Reader Questions: Which is better, Bookshelf or Surround Speakers in a 5.1 or 7.1 Audio System?

Revel Performa S30 Surround Speaker

One of our site’s readers, Lyle B. was looking to complete his 5.1 surround sound setup.  Lyle was wondering whether bookshelf speakers or surround speakers (typically triangle-shaped dipoles) would be a better fit for today’s Blu-ray audio mixes.  Lyle wrote:

I had a speaker manufactuer suggest that I use bookshelf rather than surround speakers for rear speakers if I was planning on spending ~$600/pr for rears.  He said that bookshelves of the same brand as my mains/center would do a better job [than] surrounds from either the same make or another speaker maker in a 5.1 system. That Blu-Ray was handling sound differently that once and bookshelves are now a good option for rears.  Any thoughts?

For many years, dipole surrounds were the speaker of choice for surround sound installations.  In fact, many speaker manufacturers only offered dipole speakers as their surround options.  In contrast to bookshelf (monopole) speakers, dipole surround speakers create a diffuse, ambient environment that made it difficult to localize where the sounds were coming from.  A rare few speaker manufacturers, most notably Revel, would make their dipole surround speakers capable of functioning in either dipole or monopole (regular speaker mode) so that you could have both options.

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The Revel S30 Surround Speaker had the option to set the speaker for either dipole or monopole mode.

Traditionally, dipole speakers sufficed because surround channels were really an afterthought in multichannel movie mixes.  They were all about ambiance and nothing more.  However, as your contact correctly noted, with Blu-ray, you now have the option of up to seven discreet channels of audio.  And that has changed how you should now be shopping for your speakers.

SVS’s new Prime Satellite Speakers are intended to serve as surround speakers to serve the discreet audio mixes found on today’s Blu-ray discs.

Consequently, many of the new movies released on Blu-ray now have discreet audio effects that have been specifically mixed for the surround channels.  To get the most from those mixes, you would want to now get a bookshelf (monopole) speaker as opposed to a dipole speaker.  If you haven’t noticed, speaker manufacturers who have traditionally had dipole speakers have now discontinued them and now only offer monopole/bookshelf speakers for their multichannel setups.

In my 7.1 home theater setup, I’ve chosen to go with discreet speakers and I’d recommend doing the same thing: choose discreet bookshelf speakers for surrounds in your setup.

I do want to note, however, that there may be instances where bookshelf speakers are going to be impossible to use for surrounds.  If that’s the case in your installation then I would like to suggest two alternative options for you to consider:

First, you may want to consider dipole speakers.  “Wait!” you might say, “Didn’t you just tell me to look at monopole speakers?”  Yes, but if you can’t make them work then dipoles are a good secondary option.  Most dipole speakers are made to hang on a wall and will be more discreet than bookshelf/monopole speakers.

A second option is to consider in-ceiling speakers.  You’ll need to be very careful with placement.  If they are directly overhead, they may not work well, but if you can get them to be about 7 or 8 feet away from the primary listening position, in-ceiling speakers can work quite well in a multichannel home theater environment.

At the end of the day, building a multichannel audio and home theater setup is a great experience and tons of fun.  Good luck with your setup!