Extended Surround Sound: To Boldly Go Beyond 5.1?

Extended surround sound is nothing new. The staple surround sound configuration for movie theaters and home theaters is digitally delivered, discrete 5.1-channel surround sound. But in both arenas there have also been numerous pushes to move beyond that paradigm. In the DVD era we were given a number of options for expanding our surround sound experience toward the back of the room, from the base 5.1-channel paradigm to 6.1- and 7.1-channels. Although only select DVD titles were encoded with extended surround, within a few years virtually every AV receiver and surround processor in existence offered tool sets that would decode these soundtracks- or any 5.1-channel soundtrack- to 6.1- or 7.1-channels on playback. And just about any AVR you look at today will include seven channels of amplification.

Now that we’re in the Blu-ray generation fully discrete 7.1-channel mixes are available on a number of Blu-ray titles, which just about any AVR or surround processor manufactured in the last couple of years can decode. And Dolby has a new 7.1-channel theatrical surround format with discrete back surrounds that will probably make its way into our home theaters at some point. But today’s flavors of extended surround only start in the back of the room. Audyssey’s DSX uses advanced post-processing to extend surround by adding height and/or width channels up front. Dolby also offers height-enhanced surround with Pro Logic IIz. These expanded surround features are becoming more common on higher-end AVRs, and some are even shipping with nine channels of amplification to support these extended surround options.

My question to you is whether you have already, or plan to move beyond 5.1-channel surround, either in back or in front? Do these new height and width modes look or sound intriguing to you, or are you more than happy with your current 5.1- or 7.1-channel surround? Even if you want to, is it possible for you to add more speakers and amplifiers to your room?

I’ve got my own thoughts on this that I’ll share, but I want to hear from you first and don’t want to bias anyone with my own opinion one way or the other. Yet.

Billy's picture

I moved up to a new Onkyo Rec this year and it has up to 9 channels including front height channels. My ceiling is too low to use those and to get beyond 5.1, room size is also a factor. I did bump up to 6.2 and I find that to be very nice, beyond that, I am not sure my old ears could tell.

Enrique.'s picture

Hi Shane, most people would not be able to go beyond 5.1, but anyone with a dedicated room would benefit from Audyssey DSX processing with the Wide Channels for a set-up of five Front channels, SL, SR, SBL & SBR plus two subs located on front Center and rear Center walls. Just for fun look for BD or DVD movies that were originally recorded with SDDS-8Channel format.

David Vaughn's picture

I already have a 7.1 system (2 back surrounds) and if I even attempted to get 2 additional speakers in my room my wife would send me to the dog house. Unfortunately, that's too small even for a 5.1 system and the acoustics are horrendous ;)

Shane's picture

Dave- at CES I'm sure I'll be able to find someone who will acoustically treat your dog house and iron out its problems. for a fee of course...

Mike's picture

I'm in the process of setting up my home theater to handle 11.2 from Yamaha. The four presence speakers are inwall, mounted high per Yamaha's guidance. The other 7 are possitioned per Dolby's recommendations, http://www.dolby.com/consumer/setup/speaker-setup-guide/index.html.

Paul's picture

I moved from 5.1 to 7.2 set up and found that it was a noticeable improvement in the sound field. I am wondering if 9.2 (for me, using height channels) would add anything to the experience. I am currently looking to upgrade my processor and I'm not sure if the extra cost for a 9.2 processor is worth it or if I should just stick to a 7.2 processor. The question is if 9.2 is going to be around to stay or is it just a marketing gimick for people to buy more speakers, wires, and amps?

Justin N.'s picture

Currently, I run a simple 5.1 setup in my living room, and can't really justify adding two additional surrounds due to the large width and shallow depth of the room itself. That said, when I have a home to call my own (and a theater/rack setup in the center of it, free of windows and foot traffic), I am looking to try additional front speakers and more speakers in the surround spaces, if just to create a consistent sound environment free of gaps (and easier to calibrate a sweet spot for). Whether I try the extended surround modes really depends on how much is gimmicky, and how much of it can create a believable illusion.After all, that's essentially what surround sound boils down to: a very clever illusion of environment.

