Center Channel

Stereo or Three Speakers – Which is Best for Your TV?

You’ve got a TV in an open room. If you could, you’d get a full surround system with all the speakers. But you can’t. There is no place to put them. So you are stuck with only those speakers you can fit around your TV. You’ve done your research and you’ve discovered that it is always better to have a center speaker. But is that true? Do you really need a center speaker if you are only going to have speakers up at the front around your TV? Is stereo or three speakers best around your TV? Let’s discuss!

It’s All About Angles

This question can only really be answered by you. If you look at just about every speaker layout diagram, they’ll show the front left and right speakers out pretty wide with the center speaker just under the TV. Dobly has recommendations not on distance apart, but on angles.

Dolby recommends that your center speaker be directly in front of you under your TV and that your stereo speakers are 22°-30° to your sides. You don’t have to pull out your protractor to figure this out. We recommend that you space them at least as far as the edges of your couch. That is usually far enough apart. But if you are the only person in the house, and you sit on a recliner, you may want to check the angles.

Why The Separation

The point here is to create enough distance between your left and right speakers so that they can create a convincing stereo presentation. When the two speakers are playing in phase, the sound will appear to come from between the two speakers. If they are playing out of phase, or if one sound is primarily coming from one speaker, the audio will appear to come from that side of the room. If the speakers are too close together, then the audio will always seem to come from the same location. Essentially, you’d be creating a mono sound.

Will Adding a Third Speaker Help

If your left and right stereo speakers are placed far enough apart (and not directly flanking your TV), then a center speaker can help anchor the sounds that are supposed to come from the TV. This generally takes the form of dialogue. But, as we said before, two speakers can create that same effect. It’s called a phantom center and it generally works pretty well. But having a third speaker under your TV between your stereo speakers will certainly ensure that those central sounds will actually come from between your two speakers.

It Comes Down to Distance

Let’s take a look at a couple of pictures:

Both images show similar setups. We have in-wall speakers flanking a TV – one with a stereo setup, and one with three speakers. While we can’t know the actual distance between the couch and the speakers, we can see surmise that these speakers probably aren’t 22° to the sides of the listener. Will they get good stereo imaging or will it sound more like mono? Will the center speaker actually add anything or is it so physically close to the other two speakers that it doesn’t really matter? We can’t truly know. Now, let’s look at another couple:

Here we see a stereo pair of speakers with what looks to be a lot of separation (mostly because of the huge TV. While the stereo speakers should provide an adequate phantom center for the people sitting in the middle of the couch, this system could certainly benefit from a center speaker to anchor those sounds.

The in-wall image shows a system where the speakers are much too close. If the couch is any distance from these speakers, they will all blend together to give a mono presentation. The money spent on the center speaker is unlikely to result in any audible improvement.

What About Dialogue

Spend anytime online you’ll find claims that the center speaker is important for improving dialogue intelligibility. Often, that’s not the case. Most of the time, problems with understanding dialogue come not from the lack of a center speaker, but from the room. Yes, upgrading a bad center can make things better, but more often treating room acoustics is the best solution.

Take Away

We’ve said before that best practices don’t always make for the best advice. Yes, for a full surround system, you want a center speaker. But if you are in a compromised setup where your stereo speakers are farther away from your seat and fairly close together, then adding a center speaker is unlike to help. Save that money until you can set up your speakers more optimally or spend it on some acoustic panels. Those are much more likely to help things sound better.

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