Have you ever tried listening through a home theater system without the center channel speaker? You may have noticed that there’s a lot of depth missing in the sound. That’s because most of the dialogue in movies and musical instruments are pushed through the center speaker. While the surround speakers certainly help to bring out all the details in the sound, the ‘meat’ of it comes through the center unit.
How to Choose a Center Speaker
The Technical Specs
When I was putting together my own home theater system several months back, I found that it wasn’t so easy picking the best center channel speaker. There are quite a few technical factors to consider first, including bi-wire capability, frequency response, impedance and so on. If these terms sound daunting or confusing, don’t worry. I’m going to break down each one in a way that anyone can understand, starting with:
This isn’t a feature that’s present in all center speakers. You’re most likely to find it in newer models. It basically means that you have two separate sets of connectors at the rear: one that goes out to high-frequency drivers and another for low-frequency ones.
In most home theater systems, the former is typically plugged into a tweeter which adds treble to the mix for a more refined and ‘fuller’ sound. The latter is almost always connected to a woofer which pushes the bass frequencies and gives it some ‘oomph’.
What’s the benefit of bi-wire capability? Simple. It separates the high-end and low-end, making for a cleaner and more accurate listening experience. Take my word for it, once you’ve tried a speaker with bi-wiring, it’s hard to settle for a more muddled sound!
You might have noticed that your center channel comes with a number in its name, like 3.0 or 3.1. This number simply indicates the ratio of drivers to subwoofers included in the speaker. So for instance, a 3.1 speaker will have three drivers (tweeter, midrange, and woofer) and one subwoofer. In contrast, a 3.0 speaker will have the same amount of drivers but without a subwoofer.
You’re already aware of what a tweeter and woofer do, but what about midrange drivers and subwoofers? The former handles frequencies between 200 Hz to 2000 Hz. The higher the midrange frequency, the more ‘present’ the sound will be.
Subwoofers, on the other hand, capture the extreme lower-end frequencies – those that regular woofers can’t handle. Simply put, they help enhance those heavy sub-bass drops that are commonly found in electronic dance music!
Impedance is simply a measure of how resistant the speaker is to the current supplied by the amplifier. The higher the impedance, the greater the resistance. You might be wondering: ‘why does there need to be any resistance at all?’ Here’s the thing: when an amplifier has to keep pumping out tons of power, it has to work extremely hard, possibly to the point that it fries its own components. If there’s some resistance, the amount of current the amplifier has to supply is less, which means it has to work less hard.
At the same time, speakers do require a certain amount of power to give you a high-quality audio experience. Otherwise, it’s just going to sound weak and muddled. So it’s very important to find a balance here. Personally, I’ve had great experience with center channel speakers that have an impedance of around 4 ohms.
Frequency response refers to the range of frequencies that can be reproduced by the speaker. As humans, our range of hearing spans from 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz. So the speaker you choose ideally needs to be able to reproduce most of these frequencies.
The reality is that you’ll often need the aid of a subwoofer to tap into frequencies lower than 30 Hz. Any signal lower than 30Hz is ‘felt’ rather than ‘heard’, like those low droning electronic beats that make everything rattle inside a night club.
Sensitivity measures how loud the speaker can get (in decibels) when it’s given one watt of power. A volume of around 85 decibels is considered pretty decent while anything over 90 is excellent. The greater the number of decibels, the greater the efficiency.
Why does efficiency matter? Think of it this way: if you’ve got a low-efficiency speaker, you’ll need to pair it with a high-powered amplifier so that it can reach moderate-to-high volumes. So, basically, speaker sensitivity should guide your choice in amplifiers or vice versa.
Arguably, the most important components of the speaker are its cones. The speaker cones are what take vibrations emanating from the voice coil and convert it into actual, recognizable sounds whether it’s a movie dialogue or a piece of music. How accurately a speaker cone is able to reproduce the sound and the overall tone of it is determined by the material it’s made of. Let’s take a look at the commonest materials that cones are made out of and how they impact the sound.
Plastic is one of the most popular speaker cone materials and it’s easy to see why, given how cheap it is to produce and how sonically consistent the material is. Something I’ve noted is that plastic cones are very good at sound-dampening. This means that when you crank up the volume, the cone doesn’t rattle and therefore the sound isn’t distorted. However, the sound coming out of them doesn’t feel all that lively, when compared to other types of cones.
Compared to plastic, paper cones sound much livelier. Speaker manufacturers either use treated paper which produces a fuller, more balanced sound or untreated ones that produce significantly brighter overtones.
There are a couple of drawbacks to paper cones. First of all, their more expensive to make and that obviously means we have to pay more for them. Secondly and more importantly, paper cones can react with moisture in the air, causing the chemical composition to change. The result? Significant changes in the tone.
Aluminium is the most durable material on this list and therefore requires the least amount of care and maintenance, which is great news if you’re a bit lazy and clumsy like me. My experience with aluminium cones has been largely positive.
