For a novice in the world of home audio systems, designations like 5.1, 6.1 and 7.1 can be ambiguous and confusing. What does this mean, and how does it relate to the audio system that I want? Understanding these things is actually very simple once someone explains the basics, and makes a big difference when choosing the kind of home audio or home theater system you actually want to buy. This article aims to explain the differences to 5.1, 6.1 and 7.1 audio systems and the important points each consumer should consider before deciding to invest in one of the other.
Let’s start at the beginning. All three of these numbers refers to a surround sound speaker system. Broken down, it simply means that the system includes five smaller “satellite” speakers that are placed strategically throughout the theater area or room (the 5), and also a subwoofer to provide bass effect (the 1.) Of the three, this is the first type of surround technology developed, with the other two simply representing upgrades to the original system that have occurred over time.
In a 5.1 speaker system the five speakers are positioned in the following configuration: front left, front right, center, surround (side) left, surround (side) right. This provides the encompassing “surround” effect that pipes the music to the listener from all sides, adding realism and giving the system its name.
A 6.1 sound system is, for all intents and purpose, identical to a 5.1, with the addition of a single satellite. This satellite is positioned “surround (rear) center” to provide rear surround sound effect and an enhanced dimension of realism to the sound quality.
For an even more realistic surround sound experience, there’s 7.1 sound systems. 7.1 systems, as I’m sure you’ve guessed at this point, are the same as 5.1 and 6.1 except that they include two rear surround sound satellites, that are positioned to the rear left and right of the audience.
Which is Best?
In general, 5.1 speakers will suffice for most casual movie-watchers; they provide good sound and a good surround effect. 6.1 provides the rear element of surround more cheaply than a 7.1 system, however everyone agrees that as far as the best sound quality goes 7.1 is overall superior to both. An added benefit of 7.1 over 6.1 is that is allows speakers to be placed on either side of listeners even if the seating area, ie a couch, is placed up against a wall.