Buying a Surround Sound System: What the Setup Numbers Mean

March 8, 2019 · Paid Partnership with Absolute Sound
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Never get stumped by all those confusing surround sound system specs again with this handy guide from the audio experts at Absolute Sound!


When it comes to building a good home cinema, audio quality matters as much as picture clarity – and it isn’t hard to see why. Just imagine watching your favourite movie in crystal-clear clarity on a top-of-the-line 4K TV but having to strain your ears the entire way because of the muffled dialogue (ouch).

While we can’t help you deal with such problems, a good surround system certainly can. BUT don’t be too quick to shop for one just yet! First, get the low-down on surround sound set-ups with this two-part guide from the experts at local audio store Absolute Sound.

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What do the surround sound numbers really mean? (e.g. 5.1, 7.1, 5.1.2)

Well, here’s the simple explanation: These figures refer to the number of speaker components included in a home theatre system or set-up.

For example, a 5.1 surround sound system comes with five full-range speakers (front, centre, rear), plus one subwoofer (a type of low-frequency speaker, more on that below), whereas a 7.1 system has seven full-range speakers that are accompanied by a subwoofer.

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You may also encounter three-digit combinations that look something like ‘5.1.2’. In such cases, the final digit refers to the number of ceiling and/or upwards-firing speakers that a set-up has (two).


So, how many speakers do you really need?

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The number of speakers that you’ll end up with depends on the set up you choose, but as a general point of reference (based on an entry-level 5.1 setup), you’ll need 5 speakers and a subwoofer at minimum to create a classic surround sound experience.

Instead of directing everything through a single source or speaker (which is what TVs do), surround sound works by sending audio with different frequencies through several speakers or channels – this has the effect of creating an enhanced listening experience that’s more realistic because of the ‘movement’ of sound all around you.

To understand how this effect is created, here’s a simple explanation of what each speaker does:

a. Front speakers

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Full-range units that are placed at the front, on the left and right of your set-up. They are responsible for handling most of the music and sound effects coming from your movie/game/any media that’s being played on-screen.

b. Centre speaker

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Centre speakers mainly do the heavy lifting when it comes to dialogue, ensuring that every spoken line is crisp and clear.

c. Surround speaker

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Placed at the rear left and right positions of a surround sound set-up, surround speakers handle any sounds that ‘come from behind’ – for example, the footsteps of a person sneaking up from the back.

d. Subwoofer

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Responsible for bass and sub-bass (low-frequency) sounds, subwoofers are the key to giving a surround sound experience its impressive ‘feel’ – think of it as the impression you get when you hear the ‘oomph’ of Thor’s axe slamming into Thanos’ chest or the ‘vrau vrau’ of a lightsaber’s buzz.

e. Ceiling speaker

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Ceiling speakers are in charge of directional sounds that ‘come’ from above, like the whir of a helicopter’s blades.


Various speaker set-ups (with real-life examples!)

5.1 set-up

The most basic surround system set-up consisting of a pair of front speakers, left and right surround speakers, a centre speaker, and finally, a subwoofer.

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5.1.2 set-up

In a 5.1.2 set-up, a pair of ceiling speakers enable sound to be delivered from all directions. This is usually done with the help of Dolby Atmos technology (yes, the same one in theatres), which make use of overhead speakers to create a three-dimensional listening experience.

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5.1.4 set-up

As an upgrade to the 5.1.2 set-up, two more speakers are mounted in the ceiling in a 5.1.4 set up, allowing listeners to more easily distinguish between overhead sounds coming from different directions.

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7.1 set-up

For the most part, a 7.1 set-up is similar to a 5.1 set-up, but adds another pair of rear surround speakers which allow listeners to more easily distinguish sounds coming from the back and around them.

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7.1.4 set-up

Having all of the advantages of a 7.1 set-up and more, a 7.1.4 set-up provides an ultra-realistic listening experience, thanks to four additional speakers that are built into the ceiling.

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We aren’t done yet! Stay tuned for the second part of Absolute Sound’s guide that explains the differences between sound bars and home theatre systems as well as which one you should get for your home.

But in the meantime, if you’d like more information about Absolute Sound’s home theatre solutions, check out their homepage. For in-person queries, feel free to drop by their Home Theatre showroom at 1 Coleman Street, The Adelphi #01-14A, S 179803

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