Surround sound systems can be very confusing, with all the different channel configurations and associated technologies. If you are in the market for a surround sound system you need to break through some of the clutter here is a basic primer on surround that I hope will help. Surround sound is one of the best ways to improve the entertainment value of your big screen TV.

Main Types

The three main types of surround sound are 5.1, 6.1, and 7.1 channel. The numbers refer to the number of speakers that are required for that type of surround sound system. The first number before the “.” is the number of regular speakers and the number after the “.” is the number of subwoofers. So 5.1 refers to 5 speakers and one subwoofer; 6.1 is 6 speakers and one subwoofer, and so on.  There are other permutations that you might see as well like 7.2, which means 7 speakers and 2 subwoofers (which you might need in a large room). The other feature of many 7.2 receivers is they can provide surround sound in one room and stereo sound in another room.

5.1 Channel Surround

5.1-channel surround is the most common home theatre configuration because it is the simplest of the three, will work in most rooms, does a great job creating a true surround sound experience, and is typically the least expensive. The two most popular types of surround sound in 5.1 systems is Dolby Digital and DTS. Dolby Digital is common in Movie Theatres. Each channel is discrete (i.e. independent from the other channels), which means the sounds can be placed around the room very precisely for some excellent surround effects. DTS is slightly better than Dolby Digital in that the sound is less compressed so it is a bit more accurate and realistic.

The 5 speaker channels include 3 in front (plus the sub) and 2 in the back of the room. There is an added centre channel in the front, in addition to the left and right channels.

6.1 Channel Surround

6.1-channel surround sound provides a slightly more enveloping surround sound effect than a 5.1 channel system because there is one extra discrete centre channel in the back of the room. This makes three speakers in the front and rear in addition to the subwoofer. The type of sound electronics for 6.1 systems is typically DTS-ES, Dolby Digital EX, and THX Surround EX. Most 6.1 surround receivers will accommodate multiple sound formats. Again DTS has less compression for a slightly clearer sound, but both formats will provide an awesome experience.

7.1 Channel Surround

7.1-channel systems are configured with 3 speakers in the front, one on each side and two in the rear, for the fullest surround effect. The 7.1 audio formats can be the most detailed as well, with Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. Both of these are newer formats that have “lossless” surround sound which are not compressed and can therefore be identical to the original studio recording. Blu-ray discs support this more detailed lossless audio format for 7.1 systems.

The other formats for 7.1 channels are Dolby Digital Plus and DTS-HD, which deliver fully discrete channels for excellent surround effects, although these formats are not the high detail lossless sound mentioned above. Nevertheless, they are still excellent sound formats for awesome surround effects.

 Overall

I realize that this wide variety of different Dolby and DTS sound formats for each of the channel types can be a bit confusing. Don’t worry too much about it, as most surround sound players (whether they are 5.1, 6.1 or 7.1) are designed to play multiple formats so you will typically get the best sound for whatever the channel configuration. For instance, look at the Yamaha 805-Watt 7.2 Channel Network Receiver and see all the audio formats it does. Before you buy just make sure the receiver plays the multiple formats needed for the channel configuration.

So what is better? Of course you will get a greater surround experience with more speakers, but the other factor is the size of room. If you have a much bigger room then you should get a bigger system (don’t mean to state the obvious). In a normal size family room, a 5.1 system will do great – you can get awesome sound with a true surround effect. I have a 5.1 system that I have been super happy with!

 The nice thing is you won’t be disappointed by any one of these options, and it can really enhance your home theatre experience – even when just watching regular TV or sporting events.

Tom Brauser
I love to try new technologies and I have a practical approach to techie stuff - it has to be easy to use and make my life better. I have my house fully wired, with a surround sound system in my family room for music and TV viewing, but also drive music throughout the house as well as outdoors. I Internet stream content on all my devices at home, which provides a huge variety of entertainment to enjoy.