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Center channel speaker buying guide

How to choose the most important speaker in your home theater system

What is a center channel speaker?

In a surround sound system, the center channel speaker is the one that sits above or below the TV screen. It’s arguably the most important speaker in your system.

Why?

Because it reproduces dialogue and other sounds that correlate with the action taking place in front of you. More often than not, that’s most of the sound you’re hearing from a movie.

A Jamo C9ii center channel speaker with a TV, and front left and right speakers

Your center channel speaker is the hardest-working speaker in your surround sound system.

Is a center channel speaker necessary?

If you don’t connect a center channel speaker to your home theater receiver, the receiver will redirect the center channel sounds to the front left and right speakers.

So technically, the answer to this question is no. Search online, and you’ll find passionate arguments for and against center channel speakers.

I side with the arguments in favor of the center channel speaker. A movie soundtrack has a center channel for a reason. I believe you should honor the filmmaker’s intent by providing a separate speaker for the center channel.

Another good point: If you don’t have a center channel speaker, you can’t independently control the volume of the center channel sounds. They’ll be mixed in with the left and right sounds, for better or worse.

A couple on a sofa watching TV with JBL stage speakers

Look for a center speaker that gives you accurate reproduction of the human vocal range.

Is bigger always better?

Here’s a good system-building strategy for a movie buff.

Start by choosing the best center channel speaker that your space and budget will allow. Then match the rest of your speakers to it. 

Let’s talk about a center speaker’s woofer size. This is where bigger isn’t always better. You don’t need your center channel speaker to produce a lot of bass. That’s because there’s not much bass information in the center channel of most movie soundtracks.

The best center channel speakers are the ones that make dialogue clearly intelligible. That’s not easy, given all of the other sounds that are competing for your attention.

Smaller woofers tend to respond more quickly and accurately to the sounds that inhabit the center channel. That’s human voices, for the most part.

Woofer size is just one part of the formula for dialogue clarity. The type of tweeter a speaker uses and the way the tweeter is deployed can make a difference, too.

Hard-dome tweeters can help with vocal clarity. Metal tweeters tend to have a crisper sound than those made of softer materials like silk.

Klipsch R34C center channel speaker on a console, under a TV

The horn in this Klipsch center channel speaker focuses the tweeter's output on your prime movie-watching seat.

Some center channel speakers have a tweeter with a waveguide or horn that controls dispersion. This can help focus the tweeter’s output on the seat that’s directly in front of the TV.

Are four woofers better than two?

You’ll notice that a lot of center channel speakers have two woofers. Some have four or more. The extra drivers will expand your “sweet spot.” Just make sure you can fit a four-woofer model into your cabinet.

Matching your center channel with your left and right speakers

Your three “front stage” speakers should be well matched.

What happens if your center channel has a markedly different sonic signature than your main left/right speakers? You’ll hear jarring differences as sounds move from one side of the stage to the other.

To achieve “voice matching” buy left, center, and right speakers of the same brand and of the same series within that brand.

Wharefedale home theater system with matched center, and front left and right speakers

Big speakers are a good match for an extra-large TV set.

Your three front speakers should also be reasonably well-matched in terms of size. Your center channel speaker doesn’t have to have the same size woofers as your left and right speakers. But the mismatch shouldn’t be too extreme.

You may need a small center speaker because that’s all you can fit in your TV cabinet. If you go with an ultra-compact center channel speaker, don’t go with giant left and right speakers. Stay within the same brand and series, and you should be safe in this regard.

Cambridge Audio's Minx Min 22, an ultra-compact speaker, sitting under a TV

An ultra-compact speaker like the Cambridge Audio Minx Min 22 fits nicely below a pedestal-mounted TV. You can use Minx Min 22s for your left, right, and rear speakers, too.

Will you be using your home theater system to listen to a lot of music, too? Then you might want to employ a different system-building strategy. Say you prefer the mellower sound of soft-dome tweeters for music. Then that’s what you should have in your left and right speakers. But then you’ll want a center channel speaker of the same ilk. 

Can you use your TV speakers or a sound bar as your center channel speaker?

In most cases, no.

However, a very small number of TVs, like those in Sony’s A9G series, have center speaker input terminals. You can connect your receiver’s center speaker output to those terminals. These particular Sony TVs feature “Acoustic Surface” technology that turns the entire screen into a speaker.   

You can’t use a self-powered sound bar as a center channel speaker. Passive sound bars incorporate left, center, and right speakers into a single speaker cabinet. They have speaker terminals for the three separate channels.

Can you use any speaker for the center channel?

Most center channel speakers are horizontally-oriented for a good reason. They’re meant to live beneath or above a flat-panel TV set.

There’s no law that says you have to use one of those, but using three vertically-oriented speakers is seldom practical in a living room. Unless you’re using ultra-compact speakers, it won’t work with a regular TV.

It’s not a great idea to turn a regular vertically-oriented speaker on its side for the center channel. The sound will not be properly balanced across the front soundstage.

Focal 300 IW6 LCR Multi-purpose in-wall home theater speaker mounted on both sides and below a TV

Identical in-wall speakers like these three Focal 300 IW6 LCR give you a perfectly matched front soundstage. They are designed to work well when mounted horizontally or vertically.

