What is the difference between a 2.1 and a 5.1 soundbar?

There are many soundbars out there to choose from, and they all have different compatibilities and specifications which set them apart. One of the most common things are the terms 2.1 soundbar and a 5.1 soundbar.

This can be pretty confusing if you’ve never owned a home theatre system or even a set of high quality speakers before. Many people aren’t exactly sure what these numbers represent. And if you’re not exactly sure on what speakers to get, then you might end up with the wrong one for your home theatre setup.

So what is the difference between 2.1 and 5.1, and which one is going to be most suitable for you? Well, let’s take a quick look at firstly how they’re different, and then which one you should go for.

What is the difference between a 2.1 and a 5.1 soundbar?

The difference between a 2.1 soundbar and a 5.1 soundbar is the setup that they’re used in, and the amount of speakers they have. A 2.1 soundbar has a left and right speaker (2) and is intended to be used with a subwoofer (2.1).

In comparison to this, a 5.1 soundbar has a left, right and a center speaker in it (3), and is intended to be used with 2 additional surround sound speakers (+2), and a subwoofer (5.1). It’s a more complete speaker system, and it’s probably what you’ll want if you’re looking for a true surround sound experience.

This is the easiest way to understand the difference between 2.1 and 5.1 soundbars. But, this isn’t exactly what 2.1 and 5.1 means, as soundbars aren’t traditionally part of this sort of speaker setup. So, a 2.1 soundbar system is actually a little bit different to a typical 2.1 speaker system.

What is a traditional speaker setup?

Actually, in a traditional setup, a 2.1 sound system consists of one subwoofer, and two speakers which are placed either side of the sub, which is in the centre. So we have the left and right channels, with a centre channel speaker in the middle.

And a 5.1 system consists of one subwoofer and five speakers spaced out around the room, which is better for generating a full surround sound system. As well as the above, there’s two additional larger left and right speakers (often terms surround channels), as well as a larger subwoofer.

5.1 system
A Traditional 5.1 System, with a center speaker, a left and right speaker, and two additional surround sound speakers. And a big subwoofer, which is the .1, of course.

Obviously, this doesn’t contain a soundbar, as they’re not typically a part of this setup. But as they’ve grown in popularity and power, we can now find them in a new audio system setup.

So what’s a 2.1 and 5.1 soundbar, then?

Generally, soundbars have been used as an all-in-one device, which was always intended to be used alone with a television. So, there would be no additional speakers and not even a subwoofer.

However, nowadays a soundbar can just make up part of a full sound system, and its been integrated into a 2.1 and a 5.1 design.

Because a typical soundbar has two speakers in one, then this type of soundbar is considered to be a 2.1, and can be used in the same 2.1 system. So, the left and right speaker are replaced by the two speakers in the soundbar, and you just use an additional subwoofer with the soundbar.

A 2.1 soundbar relies on just itself and its two speakers, in addition to a subwoofer.

But, a 5.1 soundbar is designed to offer more than this. It actually has three speakers within the soundbar itself, with an additional speaker in the center of the device. Then, all you need is two additional speakers to create a full surround sound experience, with an extra subwoofer.

A 5.1 soundbar has three speakers, and is made to be used with an additional two surround speakers and a subwoofer.

What other variations of 5.1 soundbar are there?

Even though these are the most traditional setups of soundbar, they aren’t the only options out there. You can also find different variations of soundbar which may suit your circumstance better.

If you’re looking to use a soundbar alone with no additional speakers, then you could opt for a soundbar with an integrated subwoofer. This replaces the center speaker with a sub, and still has a left and right speaker inside the soundbar. It’s a good choice for those looking for more bass within one speaker.

You can also look at soundbars which have integrated surround sound speakers in them. So, they’ll have one centre speaker, with a left and right either side of this speaker, and then two additional speakers at the edges of the soundbar responsible for creating surround sound. They can be a good option if you don’t want any additional surround sound speakers.

What is a 7.1 system?

A 7.1 system is another form of setup which uses even more speakers. It’s essentially the same as a 5.1 system, but it just uses an additional left and right surrounded sound speaker. Strategically placing these speakers around your cinema room can ensure that you get an improved watching experience.

Most people will find that a 7.1 system might be a little too much, in terms of both cost and the amount of space it takes up. However for those looking for the very best, this could be a wise choice.

Left and right speakers

So with a soundbar system, the left and right speakers are integrated into the soundbar itself. This means that when you’re facing the speaker, the left speaker is on your left, and the same for the other side too.

But in a typical 2.1 or 5.1 setup, you’d actually have the speakers separately. You’d ideally put one to the left of your television, and one to the right. And in a 5.1 or a 7.1 setup, you then might have the ability to add some rear speakers into the mix too.

The main thing we’re looking to achieve with any audio system is a good overall sound quality. And with any of these different arrangements, that should definitely be possible.


Overall, if you’re looking for a full audio experience with your soundbar, then a 5.1 is going to be the better choice. You’ll get a better audio quality from the soundbar itself, and it will be better for those trying to create their own home cinema. But if you’re just looking for a standard soundbar for watching the TV, then a 2.1 sound will do the job just fine.

If you’re looking for a soundbar, then check out Spacehop’s Guide to the best soundbars. This has a good array of both 2.1 and 5.1 soundbars for you to choose from, so there will definitely be a device there that will suit your needs.

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About Jon

Hey, I'm Jon. I'm an engineer by trade, so it makes sense that I'm obsessed with anything technology related! On the weekends, you can find me playing around with my computers or fixing something around the house. Feel free to leave a comment if you want to get in touch.

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