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Why a Center Channel Speaker is Needed in Surround Sound

Why is the center channel speaker important?

The current emphasis on home theater surround sound requires new audio formats, receivers, and more speakers to produce a home theater sound experience. One of the main changes in home theater from stereo to surround sound is the need for dedicated center channel speakers.

Center and Stereo Channels

Lifewire / Alex Dos Diaz

Stereo audio was originally designed to split the recorded sound into two channels (that’s what the term “stereo” means), with left and right speakers facing the room. While some sound comes exclusively from the left or right channel speakers, vocals or dialogue are mixed on both speakers.

As the sound mixes away from the left and right channels, an equidistant “sweet spot” is created between the left and right speakers. This gives listeners the illusion that the vocals are coming from a ghostly midpoint between the left and right channel speakers.

Stereo system with record player

Getty Images, Claro Fausto Cortes/EyeEm, 969624404

While this is an efficient way of presenting the human voice, as you move the listening position to the left or right from the sweet spot, even the special left and right sounds will remain in the relative position determined by the left channel speaker. will move (or should move) with you.

You can also hear this effect through the balance control of a stereo receiver or amplifier. If you turn the balance knob left or right, you will hear the sound change position accordingly.

So in a traditional stereo setup, you cannot control the position or level (volume) of the center channel vocal independently of the left and right channels, since the vocals come from the left and right channels.

Center Channel and Surround Sound

Surround sound provides an effective solution to the center channel problem of two-channel stereo listening.

Unlike stereo, in a true surround sound setup, there are at least 5.1 channels, and the speaker assignments are as follows: Front L/R, Surround L/R, Subwoofer (.1), and Dedicated Center. Surround sound formats such as Dolby and DTS present the sound mixed in each channel, including the sound dedicated to the center channel. This encoding is available on DVDs, Blu-ray/Ultra HD Blu-ray Discs, and some broadcast and streaming content.

Example of a Home Theater Speaker System

N_Design – Digital Vision Vectors – Getty Images

Because of the way surround mixes sounds, the voice/dialogue is not placed at the phantom center point, but in a special center channel. Due to this location, the center channel needs its own speaker.

While the added center speaker creates some confusion, there are clear advantages.

  • change volume: Since the center channel is separated from the front left and right channels, the volume level of the front left and right channels can be changed without changing the volume level of the front left and right channels. This is useful when compensating for dialogue or vocals that are too soft or loud in music or movie soundtracks, as you can adjust the volume output of the center channel speaker independently of the other speakers.
  • flexibility: While surround sound has its own “sweet spot,” it offers a more flexible listening experience. As you move the listening position from left to right, it’s best to sit in the surround sound sweet spot, but the sound/dialogue still seems to come from your center (albeit at an angle to the center of the sweet spot). When walking around the room, if a person speaks or sings in that position, it’s more like a voice in the real world.

Surround sound without center channel speaker

If you don’t have (or don’t want to have) center channel speakers in your surround sound setup, you can “tell” your home theater receiver that you don’t have one via the speaker setup options.

Using this option causes the receiver to “duplicate” the center channel sound to the front left and right speakers, as in a stereo setup. As such, the center channel has no dedicated center anchor and is subject to the same limitations described for vocals/dialogue in a stereo setup. You cannot adjust the volume of the center channel independently of the front left and right channels.

Appearance of the center channel speaker

You can use any speaker (except the subwoofer) for your center channel, but ideally you’ll use speakers with a horizontal cabinet design, rather than vertical or square ones, as in the Aperion Audio example below.

The reason for this is not so much technology as it is aesthetics. A horizontally designed center channel speaker makes it easier to place above or below a TV or video projection screen.

Aperion Audio Verus III Center Channel Speaker

Audio from Aperion

What else should I pay attention to with the center channel speakers?

If you’re adding a center channel speaker to an existing speaker setup, try to use the same brand and similar mid-range response as your main left and right speakers.

This is because the entire left, center, and right channel sound field should sound the same to your ears. This is called “ring matching”.

If you can’t get a center channel speaker with similar characteristics to the front left and right speakers, and if your home theater receiver has an automatic speaker setup system, you can use the equalization function to compensate.

Another option you can try is to buy a speaker system that includes the full speaker mix: front left/right, surround left/right, subwoofer, and center channel.

it boils down to

If you’re upgrading from two-channel stereo to a full home theater surround setup, it’s up to you whether to use a center channel speaker or not, but here are the key things to consider:

  • audio anchor: The center channel speaker provides a specific anchor point for dialogue and vocals.
  • Adjust volume independently: The volume of the center channel speaker can be adjusted independently of the other speakers in the system, giving you more flexibility in balancing the overall sound of the system.
  • Buy speakers that complement other speakers: When looking for a center channel speaker, consider speakers with similar sound characteristics to the front left and right speakers.
  • Consider a horizontal speaker: For optimal center channel placement, consider a horizontal layout that can be placed above or below the TV or projection screen, and ideally placed at the same distance between the front left and right speakers.

Check out our recommendations for center channel speakers.

Content

Why a Center Channel Speaker is Needed in Surround Sound

Why a center channel speaker is important

Today’s emphasis on home theater surround sound requires new audio formats, receivers, and more speakers to produce the movie theater sound experience at home. One of the key changes in moving from stereo to home theater surround sound is the need for a dedicated center channel speaker.

