Do you really need a centre channel speaker in your surround sound setup?

April 16, 2018
Do you really need a centre channel speaker in your surround sound setup?
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Tips on buying centre channel speakerThere was a time when only two speakers would suffice to produce a satisfying listening experience. This still is the case if you're only listening to music. However, most of use our speakers for more than music listening, don't we?

While stereo systems do find a spot in today's entertainment systems, over the last few years the trend has moved towards multichannel surround sound systems that work both for music listening as well as movie watching. Today, there is a huge emphasis on home theatre systems that require support for new audio formats, receivers, codecs & additional speakers to recreate a movie-theatre-style surround sound experience at home.

We're going to cut to the chase & tell you that a dedicated centre channel speaker in your surround sound is imperative, especially for those movie & TV show binge-watching sessions. Here, we aim to give you a well-rounded view on why you need a centre channel speaker along with key tips on choosing one for your surround sound system.

Center Channel vs. Stereo Systems - Understanding the difference

Stereo audio systems were initially designed as a format that distributes recorded sound into two separate channels, with left & right channel speakers placed in front of the room. Although some sounds emanate from the left & right channel speakers - creating a stereo sound-stage - the main vocals or dialogue are produced by mixing those sounds into both the left & right channel speakers.

As the vocals are placed in both the left & right channels, they appear to emanate from a phantom centre spot between the stereo speakers (L+R). In simple words, in a stereo setup, there is no separate dedicated centre channel. Hence, there is no way to control the position or the volume level of the centre channel vocals independently from the left & right channels.

What does a centre channel speaker do?

In a true surround sound setup, there are a minimum of 5.1 channels. A conventional surround sound system includes the following; front L/R, surround L/R, a centre channel speaker & a subwoofer (.1).

What does a centre channel speaker do?
In modern surround sound encoding formats, like Dolby & DTS, sounds are mixed into each of those channels - including those specifically directed to a centre channel. This encoding is available on DVDs, Blu-ray Discs, & many streaming & broadcast content. As of result of how audio is mixed for a surround sound setup, instead of having the vocals/dialogue, placed in a phantom centre spot as a result of the same sound coming from both the left & right front channels, the main dialogue & vocals are placed in the centre channel. Due to this unique placement of sound, the centre channel requires its own speaker.

Given that the centre channel is separated from the left & right front channels, its volume level can be changed without affecting the volume levels of the left & right front channels. You can use any speaker (apart from a subwoofer obviously) as your centre channel. However, ideally, you should use a speaker that has a horizontal orientation, rather than a vertical one. A horizontally-designed centre channel speaker can be easily placed above or below a TV or video projection screen. This aids in the optimum localization of sound.

What to look for when choosing a centre channel speaker?

  • When adding a centre channel speaker to an existing speaker setup, aim to go with the same brand, series & model.
  • If that is not possible, look for similar mid-range & high-end frequency response as your left & right speakers. This is done for "timbre-matching" - to ensure that the speakers don't sound different in comparison to each other. Also, ensure ensure to keep an eye on the impedance of the speakers.
  • If you are unable to find a similar sounding speaker, use the equalizer in your AVR to tweak & get a tonal balance that sounds close to the other speakers in comparison.
  • Your best bet is to choose or buy a surround sound speaker system that is from the same brand, series, or manufacturer.
  • For optimal centre channel placement, install the speaker at an equal distance between the front left & right channel speakers.

optimal centre channel placement

We hope this blog-cum-guide has helped you clear your doubts about the need for a dedicated centre channel speaker in a surround sound system. If you're passionate about watching movies as they are intended to be experienced, we would recommend opting for a sound system with a dedicated, tonally-matched centre channel speaker.

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