Adding a center channel to your system? Do you really need it?

Week of June 27, 2004

Q: I don’t have a center channel speaker for my surround sound system and I understand it is essential.   Any recommendations on a good quality center channel speaker for a reasonable price would be extremely helpful.

Robbie Carlson, Savage, MN

A: A center channel is perhaps the most important speaker used in a home theater surround system, and for this reason if you are going to add one, be sure to do it right. I recommend that you buy the best one you can afford, and match it to your front speakers. If you cannot match the center to the front speakers, you may be better off without a center channel speaker.

Matching refers to “timbre matching”, or matching the sound of the front, center, and surround speakers. When speakers are timbre matched, they have the same tonal character though the speakers may be different sizes. For example, Polk Audio has an LSi and RTi series of speakers. You could use a large pair of LSi speakers for the front speakers, and a smaller pair of LSi speakers for the surrounds and they would be timbre matched.

Many people have older front speakers they are fond of that they wish to continue using in a home theater system. It may be difficult or impossible to buy new versions of the speaker to use for surround speakers or a center channel. This makes achieving a good match very difficult, if not impossible in some cases.

The surround speakers are located some distance from the front speakers so if the surround speakers are slightly mismatched, you probably will be unable to hear the difference as sound diffuses and spreads throughout the room. There are many different opinions on the subject, but my own opinion is that a satisfactory home theater experience can be obtained with front and surround speakers that are not exactly matched.

The center speaker, however, is in very close proximity to the front speakers and sonic differences between them will be much easier to notice. It is essential to match the center and front speakers if you want to add a center channel.

If you do not obtain a good match, you may actually get better sound quality without using a center channel. This is accomplished by setting the receiver’s surround controls to “phantom center channel” or “no center channel”.

When set this way, your receiver will mix the center channel information into the right and left speakers in equal amounts. This will cause the center channel material to sound as if it is coming from in between the left and right front speakers, creating a virtual center channel.

Over the past year several readers have written to me with unsatisfactory experiences with mismatched center channels. Though the front speakers and center speakers used were of very high quality, they just were not satisfied with the end result. I recommended they try the phantom center channel mode, and all of them wrote back stating their preference for it.

So, if you are going to use a center speaker, be sure to match it precisely with your front speakers. If you are going to be using a mismatched set, be sure to get a return privilege from the dealer and make comparisons of the center channel speaker with the phantom center channel setting. You may find you prefer the results without the center channel. Good luck!

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