WHAT ARE “CHANNELS” IN HOME AUDIO? HOW MANY DO I NEED FOR A KICKASS HOME THEATER?
Those new to home theater systems may have seen the term “channels,” or else strange combinations of numbers and dots like 3.1 or 5.1.4 when reading about building up their entertainment space. But what do these terms and numbers mean? We’ll explain, and give you some kickass recommendations for building up your perfect setup for movie night.
What is a channel?
A channel is a discrete stream of audio data encoded into your source material like a Blu-Ray or CD. Music is generally encoded with two channels, left and right. This is called stereo, and it’s a perfect example of how headphones or high-quality stereo setups (like our Klipsch Heritage speakers) operate. The left and right channels are playing completely separate audio signals which gives you a sense of wideness or panning effect in your music or movies. The newest blockbuster action movies will have many channels of data encoded into them to provide a spatial surround sound effect (assuming you’ve got the speakers to support each channel).
While usually used for music, you can still watch TV and movies through a stereo setup if you’re short on space or budget. Powered monitors like the R-50PM Powered Speakers are an excellent investment for those new to home entertainment. Because they don’t need to be connected to an audio video receiver (AVR), you just have to plug them into an electrical outlet for power, then to your TV or computer to complete the setup. If you’re watching a surround sound movie encoded with multiple channels, however, all that data will be downmixed to be able to play on your stereo (left and right) speakers. So you’ll hear everything you’re meant to, but you won’t have that sense of spatial audio or movement in your room.
If you want to achieve the surround sound effect, you’ll need more speakers to support more channels. You ever see those numbered sequences like 5.1? The “5” means that there are five drivers supporting five separate channels of audio. The “1” means that there is a dedicated low frequency channel supported by a subwoofer. This configuration would allow you to hear a front left, center, and front right audio as well as surround sound audio (left and right) for a more immersive experience. Let’s look at a classic 5.1 system with this R-800F 5.1 Home Theater System bundle.
This 5.1 system comes with five speakers with five drivers and one subwoofer, hence the 5.1 classification. Those five speakers include two R-800F floorstanding speakers (often called “towers” online), an R-30C center channel speaker, and a pair of R-40SA Dolby Atmos surround speakers. With this configuration, three speakers are placed to the front-left, center and front-right of your television. The front left and right speakers will reproduce the movies soundtrack or ambient sounds happening within the scene, while the center channel plays back the dialog being spoken by the person on screen. Lastly, two more speakers are placed to the immediate left and right of your listening position. These speakers are best for playing sounds happening off-screen, like a helicopter swooping in from behind, or perhaps rain and thunder effects to give you a more immersive movie experience.
But that still leaves the one in the 5.1 system. What does that stand for? The subwoofer! In this example bundle, the included R-121SW 12-inch subwoofer gives you those great, bassy lows – especially important for big action movies or suspenseful dramas.
Building up your system over time
You get a lot of power and depth from a classic 5.1 system, but there are even larger home theater configurations to explore. There’s a third digit that can be added to a home theater setup, like with our R-600F 7.1.4 Home Theater System bundle.
As we’ve learned, the first digit is how many non-subwoofer drivers are included in the setup. This particular bundle has seven speakers:
- Two R-600F floorstanding speakers
- One R-30C center channel speaker
- Four R-50M bookshelf speakers
These speakers would be placed all around your room with the two floorstanding speakers and the center channel in front, and four bookshelf speakers placed to your left and right throughout the room. Then of course you’ve got the dot-one part of the bundle – your R-121SW subwoofer! Gotta cover those deep tones. …so what’s the dot-four stand for?
The four in a 7.1.4 configuration means you’ve got four height channels! Dolby Atmos is a game changer in the home entertainment space. The bundle in this example comes with two pair (four total) R-40SA Dolby Atmos speakers, which are specifically designed to provide an overhead, 3D sound experience. You can learn more about this tech at Dolby’s website, but rest assured that Klipsch designs and engineers speakers like the R-40SA to provide the most realistic, spatial sound possible. By adding height to your home theater system, you will experience movies, TV, and even next-gen games with more detail and lifelike sound placement than you thought possible outside of a theater.
Dip your toes in the water or dive right in – just have fun!
Most people slowly build up their home theater systems over time. If you’re reading this article and just starting to learn about channels and audio configurations, you might only have space or budget for a stereo system, or perhaps a modest 3.0 beginner bundle (like this RP-800F II 3.0.0 home theater system featuring an Onkyo TX-NR6100 Receiver). That’s totally fine!
The great thing about Klipsch products is that they all play well together, and are well-known for being buildable as you grow into your home theater hobby. The online Klipsch community is incredibly supportive, and browsing forums and social media is a fantastic way to get inspiration and ideas for how to build up your system. Happiness is copper and black – it’s up to you just how fast you want to dive in.