Critic's Center Position Clarified

Recently I've begun configuring some review systems to eliminate the horizontal center speaker in favor of a matching left/center/right array. The specific weakness of horizontal centers lies in their dual woofers. They bring on an effect called lobing--that is, sum-and-cancellation effects that cause uneven response at the listening position. However, my preference for identically matched speakers across the front is causing consternation to some readers, especially concerning placement.

Anthony Pasquini of Fort Myers, Florida wrote to the print version of Home Theater: "I was wondering how Mark Fleishmann [sic] arranged the front speakers for his review of the Canton GLE 403 system. He enjoyed the fact that the Cantons had no dedicated center speaker and stated that he prefers to arrange the front three speakers in an arc equidistant from the listener. Where does this leave the 'center' speaker? If it is on the stand the speaker is about 30 inches off the ground, which would put it directly in front of most TVs."

Following is the response I submitted to our letters editor:

"If positioning the center speaker 30 inches off the ground blocks the screen, then don't do it. It is fairly obvious that the center should go above or below the screen. Unless you've got a perforated screen--then it should go behind the screen. If you want side-to-side pans to be continuous, it is also a good idea to keep all three front speakers on the same level, or at least firing toward the same listening position. They might be angled upward or downward as needed. When I used a small direct-view TV, my center speaker was on a shelf below the screen, angled upward toward the listening position.

"Because horizontal centers are typically the weakest link in a surround speaker system, I am trying to eliminate them from at least some review systems. I urgently suggest to all my readers that they reconsider their attitude toward the supposed necessity of a horizontal center speaker. Your system will sound better with identical speakers across all three front channels. In the rear, where imaging is less critical, you can afford to be more flexible--monitors, bipole/dipoles, or (as in the Canton review) on-walls. The use of non-horizontal centers is quite easy with large front-projection screens--my own stand-mount monitor-size center is just below the bottom border of a wall-hanging screen and this placement works extremely well."

Lath's picture

Why not eliminate the problems with a center speaker and use wide dispersement full range front stereo speakers? In fact with identical full range stereo surround speakers you would not even require a subwoofer and would solve the problems inherent in using a separate subwoofer. 4.0 is the way to listen to movies and surround music.

Bruce's picture

4.0 are you mad? 10.4 is more like it, well, if the room is big enough. And with my 106" screen that would be nice to have. I do miss the old days sometimes with the old 3-ways with a 12"/15" woofer but I will take some Klipsch with dual tens all the way around my living room with four 12" subs in each corner. Of course, this is a guy who helped install the largest KV2 Audio system in America so I have that taste in my mouth for more than the average HT speaker system can give.

Dave Anderson's picture

For normal living-room size setups, I think a center channel is not only unnecessary but a bad idea for all the reasons mentioned previously. Two excellent full-range speakers up front provide a wide, seamless soundstage without gaps. I like a subwoofer for movies, so my setup is 4.1.

Bruce's picture

I was kidding a little bit in my first comment, but I would rather have Lath's 4.0 setup over Dave's 4.1 because Lath was going to have the big bad boy speakers with woofers all around instead of one sub. The one sub design bugs me. Why can't we have surround bass? Think of war scenes or thunderstorms. I want to feel bass from explosions and thunder coming from all different directions, not just one. With Lath's design you can get that. Heck, you can do a 7.0 surround with towers that have built in subs and get the same effect that I desire. Would that be 7.7 though, hmm. Anyway, back to the center channel. Ever since they started making equal power to each channel for surround I have always thought all the speakers should be the same size, and of course, large and in charge.

John's picture

Shouldn't the center speaker be optimised for normal human voice range?

raneil's picture

Mark: Could you please post photographs of your setup?

Mark Fleischmann's picture

I prefer not to let people see my squalor -- but I'll be describing the salient points of it in a future diablog which may appear here in a few weeks.

Tom Thompson's picture

You have given significant hints in your reviews of your preference to have all front speakers the same rather than a different center channel speaker. Since being retired meant less discretionary spending, I bought the Hsu system you reviewed. I did not get a center channel speaker but instead used five of the bookshelves with sub woofer. It is awesome but most importantly the fronts all blend together perfectly for a huge sound stage. I might have used a center if your prior reviews had not pushed the idea of all the front speakers being the same. So that was good advice and I thank you also for your excellent reviews.

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