Jeff D's picture

Shane, great question! I have a 5.1 set-up, have a 6.1 Legacy receiver used as surround processor w/multi-channel power amp and two mono blocks. I switch out the multi in favor of the mono blocks for stereo. Simply put, I can't justify spending for the other two channels, there just aren't enough 6.1 or 7.1 encodes. I was around for Quad, and had the set-up, always been an early adopter, I thought it was wonderful. I currently use the rear speakers as surrounds as they are the same as my fronts, but to answer your question, no I don't plan on changing my set-up to accept two more channels. As with others, I simply don't have the room, unless I went with wide front channels. I've heard them all, although they sound good, is it worth it to spend the money? I won't be, but I waited along time before accepting 5.1, after Quad thought it was just another fad.

Allan wilmath's picture

I've recently moved from 5 to 7 in the last few months and love the difference. i'm using bipolar wall mounted surrounds, and bipolar towers for mains, only the center channel is conventional. Other than adjusting the bass and turning up the tone control, I am using the levels and delays from auto setup and it is as good as it gets. I'd add the width channels if I could, but my receiver predates DSX and i'm not willing to take the loss on my current receiver. If I did, I would use another set of surrounds mounted to the front of the side walls that match my other surrounds. It's not mounting the speakers but running the wires that is most of the work.

AJ Peck's picture

I wish that 6.1 had taken off. I think that 2 sides and a rear gives a much better image than 2 rear surrounds.

Tom's picture

I just recently upgraded from 5.1 to 7.1 and my room has never sounded so good. I play 5.1 material in "theatre mode" where the L&R rear surround are playing duplicates of the L&R surround material with both sets reduced by 3db and the depth of the room and immersion of rear pans is awesome. Doesn't make me feel like anything's wasted by not having every disc carry a 6/7.1 track.

Ed Martin's picture

I will be building up my own home theater within the next year 2011. Based on the size of the would be HT room and possible speaker placements, I would go for the 5.1 which is found in almost all DVD movies. Now with Audyssey DSX as I read in other articles, I agree with its principle that appreciation of the sounds must come from the front rather than concentrating it on the back. So once I have an option in the future to upgrade. I would go to the Audyssey DSX option instead of 7.1

FM's picture

I've been using 7.1 for almost 10 years now, and do not plan to upgrade past 7.1. I'm still waiting for more 7.1 content to be included on Blu ray discs. Even the majority of new 3D discs only contain 5.1.I really don't see the need for 9.1, unless wall heights are more than 10' tall. And if 7.1 content is still not available on most Blu ray discs, when will 9.1?Regarding my systems, I have 7.1 in a 12x12 room, and am in the process of building a dedicated theatre in our basement with 7.1.I decided to go with 5.1 for two other rooms in our home, a kid's gaming room, and a sports watching room. I really would have liked to have those as 7.1, but I couldn't justify the expense of cable and two more good quality speakers without the 7.1 content being available out there.

Ryan's picture

I upgraded to 11.1 back in May and the widths make a big diference. The heights make a difference but not nearly as pronounced as the widths. I would also say that with most content the widths and heights give you more effect than the rears but when the rears do kick in with the rest HOLY CRAP audio bliss! I play a few scenes form certain moview just to get that feeling from time to time.

C from Manhattan's picture

I had 7.2 for a few years and never thought about upgrading to 9.2 until I was offered a sale that I could not resist. I did not think I would have care all that much about upgrading to 9.2, but it turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Due to room shape, I am not able to use width channels so opted to the height channels. The newer version of Audyssey processing is definitely an improvement from just one and half a year ago, but I still prefer Dolby Pro Logic IIz. The improvement of 9.2 as compared to 7.2 is more noticeable than 7.2 compared to 5.2. Having said that, I still think anything beyond 5.1 is for audio enthusiasts only, as none of my average friends could tell any difference when I first upgraded away from 5.2...

kelsci's picture

In realty I do not have the room to expand beyond 5.1 Many are saying the same. The only way to do this if you have the room whether it be the front or the rear. As for the rear your seating must be that there is room in back of your seating arraingment to be able to place center back rear surrounds correctly. I also think that in the case of center back rear surround sound, one rather than two channels might suffice. I have a theory that a specifically wired center channel whose two woofers were 4 ohms wired in series might do the trick. My only experience with height channels was with a receiver my brother had from Yamaha some years back(I think it was the 2095 flagship receiver). He did hook up the height channels but we both could not hear any difference or improvement in sound using them. Of course some of the newer receivers with Dolby Pro-Logic 2Z might be a different story.

