In-ceiling Speakers

How Much of a Difference Do Overhead Speakers Make?

Dolby and DTS would have you believe that not having overhead speakers will have you missing out. Reddit will back them up. Without overhead speakers, how will you experience those all-so-important overhead sounds? Well, I’m here (hear?) to tell you! My amp for my top middle speakers developed an issue and I was without for a couple of weeks. How did I survive? Very well, thank you very much! Let’s discuss!

Marginal Gains

When trying to get the best performance, you often run into what people call “marginal gains.” These are small (sometimes imperceptibly small) improvements that often cost inordinate amounts of money. If you are a professional, these gains can be the difference between first and second place. For the rest of us, it is just another thing to spend our hard-earned money on.

When my amp broke for my top middle speakers, I didn’t rerun Audyssey or even reconfigure my speaker settings. I simply turned off my broken amp (it was clicking and driving me nuts) and went without. Because I didn’t change any of the settings in my AV receiver, the sounds that were directed to those speakers were lost. They didn’t get played by other speakers. They just didn’t exist.

The sad part: I never noticed. Those overhead sounds that manufacturers are trying to convince you are so important never really registered as being missing. Now, I didn’t (because I couldn’t) A/B compare with the amp on and off. But for the expense and trouble of adding overhead speakers, the difference shouldn’t be marginal. It should be massive. And it isn’t.

Look at all the sounds I was missing!

Maybe I’m An Idiot

Clearly, the fact that I’ve been a reviewer and reporter in the AV industry for over 20 years hasn’t impressed you. Fair enough. Maybe I’m an idiot with a lead ear that wouldn’t notice if someone stole my center speaker. Funny enough, at the same time as my amp issue, I experimented with removing my surround back speakers (something I often advocate). I know that, in most rooms, the surround back speakers don’t make much of a difference. I also know that when I added surround back speakers in my room, I didn’t notice much of a difference.

It didn’t matter.

When I removed the surround back speakers (and changed my speaker setup and Audyssey calibration so that I didn’t lose any sounds), I noticed. Was the difference real or imagined? I can’t say. I believe it was imagined. It sounded to me that there was a hole in the sound behind the couch. I don’t believe that was the case, but I couldn’t shake the feeling. Reintroducing the surround back speakers made me feel better but I don’t know that I actually could have picked out the different configurations in a blind test.

My point is that I think that my brain convinced me that I was missing something because I knew I had removed my two surround back speakers. That did not happen when I knew that not only had I removed the top middle speakers, but had lost any sounds coming from them. If I’m so susceptible to tricking myself into “missing” sounds, surely I would have noticed the lack of overhead speakers! And I didn’t.

Take Away

In the end, we all have different rooms and different brains. You may find that overhead speakers make a huge difference in your room. Who am I to argue? My experience was the complete opposite. Even with proper placement and quality speakers, I couldn’t notice the lack of overhead sounds. Now, if I had watched a movie or show that used the overheads more extensively, might I have noticed? Maybe. But I didn’t shy away from that type of content and I never thought there was a hole in the sound above me. Will you notice your overheads from time to time? Yes. But if you don’t have them, I don’t think you are actually missing anything.

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