Is 5.1 Obsolete?

First there was mono. Then there was stereo. And then things got complicated. Surround sound has been a restless medium ever since it first snuck into movie theaters and home theaters. Encoding methods and formats have proliferated but standards have been elusive. Where multiplexes are concerned, that doesn't affect the consumer much. Most moviegoers are content to leave the technical details to the theater owners (except our readers, of course). But at home, where consumers are investing their own money in the home theater experience, many would like to have a fixed idea of what surround sound is at heart, something as close as possible to a stable minimum standard. And until now that standard has been 5.1. But in the dawning age of Dolby Atmos, is 5.1 obsolete?

And if so, what is the future minimum configuration of a surround speaker system: 5.1.2? 7.2.4? Something in between? Consumers may well feel confused, even betrayed: Have they made my system obsolete?

My first words of advice are: Chill out. If your system sounded great last night, it will still sound great this morning.

It's not as if this is the first time 5.1 has been challenged. It's actually rather hard to find a five-channel receiver except at the bottom of the line. Seven-channel receivers are the norm. But none of the uses of those extra two channels is especially critical. A surround system worthy of the name must have two front channels, a center channel, two surrounds, and (unless you're running full-range speakers with a muscle amp) at least one subwoofer. It can do without back-surrounds, processing-based height or width channels, biamplification of the front channels, or a pair of second-zone speakers, though some will find at least one of those uses compelling, and buyers of nine- or eleven-channel receivers can have two or more. But these are extensions of 5.1, not replacements.

When back-surround channels made their debut in THX Surround EX—now known as Dolby Digital EX and rivaled by DTS-ES—there was serious soul searching over whether 7.1 was the new 5.1. The buzz was serious enough to induce receiver manufacturers to replace most of their five-channel models with seven-channel models. But then other uses for the extra channels reared their heads, suggesting that back-surrounds were never that significant in the first place. And so 5.1 has endured as the minimum configuration, the closest home surround sound has had to a stable standard.

I'm willing to defend the proposition that Dolby Atmos has changed all that. That it is different from all of the insubstantial ways 5.1 has been augmented up to now. That it represents a true step forward. First, it moves surround sound, in theaters and in homes, from channel-based mixing to object-oriented mixing, allowing the mixer to position sounds anywhere in a 360-degree bowl-shaped soundfield, not limiting them to specific speaker positions or combinations thereof within a flat horizontal plane. Second, whereas Dolby Pro Logic IIz and other processing-based height modes derive height effects from the front channels, Atmos legitimizes height effects by backing them up with real data (in addition to providing a new and better processing-based mode for non-Atmos signals).

But what is the best way to implement Atmos in the home? Is there a standard Atmos-savvy home speaker configuration to replace 5.1? In theaters, Atmos can function with as many as 128 channels and 64 speaker feeds. In the home, Atmos can support up to 24 speakers on the floor and 10 ceiling speakers (or 10 sets of upward-firing drivers built into the tops of Atmos-enabled speakers). But if you thought it was hard to convince the rest of the household that a 5.1 speaker configuration is better than stereo, 24.1.10 might arch that eyebrow even higher.

You might be forgiven for giving up on Atmos and falling back on 5.1, just as some give up on 5.1 and fall back on 2.0 (many people who buy surround receivers hook them up to two speakers). But Dolby has an alternative suggestion: a 5.1.4 configuration with five on the floor and four overhead. I would nudge that to 5.2.4, adding a second subwoofer to achieve more even bass coverage. If you don't want to do ceiling speakers, place Atmos-enabled speakers with upward-firing drivers in the four corners of the room, add center and sub, and you're done. That is the way my system will work. Someday.

Why not now? Well, I like my current speakers, and I'm not alone in that. But I do have a plan. Atmos-enabled speakers are the right solution, the most minimally invasive solution, for my busy multi-purpose listening room, which is also my livingroom and home office. But I simply haven't reviewed enough of them to designate a successor to my much-loved Paradigm Reference Studio 20 v4s. Whatever I ultimately choose will have to sound every bit as good, and as reliably neutral, as my aging Paradigms. And they'll have to present about the same load to receivers—enough to challenge, but not overwhelm, budget receivers, since I review the full spectrum from low end to high end.

So far I've reviewed only one Atmos-enabled speaker, the Pioneer SP-EBS73-LR ($750/pair), and one Atmos-compatible receiver, the Pioneer SC-89 ($3,000). They were superb, but as romantic as it may be to marry your high school sweetheart, I'd like to play the field a while longer. My credibility as a critic hinges on my future Atmos-hip system and I owe it to my readers, as well as myself, to choose only after due consideration. Actually, as terrifying as it is, it will also give me a chance to listen to surround sound in a truly new way.

