I recently posted a question to the readers of Home Theater Review asking them, at what point is a consumer’s system considered a true home theater? While my initial intent was to see if they agreed or disagreed with my belief that anytime a consumer chooses to go beyond the realm of their HDTV’s built-in loudspeakers -think soundbar -and a single source component they’re now playing in the realm of home theater; what I got was far different. The result was not (wholly) a discussion over what constitutes a home theater but rather, what level of home theater setup was best -5.1 or 7.1.

For those of you who may be a little confused, 5.1 and 7.1 refers to the number of speakers in a home theater setup, with 5 and 7 representing the number of total loudspeakers and the .1 referring to the subwoofer channel. In a 5.1 speaker setup you have a total of six speakers, five bookshelf or floorstanding speakers and one subwoofer. With a 7.1 setup you have eight, seven speakers plus one subwoofer. Traditionally, a “typical” home theater setup consisted of at least a 5.1 setup, however with the advent of Blu-ray, 7.1 speaker setups have become increasingly popular.

I have no bias one way or the other, though I run a 5.1 setup in my own home. It’s not that I have anything against 7.1 -I don’t- I just don’t personally feel as if I’m missing anything with 5.1, nor would gain that much by “stepping up” to 7.1. But is there a logical case to be made either way? Is one truly better than the other, and should those contemplating building their first home theater system consider one speaker setup over the next? Let us look at the facts.

Both 5.1 and 7.1 soundtracks are (largely) encoded in the same quality though they may be different formats, i.e. Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio. So if you’ve been inundated by terms such as “lossless audio” or “uncompressed audio tracks” understand that neither are dependent upon the number of speakers you chose to employ. So right there, there is no real benefit for one over the other. As they say in Vegas, it’s a push.

Now, it is possible to get a Blu-ray disc with a 7.1 mix in either Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio on it, in which case those with 5.1 systems would be down-mixing, but is that a bad thing? Would you notice? In my experience, no, unless you’re trying to cover a wide area, say multiple seating positions in a stacked configuration, then 7.1 may, in fact, make a difference. Though prior to its arrival (7.1) many were able to make do quite well with 5.1. Obviously proper setup is the key to either a 5.1 or 7.1 channel system sounding “right”, which is where I believe a lot of systems are let down or lead astray.

Let us assume you’ve setup your system correctly and have all of your loudspeakers in a 7.1 configuration “singing” beautifully together. Was the additional investment worth it? With additional speakers comes additional channels of amplification, two to be exact. While there are seven channel amplifiers and AV receivers they are (typically) more expensive than their five channel counterparts. How much more is dependent upon the manufacturer, suffice to say the difference can range from ho-hum to oh-my God. Moreover there is the added expense of two additional speakers too. Can’t overlook that. For the sake of argument let’s say our speakers cost a mere $250 a pair, which isn’t bad, nor an impossible figure as there are a number of smaller bookshelf speakers that fall within this price range that I’d whole heartedly recommend. If our speakers cost $250 a pair then five would run us $625 total with seven speakers coming in at $875. We’re going to use the same subwoofer for this example so it won’t affect the cost of either setup, so for simplicity sake let’s just ignore its price. Since we’re balling on a budget here we’re going to look at the price of a five channel amplifier versus seven channel one. The Emotiva UPA-500 retails for $399 and is a five channel amplifier. The UPA-700 is a seven channel amplifier and it retails for $499. My calling out the Emotiva product isn’t an endorsement of either, but rather examples of inexpensive solutions to either the 5.1 or 7.1 channel “problem”. Everything else about a 5.1 or 7.1 channel setup is going to be the same, meaning you can get away with the same Blu-ray player and AV preamp. So in this example the difference in price between 5.1 and 7.1 all totaled is $350 give or take. While that may not sound like a lot, for many it can mean the difference between buying and waiting. Moreover, this is the least expensive example I could come up with, so please don’t think that the step from 5.1 to 7.1 always costs a mere $350. It doesn’t.

But even at $350, was the added investment in 7.1 worth it? According to Blu-rayStats.com, a website that tracks all things Blu-ray, it found that of all the presently available Blu-ray discs on the market today only 6.62-percent of them actually possessed 7.1 channel mixes. Less than one percent even possessed 6.1. Which of the surround sound formats was therefore the most popular? According to the statistics, 5.1 what with its 80-percent share. In truth, more Blu-ray discs are encoded with only a stereo track (7.14-percent) than in 7.1. How many discs does 6.62 percent represent? Try 407 discs out of 7,769 titles listed.

