5.1 vs. 7.1 Channel Home Theater Receivers

Which home theater receiver is best for you?

One home theater question that is asked often is if a 5.1 or 7.1 channel home theater receiver is better. Both options have advantages and disadvantages, depending on what source components you use, how many speakers you use, and your personal preferences in terms of setup flexibility. We compared 5.1 channel and 7.1 channel receivers to help you decide which is best for your home theater.

5.1 vs. 7.1 receivers
Lifewire

Overall Findings

5.1 Channel
  • Simpler setup.

  • Wider compatibility.

  • Better for small spaces.

  • Fewer components needed.

7.1 Channel
  • Loads of configuration options.

  • Detailed and accurate sound.

  • Has two additional amps.

  • Greater component options.

The majority of DVD, Blu-ray, and surround sound audio that you receive from source content is mixed for 5.1 channel playback. A smaller number of source content is mixed for 6.1 or 7.1 channel playback. This means that a 5.1 or 7.1 channel receiver with Dolby/DTS decoding and processing can fill the bill. A 5.1 channel receiver can place a 6.1 or 7.1 channel source within a 5.1 channel environment.

When moving up to a 9.1 or 11.1 channel receiver (unless it is Dolby Atmos or DTS:X-enabled) and the speakers are set up with horizontal and vertical mapped channels and playing Dolby Atmos/DTS:X encoded content, the receiver post-processes the original 5.1, 6.1, or 7.1 channel encoded soundtracks. It then places the soundtracks in a nine or 11 channel environment. The results can be impressive, depending on the quality of the source material. However, it doesn't mean that you're required to make this leap. You may not have room for extra speakers.

5.1 Channel Systems: Great For Most People and Most Situations

Advantages
  • Simpler to set up.

  • Basic channel configuration.

  • Provides solid theater sound, especially in smaller rooms.

  • Wider support.

Disadvantages
  • Fewer configuration options.

  • Less finely tuned sound.

  • Less overall sound, especially in larger spaces.

5.1 channel home theater receivers have been the standard for two decades. These receivers provide a good listening experience, especially in small to average size rooms. In terms of channel and speaker setup, a typical 5.1 channel receiver provides:

  • A center channel provides an anchor stage for dialogue or music vocal.
  • Left and right front channels provide the main soundtrack information, or stereo music reproduction.
  • Left and right surround channels for side and front to rear motion effects from movie soundtracks and ambient sounds from music recordings.
  • The subwoofer channel provides extreme low-frequency effects, such as explosions or bass response in music performances.

7.1 Channel Systems: More Configuration, Greater Control, More Cost

Advantages
  • More channels for more detailed sound.

  • More overall sound, especially in larger spaces.

  • Loads of configuration options.

  • Has two additional amps.

  • Greater control over a sound system.

Disadvantages
  • Less commonly supported.

  • Requires more space.

When deciding if a 5.1 or 7.1 channel home theater receiver is right for you, there are several practical features of a 7.1 channel receiver that could be of benefit.

More Channels

A 7.1 channel system incorporates all the elements of a 5.1 channel system. However, instead of combining surround and rear channel effects into two channels, a 7.1 system splits the surround and rear channel information into four channels. Side sound effects and ambiance are directed to the left and right surround channels. The rear sound effects and ambiance are directed to two additional rear or back channels. In this setup, the surround speakers are set to the side of the listening position, and the rear or back channels are placed behind the listener.

For a visual look at the difference between a 5.1 channel speaker layout and 7.1 channel speaker layout, check out an excellent diagram provided by Dolby Labs.

The 7.1 channel listening environment adds more depth to the surround sound experience. It also provides a specific, directed, and spread-out sound field, especially for larger rooms.

Surround Sound Flexibility

Although most DVDs and Blu-ray Discs contain 5.1 soundtracks (as well as some that contain 6.1 channel soundtracks), there's an increasing number of Blu-ray soundtracks that contain 7.1 channel information, whether it's 7.1 channel uncompressed PCM, Dolby TrueHD, or DTS-HD Master Audio.

If you have a 7.1 channel receiver with audio input and processing capability via HDMI connections (not pass-through only connections), you can take advantage of some or all those surround sound audio options. Check the specifications, or user manual, for a 7.1 channel receiver to find specifics on its HDMI audio capabilities.

Surround Sound Expansion

Even with playback of standard DVDs, if a DVD soundtrack contains Dolby Digital or DTS 5.1 or, in some cases, DTS-ES 6.1 or Dolby Surround EX 6.1 soundtracks, you can expand the surround sound experience to 7.1. Use the Dolby Pro Logic IIx extension or an available 7.1 DSP (Digital Sound Processing) surround mode. Look for the surround modes that are available on your receiver. Also, these added modes can extract a 7.1 channel surround field from a two-channel source material to play CDs and other stereo sources in a fuller surround sound format.

