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I recently bought a Toshiba X500 laptop with decent speakers & sound card in it. I want to use headphones but im unsure if they also need to have the same audio channels as the sound card (5.1 in this case). Also The laptop itself only has the two standard sound ports - headphones and microphone, does 5.1 headphones require a special kind of connection?.

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5.1 means "five loudspeakers and one subwoofer". As such, you can only use 5.1 sound if you actually connect five loudspeakers and one subwoofer. If you use those five loudspeakers and one subwoofer and position them according to the manual around your listening position, you will be able to hear sounds from all around you ("surround sound").
However, any 5.1 capable soundcard is also able to support any lesser configuration, i.e. Stereo/"2.0". The quality of sound is not affected by that, but of course two loudspeakers/headphones will not be able to produce sound that "comes from behind".

To answer your question: Yes, you can just use your normal headphones or laptop speakers. However, they will work in stereo configuration and will not produce surround sound.

(One exception: There is at least one sound card (Creative X-Fi) that is able to simulate surround sound using stereo headphones and some fancy signal processing.)

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Yea, just to reiterate, headphones are a 2.0 system, 2 channels, 0 sub-woofers (also known as stereo). If you have a 5.1 system, you'd have 5 speakers and one sub-woofer. If you have a 7.1 system, you'd have 7 speakers and one sub-woofer. – Roy Rico Feb 24 '10 at 17:47

You can use regular stereo headphones with your 5.1 sound card, you will however, only get 2 channels of sound. If you are looking to get some 5.1 headphones, they will not use the same 3/4 in headphone jack your microphone and regular headphones use. They will likely use something like USB.

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Also, "5.1" headphones are something of an oxymoron, as headphones are intrinsically a two-speaker device. "Surround Sound" headphones use psychacoustic processing to give the illusion of having more speakers. On the other hand, for audio purists out there (like me) they are something of an anathema. – Fake Name Mar 10 '10 at 0:52

Not to derail, but there are some true 5.1 headsets out there, often aimed at gamers (since more channels allows you to hear sounds more directionally, which provides some extra immersion and advantage at times). Tritton makes a pair, and I believe Turtle Beach makes several. They're generally a bit bulkier than some headsets, because they house four speakers per earcup, but they allow you to listen to 5.1 channel audio sources without the need for a properly arranged set of 5.1 speakers. Sound quality isn't quite as good as a real 5.1 setup, but in my opinion it's a big step above 2.0 audio.

Relating to what heavyd said, there will also be audio available via the HDMI port on your laptop, assuming one exists. Not many portable headsets or speaker solutions use HDMI as an input source, but full-size systems often support it. So if you have a receiver or other device connected to a 5.1+ setup, HDMI (when available) is pretty much guaranteed to be the highest fidelity way to deliver an audio signal.

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