If you want to be blown away big big sound in your living room, that used to mean setting up a full 5.1 home cinema set. But in the last few years, slim soundbars have gotten good enough to compete with complete systems. But what’s really better – soundbars or 5.1 systems? And what questions should you be asking to make the optimal purchase decision? Find out by reading this article.
Soundbar vs. 5.1: how do the two work?
First, lets take a look at the basics: what exactly is a soundbar and what defines a 5.1 system?
Here’s a quick rundown to get you started:
Depending on model, there are a large array of integrated drivers (internal speakers), accompanied by one or more amplifiers and a Bluetooth receiver. To maximize your audio performance, its best to combine a soundbar with a separate subwoofer.
The minimal form factor of soundbars make them easy and uncomplicated to fit into your setup and install. All you should need are a nearby power outlet and an HDMI cable.
A 5.1 home cinema set is composed of a center, two front speakers, a subwoofer, and two rears. Generally, all the speakers are passive, meaning they’ll need to be driven by an external AV receiver or amplifier.
A 5.1 home cinema set will get you the true cinematic experience, and fully surround you with audio, which most soundbars are not directly able to do.
It often comes down to how much space you have (and the room acoustics), how much emphasis you place on minimalism and “true” Surround Sound, and what the intended usage should be (movies, games, streaming).
Now that you have a basic idea of both systems, let’s go a bit deeper and compare. We’ll also give you a couple tips that will help bring you to the right purchase decision.
Soundbars are systems consisting of a number of speakers packed into a single, slender packaging. Soundbars are design to be placed directly in front of or under a TV, and can easily find a place on most TV stands. They can also often be mounted on a wall to go under a wall-mounted TV. Soundbars are nice to improve the audio of a TV. Primarily dialogue will be enhanced and easier to understand. Check out the video below (switch on English subtitles if necessary) for an impression of what a soundbar can do.
For such a small package, there’s a surprising amount of tech. Multiple drivers can make it into a two or even three-way system. Some even have integrated subwoofers. What exactly is hiding in a subwoofer differs, and often can be seen in the price. Maybe people also like combining a soundbar with an external subwoofer.
Reading tip: Soundbase or soundbar – what’s the difference?
TV audio, music and design: the strong sides of the soundbar
Soundbars improve the audio of a TV by a lot. From the news, to crime documentaries, TV shows or games: they can dramatically improve the often flat sound of a standard TV. Soundbars are also good for music because the multiple channels can simulate stereo sound and thus the audio experience of live concerts can be better transmitted. For music, 5.1 systems are often too much of a good thing. The only exceptions are classical music.
Soundbars are cleverly designed to fit a lot of speakers into a slim speaker housing, which then allows them to simulate virtual Surround Sound. The can use audio reflection from room walls for instance, which makes soundbars ideal for small and medium-sized rooms. True Surround Sound like a 5.1 system cannot be produced, however. But you can still enjoy amazing 3D sound with a soundbar. And it takes up a lot less space.
How good a soundbar will sound in your home is also dependent on your specific room conditions. The speakers should be able to radiate unhindered to the sides so the virtual Surround effects can get out. The room also shouldn’t be too full of stuff because otherwise the sound reflections can quickly be swallowed up by other objects.
The speakers in soundbars are often placed very purposefully, and some models also contain side-firing driviers. That means the audio waves will bounce off the side walls and then back to you to create more spacious audio. There are also technologies such as Dynamore®, which can give the impression that multiple speakers are being used.
Additional advantages that soundbars can bring: they often also have Bluetooth or are Wi-Fi capable. That means you can stream music directly from your smartphone to them.
