Surround Sound Examined: 5.1 vs 7.1 vs Virtual Surround

By Wesley Fenlon

Can psychoacoustics compare to five or seven dedicated speakers?

Sometimes in life we’re faced with important decisions. Example: which surround sound setup most accurately emulates the rumbling bellow of that Star Destroyer swooping over our heads at the beginning of Star Wars: A New Hope? If money’s no object, shooting for any high-end 7.1 surround sound setup will likely net you some mindblowing audio. In the real world, though, where we have to contend with budgets and financial responsibility, it helps to know what we’re paying for.


Sound Bars and 2.1 Stereo: Can Virtual Surround Sound Cut It?

virtual surround sound, or VSS. By delaying certain sound signals or bouncing sound waves off walls, virtual surround sound can do a pretty good job of fooling our ears and making us think sound is actually coming from behind us.

Does it actually measure up to a true multi-speaker surround setup? Well, no. That’s the bitter truth: you’re not going to get the absolutely convincing, clear sound of a multi-speaker system with virtual surround sound. But they’re coming closer, and there are still reasons to look at them. In a small room, where it may be difficult to fit a 5 speaker arrangement, virtual surround can use the walls to its advantage, bounce sound to the back of the room, and fill the space. Virtual surround typically comes in two forms: one piece sound bars (sometimes accompanied with a subwoofer), and more traditional 2.1 (two speakers and a subwoofer) configurations.

sound bar reviews demonstrates the range between these two purchasing philosophies. Just about any sound bar’s going to cut out the clutter and mess of wires of a larger 5 speaker arrangement, but some of them are far from budget priced. 2.1 VSS kits like the Sony DAV-X1 hit near the mid-high end of the sound bar price spread, but are still best for a fairly small listening space.

Bottom line: Quality virtual surround sound system can cost less than some high-end 5.1 or 7.1 arrangements, but ultimately they’re more about saving space than saving money.

5.1 vs 7.1 Surround Sound: More Speakers Equals More Awesome?

If you’ve got money to burn, a cavernous home theater room to fill with waves of sound or a true ear for audiophile-calibur quality, it’s time to start hunting for a multi-speaker system. But how many speakers is enough? Typical surround systems are either 6 channel (5.1) or 8 channel (7.1). 5.1 configurations include a center speaker, subwoofer, left and right front speakers and left and right rear speakers. 7.1 adds a pair of side speakers into the mix.

7.1 support in the theater. In that regard, home theater is actually a bit ahead of the game--over 150 movies have been remixed with 7.1 sound for the Blu-Ray release.

To future-proof your setup without immediately investing in a more expensive 7.1 system, take the easy way out: go for a 5.1 surround that can support additional speakers. Later, when the time’s right for some side-speaker action, grab up some matching speakers and upgrade to 7.1.

Of course, this leads to another question: is it better to go with an all-inclusive home theater in a box or a custom-built setup with independently purchased speakers and a receiver? This one comes down almost entirely to money and your setup proficiency. Building your own home theater with a totally kickin’ receiver and high quality speakers will always net you better sound--but when the best AV receivers cost more than entire box systems all by themselves, it’s time to sit back and seriously consider how much money you’re willing to spend.

Bottom line: 5.1 surround is still the standard. If you decide to shoot for the more immersive 7.1 experience, make sure you’re not sacrificing overall quality by buying a cheaper system.