Choosing Home Theater Speakers
A buyer's guide to Speakers for Multichannel Surround Sound
Each of the different home theater speakers in multichannel sound performs a specific function and therefore needs to have different characteristics to be able to fulfill its role for a more realistic soundfield.
In this speaker guide, we discuss the roles associated with the different channels to help you identify what to look for when selecting the different speakers for your home theater — the left and right fronts, the center channel speaker, subwoofer, and the surround speakers.
In the process, we also explain the differences between various speaker types one may come across — from full size floor-standing towers to bookshelf speakers, powered subwoofers, ceiling and in-wall speakers, and dipole surround speakers.
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A buyer's guide to selecting Home Theater Speakers
What you need to know
Every home theater enthusiast is after the best sound. Sound in the home theater plays a crucial role in achieving an immersive experience. In other words, a properly set home theater sound system is as important as the picture itself. Rather, some would tell you it is even more important to have better sound than having a bigger picture.
Admittedly, this is more a matter of personal preference. But as further explained in our TV Viewing Distance Guide, the size of your projection screen or flat-panel HDTV matters as well as it plays a determining role towards achieving a truly immersive and enjoyable viewing experience. Whatever is the case however, if you are after the best home theater sound, you need to have the best home theater speakers!
Having the best speakers does not necessarily imply the most expensive. It is true that good quality home theater speakers do not come cheap. But by best speakers we mean the most suitable home theater speakers that fit your budget for your room environment. This applies for each of the different speakers associated with the audio channels supported by your home theater system. It is here that this speaker guide comes in — to better explain the requirements associated with the different speakers in a multichannel speaker setup. We also discuss the differences between various types of home theater speakers to help you understand what to look for when making a purchase.
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Main Left and Right Front Speakers
In a home theater surround sound set-up, the left and right speakers' main function is to produce a wide enough soundstage — one that better merges with the image displayed on the screen for a more realistic viewing experience.
These speakers handle the bulk of the sound, sound that moves between the left and right speakers in synchronization with the movement of the video content on the screen.
They also handle off-screen sound effects that fall outside the image field of view in the wider soundfield. In addition, the main fronts also serve as the two stereo channel speakers when listening to stereo music content.
What to look for:
Main left/right home theater speakers come in all shapes and sizes. Full-range floor standing tower speakers give you the best performance especially in medium to large size rooms.
Mind you, big home theater speakers are not a pre-requisite for setting up a good home theater system especially if you will be installing a powered sub-woofer. But if as in most cases, you will also be using your multi-channel speaker setup for music listening and want to enjoy the very best sound, floor standing speakers represent the ideal option.
In addition, floor standing tower speakers are big enough to produce some serious bass, thus making it possible to do away with the subwoofer unit in the case of a medium size room. This setup will also give a better bass coverage across the room than a single dedicated subwoofer unit. But if you will be doing away with the subwoofer, remember to set your surround processor to route all bass to the tower speakers.
Most mid-range to high-end tower speaker designs use multiple 8-inch woofers; these have the surface area of a single larger subwoofer but enjoy the lower-mass and acceleration associated with woofers, for a deeper, fuller, and more accurate bass response.
Some towers come with a vented port to further enhance the bass response of the speaker while some high performance floor standing speakers come with build-in powered subwoofers; the latter are known as powered tower speakers. These home theater speakers offer better bass coverage across the room and the elimination of the separate subwoofer unit even in larger rooms, thus reducing the speaker clutter.
Powered floor standing tower speaker designs generally ensure a better tonality matching between the build-in powered subwoofer and the mid-range/tweeter drivers in the speaker enclosure. A further advantage is that with the speakers' internal amplifiers driving the inbuilt-in subwoofers, your AV receiver or multi-channel amplifier will be able to better handle the rest of the sound, thus producing clearer sound with less distortion while supporting a wider dynamic range.
Admittedly, floor standing tower speakers are rather bulky and in the case of powered towers, you also need a mains supply apart from a feed from your amplifier or AV receiver. However, tower speakers are capable of the best audio performance; and for the audiophile, these often form part of the main center of attraction in the home theater room.
In a restricted room space environment, bookshelf speakers or small satellites/subwoofer speaker system represent possible alternatives. In particular, well positioned bookshelf speakers can produce really good sound and generally have sufficient bass for a small room. Even if the bass output is not enough, you can always complement a set of bookshelf speakers with a powered subwoofer unit; this gives you that extra bass during movie watching.
But do not let the term bookshelf mislead you. If you want to enjoy the best sound possible from a set of bookshelf speakers, do not place your bookshelf speakers, or in that case even satellites, on a bookshelf! Acoustic conditions on a bookshelf are far from ideal; instead, use appropriate speaker stands or wall mounts.
Satellite speakers are smaller than bookshelf and depending on their size and bass response, sats home theater speakers may not function independent of the accompanying subwoofer unit. In the case of satellite speakers, the sub will generally have to produce a wider range of frequencies to compensate for the small size of the sats. Well designed sats/sub speaker systems will produce superb sound in a small home theater room, but cheap speaker systems would often show signs of uneven response especially where the bass meets the midrange.
Bookshelf speakers and in particular satellite home theater speakers are best mounted using suitable wall stands. These speaker systems can deliver some relatively big sound from a small package, making them great space-saving home theater speaker options.
The Center Channel Speaker
The center channel speaker is the one that delivers most of the sound track and on-screen dialogue. Its main purpose is to anchor the dialogue with the screen. It is estimated that up to 75% of the movie soundtrack passes through the center speaker.
The use of a center channel speaker in multi-channel sound helps produce a more balanced soundstage. It is an essential element and one of the most important speakers in a home theater speaker setup.
