Most of us wish to have an ideal home theatre setup, especially AV enthusiasts. While it’s not that difficult to choose a TV for your setup, it’s essential that you get the correct sound system suiting your preferences.
Since the built-in speakers on most TVs deliver lackluster audio, having some sort of external audio solution is crucial for an optimal home theatre experience.
As of now, the most common audio systems are soundbars, and 2.1 / 5.1 surround sound speakers.
If you are searching for a new audio system for your home theatre setup and are confused about whether you should buy a soundbar or multi-channel (2.1 / 5.1) speaker system, this guide will help you decide.
Introduction to Soundbars & Multi-Channel Speaker Systems
Soundbars are a plug-and-play audio solution that requires no manual setup and can deliver hundreds of watts of audio without occupying too much space as separate external speakers.
You can place a soundbar right under your television and connect them over either a digital coaxial cable or HDMI. Soundbars are compact and much more portable compared to other audio systems.
Multi-channel speaker systems, such as 5.1 home theater audio devices, include five individual speakers and a single subwoofer.
You have to make some space in your room to set them up and place the speakers in the correct order.
To achieve a surround setup, you have to place one speaker on each side of the TV, one in the middle, and the remaining ones need to be placed in both corners of your room’s opposite side of your room.
Cables are a little bit trickier to manage, and you will have to use cable raceways for an overall cleaner look. 5.1 setups are bulky, but they deliver a significantly better home theatre experience.
Soundbars vs Home Theatre Systems
Many of you might consider picking up a multi-channel home theatre system over a soundbar, considering that you can have directional audio and a subwoofer set up in your room.
While there’s some truth to the fact, there are several reasons why many AV enthusiasts prefer to have a soundbar instead.
First off, soundbars are generally more affordable and portable compared to 5.1 home theatre systems.
You get more options in terms of connectivity, especially Bluetooth for wireless audio transmission. Top-of-the-line 2.1 soundbars also come with an external subwoofer, delivering powerful and thumpy bass.
Soundbars are primarily known to replace TV speakers. There’s a marginal difference between them when it comes to audio quality.
If you are currently using TV speakers as your audio source, then getting a soundbar would be the cheapest upgrade for you. It’s also way more manageable and less time-consuming to set up a soundbar.
Although soundbars are not known for their surround sound capabilities, they use various spatial audio technologies to simulate a multi-channel, directional audio effect.
Turning on such features cause a distinct loss in audio quality, but it would still be better than using external stereo speakers.
If you like to binge-watch TV shows and movies in your free time, then a 5.1 home theatre audio system will be perfect for your home cinema setup.
However, each speaker has to be placed and connected in the correct order, and it includes a lot of cables. Hence, installing a 5.1 audio system in your room takes a lot of effort compared to a soundbar.
Also, you will have to clear some space for the subwoofer itself. While most of the subwoofers occupy less space than a tower PC, you might have to move some furniture to fit a bigger subwoofer.
There’s no doubt that it will deliver exceptional sound quality in most instances, but you definitely need to put some effort into managing room space and cables.
What is the Difference Between a 2.1 and 5.1 Soundbar
- 1 audio system comes with two speakers and one subwoofer. A soundbar with 2.1 audio has two built-in speakers, plus an integrated or external subwoofer.
- 1 audio system includes at least five individual speakers and a subwoofer. There are 5.1 soundbar systems that come with one soundbar, two or three extra speakers, and an external subwoofer.
- 1 home theatre speakers or soundbars offer better audio quality than TV speakers, and they are mostly more affordable.
- 1 home theatre speakers or soundbars deliver superior audio quality and better surround sound than 2.1 systems, but they are quite expensive.
What are the Audio Channels?
There are several audio channels, from 1.0 (Mono) to 7.1.4 (Atmos). The first number of the audio channel indicates the number of directional speakers, whereas the following decimal numbers represent subwoofers.
The number after the second decimal indicates overhead speakers.
On home theatre systems, you will find the 2.1, 5.1, or 7.1 audio channel layout. 2.1 and 5.1 are the most common solutions, which includes either two speakers and a subwoofer, or five speakers and one subwoofer.
With a 2.1 channel audio device, you will get left and right audio channels, which creates a stereo setup.
On the other hand, a 5.1 channel audio device comes with front left, front right, front center, surround left (rear) and, surround right (rear) channels, along with a separate subwoofer.
Due to the layout of the 5.1 audio channel, you get a surround sound experience.
Can I Buy a Soundbar with 5.1 Surround Sound?
Yes, there are soundbars that offer 5.1 surround sound, even when two additional surround speakers and the subwoofer are located in the soundbar itself.
The surround left and right speakers are angled in a very specific way so that they can reflect soundwaves in your room and create a three-dimensional surround sound experience. Note that integrated solutions like this are often more expensive.
You can also get a 5.1 channel soundbar with individual surround speakers. In such systems, the front left, right, and center speakers are integrated into the soundbar, while the rear surround speakers and subwoofer are separately available.
You can place them to the back left and back right of the room, whereas the soundbar should sit below your TV for delivering left, right, and center audio.
Most soundbars and 5.1 home theatre speakers have HDMI ARC (Audio Return Channel) for audio transmission. Make sure that your TV has an HDMI-out that supports ARC. Otherwise, you will be limited to SPDIF or Toslink interface.
Without HDMI ARC, you won’t be able to take advantage of DTS-X or Dolby Atmos enhancements on your multi-channel audio devices.
Also, you will have to check if your TV supports 5.1 surround sound passthrough or not. Else, the audio output will be limited to stereo only.
However, it’s worth mentioning that most Blu-ray players, game consoles, PCs, and current-gen televisions support 5.1 audio, so compatibility shouldn’t be much of a worrying factor.
Should I Buy a 2.1 Soundbar?
2.1 channel soundbars aren’t the best when it comes to surround sound. However, it isn’t a bad option by any means, especially for those who are a restricted budget.
2.1 channel soundbars are widely available for purchase. You can get one for your home theatre setup under $150, assuming that you can live with the limitations and compromises of a 2.1 audio channel.
Some 2.1 soundbars come with virtual software-based spatial audio features that simulate a surround sound experience by bouncing soundwaves at particular angles. While it’s not as convincing as dedicated 5.1 surround sound, you will still notice the subtle difference.
2.1 channels soundbars are also straightforward to set up, and most of them come with a wireless speaker mode that lets you play music directly from your smartphone over a Bluetooth connection.
If you are ready to take the hassle of mounting five individual speakers in your room and manage the cables properly, then pick up a 5.1 home theatre speaker system instead. The directional speakers can simulate three-dimensional surround audio, and they sound much more immersive.
This guide has hopefully solved your confusion about soundbars and multi-channel home theatre systems. However, it all comes down to your preference, as well as how much room space you have for your personal home cinema setup.
Soundbars are compact, versatile, and take zero hassle to set up. Home theatre audio systems deliver a considerably better audio experience, albeit it requires a lot more effort to set up, and plenty of space in your room.