Chances are that if you’ve ever seen a speaker setup before you are used to the image of 2 speakers one on each side of a PC or a TV. The reasons are pretty simple, stereo sound requires at least two speakers to be properly conveyed. However, we should pay attention to the fact that two is just the minimum and not the maximum quantity. If you are building a Surround Sound System most of the time you’ll want to have 3 speakers as a matter of fact; this includes the traditional left and right speakers as well as a center channel speaker. As the name implies is another speaker that is designed to be put in the center of the setup.
There are various reasons why this is necessary, so today we will try to answer why is a center channel speaker necessary, and how this plays a role in the way you get to experience sound.
A brief explanation of Stereophonic Sound
Stereophonic Sound is basically just the fancier name for what we commonly call Stereo. If we think about daily life sound can come from any place right? People ahead you can be talking, while a dog barks to the left, and so on. Before we had Stereo we relied on Mono sound (Monophonic Sound) which really only used one speaker. This meant that sound came across as flat; with everything coming from a single speaker you couldn’t really tell the depth or the direction of any sound your TV made.
And the fact is that movies, games, and shows do pay a lot of attention to making sure that their audio design reflects directionality and depth. That’s why Stereo is used; unlike Mono, Stereo sound has two separate channels for audio that play simultaneously to reproduce that feeling of directionality. In simpler terms when Stereo sound plays it’s as if two tracks were playing at once. Each one plays on its own speaker, and since we are hearing the track from two speakers we can tell the depth of the sound.
About Surround Sound System
If you are a movie buff chances are you have heard or own a Surround Sound System of your own, but in short it’s a system that uses multiple sound channels, just like Stereo does for the sake of creating a better sound experience. In a Surround System the speakers aim at creating an enveloping sound to make you feel like you truly are in the middle of the action of a film or hearing that concert that is playing. Surround Sound is also called 5:1 in reference to the number of sound channels it has. 5 main ones and one subwoofer, which means that the way it portrays sound is just way more involved than regular Stereo, even if their setups look similar at first glance.
So why should I get a center channel speaker for my Surround System?
If you have a Surround Sound System you simply need a center channel speaker for the whole setup to work as intended. As we mentioned Surround unlike Stereo has more than two different channels, six in fact. And one of those channels is a dedicated front sound channel. While stereo can on its own try to emulate front direction sound with its two speakers. A Surround System needs that the front speaker or sound will not be displayed as it was intended. And in general getting one brings a lot of advantages to the table.
When you install a Center Channel Speaker on a Surround system that speaker is the one that takes care of all the front side sound delivery. This means that for most of the sounds that don’t have a clear direction the central speaker will handle it mostly on its own, making sure that it’s heard clearly and with the best fidelity without having to rely on your side speakers to hit the perfect angle or sweet spot. And this is huge when you consider that most if not almost all the dialogue in Movies and TV are considered to be front-side sound.
If you were to install your Surround System and forgo the center speaker then not only would all dialogue be of lower quality and harder to understand, but you’d have to rely on Stereo to hear front direction sounds. This means that you’d have to ensure that both your speakers and your couch or bed are in a perfect position and distance from each other so that the Left and Right sound waves converge at the right point. This is how Stereo emulates front direction sound, and any small detail can result in sound not coming across as intended.
Additionally as Surround is designed in the first place with 6 unique audio channels configuring your setup for an incomplete amount of speakers can be very hard or downright impossible on some TVs or Players. Meaning that not only sound will always be of lower quality without one, but sometimes an entire audio track can be lost, as the format definitely requires all speakers to be present.
Additional benefits the center channel speaker.
This also helps with sound effects for example. As the dialogue is being clearly conveyed by the center channel speaker the side speakers don’t have to simultaneously portray loud effects and keep the voice clear, ensuring that you can get to enjoy the film and still understand every single bit of dialogue. Additionally most Surround Sound setups allow for the user to change the volume from the center channel speaker separately from that of the side speakers. Meaning if that you ever found the music or effects in a film or show to overbearing you can just adjust them on your own.
In short for anybody asking whether or not is a center channel speaker necessary the answer is a clear yes. It’s just incredibly practical and can enhance the sound experience on pretty much all ends. Whether you are a movie buff, an audio fan or just looking to improve your system a center channel speaker is an essential piece of any sound setup.
Michael Evanchuk is a San Francisco-based sound engineer with 20 years’ experience installing, troubleshooting, and repairing commercial, automotive, and household sound equipment. Evanchuk owns an auto stereo center, where he offers highly competitive car audio installation and repair services. He has written dozens of articles on different sound engineering topics, all of which have been published in leading journals, blogs, and websites.