A tangential issue for those upgrading to Atmos is another prospective upgrade, from 1080p displays to Ultra HD. This is a sticky wicket, because while an increasing number of receivers handle both Atmos and UHD, not all of them support the HDCP 2.2 digital rights management required by some UHD signal sources (the exceptions are a handful of Sony, Onkyo, and Integra models). It seems sensible to wait till you can have Atmos, UHD, HDCP 2.2, and the kind of power and features you want in a receiver all in one package. So while you wait for receivers to catch up to HDCP 2.2, it would expedient to continue living with 5.1. There's also the possibility of DTS wiggling in with an Atmos equivalent, its own object-oriented surround format for the home. I can't imagine DTS not doing this. It's probably a question of when, not if.

Once these issues work themselves out—would that be the moment when your 5.1 system becomes obsolete? Not necessarily. I'll borrow a metaphor from the video side: UHDTV at its best can looks spectacular, but HDTV is pretty darned good too, and those with classic Pioneer Kuro or Panasonic plasma displays may not be eager to dump them before their usable lifetimes are up. Also, my colleague Tom Norton is raising questions about whether current UHD displays are fully baked in terms of color gamut and color bit depth. Likewise, if your 5.1 (or 7.1) system is based on great speakers, great amps, and they get along well, and they're giving you daily pleasure—well, then Atmos is an adventure you may have someday. It's something to look forward to, but the timing is up to you.

Going from analog NTSC to digital HDTV was a giant step forward. But going from HDTV to UHDTV is more of an incremental improvement (for all but the largest displays). Likewise, going from 2.0 to 5.1 was a huge step, just as going from mono to stereo was generations ago. But the improvements Atmos offers over 5.1 are more subtle ones. In fact, inside any Atmos system are the guts of a 5.1 system. Most of the fundamental truths of surround sound are present in a 5.1 system: a center channel to anchor dialogue, a soundfield that reaches to the four corners of the room, a subwoofer to firm up bass. What Atmos gives you is a little more information overhead, a dimensional expansion.

Someday everyone who's serious about surround sound will have a system that supports Dolby Atmos in some form (and whatever DTS comes up with to compete with it). But being serious about your system also means selecting just the right components from a broad range of Atmos products, which barely exists right now. The smart money will wait. But for those ready and willing to take the plunge, the next few years are definitely going to be fun!

Audio Editor Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater: A Guide to Video and Audio Systems, now available in both print and Kindle editions.

HdFan77's picture

As a long time reader of Stereo Review and Sound and Vision i like revolutionary innovations. 3-D sound is one of them. The question is: how to implement it in the room with cathedral ceiling? It looks like Dolby Atmos is out of question. Auro-3D would work, but will it survive? DTS:X is still a mystery, at least till March 2015.
Is there any hope on the horizon for poor cathedral ceiling?

cme4brain's picture

The entertainment electronics industry has to sell you something or die. First it was flat screen 720p over 480i CRT- OK! Then it was 1080p flat over 720- OK! Then larger 1080 flat- OK! Then curved 1080- ??OK? Then 4K over 1080- ?? First 5.1 over stereo- OK! then 7.1 over 5.1- ??OK? Then 5.2 over 7.1- ??OK? Then "front height speakers" for 9.1 or 11.1- ??OK?? Now Atmos or Auro-3D over 7.2? Nope, be smart, by what you like and keep it.

David Vaughn's picture
HdFan77, I have a feature I'm working on regarding cathedral ceilings and there are options available. I went "all in" with mine, but I can't reveal what I did yet :) Stay tuned!
Bosshog7_2000's picture

No way is 5.1 dead. There's no doubt that Atmos is awesome but the bottom line is that most homes don't even have 5.1 let along 7.1 or more. Most people make do with TV sound bars (shudders) and even the audiophiles amongst us have to appease wives who rarely support a 5.1 speaker configuration let alone any greater. You may not be able to buy a 5.1 receiver anymore, but of all the 7.1/9.1 receivers sold you would be hard pressed to see many of those being utilized for much more than 5.1 (at best).

Atmos will be relegated to movie theaters and the well heeled minority who can afford dedicated home theater rooms.

cme4brain's picture

You are absolutely correct. Atmos is a must sell for the electronics industry to sell equipment. The Audioholics and other sites query found that most home theater owners were LUCKY to have a 5.1 system, moreover a 7.1 or Atmos. Installing speakers in the ceiling for Atmos is the single most difficult location in a pre-made house to install (forcing reflected sound). I hardily agree, Atmos is for theaters.

luka3rd's picture

No marketing, Atmos or whatever name they come up tomorrow, 7.1, 9.1, 11.1 can make obsolete what's enough!
You can't ebe hear them Without special effects for those redundant channels.
Like 4k TV... It's ok, if TV is larger than 80"... So, I guess, more than 5.1 is also ok if room i larger than 10m by 10m...

