Are center channel speakers useless?

No offense meant to anybody, but my opinion is yes. When I started out in this hobby many years ago, I bought an AV receiver and a 5.1 setup. Such clutter with the wiring and 5 speakers plus a subwoofer, it created.
After a few years, I tested my rig only in stereo. A good stereo setup produces a “phantom” center and places the voices (for music and movies) straight in the center. I went back and forth between activating the center channel and the two front mains and could not tell a difference! Actually, the 2 channel stereo sounded better.
I then found this article that explains it well:

Not for me,I much prefer a centre speaker! Tried it with just plain stereo, I found dialogue became a bit vague and especially when actors mumble a bit.

So the centre speaker stays put.


No offense taken, but I think your key quote is ‘many years ago’. I had a Naim AV2 for many years, the centre channel powered by a 145 into a Neat MFC. Naim haven’t pursued AV, so I switched to an Arcam Processor last year. I assure you with the new codecs such as Atmos, as a movie lover it really is superb

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Not so sure the idea holds true with big screens. My main speakers are either side of a 12ft wide screen, and main sitting position is about 11ft from eyes to screen, so the mains a a bit wide apart for a convincing phantom centre. Also, if the centre speaker is ‘voiced ‘ more for speech, curtailing lowest and possibly highest frequencies, dialogue may be clearer than if sent through neutral wide-spectrum mains.

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I don’t miss the centre speaker at all in my system. Years ago I fitted two in wall speakers either side of the fireplace with wiring also in situ for a future centre speaker. Also 2 ceiling rear speakers were fitted. I would have fitted an in wall centre speaker above the fireplace but I was concerned it would be damaged by the heat, so it never happened. My Cambridge CXR 120 receiver has been programmed for 4.1 and sounds great. The Ovator400s in the picture are not part of the av system.


A few years ago I might have agreed with you. At that time I used a JBL MR Centre, which was well reviewed at the time. All too often I found that I preferred the sound with the centre channel switched to ‘Phantom’, so that the centre signal was delivered to the main fronts.
When I replaced the JBLs with a Naim N-Cent, a centre speaker of much higher quality and with similar characteristics to my stereo’s Naim Ariva speakers, that situation changed and the sound became much more seamless. I now find that switching the centre channel out results in a far less satisfying sound, particularly with regards to dialogue.


I think a lot of people prefer the centre speaker for voice audio clarity, especially for Brit programs that have very realistic sound recording. An example of which is when the characters are on a street having a conversation and a bus goes by. British tele doesn’t cancel out the bus sound, they leave it in and that’s one of the reasons that Brit TV is more engaging than, say, American TV.


The phantom channel is fine if you’ve got just one viewing position. The centre phantom totally falls apart if you have a family viewing room with sofas and chairs in multiple places. It can even fall apart for people sitting on the left or right of the sofa instead of dead middle if the speakers have a narrow off axis response.

The best home cinema I ever had (and I’ve had a few including a THX setup) was with Bose 901s for the main stereo pair and no centre speaker. They just didn’t need it. Voices were from a massive wall of sound regardless of seating position. That system was just plain old Pro Logic from the mid 90s where the rears were not full range and in mono, but I’ve never had that scale and bombast since.

2.0 is easier to do.
Front 3.0 depends, as with all set ups, on balance of speakers used rears/satellite imo are not so important.
If you can do 5.1 (or more) that provides most benefit for tv/movies to me.
As with most things hifi, for me, it depends, so no.
The ability of new stereo streamer/dac/amps have made 2.0 a serious alternative to having a dedicated av receiver though.

Love my 5.1 setup. A reasonable center image is created with a stereo rig for the ideal listening position. With a 5.1 system center is always center regardless of where one is seated.


