5.1 vs 7.2 surround sound: which is better?

Sonus Faber Sonetto G2 5.1 surround speaker system in living room
(Image credit: Sonus Faber)

Soundbars are a fantastic way to improve your TV's sound, but if you want the ultimate home cinema experience, you really need a surround sound system. But which setup should you go for: 5.1 or 7.2?

We'll explain what both of these systems entail, as well as the pros and cons of each, so you can decide which is right for you.

What do 5.1 and 7.2 mean?

The Q Acoustics 3050i 5.1 system in white on a white background.

(Image credit: Q Acoustics)

These numbers refer to how many of what type of speakers the setup contains. The first number is how many 'standard' speakers it involves, while the number after the decimal point is the number of subwoofers.

So a 5.1 setup will involve five speakers (ordinarily a centre channel, plus two front and two rear speakers), and one subwoofer. A 7.2 system adds two additional 'standard' speakers and a second subwoofer.

Is 5.1 or 7.2 better?

Q Acoustics 5040 5.1 speaker package in white against a grey wall

(Image credit: Future)

It all comes down to your situation. More speakers will create a more impactful sound, and adding two extra speakers at the back will make the audio much more immersive, too. An extra subwoofer will help even out the bass response as well, spreading the bass equally throughout the room. But 7.2 systems certainly have their downsides.

The first is space. Most people don't have room to accommodate nine separates, at least not without cluttering up their lounge.

Then there's the question of arrangement. Adding two extra speakers at the back of the room often isn't practical, particularly if your sofa is against it (as most people's will be to maximise floorspace). In such cases, a better solution could be adding two Dolby Atmos channels (via Atmos toppers) at the front of the room to create a 5.1.2 system – assuming your AV receiver supports Atmos, of course.

Some AV receivers also don't support 7.2 systems, as they're limited to 5.1. But most do.

Then there's the cost. Because it involves more speakers, a 7.2 system will be more expensive than a 5.1. For example, the Marantz Cinema 70s 7.2 system costs £2500 at Peter Tyson, while a 5.1 setup from the same brand is almost £500 cheaper.

If you have the money and the space, a decent 7.2 system will provide a fantastic experience. But for many of us, a 5.1 arrangement will more than suffice.

Advantages of surround sound vs a soundbar

One end of a black Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar Max on a white background.

(Image credit: Future)

We're big fans of soundbars here at What Hi-Fi?. They're compact, and usually more affordable than a surround sound system. But they do have their downsides.

You have to make sure your model will fit with your TV. LG and Samsung make soundbars specifically for use with their TVs, but they don't sound the best. If your soundbar is too tall it will obscure the bottom part of the TV screen.

It's not just a case of finding room for it, either. If it has upward-firing speakers, as many models do, it can't have anything above it as that would block the sound. So you can't place it on a lower shelf.

Then there's the spread of sound it produces. Because all the speakers are directly under the TV, you won't get a truly immersive sound as you will with a proper surround system. Even with Dolby Atmos and other processing to create a 'virtual' surround sound, there's no substitute for the real thing.

That's why if you have the budget, and the space, we recommend a 5.1 or 7.2 surround sound system – or a full-fat Dolby Atmos speaker system if you can go that far.


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Joe Svetlik

Joe has been writing about tech for 17 years, first on staff at T3 magazine, then in a freelance capacity for Stuff, The Sunday Times Travel Magazine, Men's Health, GQ, The Mirror, Trusted Reviews, TechRadar and many more (including What Hi-Fi?). His specialities include all things mobile, headphones and speakers that he can't justifying spending money on.

  • Scottm_dj
    Here's the main problem with 5.1 vs 7.1: If like me you have the majority of your SACDs and DVD-Audios backed up (5.1)....and you add 7.1 back speakers, your original 5.1 speakers now become side speakers and it messes up the design of the 5.1 encoding. In fact, the newest Pink Floyd DSOTM Atmos disc basically pokes fun at this very issue.

    Another problem is that some of the best equipment ever released like Conrad- Johnson and Audio Research amps & preamps are 5.1 only. It's going to take a really impressive digital component to match the beautifully analog sound quality of those classic meticulously-built pieces.