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Top Six Reasons Audiophiles Hate The Center Channel

by July 18, 2023
Why Do Audiophiles Hate The Center Channel?

Why Do Audiophiles Hate The Center Channel?

Why Do Audiophiles HATE the Center Channel?

Do audiophiles hate the center channel? It may sound like a strange notion, but I have encountered this phenomenon time and again over the last 20 years. I first moved to Los Angeles from my home state of North Carolina in 2002. I worked downtown at the LA Times, and the commute was brutal — over an hour in stagnant freeway gridlock if I went straight home at 6pm. Sometimes, instead of driving south to head home, I’d leave the office and take the quick trip north to Hollywood, where I’d kill time doing something fun until traffic died down. More often than not, you’d find me near Sunset and Vine. My favorite movie theater was there, the Arclight Hollywood, home to the famous Cinerama Dome. Not only did the Arclight deliver excellent picture and sound quality, it also had a beautiful lobby (decorated with actual props and costumes from big movies), a full-service restaurant frequented by celebrities, a really cool gift shop, and — crucially — the best popcorn and cleanest bathrooms of any movie theater I’ve ever been to. Right next door to the theater was my favorite record store, Amoeba Music. Like me, it was new to LA. Bigger than a Tower Records or Virgin Megastore, it still managed to embody the cool vibe and independent spirit of a smaller neighborhood record shop. Amoeba was incredibly well stocked with a huge variety of music, movies, and collectible merchandise. And it was there, in 2003, that I bought the newly-released DVD-Audio version of one of my all-time favorite albums, Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys. I had only been into multi-channel music for a year or two at that point, having collected just a handful of SACD and DVD-A discs. The Pet Sounds DVD-Audio included new stereo and 5.1-channel mixes by producer Mark Linett. I liked the high-res stereo mix, but the surround mix was… weird.

Pet Sounds

Some instruments that are clearly audible in the mono and stereo mixes were somehow lost, buried deep in the multichannel mix. Lead vocals were often placed both in the rear channels and up front, resulting in a soundstage that didn’t make sense. In some cases, lead vocals were missing from the front right channel, even though they played at full volume from the rear speakers. There was very little low bass, and the subwoofer’s LFE channel didn’t seem to be engaged at all, despite the fact that the album features superb Fender bass parts played by the legendary Carol Kaye. But perhaps the most noticeable of the many curious mix decisions made for this multi-channel release was the complete lack of content in the center channel. It simply wasn’t used at all. Concerned that there was a problem with my playback system, I consulted the liner notes and discovered that Linett made a point of omitting the center channel, preferring instead to create a “wide approach to the music” by relying on a phantom center. Granted, a phantom center can work remarkably well, as anyone who has ever heard a properly-set-up stereo system can attest. But you can’t expect to create a phantom center for the lead vocals if you pan them all the way to the left, leaving the front right channel to twiddle its thumbs. There’s also an argument to be made that the point of a good multichannel mix is to take advantage of the potential sonic experiences that only such a setup can produce. As recording and mixing engineer John Traunwieser pointed out in our livestream about Dolby Atmos home theater, some surround mixes are aggressive (or “wacky,” as he put it) in their use of the surround channels, while others are more subdued. Both approaches can be compelling. But one thing that all good mixes share is a well-anchored, generously proportioned front soundstage, able to recreate the spaciousness and/or specificity present on the recording. Obviously, a center channel can play a key role in building a front soundstage capable of accomplishing this goal.

Center Channel Mixing Practices for Spatial Audio Music

The next time I was at Amoeba, I made my way to the back room where the SACD and DVD-A discs were kept, along with other “audiophile” music. I saw the guy who had sold me the new Pet Sounds release and told him about the bizarre mix, and how producer Mark Linett had said in the liner notes that the use of the center channel was “simply not needed.” I expected the Amoeba employee to be on my side, but his response surprised me. Now, it has been two decades, so I don’t remember his exact words. But he said something along the lines of, “Makes sense to me. Audiophiles hate the center channel.” At the time, this response was startling to me. But in the intervening years, I have encountered many audio enthusiasts whose opinions seem to support the claim.

So Why DO Some Audiophiles and Music Mixers Hate the Center Channel?

