The 10 Best Center Channel Speakers
This wiki has been updated 14 times since it was first published in May of 2018. Few elements in a home theater system are as essential as a good center channel speaker. These small, but vital, units output up to 70 percent of the sound mix in a film, and are responsible for ensuring that the most important part — the character dialogue — comes across loud and clear. We've ranked them here by their audio quality, durability, compatibility, and ease of installation. When users buy our independently chosen editorial picks, we may earn commissions to help fund the Wiki. If you'd like to contribute your own research to the Wiki, please get started by reviewing this introductory video.
October 20, 2020:
After a lot of changes the last time we visited this ranking, this iteration has only seen a few updates, with models like the Elac Uni-Fi UC52 coming along to upgrade its predecessor with a pair of front-firing bass ports. Now, for a center channel speaker, this can be a good or a bad thing depending on your EQ setup and how you prefer your movies to sound. The direction in which a bass port fires can have a big impact on sound. Often, you'll see rear firing ports — like the ones on the Klipsch RP-500C — that ricochet off the wall behind them, of downward firing ports that can utilize the vibrations sent into your entertainment center to increase the apparent low frequency performance. A knock on the Definitive Technology CS-9060 is that its subwoofer fires upward, making use of neither the walls around it or the surface on which it sits.
You'll also notice that a lot of these speakers are advertised with and without their grilles on. Ultimately a grille is optional, but if you've ever had a kid or a pet pierce a cone, you know how important they can be. Look out for ones that are acoustically transparent, like you see on that same Definitive Technology model mentioned above, as well as the PSB Alpha C10. Unfortunately, it's also important to make sure your selection comes with a grille at all, as models like the KEF Q650C do not.
July 10, 2019:
There's been quite the overhaul to this list, primarily because a lot of our previous entries, while excellent in their own right, were significantly long in the tooth, and almost every one came from a company that offered something at least as good, and certainly newer. The Klipsch model in our number two slot is a great example of how the progress of years can offer a better product to consumers, as it's both smaller and better sounding, with a price that puts our old model from the same company to shame. It uses the same Cerametallic material for its woofers, as well as the same high-quality liner travel suspension, but with an improved tweeter that increases the clarity of the voices on film soundtracks.
We've also added some models from companies that have tremendous reputations among audiophiles, like Elac and NHT, as well as a few special honors that we handed out to three products that run the range of prices, from Airmotiv's very affordable option that boasts a responsive ribbon tweeter, to the prohibitively expensive Paradigm Persona. That last one offers materials like diaphragms made of pure beryllium, which dramatically drives up the cost, and equally drives up the sound quality.
Paradigm Persona C If you like the sound of exotic materials like Beryllium foil with a uniform grain structure, then there's nothing quite like this rather niche option. It's easily one of the most expensive selections you can make, especially if you combine it with other speakers from the same company to build out a surround system, but its six drivers and unbeatable fidelity may very well melt the ears off your head. paradigm.com
Axion VP180 This option comes from a company that understands your obsession with your theater space, so they let you take what is arguably among the best sounding models on the market and customize its appearance, going so far as to let you match it to your wall color. Of course, that level of personalization takes time and comes with an added cost. axiomaudio.com
Emotiva Airmotiv C1+ Loudspeaker Coming in at a bargain considering its sound quality, this model situates a 3-inch mid-range driver just beneath its 32mm ribbon tweeter. The highs produced by the latter are sharp and clear, but may sound a bit unnatural to purists looking for a more realistic representation of the world. emotiva.com
Why The Center Channel Is So Important
Your system isn’t smart enough to know when characters are speaking, but it also doesn’t need to be.
When people go shopping for an entertainment system, they begin to discover how vital high-quality sound is to the experience of a good film. That’s why almost every movie you go to has some kind of special sound technology that’s touted at the beginning of each screening, along with a cascading soundscape that washes over the audience.
