5.1 or 7.1 – Why I More Often Recommend Five Home Theater Speakers

Many years ago we were introduced to surround back speakers. Before that, AV receivers maxed out at five home theater speakers. But surround back speakers allowed us to have two additional speakers behind us. As a budding home theater enthusiast, my first “real” system had surround back speakers. But I ended up disconnecting the surround back speakers and eventually selling them. Why? For the same reason I now most often recommend five over seven home theater speakers.

Why Surround Back Speakers

The purpose of surround back speakers is fairly self-evident. They help steer the sound more effectively around the room. If you are in a large room, there can sometimes be a dead zone behind you. This is especially important when there is a lot of space behind the seats and you have multiple rows of seats.

Why I Recommend Five Home Theater Speakers

If you were more cynical, you’d be tempted to believe that one of the main reasons for the introduction of surround back speakers was to give people more home theater things to spend their money on. I’d be one to agree with you. The solution of surround back speakers is often looking for the problem. I can’t tell you how many people on the AV Rant podcast have told me that disconnecting their surround back speakers made their system sound better. But why?

Their Rooms are Too Small

Movie cinemas have speakers all the way around the room. A Dolby Atmos theater will also have them all over the ceiling as well. But, for most of us, our rooms just aren’t that big. Surround back speakers are designed to fill in any gaps behind the listener in the surround effects. With a couch on the back wall (or even a few feet off it), the surround speakers do just fine. That gap? It just doesn’t exist. No one on your three or four-seat couch is experiencing a dead zone behind their heads. Why? The surround speakers are close enough to create a convincing rear surround effect.

7.1 speakers
Does this look like the size of your room? No? Maybe surround back speakers aren’t for you.

The Speakers are Too Close to Each Other

Even if you do have some room behind your couch, those surround back speakers are probably not doing you much good. That’s because of the proximity of the surround back speakers to the side surround speakers. Now, we may not be talking about physical proximity. Instead, we are looking at the angles. The surround back speakers might be five feet behind your couch, but they may only be a couple of degrees separated from the side surround speakers.

We all know that we are much more sensitive to the directionality of sounds coming from in front of us. That’s why we turn towards a sound when we want to hear something more clearly (or to locate where a sound is originating). Having two speakers playing from essentially the same location behind the couch is very confusing to your ear. If the side and back surround speakers aren’t separated enough, your ear can’t tell which is which.

Surround Speakers Do Just Fine By Themselves

This leads us to the real truth. I recommend five home theater speakers over seven mostly because the surround back speakers most often make things sound worse. Most home theaters are in small rooms with a single row of seats. Even those in larger rooms are still dealing with a single row of seats. Even if the benefits of surround back speakers can be realized, they simply often aren’t worth the extra cost. If you aren’t rocking a massive theater with multiple rows of seats, five home theater speakers will often sound better than seven. Don’t believe me? Try it!

Wrap Up

I’m going to get roasted for this article. People have spent good money on their surround back speakers. They don’t want to hear that I believe that their system would sound better if they simply disconnected them. My challenge to anyone that wants to argue: Did you try it? I did and I sold my surround back speakers. It wasn’t an easy decision because I didn’t want to believe that my surround back speakers were a waste of money. But they were.

Now that we have Atmos, you could repurpose those surround back speakers to the ceiling with the right mount. That’s at least something.

2 Comments on 5.1 or 7.1 – Why I More Often Recommend Five Home Theater Speakers

  1. James Willmott

    Tom, In your 5.1 setup, do you still position your surround speakers to the sides as you would if you had a 7.1 setup, or did you re-position them midway between where sides and and backs would be?

    • Basically the same. I don’t generally place my side surrounds directly to my sides but just a little behind me (6-12″). This is mostly for direct line-of-sight from the tweeter to each head on the couch.

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