If you are setting up any surround sound system, you will likely come across numbers like 2.1, 5.1, 7.1, 7.1.2, 9.1 and even beyond those! You may be wondering what these strange numbers are and what they mean for your home theater system.
Well, these numbers are very important as they describe the system’s speaker configuration and in some cases, the audio signal format being delivered. They are also important when considering if surround sound is worth it for you.
So let’s quickly get into the details of these different surround sound speaker systems and how their various channel systems are setup.
What Do The Numbers Mean In Surround Sound Terminology?
The First Number (ex: The “5” in 5.1)
The first number of a speaker system configuration indicates the number of main speakers in the surround sound setup. When we talk about main speakers, we are referring to the center, front left, front right, and other various surround speakers.
Modern surround systems will normally have anywhere from at least 2 to 9 or even more main speakers.
The Second Number (ex: The “1” in 5.1)
However, some configurations add an additional sub to achieve a fuller bass in their home theater and so you will see the number 2 instead e.g 7.2.
The Third Number (ex: The “2” in 7.1.2)
The third number of a speaker system configuration is seen less often and refers to height speakers. This configuration indicates the number of “height” or “upward-firing” speakers.
Height speakers are additional surround sound speakers that are normally placed on the ceiling at the front of the home theater. These speakers add the dimension of height to the surround sound field to create a three-dimensional effect.
For these speakers, the ceiling shouldn’t be higher than 14 feet but should be at least three feet directly above your left and right main front speaker and face the listener directly.
In most cases, most people will have two upward-firing speakers and so this third number is often 2.
Home Theater Surround Sound Systems Explained: 2.0 To 13.1
2.0 Stereo Speaker System
2.0 speaker systems are normal stereos, not surround sound. These are the most basic stereo systems you’ll find around. In fact, you can check our our guide on how to convert stereo to 5.1 surround sound.
These stereos have 2.0 right and left stereo sound with two distinct channels. They compose of a simple left and right channel (or a left and a right speaker).
We say they are basic because they are just like your old stereo systems. They use two speaker channels to separate sounds to create a fuller experience.
Most dedicated music devices made nowadays from basic radios to boomboxes will at least have stereo sound and so can be classified as 2.0 surround sound systems.
The number one advantage of a 2.0 setup is that it is affordable setup. Many people start out their home theaters this way as it is inexpensive and simple.
2.0 Surround Sound Speaker System Setup
In most cases, when people set up a 2.0 speaker system, they will have two speakers beside the television – one to the left and one to the right.
In most cases as well, these speakers will be powered by an AV receiver or an amplifier. In the simplest setups, most people will go for active speakers that do not need a separate power source to keep the setup simple and functional.
One drawback of 2.0 systems is that they do not have a separate subwoofer and so bass quality may be lacking unless you get some good powered speakers.
Since this system focuses on sound at the front, there are no surrounding speakers either, so the 2.0 setup is still rather basic. Again, you can check out our guide on how to convert 2.0 stereo audio to 5.1 surround sound systems.
One important consideration for these simple system is to ensure that your speakers are compatible with all your devices from tour TV to your smartphone and has wireless capability including Bluetooth.
2.1 Surround Sound Speaker System
The 2.1 speaker system setup is a step up from the 2.0 setup. In this setup, you have your left and right speakers and a subwoofer.
By having a subwoofer in the setup, your surround system will deliver better bass.
2.1 Surround Sound Speaker System Setup
The 2.1 setup will be similar to the 2.1 setup with each speaker on each side of the television. The subwoofer will normally be placed in the corner by the wall.
However, it really depends since each room is different, you should move the subwoofer around to get the full bass effect. In fact, many people have found that the best placement for their subwoofer is behind their couch.
Many people nowadays just go for a 2.1 channel soundbar to get the 2.1 subwoofers in the setup. This setup is great for any home theater if you do not have the funds for additional devices. In fact, we do recommend going with at least a 2.1 setup in your home theater.
3.1 Surround Sound Speaker System
A 3.1 sound system is a four-channel sound system. This setup has three main speakers and a subwoofer.
With 3.1, you will get an additional center speaker over the 2.1 setup. This center speaker separates the audio dialogue that has been processed for a distinct channel. However, the left and right channels remain distinct.
So, while the center speakers reproduce dialogue, the left and right speakers will be used for effects, music, and other stereo sounds.
3.1 Surround Sound Speaker System Setup
With the 3.1 setup, your left and right speakers are normally positioned at the side of the TV with your center speaker on top of or below the TV, and your subwoofer is normally positioned on the floor in the center of the setup as well.