One of the things that the big theaters have going for them is their subwoofer system, which is remarkably powerful even in smaller theaters, and which is responsible for all the thuds, grunts, and booming explosions that you enjoy during a good blockbuster. Because of this, when people set out to assemble their own speaker set, they often spend too much money on their subs, leaving too little for the other speakers, and next to none for the center speaker. This is folly, plain and simple.
This is not to say that a good sub isn’t key to a complete audio-visual experience. It’s just to say that a bunch of the frequencies your sub puts out are designed to be felt and not heard, and unless you’ve tuned your room to deliver those vibrations effectively to the seats, there’s a good chance you’re going to miss out on them anyway.
Have you ever thought about the work that goes into capturing dialogue for a film or tv show? Rewatch Singing In the Rain and you’ll get an idea. It’s harrowing to say the least, and test audiences universally agree that a film can have a mediocre picture and still pass muster if it has good sound, but a beautifully shot film with a shoddy soundtrack is unwatchable. So, given all the work that so many professionals put into the audio, the least you can do is listen to it through the right speakers.
A more familiar sound issue arises when you low-ball your center speaker. If you’ve ever had to jump back in a movie because you didn’t hear what a given character was saying, you know what I’m talking about. You also know how this can totally mess with the timing of important moments in a film, destroying potential jump scares or emotional revelations, and taking you completely out of the experience. This is where a high quality center speaker would shine.
In a surround sound mix, dialogue is at its clearest and most prominent in the center channel. This is true even when your receiver actively splits a stereo mix up into 5.1 or 7.1 parts, because the division has more to do with the specific frequency range of the human voice than it has to do with the fact that people are talking on screen. Your system isn’t smart enough to know when characters are speaking, but it also doesn’t need to be. With that mix placing the dialogue right in front of you, and a good center speaker doing the work, you’ll never miss another line again.
Choosing Your Center Speaker
As you set out to choose a center speaker, it would be understandable for you to go with a brand that matches speakers you may already have purchased for your entertainment center. Often, people will start with main left and right speakers, then add a subwoofer and satellites, and finally add a center speaker. If all you currently have is a set of left and right speakers, we would advise that your next purchase be the center speaker, followed by a subwoofer, and finally your satellites.
Some units boast ribbon tweeters, however, and the decision between the two is mostly a matter of personal taste.
Whatever combination you currently have, if it is all one brand, it might be a good idea to stick with that brand for your center speaker, as many of these speaker systems are sold both as individual pieces and in sets. The manufacturers know that however you buy them, they will work well together, and you may not have to do as much with equalization on your receiver to get an ideal sound.
If you're willing to reach outside of your current brand, or you're interested in cobbling together a set from pieces that belong to several brands, there are some features of a center speaker worth considering. One of the most important is the number of drivers on a given speaker. This, ideally, will correspond with an overall sense of power you get from the other speakers in your setup. It doesn't necessarily mean that you can't get a larger center speaker than would normally compliment your setup, but it does mean that you should make sure the center speaker you have your eye on is sufficiently powerful to complement the rest of your system.
Make sure you take a good look at the tweeters, as well. Silk dome tweeters are among the most common, and they’re generally pretty effective and reliable for delivering a bit of high-end to your center speaker. Some units boast ribbon tweeters, however, and the decision between the two is mostly a matter of personal taste. Ribbon tweeters tend to be a little harsher if you don’t tame them in the EQ, but they also tend toward a more realistic sound once controlled.
Perfecting Your Entertainment Center
Assembling the ultimate entertainment center may rely heavily on the speakers you select, but there are other vital components you shouldn’t do without. One such product that is shamefully overlooked is the power conditioner, which is capable of cleaning up a majority of the electrical interference you won’t even know was there until you don’t hear it anymore.
Of course, a high-quality receiver is a must, but you should complement it with its own dedicated rack-mounted equalizer. That way, you can get incredibly specific about what frequencies come flying out of which speakers.
While you’re at it, get your hands on some acoustic foam and start to tune your room. It’ll take some time to learn how to do this and to get it right, but you’ll have a professional theater experience on your hands before you know it.