2.1 vs 5.1 soundbar: Differences? Which one is best?

As you probably noticed, TVs and monitors are getting thinner, but their built-in speakers are getting worse and worse. The solution would be to buy external speakers and hook them up to your display, although not everyone wants to deal with bulky speakers and extra cables. That’s where a soundbar comes into the picture. 

Soundbars are all-in-one audio systems that can deliver high-quality audio without taking up nearly as much space as external speakers. They’re great for people who place an importance on cable management and home decor because you can place them right under your display, and they don’t take up much space. 

Differences between 2.1 and 5.1 soundbars: 

  • 2.1 Channel is two speakers and one subwoofer, or one soundbar and one subwoofer (soundbar has two built-in speakers). 
  • 5.1 soundbars are one soundbar, two or more additional speakers, and a subwoofer.
  • 5.1 delivers the best audio, albeit at a price.
  • 2.1 can deliver great audio too, and it’s cheaper, but it’s the best.


Now that you know what is a soundbar, you’re probably wondering where to start looking for one. When it comes to soundbars, choosing the right one for your situation can be a challenge because there are so many variations and features. 

Understanding Audio Channels: 

There are many audio channels, from 1.0 all the way to 7.2. Another way to look at this is the first number is the number of speakers in the system, and the decimal point represents the number of subwoofers. 

When it comes to home theatre systems, there are two main types of setups; two speakers and a subwoofer, or five speakers and subwoofer. The former uses a 2.1 audio channel, while the latter uses 5.1 channels. 

Essentially, 2.1 audio consists of left and right speakers. It’s the most common type of sound system today, although it’s quickly being phased out by more advanced technologies. If you have a pair of two external speakers with a subwoofer, chances are they’re using 2.1 channel. Otherwise, they’re probably using a 2.0 audio channel. 

The 5.1 sound systems are designed for hardcore home-theatre enthusiasts, with multiple speakers in every corner of the room, while the 2.1 systems only have two speakers. Obviously, the 5.1 home theatre systems are superior and deliver the richest and clearest sound. But the 2.1 sound systems can deliver great audio quality too. 

You’re probably wondering how a soundbar can deliver surround sound. There are many different types of soundbars, some that include smaller directional speakers. In most cases, the 2.1 soundbars will consist of one main soundbar and one separate subwoofer for bass. Meanwhile, the 5.1 soundbars will include one soundbar with multiple smaller speakers, as well as a subwoofer, for a true surround sound experience. 

Which One Is The Best? 

After reading the description of the home theatre channels, you can probably already guess that the 5.1 audio systems are superior and a much better choice. But before you dive in, there are a couple of things that you need to know.  

For one, 5.1 home-entertainment systems are expensive. If you’re on a tight budget, these aren’t the right choice for you. For a good system, expect to pay upwards of £300. Most people can’t justify spending that much on a sound-system. Sets that include a soundbar tend to be more expensive too. 

Secondly, 5.1 home entertainment systems are bulky and usually require many cables. To clarify, a 5.1 system often includes five or more speakers; two in front, one subwoofer, and two in back, and some even have more than that. A 5.1 setup with a soundbar will consist of one soundbar, a subwoofer, and 4 or more directional speakers. 

In most cases, none of these speakers is wireless, so you have to run cables all around your living room. There are wireless systems, and those are the most convenient, but also more expensive. 

The subwoofers are also very bulky and take up a lot of space. It’s difficult to find an appropriate location for these massive subwoofers in a living room. Sometimes these subwoofers can be as big as a chair or stool. Of course, sound quality is hard to beat, and these systems deliver the best sound overall. 

Check Compatibility! 

Another important thing about 5.1 soundbars is most of them use HDMI ARC for audio. Although you don’t need to buy a new HDMI cable, you do need to double-check if your TV or display has an HDMI output port (it should be labelled with the abbreviation ARC). 

On the subject of TVs, you also need to check if the TV supports 5.1 audio. If you install a 5.1 system with a TV that doesn’t support it, the output will be audio 2.1, which won’t be the true surround sound experience. On the other hand, most sources such as video-game consoles, computers, and Blu-ray players support 5.1 audio. 

Now let’s take a look at the 2.1 home entertainment systems. 

Are 2.1 Soundbars Worth It? 

Although 5.1 home entertainment systems deliver the best experience, the 2.1 systems are not far behind, and there are several reasons to consider buying one. 

For starters, they’re much cheaper than their counterparts. You can find some decent 2.1 channel soundbars for under £200 and most of them have Bluetooth. You might assume since there are no external speakers positioned behind you that 2.1 soundbars lack true surround sound. 

While that may be the case, most 2.1 systems use a technology known as virtual surround sound. With virtual surround sound, the system will trick your brain into thinking the sound is coming from a certain direction by bouncing sound waves at certain angles. 

For example, one setup uses the shape of a room to bounce soundwaves off the sides of the walls to create the illusion of sound coming from those directions. 

Keep in mind, virtual surround sound is based on software, and almost any stereo speakers can utilize the technology if the source can provide it. Long story short, 2.1 soundbars can create decent surround sound too, although it’s based more on illusions. 

Another upside to 2.1 soundbar systems is there are fewer speakers, which means less clutter and wires. They’re easier to set up as well, and most include Bluetooth, so you can play music from your other electronics too. 

Are They Better Than a 5.1 Home Theatre System? 

While 2.1 home entertainment systems can be great with good quality virtual surround sound, there’s something about the 5.1 home theatres that make a much better experience. Ultimately, if you want true surround sound, I would go with the 5.1 soundbar. 

The 2.1 soundbars do a good job at creating directional sounds, but it relies more on illusions and tricks to create the effect. 5.1 soundbars use actual directional speakers, which is hard to beat. Overall, it comes down to your personal preferences. 

If you value true surround sound and want the best experience, I would pick a 5.1 channel system. Otherwise, if you’re on a budget, the 2.1 channel with good virtual surround sound should be sufficient, but don’t expect to be blown away. 


TV speakers can be quite frustrating due to their low-quality audio. If you want to drastically improve your home entertainment system, I recommend buying a soundbar with surround sound capabilities. They make a huge difference! 

Read also: Best budget soundbars

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