What Is A Channel Center Speaker?

By May 21, 2021Blog

Installing a surround sound speaker system in your Fort Worth, TX, home sweetens the experience of listening to music and watching movies. For a truly rich indulgence in the aural, a front center speaker is a must, but precisely what is this type of speaker, and why does it improve your enjoyment? This article will break down several key points:

  • A brief overview of how surround sound works and why it enriches viewing experiences
  • What is a channel center speaker and the role it plays in a surround sound system
  • Phantom centers versus physical center speakers and what makes a physical speaker more desirable

What Is the Benefit of Surround Sound?

Before we get into center speakers specifically, let’s understand the surround sound system as a whole. How does it work? Why does it matter in movie and gaming experiences?

How Surround Sound Works

Sound systems transmit through what are known as channels, and each channel directs its sound to the corresponding speaker. When audio engineers mix the soundtrack of a movie or game, they can independently adjust each channel’s volume regarding music, dialog, and sound effects. This influences a listener’s perceptions about distance and positional relationships between that person and what’s happening on-screen, thus replicating certain real-world perspectives. A surround sound system takes advantage of the channels by strategically positioning multiple speakers around a media room, creating an immersive experience like you are physically in the movie or game you are playing.

As an example, if the movie camera is trained on a particular person in the right-hand foreground and someone in the left-hand background of the scene calls out to that person, the second character’s dialogue may route exclusively through your front left speaker. This gives the impression that you, like the foreground person, are standing afar and to the right of the background person. In playing a game, surround sound might even save your virtual life, alerting you to which direction to turn when you hear offscreen sounds such as gunfire.

In short, encircling your media room with several speakers creates depth and variation in the sounds, mentally sucking you into the setting. The deeper you are pulled in, the easier it is to get lost in the movie or game and suspend disbelief, tuning out distractions in your immediate environment and perceiving more nuance from your digital territory.

How To Achieve Surround Sound

To achieve surround sound, your Fort Worth home’s setup can include as few as three speakers or as many as seven, plus at least one subwoofer in each scenario. If someone references “5.1 surround sound,” they mean that the system consists of five speakers and one subwoofer. If a system is 5.2, it includes two subwoofers. Note, however, that a system with fewer than three speakers is stereo (dual) sound, not surround, thus the need for three or more.

What Is a Center Speaker and Why Is It Important?

Now that we understand more about surround sound systems as a whole, what is a center speaker, and how does it fit into that picture? Simply put, the center speaker is an integral component to achieving an optimal “auditory perspective” from a reproduction. Emulating real auditory perspectives is one of the factors that transform artificial facsimiles into realistic and engrossing sensations.

Auditory perspective has been scientifically studied extensively since as early as the 1930s. The goal is to better understand the relationship between the position of the listener and that of live performers and then to convincingly reproduce that relationship through a speaker system. To that end, in 1933, a performance by the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra was transmitted from Philadelphia to Washington D.C., and “the effect upon the listening audience in the distant hall was essentially the same as though the orchestra had been behind the stage curtains there instead of miles away in another city.” This experiment used three channels to achieve that effect, and history was made.

In a system with three front speakers, the center speaker brings it all together, enabling a smoother transition from left to the right speaker and creating an anchor point for the listener. It is also the speaker through which most of the on-screen dialogue travels. It provides greater depth to the sound. If a center speaker is absent, such as in a stereo speaker system, the centering effect must instead be replicated by the left and right speakers, which is known as a “phantom” center.

Is a Phantom Center Good Enough?

While phantom centers can partially compensate for the lack of a center speaker by mirroring the audio from the left speaker to the right one and vice versa, it is an imperfect solution. For a phantom center to perform effectively, several factors must work together perfectly to achieve the desired sound from only two speakers.


First, the soundwaves of the left and right speakers must have an unobstructed reach to each other and the listener. Placing them set back to either side of an obstacle, such as a television or entertainment stand, disrupts the soundwaves. As the sound waves bounce off the obstacle, they don’t blend effectively, and this can lead to a subtle perception of imbalance or disjointedness in the audio.


Second, the two speakers must be perfectly synchronized. Because identical audio must emanate from both speakers simultaneously if it is to form the perception of a center speaker, the process relies on perfect synchronization. If the timing falters even a little, it becomes distracting and, again, disjointed, shattering the realism.


Third, the location of the listener is consequential, too. The listener must sit precisely at the center of the axis between the left and right speaker to enjoy the full listening experience, generally referred to as the “sweet spot.” If position strays from that spot, then the audio quality degrades, creating a feeling of imbalance and losing some of the frequencies and tonality responsible for the richness of sound. Without richness and balance, realism is again reduced or lost.

Is a Physical Center Speaker Better?

For an audience of one whose seat is directly in the middle of the media space, a phantom center may be acceptable. For everyone else, installing a dedicated center speaker as part of your system creates a wider sweet spot, adding flexibility to where you can sit or how many can join in while still enjoying the full range of audio.

One other advantage a dedicated center speaker has over a phantom center is fine-tuned dialog volume for easier comprehension. The center speaker channel focuses heavily on dialog. This makes it possible to independently adjust the dialog when there is a separate center speaker, whereas dialog adjustment may be minimal or nonexistent in a system reliant upon a phantom center. Taking all the above advantages together, a physical center speaker offers an overall superior listening experience for the audience versus a phantom center.

When you’re ready to start installing your next audiovisual system in Fort Worth, contact BTZ Audio Video, LLC for a personalized touch that you won’t get anywhere else. We work directly with you to ensure that you receive the system you want while fitting it to the space and budget you have.

Featured Image: G_O_S/Shutterstock

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