Rethinking Home Theater's 'Money Seat'
These flexible parameters allow for a wide variation in setups, depending on the speakers themselves, their radiation patterns, the room, the positions of the speakers and the listening seat in the room and, of course, the listener’s preferences. But for a solitary listener there is one fixed goal: the seating position should be dead center between the left and right speakers. This is often referred to as the “money seat,” (ostensibly in honor of the assumed founder of the audio feast). That seat invariably offers the best stereo perspective.
For that reason, in serious listening to two-channel sources I always sit stage center and set my preamp-processor to Stereo, either with or without the subwoofer but never to a simulated surround format such as Dolby Surround. Dolby Surround in the classic sense, produces a semblance of 5.1 or 7.1-channel sound from a two-channel original. (Dolby has now chosen to use the term Dolby Surround to refer audio modes that artificially derive a Dolby Atmos sound field from a 5.1 or 7.1 source.)
It’s an extremely rare system that can lock down a stereo image when you move off center. In fact, if you have a home theater system with a center speaker, and play a well-recorded two-channel stereo source, if a centered vocalist or instrument doesn’t appear to be coming from the center speaker, your setup is not ideal.
When home theater evolved, the money seat was always assumed to be the same. Often it is. But with a center speaker (leaving aside the non-optimal use of a phantom center, which introduces the same imaging issues as two-channel stereo when you move off to the side), there may be another useful “money seat.”
Back in Jurassic times, when dinosaurs ruled the earth and CRT projectors dominated the home theater landscape, that projector demanded to be put in the middle. For a reviewer, that meant on the floor; hanging and removing a succession of those 200lb beasts from the ceiling was simply impractical.
The Move to Off-Center Viewing
I was fortunate enough to have a separate room and system for my audio-only chores where I could put the money seat where it belonged, in the center. But In the home theater room I had to sit next to the projector, which meant off to the side, usually the left side as that was closest to the room entrance. With a screen that then measured a humongous 78-inches wide (CRTs weren’t very bright) that meant I was literally sitting at or near the left side of the screen.
I came to like it. As I moved on to other homes and different home theater/audio spaces, with smaller digital projectors that didn’t hog the traditional sweet spot, I continued to sit off center for movies (but still in the center for music, particularly in two-channels).
What was the attraction of the off-center seat? With an active center, you can sit anywhere and the dialogue and most of the effects stay where they belong relative to the screen image. So that was no issue. Yes, imaging is not as precise as in the old sweet spot, but with the visual cues in a movie the action on screen compensates for that.
The biggest advantage for me is that the off-center seat produces a more epic, uniform sweep to film music. This gives it an enhanced integrity with a more seamless blend of left, right, and center, which is particularly effective on symphonic film scores. Yes, it does sacrifice a little imaging precision, but with a combined audio/video experience that’s not as obvious as it would be in audio alone.
Not everyone will agree with me on this. That’s fine, but it costs nothing to try it. But a few guidelines are in order. If you have the more common two-way (woofer-tweeter-woofer) center speaker it might not be as effective as with a three way (with the midrange and tweeter vertically aligned in the center, flanked by woofers on each side). Off center positions can degrade the sound from a two-way center due to the comb filtering produced by the horizontally configured drivers, particularly in the woofers-to-tweeter transition.
The left and right speakers must also be toed in toward the center. Otherwise you’ll find yourself significantly off axis to the far speaker and directly on-axis to the closer one. Not good. Optimally, you’ll want to be off axis to at least the nearer speaker. I’d also recommend that you set up the distances and levels from each speaker relative to the center seat. Apart from a small boost to the level of the far speaker (for me, 2 dB or less is usually sufficient) the balance should be good enough from the side seat, and won’t be off significantly for non-critical listeners sitting elsewhere.
It’s also possible that the bass modes of your room will be worse at the side location (though they might be better!). If the side seat is near a wall, that might render this location less than good. In my experience, in three different rooms. the side seat has been at least 3 feet from a side wall. I haven’t experimented with using room EQ such as Audyssey with this seating arrangement. It might work, though the auto system will want to skew the distances to the various speakers relative to the off-center seat if you position your microphone there. If this turns out to be an issue, simply reset the distances manually in relation to the center seateven though you’re not sitting there.
On the video side, this arrangement will likely work best with displays that maintain their quality when viewed off-axis, which currently means either a plasma (no longer available, but many of you may be using one) and OLEDs. As for projection, if your screen is 9-feet wide or less it should work fine. But you might want to experiment with a more modest off-axis seating position with a 10-footer or more. If you have an exceptionally high gain screen you might also find that the far side of the screen looks a bit dimmer than the near side. This is how a high gain screen works; it focuses the light more toward the center. But on my 9-foot wide, 1.3 gain Stewart Studiotek screen I haven’t found this to be an issue.
If this doesn’t work for you, nothing lost. But if it does, you can impress your family and movie guests by offering them the center seats, telling them that you’ll be just fine “over here!”