cme4brain's picture

I guess S&V has to write about something, but 5.1 isn't going anywhere. Most homes are lucky to have 5.1, so to spend MORE $$$ on a further "fad" upgrade of ATMOS won't be happening. I predict it will be a 3-D flash in the pan. UHDTV is also a coming fad, with the average 12 foot viewing distance in a US home requiring a UHDTV screen size of 90+ inches or more to see the increased resolution. Most audiophiles with 5.1 or 7.1 just spent $$ putting acoustic treatments on the ceiling, now they have to tear that down to reflect ATMOS sound or cut holes in it for another speaker for what is said on Audioholics as not that great an improvement in sound, especially if you don't sit in a very tight sweet spot? Nope, ain't worried about 5.1.

mvision7m1's picture

I haven’t yet heard a Dolby Atmos soundtrack however I very highly doubt 5.1 is dead on the mere arrival of Atmos. Atmos is in the very early stages of being integrated into current electronics and even once most equipment has Atmos capability how many speakers is the average consumer expected to have around their compromised entertainment space? Too few people have dedicated theater rooms and even some that do have a limit as to how many speakers they either can afford or are willing to spend money on. I mean, how far is it going to go? In ten years is there going to be a new system asking you to have twenty, thirty or fifty speakers for triple Atmos or whatever it’ll be called by then? For the average consumer there has to be a point where enough is enough. 5.1, 7.1, 11.1 or even 11.2 etc. C’mon. I’m glad to have the 5.1 set up I currently have and have had for years. I’m not against possibly going to 7.1 or 7.2 but even an 11 channel set up (which my pre-pro is capable of) is simply too much for me not to mention the lack of 11.1 channel soundtracks out there etc. Cool tech but to me it’s pretty much “keep it in the theaters”. If I want the thrill of literal surround sound I’ll spring for the Atmos movie ticket or put on headphones and save thousands of my heard earned dollars. I think the technology itself is cool but I think it’s just silly to suggest that just because it’s landed, suddenly 5.1 is dead. Nonsense and a silly question in my opinion.

DarenG's picture

My new house has a dedicated home theater room that I have not built out yet. It came with pre-wired 5.1 ceiling configuration. Now that Atmos has hit I plan on using those as the ceiling speakers and putting the "normal" speakers in more traditional locations. My only hesitation now is do I wait for receivers that have both Atmos and the DTS competition before I spend big money on a new receiver. Either way timing couldn't be better because it saved me from investing in older tech and having buyers remorse later.

blackcat's picture

Can three competing formats coexist together?

auro3d isn't a catchy format and its aimed for rich people not all common lower class.

dtsX well its not out as of yet and they and the studios have to prove it with CONTENT as format can only survive on CONTENT no CONTENT = no Buy.

atmos and the few studios releasing CONTENT is shockingly poor over the past few months and = no buy as it seem the studios are pulling a fast one on the consumer. Yeah get the consumer to spend out thousands for the (New AVR) where consumer has only had a "new AVR" for as little as 2 years and should at least last him, 10 or more years.

I bet most cinemas that spent out on atmos and some in the UK, don't often get atmos soundtracks to show to the public and even when they do, its a short lived cinema going experience were it will only play for 2 weeks, 4 weeks if its lucky its the film is any good.

atmos in the afterlife at home should be getting all the +200 over titles on bluay,, in fact there should be at leat 240 or so to pick and chose form now not 11 silly titles most of which I wouldn't buy if it was cheap yesterday VHS rental for £1.50p.

Also its a SOUND FORMAT WAR. Hasn't anyone here learned? Betamax vs VHS / HD-DVD vs bluray. I guess not.

I won't be touching any of these formats for at least 3 years until two are out of the game and one is standing and providing CONTENT by the dozens each month (not every few or so months with atmos) I hope atmos and the studios get their act-together as its a real shame with it at present.

Also the studios seem to care about promoting/releasing atmos for cinema, but I have given the scoop on that side. I needn't have to go to a cinema and have since stopped going now for over 2 years. I need only look at what film is showing and seen it many times now only has cinema life of 2 weeks at minimum 4 weeks if its lucky then its out of atmos and into tiny boothless cinema kinder like a home cinema in FACT very alike a home cinema and that is another reason why I have stopped going.

As for this nonsense about 5.1. 5.1 will be around for many more decades. There are literally millions of 5.1 title to pick and chose from WORLDWIDE!!!

Some films don't often get atmos mixed like Interstellar, that would have looked like it would have?

The flaw I see with atmos is lack of channels and no I'm not trying to be funny.

