Which is Better for Stereo – 2.1 or 3.1 Setup?

Photo by Max 3.1 speaker setup by Vakhtbovych from Pexels

This is one of the most common question, and yet, the most confusing one. Those that ask this question always tie in ‘luscious’ mid range into the mix when asking about including the center speaker. The general thought process is that this will bring in more focus to the vocals than the regular 2.1 set up.

This couldn’t be farther from the truth. The addition of the center channel speaker and converting a good 2.1 system to 3.1 has its downsides:

  • Narrow sound stage: Most of the tracks designed for 2-channel stereo listening do a better job with sound staging than passing the same through a processor (in this case, an AVR) and creating a 3.1 sound. The vocals are dead centered, but the sound stage becomes narrow. Play these test tracks for some good A/B testing:
  • Messed up instrument separation: Including a center channel speaker and processing the sound to create a 3.1 listening experience, in most cases, messes up with the instrument separation. I’d say go full on 5.1 or 5.2, instead of 3.1 — multi-channel music listening works better in 5.1, 5.2 and more, instead of restricting it to an anemic sounding 3.1 setup. Your AVRs are designed to play better in 2-channel stereo or multi-channel surround. Why take a middle ground when it comes to music? Check these tracks in 2-channel, 3.1 and 5.1/5.2 and check the separation and sound stage for yourself:

In short, if you’re listening to stereo music, stick to 2.1 — just don’t engage the center channel if listening through your AVR. If you’re listening to multi-channel music, listen in 5.1 or 5.2 — anything more than that is an overkill for music.

Center speaker position: Let’s assume that you’ve a lovely AVR that produces great 3.1 music. If your center speaker is positioned below the tweeter level of the left and right speakers, this will drastically affect the sound stage too. The good thing is that this can be corrected by placing the center speaker in line with the right and left speakers. But, I wonder where your TV will be positioned if this is the case!?

Then, is 3.1 even a thing? Yes. For those that don’t have a 5.1/x.2 setup, a 3.1 can come in handy for watching movies – to bring forward the recessed dialogs and create a decent effects stage to enjoy the movie.

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