2.1 Channel Speaker Systems

2.1 Channel Home Theater Speaker System vs 5.1 surround sound

Close up of home theater speakers

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Unlike a standard pair of stereo speakers, a 2.1 Channel Home Theater System is a stereo system designed to deliver home theater sound. Compared to a common 5.1 channel surround sound system, the 2.1 channel system leverages just two stereo speakers and one subwoofer to play audio from connected sources. One significant benefit to using 2.1 channel home theater systems is that they are great for enjoying movies and music without the need for surround and/or center channel speakers; you can also enjoy far less clutter from running additional wires. On top of all that, 2.1 channel systems are also a giant step up from the basic sound produced by small speakers built into most televisions.

5.1 Channel Sound Defined

Most TV shows and DVD/Blu-ray movies are produced in surround sound, intended to be enjoyed on a 5.1 channel sound system. Each speaker in a 5.1 channel system has an important role to play in the overall sound. However, it's the front (or stereo) speakers, such as in a 2.1 channel system, that are the most critical. Generally, the front speakers reproduce most of the on-screen action in a movie. It could be a car driving by or the sound of people talking with glasses clinking in a bar or restaurant scene. Most sounds that help viewers connect to the scene are heard through the front speakers.

In a 5.1 channel system, the center speaker is tasked with the quality reproduction of dialog, which is (obviously) an important part of any story. But in a 2.1 channel system, the dialog is routed to the left and right front speakers so it can be heard and not lost. Then you have the rear surround speakers in a 5.1 channel system, which reproduce sounds that are not on-screen. These help create a three-dimensional sound field where sounds and special effects are heard from all directions. When used correctly and effectively, surround speakers add realism and excitement to movies and music. In a 2.1 channel system, the sound from the surround speakers is reproduced by the front speakers. So you still hear all the sound, although it's only from the front and not from the rear of the room. The subwoofer channel – known as the .1 (point one) channel because it only produces bass – enhances impact, realism, and audio reproduction of TV, movies, and music.

TV, Movies, and Music

Simply stated, a 2.1 channel system reproduces TV, movie sound, and music with fewer speakers, less wiring, but almost as much excitement. Many people prefer the simplicity of 2.1 channel sound and find they can use their existing stereo system rather than having to purchase a brand new home theater system. Some are completely satisfied with the sound. However, there are other listeners that won't settle for anything less than a multi-channel surround sound system. One major reason why is that 5.1 channel sound creates a sense of envelopment, where music and effects add realism, suspense, and intrigue as if you're right in the middle of the scene. But the key thing to remember is that the movie has to have all of that to begin with (i.e. encoded into the media format). If you're enjoying content that doesn't have all those added layers of audio-visual effects, a 2.1 channel system can offer a very similar experience but at a far greater value.

Is a 2.1 Channel System Right for You?

For the enthusiast, a 5.1 channel system is probably a must. But for the casual listener, a 2.1 channel system can be preferred for its simplicity, lower cost, and ease of use. A 2.1 channel system is ideal for small rooms, apartments, dorms, or areas where space is limited. Such 2.1 channel systems are also great for those who don't have a place for surround sound speakers and/or don't want to hassle with the wires. While a home theater component system will provide the best listening experience, a 2.1 channel system will allow easy enjoyment of music and movies – with realistic sound – but without the clutter of additional speakers and wires.

How to Get Surround Sound Without Rear Channel Speakers

Some 2.1 channel systems have special decoders to create the illusion of surround sound effects with two speakers, commonly known as Virtual Surround Sound (VSS). Although referred to by different terms (manufacturers often create names for their similar yet proprietary technologies), VSS systems all have the same goal – to create an enveloping surround sound effect by using only two front speakers and a subwoofer. The various 2.1 channel systems use 5.1 channel decoders combined with special digital circuits that simulate the sound of rear channel speakers. VSS can be so convincing that you might just turn your head when you hear a 'virtual sound' coming from right behind you.

2.1 Channel Home Theater Systems

Prepackaged or all-in-one systems such as Bose, Onyko, or Samsung (to name a few) include everything you need except the television. These systems have a built-in receiver, DVD player, two speakers, and a subwoofer for true home theater sound in a compact, easy to use package. 

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