The 10 Best Center Channel Speakers
Why The Center Channel Is So Important
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.
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.
One of the most important is the number of drivers on a given speaker.
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.