3.1 systems are still relatively simple and do not have surrounding speakers. However, the addition of the center speaker does a good job of enhancing cinematic sound.
The 3.1 setup is very popular in some soundbars. These soundbars have three speakers or a bar in the front and even have a built-in subwoofer. Others may have the sub separate.
4.1 Surround Sound Speaker System
The 4.1 home theater surround sound system is a step up from the 3.1 speaker system. It is a very common configuration and includes the following:
- front left and front right
- rear left and a rear right
- one subwoofer.
This means that this is a five-channel setup, except that it doesn’t include the typical center channel speaker.
5.1 Surround Sound Speaker System
Why Is The 5.1 Surround Sound System Popular?
- Simple: It’s the simplest true surround sound system
- Immersive Audio: This configuration offers a far more immersive audio experience than any regular two or three-channel stereo.
- Space Considerations: It’s great for smaller spaces. A 5.1 surround system is good enough for surround sound but only included 5 speakers and a sub. This is good for smaller spaces once you know how to place them. Check out our article on how to setup 5.1 speakers in a small room.
- Connectivity: 5.1 surround setups are very popular and so offer a wide range of connection options. For example, some 5.1 systems can even connect to a mobile phone. As an example, check out this guide on how to connect your Philips 5.1 speakers to your mobile.
You’ll find home theater systems of all shapes and sizes use the 5.1 surround system configuration to create an excellent audio experience.
5.1 Speaker System Setup
The 5.1 speaker system setup is quite simple. It has six channels, which include five main speakers and of course a subwoofer.
Here’s the typical setup:
- Main speaker: The system normally has three speakers at the front with one on the left, one in the center, and one on the right of the TV.
- Subwoofer: the sub is normally placed in the middle or in or of the corners of the room.
- Surround sound speakers: There are also two surround sound speakers that are normally placed at the rear of the room – normally on both sides of the couch – one on the left and one on the right. These speakers are also referred to as satellite speakers. They are different from the typical bookshelf speakers that you may be familiar with. If you aren’t aware of the difference, check out our article on satellite vs bookshelf speakers.
However, if you have enough space in your home theater, the ideal setup is as follows:
Front Speakers: The front left and front right speakers at a 22-30 degree angle from the center speaker/TV
Subwoofer: Ideally, you should place the sub in the middle of the floor or in one of the corners. You could even place the sub behind the couch if you want the vibration effect. However, with subs it’s best to move it around until you get the best bass performance.
Surround Speakers: The surround sound speakers should be placed at a 90-110 degree angle from the center speaker/TV.
The 5.1 speaker system is so popular that you will find this configuration compatible with many types of devices.
In fact, many laptops and desktop computers come with a 5.1 sound card and so it may be used with these devices as well as anything from regular DVD to movie theaters and digital smart TVs.
6.1 Surround Sound Speaker System
In fact, it is just like a 5.1 surround system but includes an additional speaker. This speaker helps in creating a fuller and definitely more realistic sound experience.
Here’s the setup:
- Everything is configured like the 5.1 system
- There is an additional speaker that is normally placed in your home theater’s center rear
The idea of the 6.1 configurations is that it will add an additional sound dimension to your home theater setup without having to fo to a full 7.1 surround sound setup.
This is a great idea if you are looking for that additional effect but you are low on budget. You can add another rear speaker later on if needs be to complete the 7.1 setup below.
7.1 and 7.1.2 Surround Sound Systems
7.1 Surround Sound System
The 7.1 speaker configuration is the next step up from the 6.1 speaker system. This means that it includes all the components of a regular 5.1 channel speaker system but also includes two rear speakers, one more than the 6.1 system.
These two rear speakers deliver surround sound which means that the two sides’ surround speakers won’t be responsible for both rear and surround sound unlike in 5.1 systems.
This gives an even more full, rounded sound experience to complete that surround sound cinematic effect. This makes it an eight-channel speaker system and is quite common.
7.1 Speaker System Setup
The 7.1 speaker system is similar to the 5.1 as mentioned before. In fact, the setup is the same except for the addition of two rear speakers. H
In general, the two additional rear speakers should ideally be placed at a 135 to 150-degree angle from the center channel/TV. This ensures that you will achieve the best ad most optimal surround sound experience by amplifying background sounds. These are also satellite speakers. Remember, these are different from say bookshelf speakers (check out satellite vs bookshelf speakers).
You can get a better idea as to what this means by checking our guide on surround vs surround back speakers.
7.1.2 Surround Sound System
7.1.2 Surround Sound System Setup
Firstly, because this system normally includes ceiling speakers, you will find that it is most suited for basic ceilings made of drywall or plaster.
