There is a very good article concerning the need for a
center channel by Richard Hardesty.
His article inspired me to think further
about the necessity for a center channel. The point of my comments here
isn’t to totally convince the reader that there is no need for a center channel,
but merely to present some further issues concerning a center channel speaker
beyond those mentioned by Mr. Hardestry. It is important to admit that I do NOT
have a center channel speaker nor do I intend to implement one in my system. My
comments are obviously biased against the need for a center channel.
However, recent electronics have almost created a need for the center channel.
I believe the need for a center channel and surround sound
is merely a placebo attempting to bring the live experience into the listening
environment after years of slowly degenerating components at the consumer
level. Years ago Altec, Harmon Kardon, JBL, Pioneer, Marantz, Heathkit made
some darn good stuff. These components were available to the common consumer at
common stores. The sonic presentation of these components was relative good and
clean. It was quite possible for the common guy to go to the local electronics
store and purchase relatively clean electronics. The imaging was very present
and respectable. Today there is a gross dichotomy and most consumers are never
exposed to anything producing clean sound. “Back in the day”, things were a
As time moved forward consumers became quite engrossed
with things like Watts Per Channel, Total Harmonic Distortion, Signal to Noise
ratio (etc. etc.), and the manufacturers rose to the objective challenges. They
also realized that a grossly decreasing number of consumers actually attended
symphony events or cared about reproducing the live event. A smart consumer
could brag about how many watts he/she had in their system and how clean it was
because of the lack of distortion printed on some sheet of paper.
There are two problems with this. First, any tube guy
with $500 today can purchase an used/old piece of tube gear that will always
sound cleaner than a $500 piece of used/old solid state gear. This happens in
spite of the generally higher even order distortion of the tube gear. Any
tube guy knows that higher levels of even order distortion are relatively
insignificant. While I am not a tube guy, I have heard this phenomena and
tend to agree. Second, American consumers
have progressively listened to less live un-amplified music. There is little
reference for what accurate production is, so the consumer can easily turn to a
sheet of specifications to determine the quality of a particular piece of stereo
equipment. The consumer is oriented totally towards READING about how “good” a
piece of equipment is. The obvious outcome is that manufacturers obliged, and
built wonderful specification sheets. They didn’t build wonderful sound.
Eventually the sound became so muddy/harsh that the ears
could audibly localize the sound and everyone could audibly locate their speakers.
Imaging was gone, so was quality. Surround sound attempts to return imaging to
the listener, but the quality is still not present.
Digressing… I will admit that initial studies about the
ideal system configuration in the early years of stereo/quad (etc) revealed that
a 3 channel setup was the best. I will also agree that if quality recordings
were done in this format that I would buy them. The harsh reality is that most
recordings are junk. If a recording engineer can’t get a 2 channel recording
correct then how could they possibly get something in 5,6,7 channel correct? I
consider only about 2% of recordings as well done. I am not a recording expert,
but do have a system that will easily resolve good clean recordings. It will
also easily resolve very nasty recordings. Most are quite nasty.
Most consumers have never heard a really good 2 channel
system. Those who have will agree that a very nice center channel image is
present. This also works very well when watching movies. The image can have
nice depth of field and makes watching movies in 2 channel very pleasing to my
There are two reasons to purchase a center channel home
theater system. One is to experience a fidelity placebo for clean sound. The
other is if the listener is sitting in an extreme off axis position. This is
very valid, however, there will still be phase problems due to the off axis
If the center channel and side speakers are adjusted
in-phase for the center listening position they will not be in-phase for those
listening off axis. This is also true for those listening off axis with 2
channel. My point is that having a center channel does not completely eliminate
phase problems. It does reduce their effects somewhat due to the
relatively close proximity of the speakers.
The above example depicts what happens when the system is
phase adjusted for the center listener. The phase is perfect for him/her, but
this leaves the listener on the right side with phase errors. The arrival of
the wave front from the right speaker is not in phase with the arrival of the
wave front from the center channel speaker. This will cause distortion.
My intent in this illustration is to convey that systems
with center channels have phase problems with off axis listeners TOO.
There is a common misconception that center channel speakers will completely eliminate
these problems, but this is not so. Surround sound systems with center channel speakers
still have phase problems and the associated distortion.
Many folks, including me, are quite happy without the use
of a center channel speaker. This is primarily because I am cheap. I have
about $5000 in a decent clean 2 channel system, and have a wonderful center image.
This is primarily because my system is quite clean. Probably the most common question I get when friends listen to
my system is, “So what do you use for a center channel?” I do have a false
grill in the entertainment center below my TV where a center channel could rest
My response to this question is often vague.
Sometimes I nurse the conversation a little and ask them to describe what they
are hearing and where the sound is really coming from. All are quite shocked
when they realize that I don’t have a center channel. The most common remark is
"everything is so clear."
This is a sad phenomena but one that most folks haven’t
experienced. Good 2 channel can sound very pleasant when watching movies. Good
sound from 2 channel is also much cheaper than good sound from 6+ channel (i.e.
surround sound). Many of my customers mention the desire for a center channel
before purchasing my speakers. After purchasing my speakers the desire for a
center channel strangely disappears. Hmmmmm....