Surround Receivers

5.1 Audio Out of Two Speakers – What Am I Missing?

We can’t all upgrade from having zero speakers to having a full surround sound setup. That’s a lot of money to spend all at once. Instead, many choose to buy two speakers and run a stereo setup to start. They can try out some bookshelf speakers from a manufacturer to see how they like them. If they do, they can either buy more speakers when they get the money or maybe replace the front bookshelf speakers with towers and move the bookshelf speakers to surround positions. However they end up here, they start with just two speakers and likely many 5.1 (or higher) audio sources. What happens to all those other sounds? Let’s discuss.

What is 5.1 Audio

There are many different surround sound formats out there still in use from Dolby and DTS. Some of these are 5.1 audio formats while others are object-based and can use as many speakers as you have set up in your home theater. In general, however, 5.1 is where surround sound starts. The five “base-level” speakers are your front left, front right, center, and two side-surround speakers. The .1 is your subwoofer. This gives you access to full surround sound by using the front three speakers and two surround speakers to “steer” the sound around you. 7.1 adds two more speakers behind you and Dolby Atmos and DTS:X add speakers overhead.

Where Might You Find 5.1 Audio

If you are still paying for cable, you may see some sort of message on your screen that says the show is in surround sound. Most of the streaming services offer at least 5.1 audio. On your DVD and Blu-ray discs, there will be options for stereo, 5.1, and other audio formats. Clearly, if you choose Stereo, you’ll be fine. But what about those other services or if you forget to change the audio output of your player? Will you lose some of the 5.1 audio if you use only two speakers?

What’s the Concern

With a 5.1 channel audio mix, the majority of the vocals come not from the front left and right speakers, but from the center channel. If you run only two speakers, will you still be able to hear the voices? Or will they be deleted?

It’s All About Your AV Receiver

One thing you can be sure of, if you are using an AV receiver, the manufacturers don’t want you to miss a single sound. If there is a sound in the original recording, they’ll find a way to direct it to a speaker. This is true of using stereo speakers with 5.1 (or other) audio. As we discussed in our Downmixing Atmos article, your receiver will collapse all those other channels into whatever speakers you have available. In fact, when the audio engineer worked on those mixes, they have ways of testing the stereo output. They can even specify how some sounds are downmixed into fewer speakers.

Will You Hear Surround Sound

Again, the takeaway is that using fewer than the maximum number of speakers required by the audio format won’t delete any audio. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you’ll magically get surround sound out of two speakers. There are receivers that have DSP modes that will try and simulate 5.1 audio with only two speakers. These can be somewhat effective but don’t expect them to rival a full surround sound speaker setup.

Wrap Up

Just because all of the 5.1 audio is being routed to your two front speakers, don’t expect to be able to hear every sound. Few speakers can play as low as needed for modern action movies. Those sounds may be routed to your speakers, but if they can’t reproduce them, you won’t be able to hear them. But those sounds were not deleted or somehow omitted. And yes, you’ll still be able to hear people talking.

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