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2.1 vs. 5.1 Soundbar: What’s the Difference?

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2.1 vs. 5.1 Soundbar: What’s the Difference?

What is the real difference between a 2.1 vs. 5.1 soundbar? Soundbars come in a variety of different configurations, each with its own capabilities. Something as basic as the included speakers on a soundbar can dictate its overall functionality.

If you’ve been curious about the differences between these types of soundbars, you’re in the right place. This guide will go over how they stack up against one another, what they can do, and which one is best for your favorite shows and movies.

2.1 vs. 5.1 Soundbar: Side-by-Side Comparison

2.1 Soundbar5.1 Soundbar
Audio ChannelsTwo, left and rightFive in total, with surround left, surround right, left, right, and center channels present
Speaker ConfigurationTwo speakers and a subwooferFive speakers and a subwoofer
Pricing2.1 soundbars are generally priced lower, thanks to the lower complexity and fewer speakers on the unit itself5.1 soundbars are among the pricier options available for soundbars, thanks to the additional speakers and spatial functionality
Setup2.1 soundbars are generally very simple to set, only needing a connection to the TV and no consideration for placement of additional speakers5.1 soundbars have a more complex setup, usually requiring some forethought into the location and placement of speakers for optimal performance
Typical Method of ConnectionHDMI, optical audio, Bluetooth, Wi-FiHDMI, optical audio, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi
Sound QualityWith high-quality speakers, a 2.1 sound bar can sound fantastic with any sound sourceProvided the soundbar has a good onboard decoder, surround audio can sound incredible and immersive
Best Use CaseMusic, general purpose for shows and moviesShows and movies built for surround sound
Spatial AudioNoYes

As you can see, there are some very clear differences between both types of soundbars. They both have very distinct advantages, which you’ll see with a little further exploration.

2.1 vs. 5.1 Soundbar: What’s the Difference?

Speakers

A 2.1 soundbar will have a dedicated left and right speaker, as you might expect in your typical stereo configuration. It will also have a dedicated subwoofer, which aids with bass response. Now, the catch with a stereo soundbar is that you don’t have very good surround sound capabilities. However, the tradeoff for this is you can usually have higher-quality drivers in the same unit.

This will allow for clearer audio in the likes of something like music. Things can get a bit muddled when watching films or shows, especially if the mix isn’t optimized for a stereo speaker system. They serve as a jack-of-all-trades, with no real inherent advantage unless you’re listening to music.

Best Soundbar with a Slim Profile
JBL Bar 2.1
$289.95
  • 6.5-inch subwoofer
  • 300W speaker output
  • Bluetooth, HDMI, 1 Analog, 1 Optical, USB connectivity
  • Supports TV remote control
We earn a commission if you make a purchase, at no additional cost to you.
03/12/2024 06:39 pm GMT

A 5.1 soundbar will have five speakers in total, with a pair on the left, a pair on the right, and one in the center. Like the 2.1 soundbar, you’ll also have a subwoofer to aid with bass response. Now, since you’re cramming five speakers into a single soundbar, it does require more power than a stereo unit.

This has the added benefit of increasing the overall clarity. You’ll also notice that dialogue in films and shows is clearer, thanks to most audio engineers dedicating the central channel to spoken word.

Spatial Audio

Some stereo soundbars will come with a facsimile of spatial audio. However, this isn’t a true representation and is more trickery affecting the phase, panning, and gain of an audio signal. While you may have an immersive experience with some media, this isn’t an optimal way to achieve spatial audio.

A 5.1 soundbar can come with support for DTS:X or Dolby Atmos and has the ability to be a truer representation of spatial audio. This is done with more physics work than creative post-production. While a true surround sound system will utilize the actual placement of speakers, a 5.1 soundbar relies on the reflection of soundwaves to give the illusion of specialization.

Some 5.1 soundbars also come with the ability to install additional speakers, which should help greatly with positional audio. The caveat here is that a 5.1 soundbar has to be using media that supports whichever audio standard it is using for specialization. While Dolby Atmos is becoming more widespread, some cheaper 5.1 soundbars might use an alternative spatialization without a native encoder on your TV.

Connectivity

Most soundbars will have a similar level of connectivity. Your typical options are going to be HDMI, optical audio, and wireless options like Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. If you have the choice, which you should if you’re shopping around, HDMI is the best overall choice.