William Garrison's picture

I am not compelled to go beyond 5.1. The hardware and logistics don't seem practical in my living room. In a dedicated theater space it might be. Frankly I am more than satisfied with 5.1. 7.1 and beyond seem more like a sales gimmick than a true upgrade.

Mike S.'s picture

I went from 5.1 to 9.1 with width a year ago and the sound is noticably better. However, my wife tells me that aesthetics are not amongst my home theater accomplishments as all speakers sit on stands and they seem to be everywhere. But I don't care, I put them there for auditory reasons. Jeez!

Shane's picture

Guys- I'm blown away by the response to this Blog in terms of both volume and passion for the hobby. Every once in while we see household penetration numbers on 5.1- and 7.1- systems and the numbers are always lower than you'd think, way lower. I'm thinking reading this Blog that everyone doing 7.1 is accounted for right here!I'm so surprised to find myself in the 5.1 minority, I almost feel old fashioned! I've more to say on what I'm doing and why, and I'm thinking later today I"ll make a part II Blog post so I can be more expansive and knock the discussion up another notch.But really, thanks guys. Doing this Blog takes extra time and effort for me every week in an already hectic schedule, but your participation and enthusiasm is making this a total blast!! Much appreciated!

Jim M.'s picture

I am excited about what the future holds for more channels. At this time, due to the lack of sufficient program material in discrete 7.1 or more channels, I'm sticking with 5.2. Netflix is finally streaming in 5.1 to the Playstation 3 and it seems that most blu-ray discs are only 5.1. I just upgraded with 5 Anthony Gallo Acoustics Strada speakers. My opinion at this point is that you are far better off with 5 high quality identical speakers combined with one or more high quality subwoofers than a mix of lots of different speakers. My room is big enough for more speakers but I don't really like the idea of wall mounting or ceiling mounting front height speakers identical to what I have. Width front channels seem like they would improve the quality the most but those would need to be pushed out nearly to the front corners of my room. Will I upgrade someday? Maybe, but not yet - I want better processing of 5.1 source material to 7.1 or more channels before I migrate (and my processor and amp are

Steve 's picture

I use a 7.1 via PSBs and a SC-27. Switching to 5.1 does collapse the sound field but not enough that if you were not listening for it you probably would not notice. From 5.1 to 2.1 you do... I like the previous comments about width more than height and is a good argument.

Chris's picture

I'm lucky to get 5.1 in my home theater room. It just so happens to pull double-duty as the family room, but the layout of the room makes it impossible to do any sort of side channels (the right wall consists of a door wall, a fireplace, and another doorwall. There's nowhere to put any sort of a side channel.The other wall... well, it's just not there. That side of the family room is open to the kitchen and the dining area.My rear channels are on a wall about four feet behind the sweet spot, and are constructed to angle in toward the sweet spot. But there's just no way to do 7.1 in my movie-watching room.

Matt's picture

I have a Denon AVR-4311. I have a living room perfect for 11.1 surround: heights and wides almost exactly the same distance as the other channels, angles exactly as specified. The new channels didn’t often create an instant wow - they do not draw attention to themselves - but over the course of a few minutes, the front wall melts away and the entire experience becomes significantly more enveloping. The 360-degree soundstage is seamless, and the ambient effects (rain, crickets, birds, the wind) take on an almost unprecedented realism. In Ratatouie, for example, the early tunnel scene (shortly after the escape) makes me want to check my house for leaks. Effects that call for a wall of sound – particularly explosions – really deliver now. I can’t vouch for what it would do in another space, but what it did in mine is awesome. Even my partner, who feels that home theater gear represents a strangely shaped black hole into which money disappears (and nothing returns), agrees that he wouldn’t go b

cwall99's picture

Given that my main home theater room does double-duty as our family room, and given that one side wall consists of a door-wall, a fireplace with a massive rock surround, and another door-wall, there's no place to put a side speaker except in the ceiling, and the other side wall is a low wall that shares a kitchen counter, and then a twelve-foot wide open space between our dining area and the family room, there is just no practical place to put the fifth and sixth speakers.

Now, my surround speakers are NHT 1.3As, and they have an inwardly angled front face, so they actually do a nice job creating a coherent rear sound-field.

Since my Pioneer Elite TXS82-VSX (or whatever it's called - great receiver, stupid name) supports re-configuring the unused channels, and since my B&W mains also support it, I use the two extra channels of amplification to bi-amp my front mains, and since I do like to listen to a lot of two-channel music, especially on vinyl, those extra two channels of amplification don't go unused.