They bring out all the minute details in my favourite tracks while making the bass sound especially ‘slapping’ if that makes sense. However, I’ve noticed that they’re not the greatest at dampening sounds, so you’re most likely to hear some unnecessary distortion at louder volumes.
If you’re interested in learning more, here’s a complete glossary of speaker materials to check out.
Our Top Picks for 2019
Now that you know what to look for in center channel speakers, let’s take a look at my top picks for this year:
First of all, I’ve simply got to commend Klipsch on the design of this unit. The combination of the brushed black polymer veneer with the copper metallic cones blends well with pretty much any living room aesthetic, whether you’ve got a rustic look going or a contemporary one.
With that out of the way, let’s get into the actual features of this unit. Reading the spec sheet of the RP-250C, it’s easy to feel a bit overwhelmed if you don’t know what you’re looking at. For instance, what on earth is a ’90 X 90° Tractrix Horn’?
Basically, horns are used in speakers to help move more air out and thus increase the volume of the outputted sound. There is an important component inside speakers known as the diaphragm, which moves back and forth in order to push air. However, the larger the diaphragm, the heavier the speaker becomes. By using a horn, diaphragms can essentially be kept small while still achieving loud volumes.
Coming back to the 90 X 90° Tractrix Horn, it’s basically a design that combines a square horn with a circular horn. Without boring you with too many technical details, this is done to improve the frequency response and thereby capture all the nuances of the sound. In addition, the tractrix horn is fitted with a titanium tweeter as well, which helps to boost the upper frequencies.
I particularly loved the fact that the RP-250C comes with cerametallic (a mixture of ceramic and metal, which in this case is copper) woofers. Due to the material being stiff, there were no issues with dampening whatsoever. My ears couldn’t pick up any tone-colouring forced by the copper and the sound itself was very lively, with all the details coming through. The polymer veneer MDF cabinet the woofers are enclosed in is not just visually striking but appeared to be quite durable as well.
Something else you might notice in the spec sheet is the ‘Tractrix Port’. To explain it in the simplest way possible, this is a component that helps improve the speed and efficiency of air transfer inside the RP-250C’s cabinet. This means that there is hardly any audio signal loss inside of the speaker. As a result, you’ll notice that the bass sounds deeper and refined than what most other speakers reproduce.
Last but not least, the RP-250C comes with easily-detachable magnetic grill. In addition to protecting the speaker against dust, these grills help reduce high frequency diffraction. Let me try to explain that as simply as I can:
Most speakers radiate sound into both the front and the rear when handling low frequencies. However, with high frequencies, the sound is radiated only to the front. As a result, speakers can sound louder and more ‘in your face’. The magnets present in the RP-250C’s grilles reduce the amount pushed to the front of the speaker, causing the outputted sound to be more reserved. I found this quite useful when I wanted to switch from listening to intense music to laid-back piano pieces.
- Excellent design and durable build quality
- Refined sound with more natural bass response
- High-Frequency diffraction-reducing grilles
- Does not include a subwoofer
At first, I didn’t think much of the Pioneer Elite SP-EC73 because of the rather simple and stealthy look it sported. But as I got a closer look, I started to notice the well-thought-out nuances of its design. For instance, its sides are very slightly curved to prevent the formation of standing waves (interfering sound waves that can alter the overall sound and cause excessive rattling of the speaker). This is a very common problem in box-shaped features.
One of the most important components of the SP-EC73 is its coherent source transducer (CST) which makes sure that all frequencies are outputted at the same time, making for a coherent listening experience. This is done by eliminating any potential interference occurring between the tweeter and midrange drivers present inside the speaker. The CST driver is actually placed in its own separate compartment so that it doesn’t come into contact with unwanted sound waves. This appears to be the reason for the incredibly clear-cut audio quality I received from the SP-EC73.
The SP-EC73 is a 5.1.4 Surround System which means that it’s got:
- 5 speakers at ear level, including three speakers at the front face and two speakers on the side to create surround sound
- 1 subwoofer to handle extremely low frequencies
- 4 ‘overhead’ speakers which create the impression that the sound is coming from above your head.
Something I noticed often is that the bass sounded quite alive and dynamic in the SP-EC73. I imagine this is probably due to the inclusion of a dedicated subwoofer.
- Comes with a subwoofer
- Eliminates standing waves
- CST driver allows a very clean and coherent listening experience
- The vinyl wrap finish makes the device looks a little cheap
The S35 from Polk Audio sports a very slim design, measuring just about 5 inches in height. However, I was very pleased to hear that its small stature did not prevent it from delivering a high-quality surround sound experience. Let’s dive into its features:
To begin with, the S35 contains a separate port for segregating the bass frequencies from the rest. Because of this, I found the dialogue in movies to be super realistic with no voice distortion whatsoever. When listening to music, the bass sounded quite deep and prominent.
