If you’re in the market for a center channel speaker, you’ve come to the right place.
The center channel may be the most difficult of any speaker in your system to select. Most look quite similar, and yet price and performance specifications can swing wildly.
If you are not a professional audio engineer, or experienced audiophile, it might be difficult to select the right product, so join me for some insight into how to select what is appropriate and, ultimately, the best bang for the buck.
It may seem intuitive to pick a complete “system” at the outset, as this would provide greater assurance that everything is designed and “voiced” to compliment the other speakers in the system, but this is not always the case or is it necessary.
Understanding the performance needs of a center channel while having some idea of the specifications versus its price, you can pick something that can complement the rest of your system. So, what is the function of a center channel?
The primary function of the center channel is for the mono placement of movie sound when played back through modern surround sound systems. When you watch a movie in a theater, much of the dialogue is coming from speakers placed directly behind the movie screen.
They do it this way so that the ear/eye correlation is correct. Watching and listening to a movie with the dialogue coming from a left/right speaker location conflicts with what the eye sees.
It’s passable, but it becomes crystal clear which way is better when compared to hearing dialogue front and center in a location where the eye can align the sound with the mouth movement.
Acoustically, it is vastly superior since there is no negative interaction between the speakers when listening to mono sources. We refer to this negative interaction as “comb-filtering” which degrades the received sound.
A brief summary of this effect is that any mono source being created from multiple locations introduces comb-filtering effects. Comb filtering is a series of peaks and dips in the frequency response.
Since this effect is based entirely on different arrival times between the speakers to the listener, it changes every time you relocate your position, so it is impossible to correct for. For this reason, it is best to place mono signals in a mono speaker – the center channel.
Now that you understand the advantages for using a center channel speaker, let’s consider some criteria for selecting the right one for you.
Size and placement considerations are the primary criteria to consider first because it won’t matter how good the speaker is if you cannot place it properly in your space. Placing the speaker as close to the visual source as possible keeps the ear/eye relationship synchronized.
Here are some considerations:
- Is your TV mounted to a wall, or standing on a pedestal?
- Will the speaker block part of the screen or even the remote-control sensor for the set?
- Will it look integrated into the entire setup, or will it stand out like a sore thumb?
Everything, including the overall industrial design of the speaker, can have an impact on whether something looks purposeful, or hobbled together. Only you can make those initial choices based on your space and personal taste in decor.
Given the primary function of a center channel speaker, the performance specifications can be narrowed down from what is required from the rest of the system. With dialogue being the most important aspect, it does not necessarily require the broad frequency response necessary in the left/ right speaker, and obviously, it is not tasked to create sub bass unless you plan to only purchase a center channel speaker.
This is when I shift from calling it a center channel to calling it a “sound bar”. For this article, I am assuming you are after a true center channel so you can focus on the critical voice range (between about 200 Hz-8 kHz) as the most important range of frequencies to be considered. A flat frequency response through this range is going to be especially important.
Since these center channel speakers are almost always horizontally elongated and many are low profile, you can expect some level of line array effect. Line array refers to the directivity or narrowing of the speakers’ sound dispersion in the direction of the elongation.
A speaker box that is horizontally long will have narrowing of the coverage in the horizontal dimension and the opposite is true for the elongation being placed in the vertical.
A good rule of thumb is that more Low Frequency drivers compacted in the speaker will have a narrower coverage window than fewer of them. So, a string of 8 drivers, closely spaced, will have a narrower listening window than a speaker with 1 or 2 drivers, spaced further apart.
Since most of us will be making our selections via published specs and ordering from places like Amazon, I thought I would put myself in your shoes and choose a center channel speaker exactly how you would do it.
I do caution anyone using this method that “specifications” are easy to manipulate, and until you have heard the speaker in person and in your space, you’ll never really know if you’ve bought the best center channel speaker for the price.
We see this manipulation of specs routinely in the professional audio space so assuming that numbers are “bumped” to make a product more compelling to the buyer in the consumer market, is not a stretch by any means.
I went on Amazon and did a simple search for “center channel speakers” and came up with a lot of results. Prices started as low as $25.00 and went as high as $2000.00, so you can easily see how difficult it can be to pick a candidate.
I strongly suggest having some criteria in place for the decision. You should also consider reading customer reviews and they are plentiful on Amazon. Afterall, you are not the first person to purchase the speaker, so you can use their experiences to narrow down your selection.
For some, brand name recognition and industrial design will play a big role in the decision but do yourself a favor and look beyond that. No single brand has the market covered for every use case, and brand interpretation of customer needs is why we have so many choices. Let’s look at a few samples.
Ultimately, your wallet will be the first determining factor, but if you put aside some common myths about speaker design, you may very well find yourself with an exceptional product and as you can see from my analysis, it doesn’t necessarily need to break the bank.