Choosing the best speaker layout is tricky with so many options. There are 2.0 (left/right speakers) and 2.1 (adds a subwoofer) for stereo. 5.1 adds a center, surrounds, and sub for surround sound.
7.1 includes rear speakers for more immersion. And what about 5.1.2 Atmos with added height speakers? This article compares the most common setups to help you decide which is best for you.
- Choose a speaker layout based on room size, budget, and usage.
- Watching movies vs listening to music can require different layouts, although you can combine both in a single system.
- A center channel speaker improves movie dialogue clarity, and a subwoofer adds impactful low bass for movies and music.
- More speakers can provide a better surround sound effect but require more space and budget.
What are Audio Channels?
For live or recorded sound, an audio channel is the position of a sound source in an audio signal. But for amplifiers and speakers, an audio channel is a way of transporting that sound signal.
For example, in the early days of sound recording, engineers recorded the sound in mono – a single-channel audio source. Devices that played this sound had one speaker – like early gramophones, radios and TVs.
Later, sound recording evolved to use stereo audio with two channels – left and right, which meant that engineers could mix musical instruments in a stereo field.
Because of this, amplifiers also needed two speaker channels for the left and right speakers – one channel for each speaker. More recently, modern movie soundtracks used several audio channels for surround sound.
A surround sound amplifier must have multiple channels to send the sound to all the surround speakers around the room, the one pictured above has 7-channels.
Now that you understand what an audio channel is, what are the different speaker layouts commonly used in music and movie audio reproduction today?
2.0 Stereo Sound
Do you have a sound system to play music at home? If so, it is probably a stereo system. Stereo systems have two speakers – one for the left audio channel and one for the right – which can be described as a 2-channel or 2.0 system.
The ‘2’ means it has left and right speakers for playing two-channel sound, and most music and TV shows come with stereo sound.
The ‘.0’ implies this system doesn’t use a subwoofer, which you will learn more about soon.
If you do have a good stereo speaker system at home, you might be able to use this for your home theater sound. For this, you will need an amplifier with a spare stereo audio input.
If so, connect the audio output from your video source – like your DVD or Blu-ray player – to the amplifier’s input. Bingo! That’s improved the sound already.
Although most people assume you should hear home theater audio in surround sound – don’t forget that most TV audio is still broadcast in stereo – and every movie disc will have a stereo mix of the soundtrack.
While it’s great to have a surround sound system – you can get a much better quality stereo amplifier and speakers for the price of a mid-range surround sound system.
Your stereo TV and DVD audio will sound fantastic – plus you’ll have a system which will sound great for listening to music too!
2.1 Stereo Sound
2.1 stereo sound is similar to a 2.0 stereo setup – with two speakers for the stereo left and right audio channels. The difference is you also have a subwoofer speaker connected to the system. If you see any speaker configuration with a ‘.1’, it indicates it has a subwoofer.
The subwoofer isn’t technically a channel because it simply receives low-level audio from the two stereo audio channels – so a 2.1 amp is a two-channel amplifier with a subwoofer output.
The subwoofer is a speaker designed for bass frequencies.
Most hi-fi speakers sound OK for mid-range and high frequencies – but many can’t reproduce the low frequencies that well – although large floor-standing speakers can give an excellent bass sound.
A subwoofer fills out the low end really well and creates a better-balanced sound, and it makes a massive difference to the sound if you get good bass along with the mid and high frequencies.
It will also really improve your movie experience with some of the low-end rumbles and special effects.
The easiest way to get a 2.1 home theater system is to buy an amplifier with a dedicated subwoofer output channel.
However, a problem with this is there aren’t that many stereo amplifiers with a subwoofer output. Fortunately, there is another way. Many subwoofers have two different types of connections:
- Low-level input: the ‘standard’ input that you connect to the dedicated sub pre-out on a home theater receiver. This will be a single phono connection.
- High-level input: often a Neutrik Speakon connection for taking the full audio signal from the front left and right speakers.
So, if you purchase a subwoofer with a high-level input, you can connect your stereo amplifier in this way.
You will then use the volume and filter controls on the subwoofer to balance the low-bass audio with your stereo speakers. If those options aren’t suitable for you, you could:
- buy a 5.1 AV receiver and only connect it to a front left/right pair and subwoofer.