In an effort to explain the anti-center-channel sentiments of some audiophiles, Chief Audioholic Gene DellaSala recently made a video discussing this surprisingly controversial topic, in which he lays it out, plain and simple. Here are the top six reasons why some audiophiles hate the center channel.

1. They chose the wrong center channel.

Center Channel Types

There are many different designs used for center-channel speakers, and generally speaking, some are better than others. Gene discusses some of the most common horizontally oriented center-channel speakers, including basic MTM (mid/woofer, tweeter, mid/woofer), nested MTM (in which the tweeter is slightly raised so all three drivers can be closer together), and W(T/M)W. The latter is a 3-way design in which a vertical tweeter/midrange stack is centered between two woofers. Lastly Gene touches upon a TWWT design. Avoid those like the plague.

See: Pros and Cons of Various Center Channel Designs

Arendal MTM Center Speaker

The basic and nested MTM designs can sometimes work well, as we’ve seen from loudspeaker manufacturers like Arendal Sound and Focal. But if you get more than, say, 15-20 degrees off axis (that is, you’re sitting off to the side, not directly in front of the speaker), you’re going to experience lobing effects — there will be nulls in the frequency response. This usually occurs in the critical midband, where the two midrange drivers are sharing frequencies. The result? Dialogue intelligibility can suffer dramatically. You end up cranking the volume, and you’re still not satisfied. 

Monitor Audio W(T_M)W Center

If you’re setting up a home theater with multiple rows and a wide left-to-right span of seats, you’re better off with a W(T/M)W design, such as the Monitor Audio Silver C250 7G, or the massive $18K Focal Viva Utopia Center Loudspeaker. These are three-way designs with dedicated midrange drivers, so if you’re running three-way towers for your main left and right speakers, you’ll get better matching with a W(T/M)W center channel. And you won’t experience any lobing problems, so you’ll get clearer dialogue across all of your seats. 

KEF 3-Way Concentric

A slight variation of this design would be a three-way speaker in which the tweeter is concentrically mounted inside the midrange driver. We’ve seen a number of these designs from KEF, Elac, Tannoy, and others. Paradigm’s Founder 90C ($2899 each) is also a good example. In general, these speakers tend to offer the same benefits as W(T/M)W designs. On the opposite side of the performance spectrum you’ll find some older center speakers with a TWWT design. These speakers cause all sorts of sonic problems, but thankfully, they are very rare these days. 

Editorial Note about Identical LCRs: One final thought about choosing a center-channel speaker. If you really want the sound of your center-channel speaker to match up for seamless transitions with your main speakers, you can always go with an identical model for all three channels. Some home theater enthusiasts even use identical speakers for all channels, but that isn’t always practical. It’s usually easy enough to get your front stage to match, however. Look for brands, such as Perlisten and Arendal, that offer center speakers nearly identical to their monitor speakers. Other brands, such as KEF, Focal, and Paradigm, offer speakers marketed as LCR designs, meaning the same speaker can be used for Left, Center, and Right channel duty.

2. Improper center channel placement.

Behind the Gene Screen

Behind the 150" AT Severtson Screen lies the RBH Sound SI-831/R to match up with Gene's SVTRS Tower Speakers

This one is fairly simple. Even if you have the right speaker, it won’t sound right if you don’t position the speaker correctly. Gene has often run into theaters in which the owner has a good center speaker, but has it placed far too high or far too low — even sitting directly on the floor. The center speaker should be positioned in line with the main speakers, and as close to the display as possible. Placing the speaker too high or too low will prevent seamless pans across the front stage, and will result in loss of detail and intelligibility since you’re effectively sitting off axis from the speaker. Another placement mistake to avoid is putting the center speaker inside of an entertainment center, bookshelf, or credenza. This isn’t always easy to avoid, but placing a speaker inside a piece of furniture will change its acoustical properties. When a speaker is placed in a cavity made of highly reflective surfaces, that environment will have major effects on the sound of the speaker, all before the sound even enters the room. If you do need to place the speaker inside a cabinet or other cavity, try stuffing the cavity with foam and placing the speaker at the very front edge of the shelf or opening in order to prevent diffraction from the surface.