I found out using subwoofer between speakers ( kudos super 20 ) to be helpful. Subwoofer ( sumiko s. 10 ) is connected to receiver ( arcam avr 450 ) with high level connection. Front l&r go to 282 from pre outs. Subwoofer is lifted 30 cm from the floor.
The sub gives feeling of more even front and larger sound.
Regards Hannu

If you want to listen to good dialogue with film, I would recommend or you will be using the 2.1 mix or down mixing yourself in some way. Other set ups will of course work, But a lot of good 5.1 and 7.1 mixes

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We added a centre driven by a relatively simple Marantz AVR to improve audibility of dialogue and allow control of dynamic range to prevent upsetting the neighbours. The preouts from the AVR go to an input on the SuperUniti configured for unity gain, the centre speaker is a KEF T301C which is shallow enough to be wall mounted under the TV. With the Audyssey processing in the AVR the centre blends well enough with the PMC20.23 used for L&R and the combo works fine with no extraneous noise or other artefacts.

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I would offer a firm no, but I’d also qualify it heavily based on my own home theatre journey: like a lot of people, I started adding a centre and surrounds to a setup that was swapping out my stereo amp for an A/V receiver. I had decent stereo speakers for my budget at the time, but I cut corners on the others.

The same was true with amplification: I kept using a power amp for the L/R, and the internal amps on the receiver. The results were mediocre. While I did upgrade the centre and surrounds, I still ended up dropping from a 5.0 setup to a 4.0 setup and finding it an improvement.

I have subsequently moved to 4.1, then 5.1 (and now 5.1.4), and dropping the centre back in was a huge improvement, especially for films that have been panned for the clarity of speech (such as Dune, Blade Runner 2049, and so on): essentially, my opinion is that in an HT setup, your centre speaker is actually the most important speaker that you own, and should be treated as such, unless you mostly watch film from the silent era: you need to hear dialogue, and you need it to be clear.

The other issue that I found in my own journey is how under-appreciated the importance of calibration is. When I started building out my first surround setups it was not much discussed, but taking the time to properly measure the layout of your speakers and balance the relative volumes for your preferred listening position (if you have a manual receiver) or to spend the money on a system with a good room correction (ARC or Dirac, for example) is absolutely night and day in terms of getting decent performance out of a surround sound setup.

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I agree with good calibration, particularly physical location and orientation. I run a 7.4.0 set up and may add a 5th sub at some point for even more headroom


Indeed - with two further suggestions:

  1. Ideally, don’t rely on the receiver’s auto- calibration routine, except for a very quick and approximate job. Once I got a proper deciBel meter, I was amazed how much better a job I could do than the auto routine.

  2. Don’t assume that, if you’ve not obviously changed anything about your system, you never need to re-check the levels. I re-measure mine from time to time and they often seem to be a little bit out. No idea why: quite possibly the variation is within my experimental error, or maybe all sorts of other non-system changes in the room (how much stuff has been dumped in there by my children, how far Mrs Ebor has got on with her latest jigsaw etc) have a total effect which I’m wrong to assume is trivial.



Adding one subwoofer to your existing array of four will barely add +1dB of headroom. You’ll achieve more by mutual coupling - 2 subwoofers separated = +3dB, placed together = +6dB (3dB advantage). Same true for four units when separated = +6dB, placed together = +12dB (6dB advantage). You can then experiment with where you place the stack in your room. Good news is it’s free!

Every autocalibration system I’ve tested yields a different result, and none of them are close to what I’d aim for doing it manually, and the target response (especially above 2KHz) is based on the room acoustics and loudspeaker dispersion pattern at a given frequency. Additionally some loudspeaker manufacturers compensate for the varying off axis response between drivers in the crossover region aiming for flat power response instead (something Altec started in the 1970s). Last thing you want is an auto calibration system ‘correcting’ for something that is intentional.

I am all manual with my calibration and use small delays for closer subs and PEQ’s to remove nodes, combining 4 subs across a 2m seating area is complex but stick to clear logic and many REW measurements and you can happily achieve an excellent response