- buy a home-theater-in-a-box-system or soundbar system
So, which of these two stereo speaker layouts should you use?
2.0 vs 2.1 Speaker Layouts
Now that you understand the difference between 2.0 and 2.1-channel systems, which is best for you?
The pros of a 2.0 system are:
- You like the sound of your stereo speaker system as it is
- You don’t have space for a subwoofer
- A 2-channel amp with no subwoofer is cheaper
- You don’t need to spend more money on a subwoofer
- You are likely to get more bang for your buck with a simple stereo amp and speaker system
- You don’t have to worry about getting the right tonal balance between stereo speakers and subwoofer
The advantages of a 2.1 system are:
- You are happy with a stereo system, but you feel your current 2.0 hi-fi system doesn’t give you enough bass for music.
- You want more bottom end for movie effects.
- You can get a really low-end sound that is hard to get from stereo speakers.
- You enjoy the flexibility of setting up a subwoofer in your room.
- You can use the stereo speakers for music – and only enable the subwoofer for movies.
There isn’t a correct answer to this question. It depends on your budget, what material you will play and what sounds best to your ears.
Many people prefer a system with a subwoofer for music and movies.
However, many audiophiles prefer a more straightforward setup with the clean sound they get from their standalone stereo pair. If they want more bass, they will buy bigger floor-standing speakers.
There isn’t a right or wrong answer – just a matter of taste.
3.0 Speaker Layout
If you don’t want to install a complete surround sound system but want to improve your home audio for TV and movies, then a 3.0 speaker system might be perfect.
A 3.0 speaker system has a center speaker in addition to the left and right stereo speakers. Why is this an improvement over 2.0?
Because surround sound movies are mixed with the center channel taking most of the dialogue.
So, the advantage over a 2.0 setup is the extra center speaker will allow greater separation of voices and music. This will improve the clarity of a busy soundtrack.
You can either buy a dedicated 3.0 system or get a 5.1/7.1 AV receiver and just connect the front three speakers.
When you set up your AV receiver, you can tell it that you don’t have surround speakers at the rear, and it will play a 5.1 soundtrack minus the rear effects. The advantages of a 3.0 speaker layout are:
- Better performance with TV and movies
- A center speaker will improve the clarity of dialogue
- You can alter the volume of the center speaker to your taste
Of course, if you play stereo music or TV shows, you will only use the stereo speakers, and the center speaker will be redundant.
However, if you have an AV receiver, you could enable Dolby Surround or DTS Neural:X, which will use the center with stereo sound.
You can buy soundbars with dedicated center speakers if you prefer to use a soundbar, although it can often be difficult to tell if a soundbar has a center speaker or not.
3.1 Speaker Layout
If you’ve followed along, you’ve probably already figured out what a 3.1 system is.
3.1 layouts have a front left, center, and front right speaker like the 3.0 layout, but it will also have a separate subwoofer.
Why would you prefer a 3.1 system over a 3.0? The reasons are the same as with 2.0 vs. 2.1.
The subwoofer will give you a much better bottom end, which can work well for music, but it will come into its own for movie soundtracks.
So, which is better, a 3.1 or 2.1 speaker system? As always, it depends! The advantages of a 2.1 speaker layout are:
- Cheaper to buy
- You can buy a 2-channel hi-fi amplifier, which may well provide better sound quality for the money
- Works great for music – OK for movies
The advantages of a 3.1 speaker layout are:
- Separate center speaker for movie and TV dialogue
- Adjustable volume for the dialogue
- Works better movies – OK for music, but you will need to spend more money on a multi-channel amplifier to get similar sound quality to a dedicated stereo amplifier.
The bottom line is that a 3.0 or 3.1 speaker setup will work better for TV and movies because of the center speaker.
5.1 Home Theater System
Surround sound! You just gotta love surround sound. This is where it gets enjoyable with a home theater system. If you haven’t heard it in action, then you must. You must!
A 5.1 speaker system is the standard home theater speaker layout. Pretty much all DVDs and Blu-rays will have a 5.1 surround sound soundtrack these days, plus a stereo mix.