Center Channel and Stereo

Lifewire / Alex Dos Diaz 
Stereo audio was originally designed to separate recorded sound into two channels (that is what the term “stereo” means), with left and right channel speakers placed in front of the room. Although some sounds come specifically from the left or right channel speakers, principle vocals or dialog are mixed into both speakers.

With the vocals mixed to come out of both the left and right channels, a “sweet spot” is created that is equidistant between the left and right channel speakers. This gives the listener the illusion that the vocals are coming from a phantom center spot between left and right channel speakers.

Getty images, Claro Fausto Cortes/EyeEm, 969624404
Although this is an effective way to present vocals, as you move the listening position from the sweet spot to either the left or right, even though the dedicated left and right sounds stay in their relative positions dictated by the left and right channel speaker, the position of the vocals will (or should) move with you.

You can also hear this effect by using the stereo receiver or amplifier’s balance control. As you dial the balance control to the left or right, you can hear the vocals change position accordingly.

As a result, in a traditional stereo setup, since the vocals are coming from both the left and right channels, you can’t control the position or level (volume) of the center channel vocals independently from the left and right channels.

Center Channel and Surround Sound

Surround sound provides an effective solution to the center channel problem posed by two-channel stereo listening.

Unlike stereo, in a true surround sound setup, there is a minimum of 5.1 channels with speakers allocated as follows: front L/R, surround L/R, subwoofer (.1), and dedicated center. Surround sound formats, such as Dolby and DTS, feature sounds that are mixed into each of those channels, including sounds specifically directed to a center channel. This encoding is provided on DVDs, Blu-ray/Ultra HD Blu-ray Discs, and some streaming and broadcast content.

N_Design – Digital Vision Vectors – Getty Images
As a result of how sounds are mixed for surround sound, instead of having the vocals/dialog placed in a phantom center spot, it is placed in a dedicated center channel. Due to this placement, the center channel requires its own speaker.

Although the added center speaker results in a little more clutter, there are distinct advantages.

Changing volume levels: Since the center channel is separated from the left and right front channels, its volume level can be changed without changing the volume levels of the left and right front channels. This comes in handy when compensating for dialog/vocals that are too low or too high in a music or movie soundtrack, as you can adjust the volume coming out of the center channel speaker independent from the rest of the speakers.
Flexibility: Although surround sound has its own “sweet spot,” it provides a more flexible listening experience. While sitting in the surround sound sweet spot is desirable, as you move your listening position from left to right, the vocals/dialog will still appear to come from its center position (although at an angle off-center from the sweet spot). This is more like it would sound in the real world if a person was talking or singing in that position while you move around the room.
Surround Sound With No Center Channel Speaker

If you don’t have (or don’t want to have) a center channel speaker in a surround sound setup, it’s possible to “tell” your home theater receiver via its speaker setup options that you don’t have one.

If you use that option, what happens is that the receiver “folds” what would be the center channel sound into the left and right front main speakers, just as it would in a stereo setup. As a result, the center channel doesn’t have a dedicated center anchor spot and succumbs to the same limitations described for vocals/dialog in stereo setups. You wouldn’t be able to adjust the center channel volume level independent of the left and right front channel channels.

What a Center Channel Speaker Looks Like

You can use any speaker (except a subwoofer) for your center channel, but ideally, you’d use a speaker that has a horizontal, rather than vertical, or square, cabinet design, such as the example shown below from Aperion Audio.

The reason for this is not so much technical, but aesthetic. A horizontally-designed center channel speaker can be more easily placed above or below a TV or video projection screen.

Aperion Audio What Else to Look for in a Center Channel Speaker

If you are adding a center channel speaker to an existing speaker setup, try to go with the same brand, and similar mid-range and high-end frequency response capability, as your main left and right speakers.

The reason for this is that the entire left, center, right channel sound-field should sound the same to your ear. This is referred to as “timbre-matching.”

If you are unable to obtain a center channel speaker with similar characteristics of your left and right front channel speakers, if your home theater receiver has an automatic speaker setup system, it may be able to compensate using its equalization capabilities.

Another option that you can try is if you are putting together a basic home theater setup from scratch, buy a speaker system that includes the entire speaker mix—front left/right, surround left/right, subwoofer, and the center channel.

The Bottom Line

If you are upgrading from two-channel stereo to a full home theater surround sound setup, whether you use a center channel speaker is up to you, but here are the main things to consider:

Audio anchor point: A center channel speaker provides a specific anchor location for dialog and vocals.
Independently adjust volume: The volume level of a center channel speaker can be adjusted independently of the other speakers in a system, providing more flexibility in balancing the total sound of the system.
Get a speaker that complements your other speakers: When shopping for a center channel speaker, consider one that has similar sonic characteristics to that of your left and right front main speakers.
Consider a horizontal speaker: To facilitate optimal center channel placement, consider one that has a horizontal design so that it can be placed above or below a TV or projection screen and ideally positioned at an equal distance between the front left and right channel speakers.
Check out our suggestions for Center Channel Speakers.

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Tài Chính Kinh Doanh

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