What Does 7.1 Channel Mean for a Surround Sound Setup?

Wondering what the 7.1 channel specification means for a surround sound setup?

Read on for a concise explanation.

7.1 channel means that the setup has seven main outputs and one low-frequency effects (LFE) bass output. Usually, this is produced by one left, one right, one center, two surround, two rear speakers and one subwoofer.

As you can see, the numbers in the specification represent the number of main speakers first and then the number of subwoofers second.

However, the numbers don’t paint the full picture.

Keep reading for a more in-depth explanation of the specification, a rundown of the audio experience and a list of the things you need to consider before purchasing a 7.1 channel system.

Understanding 7.1 Channel in More Depth

What Does 7.1 Channel Mean for a Surround Sound Setup

If you’ve made your way to this article because the meaning of 7.1 channel has been rather elusive, it may have something to do with the mismatch in the number of speakers and the number of channels on the market.

As mentioned, the specification is indicative of the number of channels but this is not to be confused with how many speakers there are in the set.

There is no strict rule of how the different channels need to be produced or how many speakers need to be used to achieve the desired result. Meaning that each channel could be produced by any number of speakers and you still won’t receive any knocks on your door from the “audio equipment police”!

Essentially, whether one speaker produces the left channel or five do, the number of left channels is still the same, provided that the five speakers are synced to all play the same left channel. You are simply adjusting the number of physical units doing the work, almost in the same way that one could adjust the number of glasses holding the same volume of water.

So, if you see a surround-sound setup that consists of more than eight speakers, including the subwoofer, don’t blow a brain fuse thinking that it isn’t a 7.1 channel sound system. It could very well be a 7.1 channel system, albeit a very uncommon one!

Along the same lines, you could also have a sound system that compresses the design by packing multiple different channels into one unit. This could look like a single soundbar delivering three channels: the left, right and center. In this case, it is easy for the unsuspecting customer to think that there are fewer channels in the system. Of course, this is incorrect. The number of channels has not changed, they have merely been packaged into one convenient member.

7.1 channel surround sound setup
Image Credit – Fluance

All of this back and forth can become tiresome and endlessly confusing. So, as luck would have it, manufacturers typically use channel numbers to communicate to potential consumers how many speakers are in the system. Therefore, even though the specification itself technically doesn’t have anything to do with speakers, you can often treat it as if the number of channels tells you how many speakers you can expect in your surround-sound setup.

How Does a 7.1 Channel Setup Sound?

7.1 channel stereo system setup

This is the burning question on all of our minds and arguably the most important part of choosing your audio equipment. Purchasing a sound system without considering the audio experience would be a bit like buying a car without knowing if the engine worked…

As one moves from standard stereo speakers to a setup that has a subwoofer, you can expect a delicious complexity to your audio experience. Since the bass output is properly catered for with a subwoofer, the low frequencies truly come to life. Whether you’re diving into some drum and bass music or feeling the thunderous vibrations during your movie night, you’ll be relishing the addition of a subwoofer.

The next notable change is the crisp dialogue from the center channel. It isn’t a characteristic that is often emphasized but having clarity of speech is something that can make or break a sound system. Imagine investing in a whole setup only to be straining to hear every word in the show that you’re trying to binge-watch. It would be incredibly disappointing, to say the least…

Furthermore, the two surround speakers amp up your cinematic experience by engulfing you into the story. With these typically placed on either side of the seating area, you won’t just be watching the action, you’ll be a part of it.

On top of the two surround speakers, the two rear speakers create a loop of immersion around the seating area. You are quite literally encapsulated by a breathtaking surround-sound adventure. You can expect to hear sounds from every direction, whether it’s a featherlight whisper from behind you or a soaring missile over your left shoulder. Truly an exciting setup!

Is a 7.1 Channel System Suitable for Your Needs?

Elite Series 7.1 Channel Speaker System
Image Credit – Fluance

To answer this question, one needs to evaluate more than just how the setup sounds. Of course, the sound is the focal point of the decision but there are other factors to consider such as lifestyle, room size, technical capabilities and cost. A simple way to help you make a better decision is to clearly lay out the reasons why a 7.1 channel system would be a fantastic choice as well as reasons to consider passing on the 7.1 channel setup.

