Two Hacks For Clearer Dialog: Tune In Your Center Speakers For TV

Center channel: a speaker that doesn't get much respect, but one that does a lot of heavy lifting, especially with today's soundtracks. If you're looking to improve your TV's sound, check out our latest video.

Two Hacks For Clearer Dialog: Tune In Your Center Speakers For TV

I wanted today to talk about center channels, a speaker in the home theater system that often doesn't get a lot of respect. And what do I mean by that? Well, I'll give you a story that happened a couple of days ago with a customer who called me and was looking for advice on upgrading his home theater system.

He has our main speakers for his front left and rights, and they're big tower speakers, one of our biggest models. He has another company center channel that he wants to upgrade because he's not happy with the quality of dialog or the balance with his main front left and right speakers.

So, when he told me what main speakers he was using, I recommended one of our larger center channels. And right away he went, "Oh, no, no, no, I want something about the same size as what I have now, just from you." Well, that would be our smallest center channel, this, the VP 100. And you hear this time and time again, the poor center channel needs to be small because it needs to be in the center of the room near the display.

Often it's tucked into a shelf on an equipment rack that's below a television, sometimes right near the floor. I've even seen some...I mean, it's horrible in terms of performance. So, why should we worry about the lonely little center channel? Well, back in the early days of home theater when we had Dolby Surround and then Dolby ProLogic, there wasn't a heck of a lot of information that came out of the center channel, it was mainly dialog and dialog that was centered in the action that was on the screen.

There also was not much in the way of low-frequency information. So a lot of people that built up a home theater system, let's say, 20 years ago, are still applying that kind of logic to what the center channel needs to be in the system because they're thinking about these old formats and being able to get away with a small center channel.

Today that's not the case, hasn't been the case for many years. When Dolby Digital appeared, we now had discrete channels, so they were not, you know, derived from a stereo signal, which the earlier Surround and ProLogic formats were.

We now had discrete channels, and all the channels, including the center channel and the surrounds, had the capability of low-frequency information. They could be full range. So, if you want the best performance from a home theater system, you now need a center channel that has the same kind of capability for full range as your main speakers.

So, one of the other things that I hear, and I mentioned it earlier, people complain about is, "I can't hear the dialog in movies very well," or, "I can't hear what's going on in the TV show." You know, "My center channel just doesn't seem to be producing what I think that it should so that I have clear dialog." Now, unfortunately, sometimes that's the fault of the production of the movie or the TV show.

Often, not the proper amount of information is mixed to the center channel. But often the problem is due to, again, using a center channel that's completely underpowered and doesn't have enough bandwidth to match the rest of your system. Now, before you go out and say, "Well, okay, you're now telling me I have to spend, you know, a ton of money on a bigger center channel that I don't have space for," there are a few things that you can try and you should try with whatever your current system is.

If you're not happy with the performance, here are two things that you should really try. First thing, go into the manual level settings or the speaker setup settings in your receiver or your home theater processor. Go in there, and even if you've used the auto-setup or you're using Odyssey or some correction system, take the level trim of the center channel and bump it up by, let's say, 2db to start with.

Go back and listen to some movies or watch some TV shows if you've DVR-ed them that you were having trouble understanding. A db or two higher level out of your current center channel may help with that, may help with the intelligibility of the dialog. That's totally free, all you have to do is probably dig out that massive manual or go online to find out how to access those settings if you don't remember for your receiver.

The other thing that you can try, particularly if you feel that what's coming out of the center channel is thin, it's probably because your main speakers are full range or you have a subwoofer in the system that's contributing a lot to the rest of the system but not so much with the center channel. Even though you may have your center set to small and that information should be coming out of the subwoofer, there is still something to be said about that mid-bass information that is maybe slightly too high a frequency for the subwoofer to be carrying.

What you can do in that case is actually try turning the center channel off in your receiver or processor. I know this sounds completely crazy, "So you're telling me to get better center channel performance, turn it off?" Yes. And again, in the early days of surround, there was something called a phantom center channel.

People who hadn't actually bought a center channel yet and still wanted to listen to their new surround sound system could go into their receiver or processor and tell it that they don't have a center channel. What will happen then is that the receiver will send that information equally to the left and right front main channels and give you the center channel information. Now an interesting thing if you go and do this, because even the most modern processors and receivers will let you say you have no center channel, if you try that, what's interesting is that now if you have a small center channel and big full-range main speakers, by turning off the center, now you may experience a much fuller sound from that center channel dialog information and the special effects that normally come out of that center channel because they're being reproduced by a much bigger full-range speaker.

Now, if know, it's only yourself or maybe yourself and your spouse or partner that, you know, has one small listening area, you may actually find that you like that phantom center channel configuration. And if you do, fine, I'm not going to tell you to buy a center channel, even though it seems counterproductive, we're a loudspeaker company.

But if you like it, hey, it's perfectly fine. Now, where it becomes problematic is if you have a large seating area and you tend to have a big family gathered around, you know, watching TV or movies. That phantom center is probably not going to give you a nice solidly defined image that sounds like it's coming from the television everywhere in the room.

And in that case, unfortunately, the only thing that you can really do is get a bigger center channel, one that's more matched to your main speakers and the rest of your system. So the rule of thumb that I always recommend is if you have a pair of floor-standing left, right front speakers that are your main speakers, and let's say they have two, 6.5-inch woofers, and they're a ported speaker, well, I would look for a center channel that has two 6.5-inch woofers and it's ported.

And look at the specifications, see if the low-frequency extension is similar between your main speakers and the center channel that you're considering. Now, the other thing to look at is if your main speakers are a three-way system, so you have a tweeter mid or end woofer or multiples of any of those things, look for a three-way center channel.

It's probably going to match better in terms of total balance to your main speakers. And the final thing that I will mention is it's always a good idea to buy a center channel from the same manufacturer as your front main speakers. And if the manufacturer that your front main speakers are from has multiple product lines, some of the bigger speaker companies have a whole series of different lines, try and buy a center channel from the same line within that brand that match your front left and right speakers.

It's a better guarantee that there's going to be a more seamless match between the dialog and the character of the rest of the system. So don't be shy, if you can, make room for a bigger center channel if you have large floor standing speakers, you're really going to love it. And hey, check out the phantom center, you may love that too.

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