Surround Receivers

How Does a 3.1 Speaker System Work with Netflix (or Other Streaming Apps)?

You’ve been rocking a stereo system for a long time. Two speakers seemed like all you needed. But now you are thinking of upgrading. The natural step is to add a center speaker (some say the most important speaker in your system). You’re also thinking of adding a subwoofer though you think you already have plenty of bass. But this has you thinking. How does your 3.1 speaker system work with sources like Netflix or other streaming apps? They usually have two choices – stereo or 5.1. Neither of these is 3.1. Will this even work? Let’s discuss!

We’ve Got Some Bad News For You

Before we answer the question, let’s pile on the bad news. There are no sources that have a native 3.1 soundtrack. We’ve seen 4.1 occasionally (very old DVDs) but never 3.1. Check the comments below to see if someone has an example and can’t wait to tell us how wrong we are. If you are thinking that Netflix (and other streaming apps) are your big worry for your new 3.1 speaker system, then we’re sorry to say it is actually everything. Cable TV, UltraHD Blu-rays…all of it.

Yep, all of these too…

The Upside

We’ve talked about downmixing many different formats. Atmos and 5.1 formats are the most prominent examples. The reality is that your AV receiver will never discard sounds. The only way you can get your receiver to NOT play a sound is if you tell it you have a speaker and then disconnect that speaker.

Netflix and other streaming apps usually have two or three audio options: stereo, 5.1, and (sometimes) Atmos. Regardless of which you choose, your 3.1 speaker system will work and (usually) all three speakers will play the appropriate sounds.

Your Two Options

Depending on the audio track you choose, your AV receiver will either have to upmix or downmix the audio to get your 3.1 system to work properly. Let’s address them one at a time.

Stereo Will Be Upmixed

If you choose the stereo audio option, your AV receiver will have to upmix the sound. Your AV receiver will use algorithms to determine which sounds should come from the center speaker (using phase information primarily).

Multichannel Will Be Downmixed

No matter which multichannel option you choose (if you even have choices), any audio format that has more than two channels will be downmixed to 3.1. Netflix, for example, will have options for stereo or multichannel. You’ll get Atmos if you have the right plan and 5.1 if you don’t. When Netflix sends your AV receiver multichannel audio, it will downmix it so that it can work with your 3.1 speaker system. Since there is already front left and right information as well as sounds designated for your center speakers, this means that the AV receiver will primarily be focused on the surround information. Those sounds will be folded into the left and right speakers.

Which Solution is Better?

It’s a relief to know that all your speakers will be used and you won’t lose any sounds. But this is brought up a different question: Which should you choose? The answer is…we don’t know! There is no right answer for any one streaming service or even a show. Each mix (stereo and multichannel) can be very different. Some will be up or downmixed better than others. The only real way is to test both of them. Let us know your preferences in the comments below!

1 Comment on How Does a 3.1 Speaker System Work with Netflix (or Other Streaming Apps)?

  1. J

    I had a 3.1 system for a long time before I had the professional wiring and hanging of my surround speakers (what took them 4 hours total would have taken me 4 days – including running Ethernet cable throughout our place too), and as Tom said, my older receiver did a decent job of “steering” the sounds around me. If it’s all you can accommodate right now, you’ll still get a capable surround experience. A good stereo track can be somewhat immersive as well if it’s mixed properly.

    As for the 4.1 tracks, some of the boutique physical media labels (Shout!, Arrow) have been offering those surround tracks on their Blu-ray and 4K discs in an attempt to recreate those movies’ theatrical experiences (I believe it was common for 70mm showings to have that capability). I recently got “The Last Starfighter” on 4K disc from Arrow, and it has a 4.1 track on there along with stereo and 5.1 mixes. I haven’t tried it out, so I can’t comment on it, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t intrigued.

    If I still had my 3.1 configuration with a choice between stereo and 5.1, I’d try the 5.1 mix due to the discreet center channel. To my remedial logic, I think a more effective surround experience could be had letting your receiver downmix the surround channels into the front L/R pair than hoping the algorithm guesses correctly which sounds go where.

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