More Surround Sound Options

Other surround sound extensions that use 7.1 channels are Dolby Pro Logic IIz and Audyssey DSX. Instead of adding two surround back speakers, Dolby Pro Logic IIz and Audyssey DSX allow for the addition of two front height speakers. This provides additional speaker setup flexibility. Also, Audyssey DSX has the option in a 7.1 channel setup, to place a set of speakers between the surround speakers and the front speakers, instead of height speakers. These speakers are referred to as wide surround speakers.

Bi-Amping

Another option that is becoming more common on 7.1 channel receivers is bi-amping. If you have front channel speakers with separate speaker connections for the midrange or tweeters and the woofers (not the subwoofer, but the woofers in the front speakers), some 7.1 channel receivers reassign the amplifiers that run the sixth and seventh channels to the front channels. This enables you to retain a full 5.1 channel setup but adds two channels of amplification to the front left and right speakers.

Using the separate speaker connections for the sixth and seventh channel on bi-amp capable speakers, you can double the power delivered to the front left and right channels. The front mid-range/tweeters run off of the main L/R channels, and the front speaker's woofers run off the sixth and seventh channel Bi-amp connections.

The procedure for this type of setup is explained and illustrated in the user manuals of many 7.1 channel receivers. This is becoming a common feature, but it's not included in all 7.1 channel receivers.

Zone 2

In addition to bi-amping, many 7.1 channels home theater receivers offer a powered Zone 2 option. This feature runs a traditional 5.1 channel home theater setup in the main room. However, instead of bi-amping the front speakers or adding two surround channels behind the listening position, use the two extra channels to power speakers in another location (if you don't mind a set of long speaker wires).

Also, if you like the idea of running a powered second zone, but want a 7.1 channel surround sound setup in your main room, some 7.1 channel receivers allow this. However, you can't do both at the same time. In other words, if you turn on the second zone while using the main zone, the main zone automatically defaults to 5.1 channels.

In many cases, you can listen to and watch DVDs in 5.1 channel surround sound in your main room, and someone can listen to a CD (provided you have a separate CD player connected to the receiver) in another room. This setup doesn't require a separate CD player and receiver in the other room, only the speakers.

Also, many 7.1 channel home theater receivers offer additional flexibility in setting up and using additional zones.

9.1 Channels and Beyond: Way More Than Most People Need

Sophisticated surround sound processing options have become available, such as DTS Neo:X, which expand the number of channels reproduced or extracted from the source content. Because of this, manufacturers are increasing the number of channels included in a home theater receiver chassis. When moving into the high-end home theater receiver arena, more receivers offer 9.1/9.2, and a few offer 11.1/11.2 channel configuration options.

However, as with 7.1 channel receivers, whether you need nine, or more, channels depends on what you want to accomplish in your home theater setup. Both 9 and 11 channel receivers can be used to set up nine or 11 speakers (plus one or two subwoofers) in your home theater room. This allows you to take advantage of surround sound processing systems, such as DTS Neo:X.

A 9 or 11 channel receiver can also provide flexibility in terms of assigning two of the channels to bi-amp the front speakers. It can also use two or four channels to create second and third zone two-channel systems that are powered and controlled by the main receiver. This can leave you with 5.1 or 7.1 channels to use in your main home theater room.

As of 2014, the introduction of Dolby Atmos for home theater put another twist on channel and speaker configuration options for some home theater receivers. This surround sound format incorporates dedicated vertical channels, resulting in several new speaker configuration options that include: 5.1.2, 5.1.4, 7.1.2, 7.1.4, 9.1.4, and more. The first number is the number of horizontal channels, the second number is the subwoofer, and the third is the number of vertical channels.

Another surround sound format available on high-end home theater receivers that requires 9.1 or more channels is Auro 3D Audio. At a minimum, this surround sound format requires two layers of speakers. The first layer can be a traditional 5.1 channel layout. The second layer, positioned above the first layer, requires two front and two rear speakers. Then, to top it off, if possible, one additional ceiling-mounted speaker placed above the primary seating area. This is referred to as the Voice of God (VOG) channel. This brings the total number of channels up to 10.1.

To make things more complicated (although it does provide more choices), there was the introduction in 2015 of the DTS:X immersive surround sound format (not to be confused with DTS Neo:X). This format doesn't require a specific speaker layout. It provides horizontal and vertical surround components and works work well within the same speaker setups used by Dolby Atmos.

Final Verdict

A good 5.1 channel receiver is a perfectly fine option, especially for a small or average room in most apartments and homes. However, in the $500 range and up, manufacturers put more emphasis on 7.1 channel equipped receivers. Additionally, you'll see some 9.1 channel receivers in the $1,300 an up price range. These receivers provide flexible setup options as you expand your system's needs, or have a large home theater room. If you don't want the wires in plain sight, hide or disguise the wires.

On the other hand, if you don't need the full 7.1 (or 9.1) channel capability in your home theater setup, these receivers can be used in a 5.1 channel system. This frees up the remaining two or four channels on some receivers for bi-amping use, or to run one or more two-channel stereo Zone 2 systems.