Multi-channel audio explained

What’s the best audio for your situation? We dive into the world of multi-channel audio to find out.

Choosing a set of speakers for your computer, a bedroom, home theatre or sound system can be confusing. Speaker systems come in all sorts of shapes and sizes with lots of different configurations. One of the decisions you need to make is how many speakers you want or need. And it’s not simply a case of more is better.

Start with what you’re trying to hear

When you play a movie through a DVD or Blu-ray player, or a media streaming device, sound goes to your speakers. In the old days, the decision was about mono or stereo – sending the same sound to all the speakers (because, once upon a time, people only had a single speaker) or having different parts of the audio played through different speakers.

If you listen to Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in your car, you’ll notice the sound shift from the left to the right in different parts of the song. When you’re at the cinema, surrounded by speakers, you’ll notice that different sounds come from different speakers.

What’s 2.1 mean?

In a 2.1 speaker system, you’re getting three components; two speakers working as a stereo pair with a subwoofer that delivers extra bass. This is a great option where placing speakers is a challenge or if you like some big sound at your computer.

What about 5.1 and 7.1 speaker systems?

As you add more speakers, you start moving into the world of surround sound where you’re immersed in the audio that accompanies your movie or game. With these larger systems you’ll hear sounds come from all around you, assuming you have the speakers optimally positioned.

With a 5.1 system, you have five speakers and a subwoofer. There will be a centre speaker that you should place beneath your screen. The front speakers should be arranged on either side of the centre speaker. The two rear speakers should be behind you with the subwoofer up the front. This is the sort of set up most lounge rooms can accommodate.

When you move to a 7.1 system, where you have seven speakers and a subwoofer, you add two speakers to either side of your viewing position.

How to choose

The size of your room is a major factor when choosing speakers. 2.1 or 5.1 systems are great options for smaller rooms. If you’re looking for a cinema-like experience, a 7.1 set will immerse you in sound. If running speaker cables is a challenge, there are wireless options available.

- October 2021

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