Projector screen over TV Center Channel

I Live Alone, Do I Need a Center Speaker?

People on the Internet love to talk in absolutes. You MUST have three matching speakers up front. You MUST have the biggest subwoofer possible. While not everyone agrees with every piece of advice, most people online fervently agree that you must, must, MUST have a center speaker. If you don’t, then home theater won’t work or something? You’re not sure, but everyone seems to think it is very bad. If you live alone (or just mostly watch by yourself), do you really need a center speaker? The answer is No. Let’s discuss!

Center is the Most Important Speaker

The most common claim you’ll hear is that the center speaker is the most important speaker in your system. It anchors the dialogue to your TV. But this is only necessary if you are sitting off to one side. If you don’t have a center speaker, your AV receiver will send the center channel information to your left and right speakers. This will create a “phantom center” where the voices will still sound like they are coming from your TV (and not the left and right speakers). Every AV receiver will do this automatically. If you live or watch alone, you won’t need a center speaker as it will sound like you already own one as long as you sit in the right seat.

SVS Ultra Center Speaker

Center will Help with Dialogue

Lots of people have problems understanding what is being said on their TVs. They often think the solution is to get a center speaker. They are wrong and they figure that out fairly quickly after buying that center speaker. The thought is that a dedicated speaker for voices will make things easier to understand. Plus, you can individually control the center speaker volume so that you can increase the level of the voices.

This nearly never works. The reason is simple. The problem wasn’t that they needed a dedicated speaker for voices. The problem was that they needed to address their room acoustics. They’ll get the center speaker thinking that it will help them understand what is being said just to find out that it makes no difference. The room acoustics muddy the dialogue no matter how loud you run the center speaker.

Center Helps Other Speakers Sound Better (by taking the dialogue away?)

There is an audiophile belief that having a device do too many things somehow degrades its ability to do any task. Take a phone for example. The “best” phones would be the ones that were only phones. Not wireless game and app platforms as well. Of course, that’s not the case. My cell phone is a perfectly good phone. I get just as good call reception with that phone as with my old Nokia flip phone (maybe even better).

Some people believe that removing the dialogue from your left and right speakers will somehow “free them up” to do the other sounds better (somehow). While it could be theoretically possible that some speaker could hit some limit at the number of sounds it can recreate before…I don’t know…breaking? I’ve never heard of such a thing. Speakers are designed to create sounds. Asking them to create fewer sounds at the same time doesn’t make the sounds better. That’s not how this works.

So many speakers!

More Speakers = Moar Better

The other side of “centers make other speakers sound better” is the “more = better” argument. If a 5.1 system is immersive, a 7.1 system will be even MORE immersive. Not true. If your front left and right speakers are creating a convincing center image, then adding a center speaker won’t be very noticeable to you at all. Many times, adding too many speakers will make your system sound worse. Especially if you shoehorn in speakers simply to have them and end up placing all your speakers poorly. Will you notice a difference if you add a center speaker when you feel you don’t need one? Likely. But it won’t be a very big difference and it certainly won’t be as transformative as people online suggest.

Take Away

If you are sitting off-center in your room, or you have multiple people using your system at the same time, then a center channel will be a great investment. It will anchor the dialogue at your screen for all viewers from all angles. But if you live alone, or watch from between your left and right speakers, then you absolutely don’t need a center speaker. No matter what the Internet says.

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