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Bose Smart Soundbar 900
$595.01
  • Two custom-engineered upfiring dipole speakers 
  • Exclusive Bose Voice4Video technology
  • Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Apple AirPlay 2, and Spotify Connect
  • Bose TrueSpace spatial processing
  • Built-in Google and Alexa
  • Noise-rejecting microphones
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03/10/2024 08:42 am GMT

While not every soundbar on the market is going to come with HDMI 2.0 support, 1.4 is the bare minimum to get great throughput and audio support for your soundbar of choice. Modern TVs will also come with eARC, which allows audio from multiple sources to pass through to your soundbar.

This means you can have multiple devices connected to the television while enjoying the enhanced audio out of your 2.1 or 5.1 soundbar of choice.

Supported Media

Media support for stereo audio is nearly universal. If it has been made within the last fifty years, you can bet it’ll run on a stereo soundbar. Stereo audio has been the norm for decades, and still remains the default for some applications like audio post-production in music.

Stereo isn’t the most ideal fit for films or shows, especially if they were engineered with surround sound in mind. However, most films or shows will also have a separate mix for stereo, whether that’s through downmixing or a bespoke take on it from another engineer.

Surround sound is a little trickier, especially with all the supported audio codecs for positional audio. If you can find a 5.1 soundbar with the ability to use Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, that will be your best bet. That said, Dolby Atmos has quite a bit of support on the market, with popular streaming services like Apple TV+ and Netflix using it.

Pricing

Stereo soundbars are cheaper than most of their counterparts. There is simply less going on, fewer audio codecs to support, and fewer speakers to cram into a chosen unit. You can usually get a fairly solid stereo soundbar for a steal, even including the packaged-together subwoofer in most cases.

As has been discussed, a stereo soundbar doesn’t particularly excel in any given field, unless you’re an audiophile using one for music purposes. For movies and shows, it will do just fine. You may notice certain mixes leave dialogue muffled or volumes uneven.

5.1 soundbars are typically going to be more expensive, as the tech driving them is more complex. Most surround soundbars will come with support for multiple audio codecs as it’s difficult to gauge what a film is going to use.

That said, a 5.1 soundbar has the benefit of giving a greater degree of immersion to games, movies, and films. The only area it doesn’t really suit is listening to music — at least if you’re using Spotify or Apple Music without an Apple TV.

2.1 vs. 5.1 Soundbar: 5 Must-Know Facts

  1. 2.1 soundbars are great for general use.
  2. 2.1 soundbars only support left and right channels of audio.
  3. 5.1 soundbars are great for movies and shows.
  4. 5.1 soundbars have better support for audio spatialization.
  5. 5.1 soundbars don’t excel with music.

2.1 vs. 5.1 Soundbar: Which One Is Better? Which One Should You Choose?

There really isn’t a default choice for soundbars in this comparison. A stereo soundbar is a fine fit if you’re after something that can pull double duty playing music while also giving a decent experience for films and shows. However, it lacks the depth of positional audio that you’ll find with other solutions.

5.1 soundbars truly excel if you’re a movie or TV show buff. When the mix is just right and you’ve got a supported codec, the experience is second to none. However, they do cost more on average and require a little more forethought in how you set up your media center.

  1. JBL Bar 2.1
    $289.95
    • 6.5-inch subwoofer
    • 300W speaker output
    • Bluetooth, HDMI, 1 Analog, 1 Optical, USB connectivity
    • Supports TV remote control
    Buy on Amazon

    We earn a commission if you make a purchase, at no additional cost to you.

    03/12/2024 06:39 pm GMT
  2. Bose Smart Soundbar 900
    $595.01
    • Two custom-engineered upfiring dipole speakers 
    • Exclusive Bose Voice4Video technology
    • Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Apple AirPlay 2, and Spotify Connect
    • Bose TrueSpace spatial processing
    • Built-in Google and Alexa
    • Noise-rejecting microphones
    Buy on Amazon

    We earn a commission if you make a purchase, at no additional cost to you.

    03/10/2024 08:42 am GMT

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I use a 2.1 soundbar for watching my favorite shows?

Absolutely, you can use a 2.1 soundbar for just about everything.

Does a 5.1 soundbar support Dolby Atmos?

Some do, like the Bose Smart Soundbar 900. Make sure you check the specs for any soundbar you’re interested in to see which it supports.

Does a 2.1 soundbar support Dolby Atmos?

That isn’t usually the case. Some might have some form of positional audio, but it isn’t going to be a good representation of it.

Can you listen to music on a 5.1 soundbar?

Yes, some will just place the speakers in a stereo configuration. If you’re looking to get spatial audio out of an audio mix, it can be a disappointing endeavor.

Is a 5.1 soundbar true surround sound?

If it is just the soundbar and the subwoofer, no.

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