The stage channels haven't been updated in decades. Dolby labs axed Le Re on 70mm in mid 1970's in favor of two non directional channels for sub bass, STAR WARS, Close Encounters of the third Kind, Then a year later they change it again in favor of one sub bass channel and last two or single mono surround can now have stereo surrounds with directional cues around the auditorium. SUPERMAN THE MOVIE.

SDDS bring back Le Re and I still haven't heard an SDDS 8channel with 5 screen. :(

SDDS stopped mixing 8ch around 2007, Surf's Up.

Now Dolby labs are trying stick back 5 screen or Le Re as an optional WTF make up their minds for Christ sakes!

Still the 5 channel across the front isn't enough.

It needs at least

Upper height stage channels placed above the middle common stage channels and below stage underneath middle common stage channels.

L Le C Re R

L Le C Re R

L Le C Re R

If you watch what is happening on screen doesn't matter if its 23" tv. I can see it. I seen it for years at the cinema until one day many years ago.

Ever watched ALIENS and the drop ship scene? I'm sure many hare have ALIENS and brag about how many times you've watch it.

Also need upper and lower corner surrounds on sidewalls and back wall as the current layout isn't enough. Oh why not cover the whole room in bass speakers middle range and tweeters or coaxial speakers, with metal grid floor with speakers below us.

Yes below surround might have been appreciated with atmos when I spent twice to see STAR TREK into darkness same day. I wanted to listen in two areas of the cinema to suss it out for myself.

Softer sounds was okay sheer loud DEAFNESS was FAILED sound as it didn't sound life like as Dolby labs have been bragging with its advertisements. It sounds like more of the same thing we have all heard before. 1990's got offensively loud with Dolby SR-D on some rubbish Micheal Bay films, too much of earache! Its the very few that wasn't over-loud for long periods that sounded better and enjoyable.

When it rains were does it mostly sound when outdoors. On the ground I need not have to know this. When in doors and in the attic its heard above on the outside of the roof in defused way on the inside and sounds a little muffled as well.

When standing in the middle of open space field I bet mixers in hollywood, will still use rain effects on overhead speakers and since he laws apply, rain can't really be heard 2 feet or 50 feet above us. Not until that or those rain drops have landed and produce a sound. I can do this with single drop or water on the kitchen floor and I hear BELOW SURROUND. I even hear BELOW SURROUND with my own footsteps! Sorry hollyAtmoswood mixers you got a bit of flawed format improve it and I might give up my listening time to listen to fabricated sound mixing.

chilipalm's picture

Is live TV being broadcast in 7.1 or something? I'm pretty sure it's still 5.1.

Disbeliever's picture

In fact I prefer 5.0 for both Surround Sound & HT. No subs for me my front floorstanding speakers have adequate bass

PeterC's picture

Hi Mark
I am in the same boat as you with respect to upgrading to Atmos.
I have heard a full Atmos system 5.2.4 with 4 ceiling speakers and was very impressed.
I have also heard a system with atmos enabled speakers all around (Definitive Technology) and was impressed but not quite as much.
One of thing that I did notice while listening is that you don't have to listen at ear splitting levels to get the full effect of the height channels.
I also found that the Dolby surround feature worked well in both movies and music.
I will however be waiting to buy until HDCP2.2 is more available and the DTS flavour is out.
For now I will be happy with my Kuro 60" and my pre HDMI Pioneer Elite 7.1 Receiver.
Thanks for the great Article.

PeterC's picture

Further to my comment above. In your review of the Pioneer Elite SC-89 you mentioned that none of the auto setup and room correction programs (except for the MCACC pro) are compatible with with Dolby Atmos. Have you heard any more from the Audyssey or other system people if they are working on this? Would this be a firmware upgrade or is this something else that we should be waiting to happen?

Mark Fleischmann's picture
I did pose your question to Audyssey but have not received an answer. My guess is that the company is examining the problem but is not ready to make an announcement yet.
dnoonie's picture

5.1 not dead by any means.

I have a dedicated HT room and I have space for 5.1, no problem, but because of the placement of doorways 7.1 would be an issue, 5.1.4 would be an issue, 5.1.2 might work, 5.2.2 (rear sub, I already have two subs) might work.

I'll be trying the addition of front height channels with high quality component as part of my normal HT upgrade but by no means will I be making a major investment in the next 2 or 3 years. Things need to shake out with the height channels and I haven't even heard an Atmos demo that didn't sound like poo so...Why would I simply make an investment in something that questionable.

The reviews have been mostly favorable but I must hear a good demo before I'll even consider an Atmos upgrade. If I never hear a good demo, maybe in 3 or 4 years if I have some decent speakers and amps I can borrow I'll give it a shot, but that's a long shot.

Maybe this summer I'll seek out a good demo but for now I think it's premature to expect a good demo.

best wishes,