Am I Missing Something by Not Having Matching Speakers as Surrounds

You are concerned. If your speakers aren’t all matching, how can you get a perfect sonic experience? You can’t (it seems clear to you). Surely, you’ll be missing something by having surrounds that are not matching your main speakers. Right? Let’s discuss.

Timbre-Matching Revisited

In short, timbre-matching is when two speakers sound exactly the same. Usually (exclusively?) because they are the same speaker from the same manufacturer in the same line. Your front left and right speakers are timbre-matched because they are essentially the same. Many people will suggest that you need your center speaker to also be the same (this isn’t always possible because some manufacturers won’t sell their speakers individually). The thought process here is that to get the most realistic surround experience, every speaker in your system must be exactly the same.

Try using these as surrounds! Or don’t.

Cost and Practicality

For most people, the cost of having the same speaker at every location in their theater is a huge hurdle. Main speakers are often more expensive than surround speakers so it isn’t cost-effective to get identical models. The size of the speakers is also a consideration. Front speakers tend to be much farther from your seat in comparison to surround or overhead speakers. A larger size is needed so that they can output enough volume to achieve reference level. Placing such large speakers in surround (not to mention overhead) locations can often be impossible.

The Compromise

The compromise most people make is that they buy speakers from the same line. These speakers are designed to sound very similar to each other. You see this in nearly every speaker manufacturer. They’ll have tower, bookshelf, center, surround, and sometimes overhead speakers that are all in the same line. They’ll tell you that these are all voiced to work well with each other (i.e. timbre-matched to each other). This way, you can have larger speakers up front, a center that fits in your equipment stand or under your TV, and smaller speakers that are wall-mountable for your surrounds.

But this isn’t good enough for some people. They worry that these don’t sound the same. That you need the same speaker so that they are perfectly matched for your mains, center, and surrounds. But are they right?

Three perfectly matched speakers

Do Matching Surround and Main Speakers Make a Difference?

There are two answers to this question. In an anechoic chamber (a room with no sound reflections), could you tell the difference between non-identical (but timbre-matched) speakers that were in different locations? Probably. They’d have to be playing a very simple tone or sweep that would pan between the different speakers. The differences might not be very large, but you’d probably be able to tell that the speakers were slightly different.

But your room isn’t an anechoic chamber. You also aren’t listening to sweeps that are panning around the room designed to reveal the minute differences between speakers.

In your room, with movies, music, and other normal content, it is nearly impossible for you to tell the difference between speakers that are remotely timbre-matched. Heck, as long as the speakers sound somewhat the same, you won’t be able to tell the difference.

Wrap Up

Most people have identical front left and right speakers. Guess what? Those perfectly matched front speakers don’t sound exactly the same in most rooms simply because of the room acoustics! You can test this by downloading a sweep and playing it through each speaker individually (if you have a mixer, you can pan between them). The acoustics of the room will make each speaker sound slightly different.

Having perfectly matched speakers as surrounds may make sense on paper, but you aren’t really missing out on anything by buying less expensive models that are easier to place. Room acoustics will obfuscate any minor sonic differences.

1 Comment on Am I Missing Something by Not Having Matching Speakers as Surrounds

  1. Pablo

    So can I take those Sony TVs that can act as a center speaker and be happy with it? No discernible difference with a timbre matched (to L and R) center speaker?

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