Since the main function of the center channel speaker is to pin the dialogue to the screen, center speaker placement should be either directly above or below your TV, or in the case of a projection screen setup using an acoustically transparent screen, just behind the screen a few inches (typically 6 to 12 inches away) from the screen surface as further detailed in our guide to projector screens here.
Placing the center channel speaker elsewhere off the screen or to the side of the screen would disrupt the surround sound experience. Speakers placed above or below the TV are generally horizontal center speakers; the latter requires that the speaker drivers in the center speaker enclosure be symmetrically positioned along the horizontal axis of the speaker.
In the case of speaker placements behind a projection screen, these can be either horizontal or vertical types but the speaker should be positioned as close as possible to the center of the screen. A center speaker placed behind an acoustically transparent screen always gives the best results.
Despite the importance of the center channel speaker, it is possible to do away with the center speaker in a surround sound home theater speaker setup, especially in the small room. With a good pair of well balanced front left/right tower speakers, you may run your surround processor in phantom center mode and still enjoy a relatively 'good' soundstage. However, keep in mind that the resultant home theater sound experience would not be the same — it loses a noticeable level of detail so much important for a truly immersive and realistic movie experience.
What to look for:
In an ideal home theater speaker system, the center channel speaker should be either identical to the main left and right front speakers, or at least share one or more driver sizes and driver material. In particular the tweeters should ideally be identical, while midrange and woofers should be very similar in construction. This helps ensure a more unified sound field.
Therefore, you should consider the other speakers in your speaker system before deciding on the center channel speaker. In particular, the use of tower speakers for the fronts calls for equally bigger center speaker for a seamless soundstage.
On the other hand, smaller satellite or bookshelf speakers require an equally matched smaller center channel speaker.
Rear-surround and back-surround speakers
The role of surround speakers — both the rear and back surrounds — is to produce the ambient sound such as the effect of an approaching low flying fighter jet or a rushing train. 5.1 home theater speaker systems use rear surrounds only while 6.1 and 7.1 speaker systems use the back surrounds as well.
Rear surround speakers are placed against the side walls while the back surrounds are placed along the back wall.
Often when speaking of rear or back surround speakers, many just refer to these as surround speakers without differentiating between the two.
Ideally, you should choose a set of surround speakers that have the same performance characteristics as the front left and right home theater speakers; this helps ensure a unified soundfield as sound moves from speaker to speaker. For this reason, home theater purists call for the use of identical home theater speakers for all the audio channels in a home theater set-up.
With bookshelf and sats/subwoofer speaker systems, this is often the case. These require a suitable wall bracket or floor stand for the correct speaker placement as further detailed in our speaker placement guide.
But the use of identical speakers along all five to seven sound channels in a home theater speaker setup is not always a realistically achievable option especially when the fronts use full-size tower speakers; room space constraints and budget-issues are often the most common limiting factors.
Alternative options for surround speakers vary between direct-radiating (these are the conventional standard-type speakers) and dipole/bipole speakers. Dipole and bipole home theater speakers have drivers both in the front and back of the enclosure.
In dipole speakers, these drivers operate in out-of-phase mode, while in bipole speakers these operate in-phase. These speakers often come with a switch to operate the surround speaker in either dipole or bipole mode as well as in monopole i.e. with the rear driver switched off.
Some dipole/bipole surround speaker designs use two tweeters aimed at 45-degree angle from each other for a better mix of direct and indirect sound. A case in point is the Polk Audio FXI A4 Surround Speakers shown above; these include a dipole/bipole switch to allow for different speaker placements on either the rear or side walls as detailed below.
Bipolar surrounds are becoming rare these days with the most common choice for surround speakers being between direct-radiating and dipole speakers.
Having the surround sound coming out of the speaker enclosure from both the front and the rear helps create a surround that is mainly the result of reflections in the room rather than direct from the speaker. This leads to a better diffused and subtle surround effect than direct-radiating speakers produce. This diffused sound field is very important as direct sound from the surround speakers can at times lead to annoying distractions especially with a not-properly balanced home theater speaker setup.
While both dipole and bipole surround speakers offer a more diffused soundfield, yet there is some significant difference between the two. Dipole surround speakers produce a more subtle and better diffused surround than bipolar surrounds while providing greater speaker placement flexibility.
If you place bipole/dipole surround speakers behind your listening position, these should be set to bipole mode for a more distinct, directional sound. When placed on the side, these should be set to dipole mode — firing to the front and rear of the room rather than towards the listening area — to create a more diffused soundfield for a more convincing wraparound effect.
THX recommends the use of dipole/bipole home theater speakers for rear surround (side surrounds positioned towards the rear of the side walls) and conventional direct radiating speakers for the back surrounds placed against the rear wall.
However be aware that the use of dipole/bipole surrounds option is best suited for medium to large home theaters that can accommodate multiple rows of seats. In the case of the small home theater taking just one row of seats, direct-radiating surround speakers will generally sound better.
When it comes to surround placement, dipoles/bipoles should be set with the tweeter at approximately ear level (or just slightly above) when seated. In the case of direct radiating, these should be either wall-mounted at two to three feet above ear level when seated, or in the ceiling.
What to look for:
If speaker placement is an issue, opt for dipolar surrounds for the rear surround home theater speakers (side surrounds) as these allow for a more flexible speaker placement, but be prepared for the extra expense.
Look for surround speakers that you can easily mount on a wall stand or in the ceiling; the use of adjustable pivot wall-mounts helps you adjust the surround home theater speakers for the best effect in the listening area especially with direct-radiating speakers.
Mentioning direct-radiating surround speakers, it is worth taking note that while dipolar surround speakers are great for rear surrounds, you can still get top surround sound even with inexpensive direct-radiating speakers as long as you match your surrounds with the rest of your home theater speaker system.
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