I have nothing to gain or lose by 7.1′s success or failure, I’m just trying to give you the facts so that you may make a more educated decision. While there may not be a “wealth” of 7.1 encoded content compared to 5.1, does that mean that you can’t still enjoy a 7.1 system in the face of a 5.1 mix? No, you most certainly can, you’re just going to have to rely on a bit of digital audio magic to “expand” a 5.1 mix to all eight of your speakers in your 7.1 setup. Much in the same way 7.1 is summed down to “fit” within the confines of a 5.1 setup, you have to expand a 5.1 mix to fit a 7.1 channel setup. As for the question of one being better than the other, well, it seems it’s still a matter of personal preference. If you’re one to weigh the odds and make decisions based on rational arguments, you could make a case for 5.1 being the best surround sound speaker setup option. But then again, when has anything about home theater been wholly about logic?

As always I thank you so much for reading. Until next time, take care and stay tuned…

Andrew

  • Philnick

    Considering that human ears have forward-facing funnels called “pinnae” – the flaps of flesh that stick out from the head – which make it difficult to hear anything from behind, least of all the high-frequency sounds that are used for localization, I consider the rear speakers in a 7.1 system totally superfluous.

    When I first set up my 5.1 system, I followed the diagrams in the equipment manual which all showed the surround pair located behind the listener. As a result, I found myself constantly getting up and going over to one of the “rear” speakers to see if it was even on. Only after learning that 5.1 surround speakers are supposed to be alongside, and moving mine, was I really able to enjoy surround sound.

    I doubt that I would ever voluntarily spend money just to put another pair of speakers behind me – not to mention for additional channels of amplification to drive them!

  • http://twitter.com/ARobinsonOnline Andrew Robinson

    All very good points. I appreciate you taking the time to read and share your thoughts.

  • http://www.facebook.com/JamesMVHolmes Jim Holmes

    Hey Andrew, I think the same issue exists here that we discussed in the other threads. The content providers are the ones holding back on embracing the technology because it costs more to remix and re-manufacture the content and they are already selling it now in 5.1 so why bother improving it if it will not massively improve their balance sheet. Disney has been the industry leader in this move to 7.1 since its inception and most of their releases are available in that format and it has facilitated the re-release of some key titles and use the extra channels to drive the sales of their existing catalogue.

    Hollywood was slow to embrace this process too but now they are seeking any form of technological advantage that brings movie goers out of their homes and back into the theaters. Dolby Atmos and Imax have helped create an environment that is exclusive to theaters and very difficult to replicate in your home. That gives the theater something to offer that is unique and drives the box office numbers Hollywood needs to create a buzz about their latest release.

    I have studied the work of Tomlinson Holman who is best known as the TH in THX and also coined the term 5.1. His scientific approach to surround sound is to develop a proper sound field which reduces the effect of speaker based localization cues and creates a more immersive experience. Essentially, the more speakers you have, the better it sounds. This also helps to eliminate the sweet spot effect that seems to plague most 5.1 systems. Some of the technology Holman helped to develop has added channels where they don’t exist by using cleverly engineered algorithms combined with advanced room calibration to reduce the effect of room modes and simulate ambience based on the fundamental 7.1 channels. These calibrations and added channels have helped eliminate the effect of the sound of the room itself that your system lives in. This can bring huge benefits to way we enjoy musical recordings too. Holman has been trying to convince Hollywood to add more actual channels for years with little success as it is all about dollars.

    Home theater systems are almost like microwave ovens in that people buy them because everyone else seems to have one and they can’t be seen without one. Some of the more engaged AVR manufacturers have incorporated chips into their products with these advanced algorithms in them. This has drastically improved the user experience from set-up and calibration to enjoying the media. These products have produced results not just gimmicks which demonstrates a need for more equipment and justifies the added cost well beyond the theory of more is better. In this case, science rather that slick talking salespeople are making the case for more!

  • Will Wilberg

    Very well said! Thank you for expressing my thoughts in a much more eloquent way than I ever could have.

  • http://www.facebook.com/picketth Harry Pickett

    Thanks Andrew.
    I wondered about the difference. Thanks for making you posts understandable!

  • http://twitter.com/ARobinsonOnline Andrew Robinson

    You’re welcome Harry. Thank you for reading!

  • jonathan smith

    Hi “Andrew”, thank you so much for sharing this kind of post with us. The matter you have covered in your post, is worth informative.
    http://www.savins.ie/home-cinema-systems-surround-sound-systems-ireland