If you're like most people, when you think of a surround sound system, you think of big, clunky speakers that take up a lot of space. And while it's true that a good surround sound system requires multiple speakers, that doesn't mean they all have to be huge! One of the most important - and often overlooked - components of any surround sound setup is the center channel speaker. This little guy is responsible for delivering about 70% of the dialogue from movies and TV shows, so if you're not using one, you're missing out on a lot! Don't believe us? Just trust us on this one - we know what we're talking about.
In a multi-speaker setup, the center channel speaker is the one that faces the viewer. It sits between the right and left front speakers so that from the viewer's perspective, the sound appears to be coming directly from the screen.
5.1 and 7.1 surround sound systems both include, for full-frequency sound, a center channel speaker, two front channel speakers (left and right), two rear channel speakers (left and right), and, for low frequencies, a subwoofer. In the case of movies, the center channel carries the dialogue, and in the case of music, the lead vocals.
In stereo audio, the recorded sound is separated into two channels. Some sounds come from the right and some from the left, while dialogue or lead vocals are mixed into the two.
With the left and right channel speakers placed at the front of the room, this creates an audio "sweet spot", meaning that, in a spot equidistant from both speakers, the listener perceives the dialogue or lead vocals as coming from the phantom center spot in between the two speakers. This means that as you move right or left from that spot, you hear the audio also moving.
Surround sound fixes this problem by mixing the recorded sound into more channels, so that, instead of the dialogue/vocals being in a phantom center spot, it's in an actual center spot, carried by a dedicated center channel speaker.
A surround sound system does mean more speakers that you need to place around the room, however, there are some advantages to the system, and to a center channel in specific.
A surround sound system allows you to enjoy the sound of movies the way they were meant to be enjoyed, as an immersive experience. With the sound all around you, it can create the impression that you're a part of the scene. It also means more customization in your system to fit your particular preferences and, with a subwoofer, adds low frequency, which allows you to feel the vibrations sound creates.
With a center channel speaker, you're in control of its volume level, independently from the other speakers, so that, if the dialogues are too low, or too high in comparison to the rest of the sound, you can adjust it easily. It's also a more flexible experience for listeners/viewers. It does have a "sweet spot" but, even moving around the room, you'll still perceive the sound as coming from the center position of the room.
The center channel may be the most important and underrated speaker in a home theater surround sound system. It carries nearly 70% of all audio content at any given moment, plus the majority of dialogue/ vocals in movies. Whether or not you need it though, depends on what you're using the system for.
If, for example, you're setup is only for listening to music, it's probably not necessary. Most music is mixed in stereo, so lead vocals run through both, the left and the right speakers.
However, if you use your system to watch movies, it will make a world of difference. Most modern movies, as well as those that have been digitally remastered, are mixed in surround sound, so to enjoy them the way they were meant to be enjoyed, you need a center channel speaker.
Any well-designed full-frequency speaker should be able to perform the function of a center channel speaker, though ideally, you should look for a speaker with a "three-way design" with a vertically-aligned tweeter and midrange. This allows you're speaker to perform closer to a full-range speaker and also to radiate a more dispersed sound field, while also enabling the acoustic image to track accurately across the stage. Keep in mind that a horizontal speaker will make placement easier and, if possible, look for a speaker that central channel speaker that complements the rest of your sound system
You can place your center channel speaker on top of an entertainment center or a shelf either above or below your television screen, simply use a rubber doorstop or other non-abrasive, wedge-shaped objects to angle the speaker down or up towards the listener for the best sound quality and a better experience. Place it as close to the scene as you can, to create the illusion that the sound comes directly from the screen.
If you place it on top of furniture, make sure it's aligned flush with the front edge, never push it against the wall with surface space in front of it. This is so that the surface doesn't negatively impact the dynamics or the clarity of the sound waves.
If you don't use a TV screen, but rather a projector or projector screen, which is acoustically transparent, the best place for your center channel speaker is behind the screen, at ear height.
A center channel speaker ties together all the action across the front. It creates continuity and a sense of realism. Sound is an important part of the movie-watching experience, think of an explosion in an action movie, and the difference in the experience of you're able to hear it all around you. This is what a surround system provides, and a center channel speaker is a vital component of it.