3. Bad calibration (time alignment).

Even if you have your speakers level-matched (that is, they’re putting out equal SPLs as measured from the listening position), your system won’t sound right if you don’t have delays set to properly time-align the speakers. This is especially important when upmixing two-channel music, because information from the Left and Right channels is being copied and sometimes rerouted to the center-channel speaker. If you don’t have the time alignment right, you can cause all sorts of combing issues (comb filtering occurs when certain frequencies are either amplified or attenuated by the superposition of a delayed version of the original audio signal onto itself). Also, the focus of the image can actually shift, and you won’t get the detailed center-channel information. Speech intelligibility will “go out the window,” as Gene puts it. One easy way to get time alignment right is to use a receiver or processor with a good auto-calibration system, such as Audyssey MultEQ-X ProDirac Live or Anthem ARC Genesis. Or, you can do it yourself using a laser ruler to get accurate distance measurements between the main listening position and the tweeter of each speaker.

4. Wrong upmixer settings for 2CH music.


This can be a big one. If you got an early Dolby Atmos receiver and tried using Dolby Surround Upmixer to upmix two-channel music, there’s a good chance you were disappointed. Without the “Center Spread” feature enabled, you likely heard a narrow front stage in which all of the sound was crowded around the center speaker, and the imaging from the main speakers was completely lost. This kind of upmixing works OK if you’re watching a stereo video and you want the dialogue pushed to the center speaker, but for music, it’s frankly terrible. Older solutions, like Dolby Pro Logic IIx, had separate Music and Cinema modes, providing a better experience. If you’re listening to music with Dolby Surround Upmixer, make sure that Center Spread is turned on. This will restore the imaging of your main speakers, but with an enhanced center fill. Gene doesn’t recommend using DTS Neural:X for upmixing two-channel music because there’s no adjustability in the center channel. Again, it works well for upmixing a two-channel movie or TV show, and it also works well for upmixing a 5.1-channel audio track into a more immersive format, since 5.1-channel mixes already have a discrete center channel (Pet Sounds notwithstanding). Auro-3D upmixing can also cause center-channel problems if the room size settings aren’t correct, so proceed with caution. Auro 3D properly set up can give excellent results for 2CH music upmixing. Auro 3D upmixing seemingly places more emphasis to the front soundstage, which Gene says he often prefers when listening to Jazz music, as opposed to the more spacious envelop of sound the DSU offers.

5. Bad tuning between Mains and Center (Room EQ, Acoustically Transparent screen loss compensation).

theater2While auto-calibration systems are typically good at setting levels and time alignments, they aren’t always great at dialing in the EQ settings so that your center speaker sounds the same as your main Left and Right speakers. In many cases, the user just goes with the auto-calibration, not realizing that the system made errors. Or perhaps you have your center channel behind an acoustically transparent screen, as Gene does in the Audioholics Smart Home theater. Despite the name, acoustically transparent screens do have an effect on sound. It is possible to compensate for this effect in EQ during the system tuning process, but if you don’t, even three identical speakers may not sound the same from the listening position. Depending on the screen you’re using, you might need to raise the treble up 3-6dB to compensate for the high-frequency attenuation caused by the screen material. Fabric screens will cause less of a problem than vinyl screens.

6. Some audiophiles are just 2-channel purists.

Bugs BunnyThere’s not much to be done about this last reason — some audiophiles are simply stereo purists, and to them, a center-channel speaker will always be an abomination in the context of a music-only system. These are the folks that the Amoeba employee was referring to when he said that audiophiles hate the center channel. They just want to enjoy the magic that is stereo imaging. We all know how great a good stereo recording can sound on a good two-channel system, and there’s nothing wrong with knowing what you like! So if you’re just into stereo, you can rest easy in the knowledge that nobody is going to break into your house and install a center-channel speaker. That said, a properly set-up multichannel system can deliver its own kind of magic, whether for music or for home theater. And unlike the phantom center provided by a two-channel system, a center-channel speaker allows your front soundstage to sound stable and anchored in place even when you’re sitting well outside the traditional stereo “sweet spot.” If you avoid the pitfalls described above, using a center-channel speaker in your multichannel system can allow you to enjoy a seamless, immersive audio experience that might just convert the stereo purist in your life. Are you an old-school stereo purist, or do you embrace the center channel? 

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About the author:
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Jacob is a music-lover and audiophile who enjoys convincing his friends to buy audio gear that they can't afford. He's also a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles.

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