Reasons to Choose a 7.1 Channel System

The first and most obvious reason to say “yes” to a 7.1 channel surround-sound setup is the impressive audio performance. Specifically, surround sound capabilities lend very well to improving the movie theater atmosphere in your home. This means that movie lovers and TV show enthusiasts will likely adore this type of setup.

In addition, while a 7.1 channel system may be marketed as a home theater audio setup, it is not limited to this. Since this configuration is so extensive, it can have multiple uses. Namely, it’s also fantastic for playing your favorite tunes and for creating an epic gaming setup. It’s for this reason that a 7.1 channel speaker set is a great choice for someone who wants an option that can truly do it all.

Reasons to Skip a 7.1 Channel System

As much as we have good reason to adore this setup, there are some challenges that one should consider before committing to a 7.1 channel setup. One of the biggest obstacles would be the cost. A sound system of this caliber often comes with a hefty price tag. A high price tag doesn’t mean that you aren’t getting real value for money, it just means that it won’t necessarily fit within everyone’s budget.

Also, since this system consists of eight speakers in total, one needs to think about the logistics of both space constraints and the complexity of the setup. Having speakers all around you may sound like a grand idea but it may quickly lose its glamour if you’re needing to play Jenga in your TV room!

While manufacturers do their best to simplify the setup process of their sound systems, we can’t ignore the fact that eight speakers can be potentially overwhelming for people who are unfamiliar with technology in general. If you feel like tech is not your strong suit, you may want to consider a system that is more straightforward. But with that being said, you could always phone a friend, ask a neighbor, or even phone the brand’s helpline for support. In other words, not being incredibly tech-savvy is not a deal-breaker.

Another factor of the sheer extent of the setup is the potential for it to be set up incorrectly. If speakers are not placed accordingly, you may experience clashing sounds. This could make your home theater audio setup sound a bit muddy, as if sounds are competing for space instead of seamlessly flowing together in harmony.

Alternatives to a 7.1 Channel Setup

If you like the idea of surround sound but feel as if a 7.1 channel setup is just a bit excessive for your needs, you may want to look into a 5.1 channel setup. This system takes the 7.1 channel setup down a notch by excluding the rear speakers, which usually lowers the cost and minimizes the lifestyle admin that comes with owning such a substantial setup.

5.1 Channel Set Up

With the 5.1 channel, you still get an incredible surround-sound home theater setup, since it has two surround speakers, as well as clean dialogue. However, it won’t provide two rear speakers that give that extra “je ne sais quoi” of feeling like you’re completely immersed. Naturally, you could always place the two surround speakers from the 5.1 channel setup at the rear position of the seating area, as if they were rear speakers, but your cinematic experience would still be two speakers fewer than the 7.1 channel setup.

For anyone wanting to take a more zen approach and downsize further, you could check out a 2.1 channel setup or a 3.1 channel setup. This system is not surround sound but that doesn’t mean it won’t work wonders on your audio for big game nights or the evenings when you just want to curl up and watch your favorite comedy. With a center channel dedicated to improving speech and a subwoofer to cover your bass notes, a 3.1 channel is perfectly suited to many different people and many different situations.

3.1 channel speaker setup

Bear in mind that there are plenty of other options available on the market and that this is not an extensive list. This is simply a brief rundown of other avenues that you can explore if a 7.1 channel sound setup is not suitable for your individual needs.

Our Closing Thoughts

A 7.1 system is a home audio setup that is nothing short of epic with its left, right, center, two surround, two rear channels and a subwoofer. This setup knocks the standard out of the park by offering crisp dialogue, side-facing audio and rear speakers to completely throw you into the action.

Although, while it provides a wonderful surround-sound experience, it may not be suited to everyone. For reasons such as cost, physical space and audio equipment capabilities, some people may want to search elsewhere for a setup that suits their lifestyle better than a 7.1 channel surround sound setup.

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