sound products much you will have heard of ATMOS.

ATMOS is Dolby’s version of “height speaker technology.”

This is where certain sounds in a movie can be played directly above your seating position. It makes things like rain and flying objects sound incredibly real.

The competitor to Dolby ATMOS is DTS:X. All you need to know is that both of these things are essentially the same.

Some content uses ATMOS to encode the height channels. Some uses DTS:X.

The number of “height” channels is actually added to the 5.1 number.

So it looks something like “5.1.2” for two height speakers.

Now this begs the question…

Is ATMOS worth it?

Considering over 500 movies support ATMOS (not counting DTS:X) it’s probably going to be available in media that you watch.

To have ATMOS speakers is like hitting the booster on your surround sound immersive experience… it’s awesome!

If you can fit them into your entertainment room budget, and you can put them above your seating position in the ceiling, then I recommend going for it.

How AV receivers give you surround sound

You’ve heard of amplifiers and you’ve heard of receivers. And maybe you’re confused as can be about WHY they have different names.

The fact is, receivers are electronic boxes full of different components — including amplifiers. Whereas an amplifier refers to a component that increases the power of an audio signal.

If you’re running a surround sound system, you have to use a receiver.

AV receivers have multiple amplifier channels for multiple speakers.


If the receiver is a “5.1 channel” receiver, it will have five separate amplifiers built in. Each one of these is meant to power a single speaker.

You have left, right, centre, ‘surround left’ and ‘surround right.’

If you have a “7.1 channel” receiver, you have an additional two separate amplifiers. That’s because a 7.1 system will have four surround speakers instead of only two.

But here’s something else you should know…

The additional two amplifiers are almost always “assignable.”

That means you can go into the AV receiver’s settings and SET these to do different things.

Namely, you can use them for a 7.1 system in one room…

Or you can change them to be an extra stereo zone (two speakers in a different room).

That means you’d have a 5.1 system in your main lounge and perhaps another zone on the back deck or in the kitchen.

You also have “sound modes” for your system.

These sound modes allow you to manually adjust how your receiver plays to all the different speakers in your system.

There are a bunch of options but I’ll quickly explain the important ones…

“Automatic” is a surround mode that detects the audio in your content and sets the right surround sound mode automatically. You want to use this for any movies and TV shows. In my experience, this always works fine.

“Multi-channel Stereo” is a surround mode that lets you use all the speakers in your room for music.

This is important to remember because without it, only the front left and front right play proper stereo sound.

When you change to multi-channel stereo you suddenly get an awesome, room-filling stereo sound.

What kind of speakers are best for surround sound?

One look around the audio stores and you’ll learn that “speakers” means a lot of different things.

You’ve got a lot of choice when it comes to creating a surround sound cinema experience in your home.

There are a lot of folks who are adopting the modern solution…

Soundbars

Soundbars are super slim. They have amps built in so you don’t need another box. And they sound pretty good considering their size and cost.

But they aren’t without downsides.

Soundbars always struggle to give a great audio experience at louder volumes. They especially struggle with bass because they have tiny speaker drivers inside them.

Click here if you want to learn about whether soundbars are right for you or not.

People who want the performance often ditch the idea of soundbars and go with…

Box speakers

The traditional option, loved by Hi-Fi enthusiasts through the ages.

Box speakers have the advantage of acoustic design. They are built with less worry around saving space, so the engineers can tweak the cabinets to try and improve audio quality.

This type of speaker almost always outperforms a soundbar. And if you are willing to pay a premium you can get some really impressive audio quality.

But you are always going to be looking at big boxes in your room. That usually means speaker cables running across the floor. And it means maintenance — dusting around them and making sure you don’t knock them over.

There’s one more major speaker category to consider which walks the line between great performance and low clutter…

In-wall & in-ceiling speakers

These speakers will use the walls or ceilings of your home to act as a speaker cabinet.

They will be nearly invisible and completely out of the way. You especially won’t see (or trip on) any speaker cables.

And they don’t have to compromise with tiny speaker drivers. In-wall and in-ceiling speakers can have drivers of equal size and quality to any Hi-Fi speaker.

Plus, with directional models, you can create every bit of an amazing audio image.

The biggest downside to this category is the fact that you have to cut into your walls or ceilings and install them.

While it doesn’t require expertise or experience, it does mean a bit of a project.

You’ll have to plan where they’ll go and run speaker cables behind the walls. Then you’ll have to make the cutouts and lock the speakers in place.

This category of cinema speaker is actually our specialty. If you feel interested in seeing some high-performance, directional in-wall and in-ceiling models you can see our catalog here.

We provide plenty of easy-to-follow information on every part of creating an outstanding in-built system.

Conclusion

Big room? Appetite for powerful cinema sound?

7.1 is probably the right move. Otherwise 5.1 will suit just fine.

9.1 is a bit much right now unless you’re really hammering your theatre room…

...and ATMOS? Totally worth it if you can!

Choose between soundbars, box speakers, and in-wall / in-ceiling speakers and you’re ready to build a serious entertainment space!

Thanks for reading!