Some home theater purists insist that it’s best to use identical speakers for the left, center, and right channels. That’s a great idea for a dedicated home theater room. You’ll need a projector and an acoustically transparent screen. Place all three speakers behind the screen, at ear level.

Center channel speaker placement and special receiver settings

Position your center channel below or above the TV, as close as possible to ear level. If necessary and feasible, tilt it up or down to fire directly at your ears.

If you are not completely satisfied with the dialogue clarity, your receiver may be able to help. Look for a “vocal mode” or dialogue level control. This lets you boost a narrow band of frequencies in the human vocal range. Or you could simply boost the overall volume of the center channel speaker by a couple of decibels. Some receivers have also have a setting that uses digital signal processing to lift the center channel sound to ear level.

Does your receiver have a dynamic range control? This can be useful if you want to watch an action film while others in your household are trying to sleep. Find a volume level that gives you vocal clarity for the quieter scenes. The dynamic range control keeps things from getting too loud when the chase scene starts.

To learn more about home theater setup, read our articles about speaker placement and AV receiver installation.  

Features and specs

Speaker materials – The sound of a speaker is a product of many design choices, including the materials from which the drivers are made. For example, tweeters made of a fabric like silk usually have a smooth sound. Tweeters made of metal usually have a brighter sonic signature.

Sensitivity – Given the same amount of power, a speaker with a higher sensitivity rating will play louder than a speaker with a lower rating. A difference of a few dB can make a big difference. If you have a low-powered receiver, look for a center channel speaker with a sensitivity rating of 90 dB or greater.

Power range – Make sure your receiver’s RMS wattage falls within the recommended power range of the speakers you plan to buy. 

Impedance – This is the amount of resistance a speaker presents to an amplifier. Low-impedance speakers are those rated at 4 ohms. They should only be used with receivers that can deliver large amounts of continuous current. If you’re considering 4-ohm speakers, check your receiver's specs to make sure it's compatible.

Need help choosing?

Before you buy, it might help to gain a broader perspective on shopping for home theater speakers. Please read our intro to home theater speakers and our article about in-wall speaker options for home theater.

One of Crutchfield’s home theater experts can help you choose a center channel speaker that meets your needs. To get started, call 1-800-555-7088.

  • Kevin from Boise

    Posted on 8/7/2022

    My system doesn't match like recommended but I like the sound and refrained from over sizing my mains. I have the earlier version of the Klipsch RP4000Fs, the inexpensive version of a Bowers & Wilkens center channel, Martin Logan Dynamo 1000 sub woofer, Klipsch surround rears (the half moon looking ones), and Klipsch RP Atmos sitting on top of the mains. Room is probably 15' x 12' but it is an open room floor plan so you can walk into the kitchen and see and hear everything unobstructed. The sound is seamless and movies are a total joy to watch especially when cranked up a bit. I think I did a fairly decent job at keeping the system balanced and not having any one component overpowering the other.

  • Les. Holmes from Temecula CA

    Posted on 5/21/2022

    I am a Senior about to buy a new smart mid range LG TV. I am also contemplating adding a Center speaker. I know nothing about speakers other than a few articles that indicate that TV's internal speakers are not too good and that a soundbar or a center channel speaker would be helpful for voice clarification. I have severe hearing problems and voice clarity is a major issue. Would anyone care to weigh-in with advice and recommendations ? Thanks in advance. Les. Holmes

  • Robert Lotman from Fort Worth

    Posted on 3/4/2022

    I'm very happy with the Crutchfield purchases I've made. Got the Polk Anniversary Monitors all around for my surround system. My Polk subwoofer blew and replaced it a Klipsch sub. Added Klipsch Atmos fronts all tied to my Denon 2300W you sold. Great system and Atmos DVDs sound great. Now to go to up to 5.4.2.

    Commenter image

    Kramer Crane from Crutchfield

    on 3/7/2022

    That sounds like an awesome system, Robert! I'm glad we could help. Happy listening!
  • Chaz from Omaha

    Posted on 2/21/2022

    I'm Frankensteining a system with vintage JBL L100 mains, Velodyne sub and M&K 2-ways in the rear. Going to phantom the center. Playing through a Pioneer VSX-919AH. We'll see how it sounds.

  • David Kettwig from Tucson

    Posted on 2/14/2022

    I now have the Klipsch Stereo RP 160M and Center R-52C speakers; Onkyo TX SR 494 Receiver. The Center speaker is too dominant and woofer loud causing muffled voice projections on TV Shows and Movies. How do I adjust the center speaker to get better audio?

    Commenter image

    Kramer Crane from Crutchfield

    on 2/18/2022

    Thanks for reaching out, David. I'm sorry to hear you're having trouble with your system. First, I recommend running (or re-running) your receiver's auto-calibration system. Then, if the center channel is still too prominent, try manually lowering its output level by a dB or two. That should help you get more balanced sound, especially with dialogue.
  • Eddie from Atlanta

    Posted on 12/22/2020

    Very helpful article.

  • Chuck Hansen from Puyallup

    Posted on 12/19/2020

    Thanks it is informative

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