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7.1 VS 5.1.2: IS ATMOS THRIVING OR DIVING?

atmos speaker set up

If you haven’t installed your audio system yet, there’s a mistake you want to avoid.

You’re reading this because:

  • You realise most AV receivers can power 7 speakers…
  • You want to get the most amazing home theatre system possible, and…
  • You’re not sure if classic 7.1 surround is better than modern 5.1.2 Atmos.

You’re about to know the answer, AND the detailed reasons why.

Sure 7.1 is better than basic 5.1 and it sounds great, but if you can accommodate in-ceiling speakers…

Go with 5.1.2 for a better, more immersive and exciting experience.

Read on to find out why that is and some critical tips on how you can get the most out of it.

Contents

  • What Is A 7.1 Speaker Setup?
  • What Is A 5.1.2 Speaker Setup?
  • Why Is Atmos Better Than 7.1?
  • What Are The Best Speakers For 5.1.2?

What Is A 7.1 Speaker Setup?

7.1 speaker set up

Take 5.1 surround and add two more “rear effects” speakers to get 7.1.

Where this gets tricky is in WHERE you place those speakers. You can fudge this around and still get good results. (I’ll explain more below.)

When doing research trying to decide which setup is right for you, be careful. Don’t assume a speaker placement diagram you’re looking at is correct.

The reason for this is because surround sound is all about the audio content you’re playing. Your Blu-Ray disc has separate audio tracks on it for each “ideal speaker location” which tries to give you an audio experience to match the visual experience.

What are those ideal speaker locations? Ask the company that created the system:

official dolby 5.1
official Dolby 7.1 diagram

Actual Dolby 5.1 & 7.1 placement guides

(shown using directional ceiling speakers)

Notice with the 5.1 diagram you have one speaker that’s back and to the side. That’s because it’s combining both the surround tracks for LEFT and RIGHT into one spot.

When you add the extra two speakers in 7.1, you can split those tracks up and create panning effects between the sides and the back of the room.

All of the speakers in this setup are ear level.

What Is A 5.1.2 Speaker Setup?

atmos speaker setup illustration

Take 5.1 surround again, but this time add the extra two speakers straight into the ceiling slightly in front of your seat.

That’s 5.1.2.

AKA adding Dolby Atmos — or DTS:X — to your 5.1 system.

They’re called “height” channels. Just like 7.1, 5.1.2 is all about the content you’re playing. If your content has height tracks in the audio (most new content does) you can hear effects from above that match what’s happening in the film.

official dolby 5.1.2 diagram

Actual Dolby 5.1.2 placement guide

When you add these channels above you hear rain, helicopters and explosions in the distance literally coming from above you. All while effects behind you and to the sides also play.

people are going with htese speakers

For more detail on speaker placement, see:

Why Is Atmos Better Than 7.1?

epic movie theatre with high ceilings

If we were sitting at a café sipping espressos I’d be telling you 5.1.2 is better because I sold home theatre for 7 years and… since the day Atmos hit stores and we set up our first demo, it was clear to us 7.1 days were numbered.

I’d also say that every client who heard 7.1 vs 5.1.2 (yes everyone, at least that I can remember) agreed that Atmos was noticeably superior.

But sadly we’re not at a café. So none of that should sway you.

The following explanation on the other hand, just might…

7.1 adds two “ear level” speakers to the back

The reality is… 5.1 is actually a concession on 7.1. It’s not the other way around.

7.1 is what’s encoded in the movie content, but you can get 70-80% of the experience by combining those surround tracks on each side.

I’m not saying it isn’t worth upgrading 5.1 to 7.1. You get a more immersive sound that’s also “bigger feeling” for any given volume level. You also get panning effects that feel a little more real.

But the improvement is more like 30%. (That’s an arbitrary number but you get the picture.)

Your ears work out where sounds come from based on the difference between your left and right ears… and the attenuation of frequencies caused by your ear shape.

In other words, sounds coming from behind you have certain frequencies reduced. This tells your brain they’re coming from behind.

They grab your attention more readily — which makes sense because you’d need to turn around to see what caused them — but they present slightly less detail.

This is part of why your front speakers are by far the most important speakers in your system. That’s where the action is. It also might be why going from 5.1 to 7.1 only gives you a 30% (or so) boost.

There’s nothing missing from 5.1

Since 5.1 combines both surround sound tracks from 7.1, it follows that there’s no audio missing.

All the sounds are there.

You’ll get a sense that there’s action behind you. You’ll experience panning from back left to back right. The film’s music score will fade in from every corner of the room filling it with energy.

I know I’m making 7.1 sound like a waste of time and, I don’t mean to. It’s still pretty awesome adding those two extra channels and having a serious surround system playing around you.

The reason I’m pointing out these things is to draw attention to the fact that…

5.1.2 adds a new dimension of sound

Putting height channels (the “.2”) in your ceiling above you creates sound from what’s otherwise an empty void.

It’s another dimension of your room coming to life.

The 5.1 will cover all the ear-level audio needs while those two height channels recreate sounds from above, completing the “audio bubble” and making the experience more vivid.

Now to be fair…

Atmos height tracks are probably still merged with simple 5.1.

Dolby’s system for working this out probably doesn’t remove height audio. So you’re still not missing anything with 5.1.

But… they definitely won’t sound the same to your ears coming from ear level behind you, rather than directly above like they’re meant to!

the secret to tidy home design and explosive sound

What Are The Best Speakers For 5.1.2?

timber ceiling with Jensen ceiling speakers

To recreate “height sounds” like rainfall and planes, or fill the room even more with epic soundtracks, there’s no question…

In-ceiling speakers are the best form factor

Actually having speakers in the ceiling means the entire frequency range is better represented. Your ears will clearly place sounds above your head.

Tack onto that the delightful benefits of:

  • Not having box speakers sitting in your room to manage…
  • Having a tidy room that looks the way you want it to, and…
  • Never seeing, dusting or tripping on exposed cables.

What about "reflective speakers?"

You’ll also find “reflective speakers” which are designed to point upward and bounce Atmos audio off your ceiling.

While these can do a decent job, they’re very much dependent on your ceiling and your room. The height of your ceiling will change the reflection angle. The material will boost some frequencies and reduce others.

Reflective speakers really aren’t ideal.

In fact, if you have to go with a set of reflective speakers — meaning you can’t possibly install in-ceiling speakers — we might even reopen this discussion of 7.1 vs. 5.1.2. It might be better to go 7.1 and guarantee the frequencies are represented correctly.

What makes good in-ceiling speakers for Atmos?

If you can go with in-ceiling speakers, here’s what you need to know.

There are lots of commercial in-ceiling speakers out there, the likes of which you hear in restaurants and elevators. They aren’t designed for audio performance and home theatre… so you end up with “tinny” and “thin” sound.

Go with in-ceiling speakers designed for performance.

They’ll have better acoustic design, better ‘internals’ (crossover components and bracing), and tighter speaker drivers. This gives you deeper, richer and more accurate sound.

The second thing to do is…

Go with in-ceiling speakers with directional tilt.

This means once you can install the speaker and decide which direction to bias the sound field. By doing this — even for Atmos sounds from above — your ears pick up more detail and it’s easier for them to “place” where the sound comes from.

This is why every model in the Jensen in-ceiling speaker range features our dispersion horn technology (shown below).

in ceiling speakers with 15 degree directional tilt

These two factors are critical in getting amazing sound from your in-ceiling speakers. That’s why our whole range of performance home theatre ceiling speakers apply these design characteristics.

You can learn more about the rich, clear audio quality of our speakers by browsing the real customer feedback on every one of our product pages.