7.1 or 5.1.2 Atmos – Which is Best?

There are lots of ways to set up your surround sound system these days. Some might say too many ways. The options used to be either stereo (two speakers) or 5.1 (five speakers and a subwoofer). Then they added a single back speaker (6.1) which was quickly replaced with two surround back speakers (7.1). Now we have Atmos which can support up to 11 floor-level speakers and six overhead speakers! That’s a lot! But not all of us can fit (or even want) that many speakers. Plus, most AV receivers don’t support that many. If you have an entry-level (or close to it) AV receiver, your options are much more limited. One common situation is deciding which is the best setup, 5.1.2 Atmos or 7.1. Let’s discuss!

What Are the Differences?

The main differences between 7.1 and 5.1.2 Atmos are the positions of just two speakers. Both start with the same five speakers placed normally. The front and center speakers are placed at the front of the room with the surrounds to your sides or slightly behind your seat. With a 7.1 system (left below) you place the final two speakers behind your couch and mostly in line with your front speakers. With a 5.1.2 Atmos setup, you’d place the final two speakers above you. Where? Well, that depends.

Most would say that the best places to put your overhead speakers are directly above you. These would be labeled “Top Middles” in your AV receiver speaker setup menu. But you could also have them set up as top fronts or front heights (see below). People often prefer the front height orientation as it doesn’t require installation on or in the ceiling as well as simplifies wire management (they are often mounted on the front wall).

Which is Best?

Before you can determine which speaker setup, 7.1 or 5.1.2 Atmos, will work best for you, you must look at your room. We often suggest at least a five-foot physical distance between any speakers in order for you to be able to hear that they aren’t co-located. If you don’t have at least a couple of feet between the back of your couch and your back wall, 7.1 is unlikely to work for you. In fact, if you don’t have at least five or six feet behind your couch, I’d recommend staying away from surround back speakers.

If you are going to go the Atmos route, we’d highly recommend the top middle orientation if at all possible. Speakers directly above you are much more likely to be noticeable over any other Atmos speaker placement. Front heights in particular tend to get very lukewarm reviews. If you have front AND rear heights, you are much more likely to experience sound moving overhead (and it is how we recommend you label your overhead speakers). With a single set of height speakers at the front of your room, you are unlikely to hear much of a difference over your straight 5.1 speakers system.

But I Heard A Difference?!

Cue the people in the comments ranting that they have front heights or surround back speakers claiming that they heard a “massive” difference. Hey, I’m glad you thought you heard a difference. I’m not here to argue with you. But years of experience have shown me that most of these “massive” differences are really not all that big. Also, they tend to disappear under any sort of rigorous testing conditions.

What Should You Do?

Take a close look at your room. If you have lots of room behind your couch, consider a 7.1 system. With your couch close to a wall, consider top middle speakers. If you can only do front height speakers, consider skipping them altogether. Your best bet is to order speakers from a place with a good return policy. Try them out in all the different positions and see how much of a difference they actually make. For most people in most rooms, 5.1 is really more than good enough.

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