Any movie will sound fantastic if you’ve got a good 5.1 speaker system in the room. A 5.1 surround sound installation has six speakers in total:
- Front left and right (which is the equivalent of your stereo speakers)
- Front center (mainly used for dialogue)
- Surround left and right (it’s behind you!)
- A subwoofer (for low bass)
You’ll need an AV receiver with five channels to connect the center, front left, front right, surround left and surround right speakers.
It will also have a subwoofer output (sometimes called an LFE) to connect to your sub.
A DVD or Blu-ray player sends the digital audio to the AV receiver, which decodes it and sends the audio to the correct speakers.
The results can be superb when you connect a 5.1 speaker layout to a good AV amplifier. With a balanced sound in the room, a good 5.1 mix will make you feel part of the action.
The sound should completely immerse you in the movie – with a blend of music and sound effects surrounding you.
Learn more: How does surround sound work?
6.1 Surround Sound
6.1 is a less common speaker layout, but some soundtracks are encoded with this format. You may see some discs with DTS-ES Matrix6.1 or Discrete6.1.
A 6.1 speaker layout is the same as 5.1 but with a single extra speaker behind your primary listening position. Your AV receiver will need to support this audio format – plus have an extra channel to power the additional speaker.
In practice, you will need to buy a 7.1 AV receiver for this.
7.1 Surround Sound
7.1 surround sound speaker systems are very similar to their 5.1 counterparts – but there are two extra speakers at the rear.
The purpose of the extra rear speakers is to get even more control over the sense of space in the room. Many new AV receivers have enough output channels to connect a 7.1 system (or more).
However, you don’t need to connect all seven outputs if you don’t have space – or enough speakers. So you can use these in a 5.1 configuration, and you can always add more speakers later.
The biggest issue with 7.1 surround sound is that few movies have a 7.1 soundtrack – although there are some – so you may wonder what the point is.
Well, a 7.1 AV receiver will have some digital audio processing modes that will fill the extra speakers with sound from the 5.1 soundtrack – giving the illusion of more space.
Therefore, you will still benefit from having two extra speakers in the room. You will generally need more space in your room to connect a 7.1 sound system.
Ideally, the extra rear speakers should be behind the seating in your home theater – which will be tricky if the seat is pushed back against the wall.
However, given enough space in your room to position your speakers correctly – a 7.1 system can provide you with an even better surround sound experience than 5.1. Here are some tips if you are trying to choose between a 7.1 and 5.1 system.
5.1 vs 7.1 Surround Sound
The advantages of a 5.1 speaker setup are:
- A 5.1 receiver will be cheaper
- You can buy a more affordable speaker package
- Most soundtracks are 5.1, not 7.1
- Fewer speakers in your room
- Easier installation
- Requires less space in your room
The advantages of a 7.1 speaker system are:
- Most AV receivers have a minimum of 7-channels anyway.
- Better surround sound effect.
- Most receivers will have a digital processing mode, creating a 7.1 mix from a standard 5.1 soundtrack.
- You can use the extra two channels to power Dolby Atmos speakers instead.
Don’t forget. If you buy an AV receiver that supports 7.1, you can also use it for 5.1 surround sound – and then add more speakers later if you want to upgrade to 7.1.
Learn more: 5.1 vs 7.1 Surround Sound: Easy Answers To Your Top Questions
7.2 Surround Sound
More and more AV receivers now support a 7.2 surround sound speaker layout. A 7.2 setup is the same as a 7.1 system – except it has two subwoofers – hence the ‘.1’ is increased to ‘.2’.
Therefore, a 7.2 surround receiver has two subwoofer outputs rather than the usual one.
The main reason to have a second subwoofer is to even out the bass sound throughout your room. The long wavelengths of low-frequency sound can create standing waves in many rooms, leading to quiet or loud bass areas.
This isn’t a situation you want in your home theater, as you should have a consistent bass level regardless of where you are sitting.
Therefore, adding a second subwoofer will fill the gaps and create a more even spread of the low frequencies. You can also use this second subwoofer in a 5.1 surround sound setup, creating a 5.2 surround sound system.
Another advantage of a ‘.2’ layout is you won’t need to drive two subwoofers as hard to get a good bass level, which may result in a better, less overdriven sound.