The S35 didn’t neglect the high frequencies either. It’s fitted with a dome tweeter, which is known for improving frequency dispersion. As a result, I could hear every minute detail in treble instruments like the violin or guitar and high-pitched vocals.
The S35’s Dynamic Balance Acoustic Array is a very interesting feature. What it does is scan your speaker’s mechanical and electrical systems for any acoustic flaws. If there’s anything that’s affecting the performance of the speaker, it will either fix it on its own or let you know so that you get it corrected. So essentially, it finds and offsets for any flaws so that it can provide high-quality audio output, regardless of what components you pair it with.
- Detailed and clear sound no matter what components you pair it up with
- Dynamic and full bass response
- No voice distortions
- Slim design
- Not the best at handling sub-bass in my experience
The Definitive Technology ProCenter 1000 is another small center channel speaker, with a height of just five inches and a width of 10 and a half inches. If you’ve got a compact home theater setup like I do, then this could be a great fit.
One feature I absolutely loved about the Procenter 1000 was the inclusion of two bass radiators. In addition to the low-end frequencies handled by the dual woofers, these two radiators actually added more bass on top, resulting in what was a very powerful, mid-range sound. If you love movies that contain a lot of explosive action, this unit is certainly capable of upping the intensity during those fast-paced moments.
The Procenter 1000 sports an aluminium dome tweeter which not only enhanced the upper frequencies but also seemed to colour the sound with a slightly bright overtone. Personally, I think this served well to cut through the copious amounts of low-end that this speaker put out.
The Balanced Double Surround System (BDSS) is another cool feature present in this unit. What it does is reinforce the speaker cone for better audio dampening. Because of this, I was able to crank up the volume without losing any clarity.
- Powerful, bass-heavy sound
- Compact and lightweight design
- Great audio dampening
- Could produce too much bass for some people
- It did produce a few unwanted distortions when outputting very low-frequency sounds
The Sony SSCS8 is not what it seems. Despite being one of the smallest center channel speakers I’ve come across, this gets really loud! It sports a simple, minimalist design with a wooden cabinet painted in a black finish – the kind of look that pairs well with both traditional and modern living room decor. Let’s took a look at what this unit offers.
First up, the ‘Super Tweeter’. Sony claims its dome tweeter helps with wide frequency dispersion and I definitely believe them. The sound reproduction was so accurate that I started to hear things I’ve never noticed before in songs, like certain elusive lead guitar melodies that weren’t so noticeable through my earphones. The tweeter was made from polyester, which seemed to provide the speaker with good dampening capabilities as well.
The dual-layer mica woofer diaphragms were a very interesting feature in this unit. The upper layer apparently captures the more ‘supple’ and airy frequencies while the bottom one is all about enhancing the bass. The rich, deep bass I heard was thanks to these diaphragms.
Last but not least, I felt its wooden speaker cabinet did have a noticeable effect on the overall tone. Personally, I thought it added more natural resonance and liveliness, especially when compared with the polymer cabinets I’ve tried.
- Wooden cabinet provided a more natural feel to the sound
- Faithful reproduction of higher frequencies
- Enhanced bass response thanks to the dual layer woofers
- Can be a little too loud for smaller apartments
The Best Overall
It was a very difficult task to pick my absolute favourite from the list, considering that they’re all great in different ways. But in terms of how much fun I had with the units, the winner was quite apparent – the Polk Audio Signature S35.
What I loved most about this center speaker was how super realistic the dialogue and the musical scores sounded. Furthermore, I thought the Dynamic Balance Acoustic Array was a very innovative feature and could really come in handy when I inevitably update certain components in my setup.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are the answers to some questions about center channel speakers you may have:
How do I choose a Center Channel Speaker?
I’d say the best way to go about it is to think about your requirements and preferences, starting with how small the unit needs to be to fit your setup. If you don’t particularly care about the aesthetics, then dive straight into the technical specifications. Ask yourself whether you really need a subwoofer or if the unit should be able to handle extreme lows and highs. Think about what kind of material matches your tonal preferences and more.
How important is the center speaker?
Very. It’s the speaker that outputs most of the dialogue and music when you’re watching a movie. The left and right and surround speakers add nuance and depth to the overall sound.
What is the best Center Channel Speaker?
That depends on your preferences and budget. However, you can’t go wrong with any of the units I’ve reviewed in this article.
Where should the Center Speaker be placed?
Ideally, the center speaker should be positioned so that it directly faces your seating position at the head level. Therefore the ideal position is directly below the TV with a gentle tilt upwards. This ensures that the outputted sound reaches your ears better.
Can you use any Speaker as a Center Channel?
Yes, except for a subwoofer. We recommend that you always go for a horizontal speaker instead of a vertical one, just to make sure that it’s easier to place in front of the TV. That being said, dedicated center channel speakers give you a higher quality cinema experience.