Additionally, the ceiling shouldn’t be higher than 14 feet but should be at least three feet directly above your left and right main front speaker and face the listener directly.
This surround sound configuration is becoming more popular in modern home theaters and does well to create a dome of sound that is like nothing else.
One important consideration however is to ensure that your system is Dolby Atmos compatible if you are using Dolby Atmo upward-firing speakers.
7.2 Surround Sound System
While 5.1 systems are the most popular today, 7.2 surround sound systems are becoming quite popular as well.
Today, many modern receivers support this surround sound layout. 7.2 surround sound systems are very similar to the 7.1 surround sound setup except that it has an additional subwoofer.
Why do you need two subwoofers?
Well, first of all, you don’t necessarily need two subwoofers. One is fine for most people. However, if you want stronger and more balanced bass, two subwoofers are a great choice.
It’s about creating a better overall bass experience really with excellent bass all around the room. As such, if you are a bass bum, a second subwoofer is a great choice for you.
7.2 Surround Sound System Setup
However, the most important consideration initially is that your receiver or amplifier needs to support two subwoofers to support the 7.2 configurations.
9.1 Surround Sound: The Cinematic Experience
Now for the hard-hitting, mega 9.1 home theater surround sound system. The 9.1 home theater surround system is a ten-channel surround sound system that includes nine speakers and a subwoofer.
Of course, these systems are quite expensive and are for very high-end home theater surround sound setup for the most discerning of audiophiles or those who crave a completely immersive surround sound experience.
This is why the 9.1 setup is not as common as the 5.1 or 7.1.2 home theater system.
The 9.1 surround system is really the same as the 7.1.2 configuration with the addition of two height speakers.
Remember, the height speakers are Dolby Atmos speakers that are used to add the dimension of height to the surround field to create a 3D surround sound effect.
9.1 Surround Sound System Setup
Setting up a 9.1 home theater system is not extremely complicated, however, each component should be positioned and chosen carefully considering the acoustics of the room and the specs of the audio components.
Failing to do so can cause any number of problems This is why setting up such a system requires a professional audio technician. For example, you will need a modern receiver that can handle the 9.1 configurations.
Keep in mind that similar to the 7.1 systems, so the ceiling shouldn’t be higher than 14 feet but should be at least three feet directly above your left and right main front speaker and face the listener directly.
9.1.2 Home Theater Surround System
The 9.1.2 surround sound home theater system is similar to the 9.1 system except that it has two front wide speakers, instead of two front height speakers.
This is in addition to the two ceiling or upward-firing speakers.
If that is confusing, let’s explain it further. In the 9.1.2 home theater system, you have a left and right front speaker, a center speaker, a subwoofer, a left and a right front wide speaker, a left and a right surround speaker, a left and a right rear speaker, and a left and a right ceiling speaker.
9.1.2 Surround Sound System Setup
The left and right speakers provide an additional layer of sound to create that dome effect.
Here are the typical components:
|2||Center Speaker||1 set|
|3||Left / Right Speaker||1 for each side (L/R)|
|4||Left / Right Front Wide Speaker||1 for each side (L/R)|
|5||Left / Right Surround Speaker||1 for each side (L/R)|
|6||Left / Right Back Speaker||1 for each side (L/R)|
|7||Left / Right Ceiling Speaker||1 for each side (L/R)|
10.2 Home Theater Surround Sound System
The hard-hitting 10.2 home theater surround sound system is a full-blown, professional and advanced home theater system for high-end home theaters.
This one is for the most advanced home theater professionals who are seeking the highest fidelity in home theater setups.
The 10.2 configuration includes 14 discrete channels if the left and right point surround channels are included.
The 10.2 system was in fact built by the developers of THX, the high-fidelity audio/visual reproduction standards for movie theaters.
This configuration includes seven front channels: left and right side speakers, left and right height speakers, left and right front speakers, and a center front speaker.
There are three surround speakers, including one left, one back, and one right, and two subwoofers.
10.2 Surround Sound System Setup
The 10.2 system is of course not typical and so only a few, dedicated devices are currently sold to accommodate this configuration.
Here is the typical setup:
- Seven front channels: Left Wide, Left Height, Left, Center, Right, Right Height, Right Wide
- Three surround channels: Left Surround, Back Surround, Right Surround
- Two LFE channels: LFE Left and LFE Right
12.2 Home Theater Surround Sound System
The 12.2 home theater system is rather similar to the 10.2 setup except that the 12.2 augments the LS (left surround) and RS (right surround) channels by two-point surround channels.
This way, the overall sound can be better manipulated and controlled by the system because the mixer will be allowed to shift sounds in a distinct 360° circle around the movie watcher.
