Do I Need to Upgrade My Center Speaker with New Front Speakers?
You’ve got a hankering for an upgrade. What do you want? New speakers! When do you want them? Now! But…there is a problem. You’d like to upgrade your front left and right speakers but there is a catch. That pesky center speaker! If you upgrade your front left and right speakers, does the center speaker have to be replaced as well? As with most things in this hobby, the answer is, “It depends.” Let’s discuss.
If you are wondering what all the fuss is about, we are worried about timbre matching. As sounds move around your room, and through different speakers, you want them to all sound the same. If you upgrade your left and right speakers and not your center, you risk a sonic mismatch. As much of the action in a movie happens at the front of the room, having your center tonally different from your left and right speakers can sound strange. You wouldn’t want that.
The general advice is to always have matching front speakers. The left and right should match the center. If you are buying a whole set of speakers, this usually isn’t an issue. But if you are upgrading, we are talking about a significant cost increase. Center speakers routinely cost more than an individual front speaker. Buying a center speaker along with your upgraded front left and right speakers can increase your budget by 50% or more!
Trying it Costs Nothing…Usually
I’m a big believer in trusting your ears. People online will tell you that you “need” to do a thing even when it may not be true in your individual case. As someone that has tested dozens of speakers, I can say with experience that, in most instances, a good center speaker works just fine with most front speakers. When they mismatched? That wasn’t hard to detect. I heard it immediately as did anyone else that was in the room. If you buy your dream upgraded front speakers, you’ll know almost immediately if your center speaker works with them or not.
Of course, this assumes that it will cost you nothing extra to wait to buy the center speaker. That isn’t always the case. If you are buying online, you could save on shipping by buying all your speakers at once. You could get a discount for a larger purchase. If you are buying locally, you may get some sort of package deal. If you aren’t willing to risk the additional costs, how do you know if you should buy the center speaker when you upgrade your front speakers?
If you really can’t afford a center speaker and you are ready to upgrade your front speakers, just do it. If you try it out and it doesn’t sound good, you can run a phantom center. Every AV receiver on the market can route the center channel information to your front left and right speakers. No, this will not be as good as having a physical center speaker, but at least you won’t have a tonal mismatch. Many people go this route as they save up money for other upgrades. If your front left and right speakers are wider than your seating area, you might find you don’t need a center!
How To Know If Your Center Speaker Will Match Your Upgraded Front Speakers
If you really want to know how your center speaker will stand up to your new fronts, there are a few things you can do to reassure yourself.
Do Some Research
If you want to know if there is definitely going to be a tonal mismatch between your new front speakers and your existing center, you are going to have to do some research. Some speakers have tonal qualities that are unique while others do not. The first step is to research all the speakers in question. Read professional reviews and compare all the speakers in question. Are they all described similarly? If the upgraded front speakers and existing center speaker are all described as “flat,” that is a great sign. Chances are, they will play nice together.
One thing to consider is their sensitivity. Horn-loaded speakers, like Klipsch, are highly efficient. This means it takes very little power for them to get very loud. Pairing less sensitive speakers with very sensitive ones can make it impossible to level-match them. Tonally, speakers with horn-loaded tweeters generally should be paired with other speakers with similar tweeters.
That Didn’t Help
Don’t be surprised if you come out the other side of your research without any firm answers. There is no unified nomenclature for speaker reviews. Even measurements can’t tell you how a speaker will sound in your room. You picked your front speaker upgrade because you felt they would sound better than your current speakers. By definition, you’d expect that your center channel wouldn’t keep up. That may be true, but HOW true is it? Is it so true that you won’t be able to live with your current center or will the mismatch be tolerable until you can save up enough for an upgraded center?
Where Did You Start?
This is the real question. Did you start with a soundbar? You can turn that into a center (sometimes) but you can’t expect it to sound the same as your new front speakers. Did you start with hand-me-down satellite speakers with no name and proprietary connections? Don’t expect that center speaker to sound like anything you might buy as an upgrade to your front speakers.
But That’s Not You
Most of you reading this have already progressed past this point. You are looking to move past your entry-level home theater speakers to your “forever” speakers. In your case, you could reasonably expect that your current center speaker might be able to keep up with your new upgraded front speakers. If you believe this is you, that research we suggested above, is far more important. You may want to take it to the next level.
That Next Level is Taking Your Speaker on a Trip
The only way to know for sure if your center speaker will tonally match your planned upgraded front speakers is to hear them together. You can do this by taking your existing center to wherever you can to put it up against your planned fronts. If you are shopping locally, bring your center to the store and ask if you (or they) can hook it up and test. If you are buying online (and they don’t have free shipping both ways), inquire about owners in your area. Many online manufacturers maintain a forum or have a list of owners that are willing to allow people into their homes to demo their speakers. For a six-pack or just a few kind words, you can test out your center with the speakers of your dreams.
Most of the time, we’d say that you’d want to hear the speakers in your room. This is not the case here. You don’t care how the speakers sound, you care how they sound in comparison to your center speaker. If they all sound relatively the same, you can buy just the fronts. If they sound different, you’ll need to upgrade the center as well (or go with a phantom as we discussed). Either way, you’d know.
It is natural to worry when making a big purchase. Even if the amount you are paying for your planned upgraded fronts isn’t all that much, it is still an important purchase. Having peace of mind that you won’t be disappointed is important. Hopefully, it is reassuring to know that you have options.