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How Important is the Center Channel to System Performance?

When the first home theater systems hit the market most gave short shrift to the center channel and the surround speakers. In fact, many early surround receivers provided only 10 to 15 watts for the center and surround channels. The speakers offered for these channels were often just as wimpy, often just using midrange drivers. This was primarily because the audio engineers really didn’t understand the new-to-them requirements of high performance surround sound.

Audio companies quickly learned that these channels really needed much better devices in order to do their jobs properly. In fact, GoldenEar‘s Sandy Gross actually designed the very first true full range center channel speaker back in the early ’90’s. You can actually watch a movie with only the center channel operating and still pretty much follow what’s happening in the film! This isn’t true for any other speaker in the system. Why is that? Because the center channel provides up to 80% of the dialogue and without dialogue you’d have to be a lip reader to understand what’s happening. The center channel also contributes significant special effects and other information as well, potentially up to 60%.

We remember several years ago when the first Jurassic Park film came out, there were a fair number of center channel speakers and amplifiers that were completely overwhelmed by the roar of the Tyrannosaurus during the “jeeps in the rain” scene. There was just so much center channel energy they simply couldn’t handle it.

GoldenEar's Top of the Line SuperCenter XXL

GoldenEar’s Top of the Line SuperCenter XXL

Experts agree the center channel is the single most critical speaker in a surround system, even if the subwoofer is the most fun. It’s absolutely critical not only for understanding what’s going on in the movie, but it’s also key to properly locating sounds in the center of the screen, where most of a movie’s action takes place. Not using a center channel and creating a phantom center with the left/right stereo pair only works well when the listener is sitting directly centered between them. For anyone else in the room, the center image will collapse into a left or right biased image. The phantom center is often considered OK for serious stereo listening because serious stereo listening is pretty much a solitary activity. Movie viewing on the other hand is often a group activity with multiple listeners sitting around the room.

In an ideal system you’d have identically voiced speakers in every position. Perhaps even identical speakers, although that is rarely possible. The key, is to have tonally matched (voiced) speakers, and this would usually mean speakers from the same manufacturer. Although some manufacturer’s speakers are not all tonally matched, because every GoldenEar speaker utilizes many of the same technologies, drivers and designers, they can be used interchangeably in combination and still deliver excellent results.

In today’s world of discrete, full range, multi-channel playback, the surround and effects speakers matching is just as critical. These can be in-wall or in-ceiling models instead of floor standing, wall mounted or stand mounted enclosures, but should still be “matching” models utilizing similar technologies and voicing, just like for the center speaker. This makes our Invisa™ series models, which not only sound very much like their brethren but also offer special designs, truly viable for any position in a surround system, even the L/C/Rs. All of this is more important for the latest object-based surround formats like Dolby Atmos, DTS:X and Auro 3D (more on these in the next article).

Choosing the GoldenEar SuperSat series or the SuperCinema 3D Arrays makes this kind of speaker matching easy to achieve while maintaining room décor. If your goal is ultra-high performance, serious listening in stereo as well as surround, we suggest you consider the Triton or the Aon series, at least for the front L/Rs.
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