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Do You Really Need a Center Channel Speaker?

The most boring speaker in a home home theater is actually the most important.

A small Klipsch center channel speaker.
Andrew Heinzman / Review Geek
A center channel speaker is the anchor of a home theater's audio system. Without one, you may have trouble hearing dialog and other important sounds in modern movies and shows.

A center channel speaker may seem like an unnecessary addition to your home theater. But this essential component will improve your audio quality more than any subwoofer or satellite speaker. And if you’re having trouble hearing dialog, a center speaker is often the simplest solution.

What Does a Center Channel Speaker Do?

The POLK MONITOR XT30 center channel speaker.

Of all the speakers in a home theater, the center channel is arguably the most important. It’s responsible for the majority of a movie or show’s audio, especially dialog. Without a center channel speaker, your home theater is like a ship without an anchor—audio will lack definition, and volume levels may sound wildly inconsistent.

This emphasis on the center speaker may seem strange. After all, music sounds great with a basic stereo setup! But the necessity of a center speaker in home theaters is, for the most part, a byproduct of large movie theaters.

During the development of stereo audio, researchers noticed that a pair of “left” and “right” speakers could work together and create a “phantom center.” Audio played at equal volume through both speakers will sound like it’s right in front of your face, despite the fact that it’s hitting your ears at two different angles.

But the “phantom center” effect only works if you sit at the sweet spot between two speakers. In a large venue, such as a movie theater, some viewers will be too far to the left or right. They won’t get the “phantom center” effect—audio will sound like it’s coming from the wrong side of the room, somewhere far away from the screen.

That’s why the first movie with stereo audio, Disney’s Fantasia, utilized real center channel speakers during its theatrical run. Audience members at Fantasia enjoyed a wide stereo soundstage, but they still felt that the most important audio came directly from the screen. Of course, all subsequent stereo movies followed this format.

Now, in a stereo setting, the center channel speaker can’t do anything groundbreaking. There are only two discreet audio channels, so the center speaker receives a summed (mono) version of the stereo track. But as I mentioned earlier, surround sound systems go a step further. They send a unique audio track to the center channel. (That’s why a home theater system with left, center, and right speakers is called 3.0-channel. There are three discreet audio channels.)

The discreet center audio channel fulfills several tasks. Yes, it directs viewers’ attention toward the screen, but it also increases the width and detail of an audio soundstage. In a 3.0-channel setup (or greater), noises like a car’s engine can flow through the left, center, and right speakers, rather than simply leaping from left to right.

Also, because the center speaker handles most of the heavy lifting, it frees your additional speakers to perform their respective tasks. If you aren’t using a center speaker, audio will be downmixed and pumped out of whatever speakers you’ve got, reducing the overall clarity and depth of your home theater setup. A center speaker can make your other speakers sound better!

A Center Speaker Is the Key to Clear Dialog

Sony SS-CS8 center channel speaker on a gray wavy background.

All modern movies and shows are made for theatrical surround sound. The benefits of this technology are too hard to ignore—it provides a high dynamic range, so audio can be loud, or quiet, or everything in between. Plus, it gives a deeper sense of immersion with more room for clear, crisp audio.

Of course, the average person doesn’t have a 7.2-channel system at home. Cinematic audio needs to be downmixed for smaller speaker setups. This task may be performed by an audio engineer for streaming platforms and physical media, but in a home theater setting with a Dolby Atmos source, it’s often handled by your A/V receiver or audio system.

Here’s the problem; theatrical audio is more than just a special effect. Movies and shows are recorded with surround sound in mind, and actors often take advantage of the format’s increased dynamic range. Removing audio channels from the mix leads to a loss of information, regardless of the downmixing process.

So, if you’re rocking an audio system without a center speaker (whether it’s a stereo system or something fancier), you probably have a very hard time hearing dialog in modern shows or movies. The center speaker is the anchor of theatrical audio; it does the most work of any speaker in a theater, and it’s the loudest source of dialog.

Adding a center channel speaker to your home theater will drastically improve its sound quality. It will boost the depth and clarity of actors’ voices, widen the “sweet spot” of your home theater, and free your other speakers to do their jobs.

Note that you can adjust each speaker’s volume level from your A/V receiver. You may need to perform this task when installing a center speaker, especially if it isn’t matched to your other speakers by the manufacturer. (Of course, you can totally crank up your center speaker to make dialog as loud as possible, though this may throw off the balance of your home theater’s audio.)

Do You Need a Center Channel Speaker for Music?

A center channel speaker.
BobrinSKY / Shutterstock.com

A center channel speaker is essential to any modern home theater. That said, if you’re only using your audio system for music, you probably don’t need a center speaker.

There’s a good chance that you only listen to music in stereo. Playing this music through a 3.0-channel audio system will not provide any unique benefit, and in fact, your receiver won’t even use the center channel speaker. Introducing an unnecessary speaker to a mix usually muddies things up, so this functionality makes sense.

Yes, you can force your receiver to use the center channel speaker for stereo content. Just press the big “All Channel Stereo” button. But unless you’re in a large room and regularly find yourself outside of your speakers’ sweet spot, there isn’t much of a point in doing this.

Obviously, there are a few exceptions here. Live concert videos are usually mixed with Dolby Atmos, so if you regularly watch concert videos, a center channel speaker may be of benefit.

And as services like Apple Music increasingly lean into Dolby Atmos, center channel speakers may grow more useful to music listeners. That said, stereo is still the gold standard for music recordings, and surround sound music doesn’t meet everybody’s taste.

Which Center Channel Speaker Should You Buy?

The Klipsch HT-50 Home Theater system, which uses small center and satellite speakers.

The center channel speaker pulls most of the weight in a home theater. That said, this speaker can’t work alone. It needs to be accompanied and uplifted by other speakers, particularly the left and right channels.

Ideally, you should build your home theater around a good center speaker. Pick something that fits your budget and sounds nice. From there, buy matching left and right speakers from the same manufacturer (or the same product series, if possible). This ensures that you have a clean and even soundstage, as your front three speakers will share a sonic profile.

But you may already own a bunch of speakers. If that’s the case, I suggest buying a center speaker that matches your existing left and right speakers. (To be clear, this is a higher priority than matching your subwoofer and surround speakers.)

As for the size and shape of your center speaker—well, bigger isn’t always better. If you’re in a small or medium-sized room, I actually suggest buying something modest with relatively small woofers. Small speakers are better at accurately reproducing mid and high frequencies, and small woofers will keep dialog from sounding boomy or woody.

That said, large center speakers with 6- or 8-inch woofers are appropriate for big rooms (or medium-sized rooms that are acoustically treated). And if you aren’t interested in owning a subwoofer, a large center speaker might make sense in a smaller room, as it will increase the bass response of your setup.

Klipsch R-52C Powerful Detailed Center Channel Home Speaker

Klipsch's R-52C center channel speaker features an aluminum LTS tweeter and two 5.25-inch woofers. It's a modestly-sized center speaker that delivers clear dialog and pairs well with other products in Klipsch's Reference series.

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Andrew Heinzman Andrew Heinzman
Andrew is the News Editor for Review Geek, where he covers breaking stories and manages the news team. He joined Life Savvy Media as a freelance writer in 2018 and has experience in a number of topics, including mobile hardware, audio, and IoT. Read Full Bio »