What’s the difference between a home theater system and surround sound?

All home theater systems include surround sound, but not all surround sound setups are found in home theaters

Modern apartment with hidden surround sound system
(Image credit: LLI Design )

What’s the difference between a home theater system and surround sound? The two are quite often used synonymously but are, in reality, subtly different.

The short answer is that a home theater system refers to the complete package: TV, DVD/Blu-Ray player, and — yes — surround sound speakers. In other words, all home theater systems have surround sound, but the best surround sound systems aren't always found in home theaters.

Here’s the longer answer…

What is surround sound?

Surround sound is, as the name suggests, when audio comes from multiple sources to immerse you in whatever you’re listening to at the time. That can be music, but it really comes into its own in TV, movies and games that are designed with surround sound in mind, because it allows the audio to be directed from the direction of the on-screen action.

For TVs, surround sound systems come in various configurations, with the most common being 5.1 and 7.1. The figures refer to the number of speakers attached, with the digit after the decimal point denoting subwoofers for bass. The remaining speakers are dotted around the viewer to surround them with audio from all sides. So is 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound better? Generally the higher the number the better, but it’s not always quite as clear-cut as that. 

What is a home theater system?

The home theater, meanwhile, is a loosely defined catch-all term that refers to the tech combined to recreate the magic of a movie theater in your own home. Some people go all in with cinema-style seating and popcorn machines, but when we’re specifically talking about home theater systems, it’s really about recreating the conditions to output the movie itself.

That means that, in 2022, your average home theater system will consist of a large 4K TV screen (or one of the best projectors if you want to go bigger), a 4K Blu-Ray player and, yes, enough speakers for an immersive surround sound experience.

As mentioned previously, the most common surround sound systems tend to be 5.1, but you can add plenty more speakers if you like, with complex setups including ten or more speakers, with some ceiling mounted for overhead audio to make the most of movies encoded with the likes of Dolby Atmos. 

Such systems require time, patience, know-how and money, of course, and most casual movie lovers will instead opt for one of the many home-theater-in-a-box solutions that bundle the speakers, subwoofer and amp in one handy package. This is less flexible but usually cheaper, easier to set up and with each component guaranteed to play nicely with each other.

What’s the difference between a home theater system and surround sound?

Now that that’s clear, you can start building your home theater system with the right surround sound system. 

So, to recap, home theater systems contain surround sound, and some would say it’s the main part of the experience. 

But the term refers to far more than just the audio, covering the screen or projector and movie player of choice, be that a DVD player, 4K Blu Ray box or simply Netflix streamed via the TV’s own software. 

Surround sound, meanwhile is just the speaker setup alone, and can even apply to headphone audio. 

Freelance contributor Alan has been writing about tech for over a decade, covering phones, drones and everything in between. Previously Deputy Editor of tech site Alphr, his words are found all over the web and in the occasional magazine too. He often writes for T3 and Tom's Guide. When not weighing up the pros and cons of the latest smartwatch, you'll probably find him tackling his ever-growing games backlog. Or, more likely, playing Spelunky for the millionth time.