- Lots of high quality tech in a compact form factor
- Ideal for small to medium rooms
- Can be expanded with subwoofer
- Many streaming possibilities with Bluetooth & Wi-Fi
- Only virtual Surround Sound
- Not as flexible for upgrades
Strong combinations: Soundbars with subwoofers
The 5.1 system
The 5.1 sound system is a classic, and rightly so. For decades, it has been the standard. With a center, two fronts, and two rears as well as a subwoofer, you’ll be completely enveloped by sound. 5.1 systems shine best of all for movies. Is something happening behind the camera? Then you’ll hear it from that direction. A car explodes in front and to the right? It will sound exactly like that’s where it’s coming from. The only requirement is that the content you’re watching is mixed for Surround Sound; but in most cases, it will be.
So the audio can come from various directions, multiple speakers have to be placed around your sitting position. Each speaker has a task and takes care of certain frequencies. So you can hear every tone as good as possible, there’s one point to consider: the distance between you and the wall, and the angle the speakers are positioned in, which all play a role in making the sound in the room perfect. In this advice article, you’ll find plenty of tips to accomplish that.
In addition to the speakers, for a 5.1 set, you’ll generally need a central control unit: a receiver, which distributes all the tracks to the speakers. If your set contains active speakers, you may be able to do without one, though.
Just like at the movies
The audio in a film is an essential component for true immersion. The goal is to create a realistic audio experience. That applies both to the voices of the actors, all environmental and background sounds, and other loud effects. The way the movie is tracked sends each frequency to the right location for optimal sound. From quiet whispering to deep bass, everything has its place. Speaker positioning in the room is also key. Voices should generally be coming from the front and be easy to understand. The bass from the subwoofer can come from somewhat off to the side because the waves are so large they will generally fill the entire room.
If you’re a fan of classical music or audio plays, then a 5.1 system can also add a lot to those experiences. Because then you’ll hear the various instruments and voices where they should be in the space just like being in a concert hall or in the middle of the action. This effect only kicks in when recordings are tracked for it. Music generally is only in stereo, and will thus not use the center or rear speakers. If you are streaming classic music in high quality over services such as IDAGIO, however, 5.1 setups often make sense.
Gaming sound tip: 5.1 sound sets are also the best for consoles. Learn more about gaming speakers in our article.
The receiver, which is generally also an amplifier and central audio distribution center, can be used to control various devices because they usually have more inputs than soundbars: multiple video game consoles or Blu-ray players can thus then be connected no problem.
A big advantage of a 5.1 system: you can upgrade them later no problem, for example to a 7.1 set. You can also easily start with plain stereo, then upgrade later to a 5.1 set.
- Enveloping audio experience with true Surround Sound
- Ideal for larger spaces
- Flexible placement and upgradability
- Requires more space
- Generally requires a receiver
Reading tip: Learn more about the difference between HIFI sets and home cinema in this article.
Soundbar or 5.1: which is the best for you?
As you can see, the purchase decision depends on multiple factors. Surround Sound is a big win for movies in particular. With a 5.1 system, you can get the best out of your home cinema set. A soundbar is the right choice if you have limited space and don’t mind being limited to just virtual Surround Sound. For concert recordings, classical music, or audio plays, a 5.1 system can also make sense. Otherwise, soundbars are better for music – and they’re getting better all the time.
Packed full of high tech: Teufel’s soundbars and 5.1 systems
▶ CINEBAR ULTIMA: The essence of our legendary ULTIMA line packed into a big powerful soundbar that sounds as powerful as it looks. With 380 Watts (!) of performance, they make a big impression. What more do we have to say? The whole thing is also available as the Surround Power Edition 4.1 Set with the new EFFEKT 2 active speakers and Teufel’s most powerful subwoofer.
▶ ULTIMA 40 Surround 5.1-Set: Rather have the full Surround Upgrade? Our ULTIMA 40s are Atmos ready when upgraded with additional REFLEKT speakers. These speakers deliver big Surround Sound that is also breathtakingly clear. Just use the floorstanders as fronts. Also available as a set with the powerful Denon X3800H receiver that supports Dolby Atmos as well as Bluetooth, Spotify, Deezer, and AirPlay 2.