These additional speakers may be referred to as “point surround” or “diffuse surround” channels.
12.2 Surround Sound System Setup
These point surround speakers are normally placed at the same angles as the standard surround speakers at +/-120 degrees. As already mentioned, these speakers are made into diffuse radiators using dipole speakers.
- Five front speakers: Left Wide, Left, Center, Right and Right Wide
- Five surround channels: Left Surround Diffuse, Left Surround Direct, Back Surround, Right Surround Diffuse and Right Surround Direct
- Two LFE channels: LFE Left, LFE Right (these are the subwoofers)
- Two Height channels: Left Height, Right Height
13.1 Home Theater Surround Sound and Beyond
The amazing 13.1 home theater surround sound system is one of the most complex home theater configurations out there.
As you might imagine, these setups are rather rare and you certainly won’t find them in a typical home theater system in a regular home. At this point, you are talking about high-fidelity music rooms and theaters.
Higher Surround Sound Configurations
Dolby Digital Plus supports surround systems up to 13.1, and there are many other configurations for surround sound, like 12.2, 22.2, and more.
While these surround sound setups are fascinating and complex, they are a rare find in a typical home theater. However, they are fun to research and learn about, and there’s nothing wrong with dreaming of the possibilities!
Do You Need a Professional To Install Your Surround Sound System?
For simple setups such as the 3.1, 5.1 or even 7.2 home theater systems, you can surely go about that kind of setup yourself.
However, for the more complex configurations like the 9.1 or 10.2, you certainly need professional installers who have experience with things like overhead speakers and room acoustics.
Please be reminded that just purchasing a complex home theater surround system doesn’t mean or guarantee the best experience unless the room is set up professionally considering its own unique acoustics.
Consider Dolby Atmos
Many of these systems are Dolby Atmos compatible or based on the setup require Dolby Atmos speakers. If you want to create a cinematic experience, it’s not as good as RPX, but it’s the best you’ll get to in your house.
Dolby Atmos is a surround sound technology that creates a fuller cinematic experience that is high quality and highly realistic.
However, not all devices including receivers and amplifiers are compatible with Dolby Atmos. Before you go out and buy Dolby speakers, make sure your current devices are compatible. In addition, not all systems support Dolby. For example, YouTube does not support Dolby audio. In fact, youtube does not support surround sound. For more information, read our article where we explore the question – does youtube support surround sound.
What Is The Best Number of Home Theater Channels
You may be surprised to learn that there is no magic number for how many speaker channels you should use. This is why we have so many different configurations.
The best options in terms of channels for you will depend solely on your room’s configurations including its size, shape, furniture, whether your home theater is soundproof or not, and many other considerations.
However, there are a number of rules of thumb to consider. For example, if your home theater is small, then you’ll want to go with a smaller number of speaker channels.
If you are having issues with your surround system where one or more speakers are not working, please check out our guide on how to make all speakers work on surround sound.
Surround Sound and Streaming Services
Today, many people get their content from streaming services like Netflix. While Netflix does support surround sound, not all content is compatible with surround sound.
What Does Each Channel In A Surround Sound System Do?
The audio signals connected to a surround sound system are divided through different channels, which are then fed to the various speakers to be reproduced in specified frequencies such that the same sound is reproduced through the speakers in different ways.
Depending on the effect intended, emphasis on the sound quality will vary according to the channel it is fed into as dictated by the frequency settings on that speaker.
What Is The Difference Between 5.1 Channel And 2.1 Channel?
The bigger a soundbar is, the more channels it has. While a 2.1 channel soundbar has just two channels (one on either side) and a subwoofer, a 5.1 channel soundbar has two side speakers, a center channel and two extra speakers in the back which are either built-in or external.
What Is The Difference Between 3.1 Channel And 5.1 Channel?
Soundbars with 3.1 channel contain a channel more than the 2.1 soundbars, a center channel for better, clearer speech and background sound effects.
5.1 Soundbars come with an external subwoofer and five other channels –two side channels, one center, one surround left, and one surround right channels.
How Far Away Should Surround Speakers Be?
It is recommended that the front speakers be at least three feet away from the center speaker (which should be aligned with the TV) on either side, facing the audience. They should also be at least 6 feet back from the viewers.
Surround sound channels can seem rather confusing at first with all the numbers and strange terminology. However, once you know what you are really looking at, you will find that it is quite simple really.
Norvan Martin is the founder of BoomSpeaker.com. He is a professional Electronics Engineer and is passionate about home theater systems and AV electronics. BoomSpeaker was created as an online hub to share his knowledge and experiences as it relates to home theaters and home audio electronics.