5.1 vs 7.1 Surround Sound: What's the Difference?

Couple sitting on a couch watching tv with a black Arc and an Era 300 pair

You want that cinema-level sound experience at home. So, what speakers do you need? How many? And where exactly do you place them? Worry not. We’re here to help answer these and all your home theater questions. In this blog, we’ll look at the two most popular surround sound setups — 5.1 and 7.1 — and explore the differences, what spaces they work best in, and how to create your own surround sound system at home for your next movie night. Let’s get into it.

5.1 vs 7.1 Surround Sound Explained

Picture yourself in a theater, with an action scene playing out on screen: fighter jets are weaving through the air and pilots are speaking into muffled headphones. In the theater, the sound is astounding — the dialogue is crisp, the jet engines sound as if they’re passing overhead, and you can hear the enemy planes approaching from behind before they appear on the screen. This is surround sound, powered by speakers strategically placed around the room to create a truly immersive listening experience.

Even better, you can achieve something similar at home. You’ll just need a few speakers and a little bit of know-how. That’s where understanding 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound comes in. Knowing what these setups are and your options for creating them can help you build out your system at home.

The first number in each configuration (i.e. the “5” in 5.1) refers to the number of ear-level channels — or points of audio, like a speaker — in the system. The second number refers to the presence of a subwoofer. So, a 5.1 system includes three front channels (left, right, and center) and two rear channels (left surround and right surround). While a 7.1 system has an additional two channels (left side surround and right side surround). These are typically positioned between your “front stage” (soundbar) and “rear stage” (surround speakers). The image below should help visualize how a 5.1 comes together in your living space.

Diagram illustrating a typical 5.1 home theater setup

Do 5.1 and 7.1 Sound Different?

Absolutely. As you’ve probably guessed, a 7.1 surround sound setup has the ability to really envelop listeners in audio, thanks to those two extra channels. Think of these setups like a LEGO® structure. A 5.1 system will deliver quality, immersive audio. But when you build on that system, you add additional depth and detail.

Both a 5.1 and 7.1 setup will surround you in sound with the help of front and rear speakers. But the 7.1 system’s additional two channels provide that extra bit of immersion. This gives you that feeling of being in the center of whatever is playing out on the screen. It also makes the movie or show feel more realistic. Because in real life, sound doesn’t just come at us from one direction.

Choosing between 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound

Let’s explore some important factors to consider when selecting your surround sound system.

Consider the space and size of the room

If you have a small space, consider a 5.1 setup. This system will easily fill your room with sound and, depending on what speakers you choose (more powerful speakers create more powerful sound), you can still render a similar sound quality to a 7.1 setup. If your space is larger, however, you may want a 7.1 system to really fill the area with sound.

Your budget

It goes without saying that the more complex the surround sound system, the more money you’re likely to end up investing. So, generally speaking, a 5.1 setup will be more affordable than a 7.1 setup. Of course, there are exceptions to this. For instance, if you were to opt for a more powerful soundbar or rear speakers, a 5.1 system could cost more. Speakers and subwoofers range in price depending on their size, power, and features, among other things.

How much you’re looking to spend may also help you decide where at home to set up your system. For instance, if you have a smaller budget, consider creating your movie space in a smaller family room versus a more spacious basement.

Your listening preferences

You’re spending time and money building out your surround system, so it makes sense to consider the variety of listening experiences it will provide. Are you planning to listen to music from these speakers in spatial audio? If so, consider Dolby Atmos-supported speakers as part of your setup. These speakers will make your system more versatile for the times you switch from movies to music.

Couple sitting on a couch watching tv with a white Beam and an Era 100 pair

Create your perfect home theater with Sonos

Now that you understand the differences between 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound, let’s look at a few different ways you can create your own setup using Sonos speakers. Each of these setups includes a soundbar, rear speakers, and a subwoofer.

Ray + 2 Sonos Era 100 + Sub Mini

Our most compact 5.1 system delivers blockbuster surround experience without blowing your budget. With this setup, you can hear sound in front of and behind you. It all sounds real — from coffeeshop chatter in a romcom to footsteps approaching from behind in a scary movie. The dialogue is clear, the sound is balanced, and you can feel the rich, bold bass.

Beam (Gen 2) + 2 Era 100 + Sub

For a next-level experience, our best-selling soundbar, compact rear speakers, and premium subwoofer give you 7.1.4 surround sound using virtualization techniques (You can learn all about virtualized surround sound in our Ultimate Guide to Home Theater). Distortion-free and powerful bass deliver a panoramic soundstage that mimics the way you’d hear action in real life — that is to say, all around you.

Arc + 2 Era 300 + Sub

To completely bring the theater experience home, look not further than this surround sound setup. Our most premium soundbar, rear speakers, and subwoofer make it feel like the story is unfolding right in your living room with theater-quality 7.1.4 surround sound. You’ll feel the powerful rumbles of a jet engine in an action film. You’ll hear the overhead groan of an attic floorboard in a horror film. You’ll get crisp dialogue without having to cup your ear or turn on subtitles. This setup puts you in the center of it all with life-like, spatial sound with Dolby Atmos and hair-raising bass.

Now that you have the basics down, it’s time to build out your system — and dream up the fun you will have with it. Whether you’re hosting a movie night or binging a weeknight show, surround sound turns up the emotion on whatever’s on screen to bring you into the action. And, let’s be honest, sometimes we need that little extra something to pull us in and help us unplug from our day. So, whether you prefer action movies or psychological thrillers, sound from all angles of your room will add that extra bit of adrenaline. Visit to discover Sonos surround sound speakers for your home.

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