How to Optimize Your Center Channel Speaker in a Home Theater System

This article is part of our Home Theater Design Series that covers virtually everything about designing a home theater. 

We have a full series on the top five tips to improve your home theater audio. If you are a home theater enthusiast, you are probably aware of how important a role the center channel's speaker plays in a great home theater experience. In this tip, we will give some basic setup tips and even a couple of suggestions for experts that will help you get the most out of your center channel speaker.

But first, why is the center channel so important?

Watch a couple of minutes of a movie with the sound turned off, and you’ll see why the center channel is probably the most important speaker in your home theater system. Almost all of the dialog is mixed into the center channel track. If you can not understand and follow the dialog, a movie or TV series is just not that much fun. Being able to hear the dialog track clearly is a requirement for a good home theater. But if you can take things one step further, and allow your center channel to perform as it should, you’ll not only be able to hear the dialog track but experience the subtle emotional cues in the voices which really draw you into the movie. This might take a little time and experimentation, but it is well worth it, as that little bit of time should enhance your experience for years to come.

Center Channel Selection

Ideally, your center channel should be identical to your left and right speakers. If you are able to do this with your system, that is fantastic. Another great practice is to even step up to a bigger center channel if you can stay within the same model series from a brand. As an example, you may have a left and right that sell for $600 each. They might also make a $1000 each model and a $1500 each model in that same series, using the same speaker drivers, just more of them with bigger cabinets. You could get the same $600 center speaker, but you’ll be better off stepping up to one of the bigger models as long as the speaker components are similar and matched. The reason you want your left, center and right to match is to keep the sound very consistent as things pan across the screen. So, if you have some great left and right speakers, but are using a leftover or hand me down for your center channel, do yourself a favor and upgrade to one that matches your main speakers as closely as possible.

Center Channel Placement

Once you’ve got the ideal center channel speaker for your home theater or media room, it's very important to properly position it to get the best performance. Center channel speakers come in all kinds of shapes from inwall to onwall, to a conventional speaker in the room.

First, your center speaker should be positioned as close as possible to the height of your ears. For most systems, this will put the center channel speaker either below or above your flat-panel TV. If you have a front projection system, it will normally go under the screen or above the screen angled down towards the seating area. If you are lucky enough to have an acoustically transparent projection screen, position the tweeter of the center channel speaker at the exact same height your ears are (usually around 38-42” off the floor).

If your center channel speaker is free-standing, putting it on a dedicated center channel speaker stand is ideal, but not always possible. Many center channel speaker stands angle the speaker so it aims the drivers at your ears. In most media rooms, it will probably wind up either on top or inside a cabinet. If you do have to put it on top of or inside a cabinet, make sure you use the rubber feet that are normally supplied with the speaker to help isolate it from the cabinet. These are also available at a hardware or building supply store. We think it's a good idea to put a couple of extra feet under the front part of the speaker to angle it towards your ears. Also, if it is inside a cabinet, position it as close as possible to the front of the cabinet. Finally, do not obstruct the center channel speaker with anything solid. To learn more about the placement of your other home theater speakers, check out our home theater buyers guide.

One other step that will help reduce cabinet resonance, if your center speaker has to be in a cabinet, is to line the inside of the cabinet with insulation. We prefer the rigid sheet type, but anything is better than nothing. Just be sure to wear gloves, long sleeves, and a mask if you are working with fiberglass. You can attach the rigid sheet with nails or adhesive or just stuff the cabinet with insulation it's it the fluffy type.

Feel free to take all of these steps or just the ones you feel comfortable with. The reason we are trying to reduce cabinet resonance is so the cabinet does not add anything to the sound the center channel is trying to reproduce. In some situations the cabinet will add so much resonance that for some frequency ranges of the human voice, it can sound like you have cupped your hands in front of your mouth, greatly changing the sound the directors intended and totally masking those subtle emotions in the performer's voices.

Calibrating Your Center Channel Speaker

Once you’ve picked out the best center channel and properly positioned it, you still need to make sure your home theater receiver or surround sound processor is properly calibrated. Many people skip this step, as you do get sound without calibration, but getting this right can make a huge difference in the sound you get. This is getting into the menu and set up section on your home theater receiver. If you have read this far, you are probably of the DIY mindset, so just dive in!

We have a supplemental video to help calibrate your center channel below. 

This particular video has got an audio track, and it's intended to be used with our center channel calibration optimization video. So what we've done is we've set up two voices that will come out. These voices are set up to try to replicate dialog that you would get in a surround sound movie. You'll hear two different versions of the voices.

Many modern home theater receivers now come with a microphone to allow the receiver to both auto-calibrate and in some cases to improve the sound with room equalization. Be sure the read the instructions for the microphone and follow them closely, paying special attention to where the system asks you to place the microphone. Most systems want you to have the microphone pointing towards the ceiling. We suggest you do this first, then fine-tune the results from the calibration. To learn more about calibration, check out our home theater buyers guide.

After you run the calibration, first make sure the distances the system thought it heard, are accurate. Just use a tape measure and adjust any that are off. We find many new home theater receivers are getting better at distances, except with subwoofers, those are usually off by several feet. The distances set the delay inside the home theater receiver so even if one speaker is 10 feet away and another 20 feet, the sound arrives at your ears at the same time.

Next is level calibration. There are now many good apps for smartphones that do a good job with setting levels. In the perfect world, you want to try and get all of your speakers to the same exact level. However, we see nothing wrong with having the level of the center channel speaker be 2 to 3db higher than your left and right. A lot of movies go overboard with special effects and having the center level raised just a bit will make it easier to understand the dialog. Feel free to experiment with the levels.

Our final step in the process involves listening. We are going to be changing the crossover point of the center channel speaker. You’ll see in your home theater receiver a size or crossover section under the speaker set up menu. A few receivers only give you a choice of large or small. Small is standardized to have a crossover at 80hz and unless you have a huge center channel speaker, you should choose small. If your home theater receiver has the ability to change the frequency, you’ll have some fun with the next step.

This step is more important if your center speaker is inside or on top of a cabinet. We suggest you start out at 80hz. Play our center channel test video from above. If any of the voices sound a little muffled, it is likely caused by some kind of cabinet resonance. Then try changing the crossover to 90 or 100hz. By raising the crossover (this is the frequency range going to the center speaker) we can usually reduce cabinet resonances that normally occur around 60-90hz. In many cases, this will make an amazing difference in the clarity of the dialog. Feel free to experiment with this and the levels until you are starting to hear the emotions of the performer's voices with minimal resonance. We do not think you should go above 110-120hz though unless the center speaker brand recommends higher.

Hopefully, if you have made it this far and gone through the steps, you have made a big improvement in the sound of the dialog in your home theater or media room.

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