Whatever the reason for using two subwoofers, the speaker positioning would vary from room to room, depending on the acoustics. So it is impossible to say exactly where to position your second subwoofer.
However, it may just be a simple case of having one near the front and one near the back or side of the room.
As very low frequencies are not as directional as higher sound waves, it is less important where you place the subwoofer – the main concern is the overall bass level.
Learn more: Find out more about 7.2 speaker placement
Dolby Atmos Speaker Layouts: 5.1.2 and 7.1.4
When you thought you had the hang of this, here is another speaker layout to confuse you.
If you see an extra number after the usual 5.1 or 7.1, this refers to object-based 3D audio layouts – such as Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. So you might see a 5.1.2 layout – or 7.1.4.
These newer audio formats have removed the traditional reliance on fixed audio channels.
With Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, mix engineers can place audio objects anywhere in the sound field and are not tied to the traditional 5 or 7-channel configurations.
Although these soundtracks will support traditional 5.1 and 7.1-channel systems, they can be played on various speaker configurations.
The AV receiver will alter the output depending on how many speakers are connected. A Dolby Atmos system requires at least two more speakers in addition to the usual ones, and this is the extra ‘.2’ at the end of 5.1.2.
The extra two speakers can either be:
- Upfiring Dolby Atmos speakers: usually placed on top of your front left and right stereo pair and pointing towards the ceiling.
- Down-firing speakers: placed somewhere on the ceiling and pointing down into the room. These can be in several different positions – the front, middle or rear of the room being the most common. When you set up your AV receiver, you just need to tell it where they are located.
For a DTS:X soundtrack, you don’t need to have the extra speakers, and the audio objects will simply appear around a standard 5.1 or 7.1 speaker system.
You may also see other speaker layouts using this format. For example:
- 5.1.4: a 5.1 system with four Dolby Atmos speakers
- 7.2.6: a 7.2 system with six Dolby Atmos speakers
For example, here is the speaker layout for a 5.1.4 Dolby Atmos system with four overhead ceiling speakers:
Dolby Atmos can support speaker layouts up to 24.1.10. However, you won’t find consumer AV receivers with that many channels.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is 5.1 Good Enough?
5.1 is enough for most people to get a great surround sound experience, so you don’t have to spend extra on 7.1 or Dolby Atmos. However, you can improve the sound with more speakers if you have the money and the space.
Which Is Better, 5.1, 7.1 or Atmos?
A properly configured 5.1 system will be enough for most people and give a fantastic movie experience. But if you are an enthusiast and have some cash to spare, installing two extra speakers for a 7.1 system can create an even better surround sound effect. For 7.1 vs. Dolby Atmos, Atmos provides an exciting sound and is a good choice if you like the idea of overhead sound effects.
Should You Use 2.1 or 5.1 For Music?
A 2.1 speaker system will be best if music is your primary focus because you can buy a better stereo amplifier for the money. You can always connect a subwoofer using a high-level connection if it doesn’t have a subwoofer output. If you buy a 5.1 amplifier, you must spend much more to get a similar sound quality to the 2-channel amp.
Can You Use Bookshelf Speakers For 5.1 Home Theater?
Bookshelf speakers work very well in most home theaters. They are compact for easy installation but still produce a wide frequency range for a great sound. Plus, most home theater speaker layouts use a subwoofer, so much of the low-end sound will pass from the bookshelf speaker to the sub.
Can You Use Floorstanding Speakers in a 7.1 Home Theater Layout?
Floorstanding speakers can be used for most home theater speakers, ideally at the front as the stereo left and right pair. If budget and space permit, matching floorstanding speakers can be used for rear and surround speakers too. However, smaller speakers are more common for the back positions. Dedicated speakers are best for the center and subwoofer.
About The Author
Paul started the Home Cinema Guide to help less-experienced users get the most out of today's audio-visual technology. He has been a sound, lighting and audio-visual engineer for around 20 years. At home, he has spent more time than is probably healthy installing, configuring, testing, de-rigging, fixing, tweaking, re-installing again (and sometimes using) various pieces of hi-fi and home cinema equipment. You can find out more here.