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The Role Of The Speakers In Home Theater Surround Sound Systems

There are a number of speakers that make up home theater surround sound systems - but they are not there just to give you more things to dust!

Before getting into the details of choosing your speaker system and doing your surround sound hook up, it can be useful to start at the beginning and look at the basics.

If you understand the role of each speaker in your setup then it will make it easier to set them up correctly to get the best sound possible in your room.

So, what does each speaker do exactly?

The speakers in a 5.1 surround sound system

The most common speaker system for a home theater setup is a 5.1 system.

We have six different speakers in a 5.1 surround sound system, and they all do slightly different things.

5.1 Speaker Configuration in a Surround Sound System 5.1 Speaker Configuration in a Surround Sound System

Center channel speakers

The center speaker is very important as it reproduces most of the dialogue in movie.

Some may argue it the most important speaker.

It is often a different shape and design to the other speakers as it has this specific purpose - and it is one of the most critical speakers in the whole system.

If you can't hear the words very well then you're not going to enjoy watching movies very much are you?

This speaker is often wider than the other speakers in the system in order to broaden the soundstage when people are talking on screen - and also a flatter/wider design can make it easier to discretely position the speaker above or below the TV screen.

Klipsch RC-52 Center SpeakerKlipsch RC-52 Center Speaker

You could use a standard speaker, more commonly used in a stereo pair, as your center speaker - but this would be more difficult to position around your TV and wouldn't have the extra design features available on a dedicated center speaker.

While it is mainly used for dialogue, in a 5.1 mix it will also be required to reproduce music or sound effects, so it will ideally have a wide frequency response similar to the front left and right speakers.

The center speaker will also be magnetically shielded to avoid interference with the TV picture as it is always placed very close to the TV screen - although this isn't so important if you have a modern flat screen TV as they aren't affected by magnetic fields in the same way as an older CRT TV.

Front left and front right speakers

The front left and right speakers reproduce most of the music and sound effects in a soundtrack.

These speakers are crucial and need to reproduce a wide range of frequencies - from low bass in music and effects to high tones in instruments like bells and cymbals.

Whilst there is no exact science to mixing a 5.1 soundtrack, these front speakers will mostly be required to reproduce the most important music and sound effects - and therefore need to be of high quality if possible.

Also, you might want to think about how you will be using your system.

Monitor Audio GS10 Bookshelf SpeakersMonitor Audio GS10 Bookshelf Speakers

If you are mainly watching movies and TV on your system, you may get away with spending less money on your front left and right speakers.

However, if you will also be listening to music on the same system, then it is these speakers that will be used for the stereo playback of music - so it is more important to get good quality speakers here.

You can use many different types of speaker for the front left/right speakers - floor standing, bookshelf or satellite - it doesn't really matter that much.

Your choice will come down to the size and shape of your room, your budget, or the type of audio you will be playing through them (movies or music).

Surround left and surround right speakers

The surround left and right speakers are used less, and mainly reproduce the surround music and effects.

They need to reproduce a similar range of frequencies to the front left and right speakers - but are less critical than the front speakers as they are used less often.

Boston Acoustics MCS 130 Surround SpeakerBoston Acoustics MCS 130 Surround Speaker

Therefore, whilst they will ideally be of a similar quality to the front left and right speakers (as they are required to reproduce similar frequencies), it is sometimes acceptable to save some money on the surround speakers and not lose too much impact in your surround sound system.

In 7.1 surround sound systems, there are two more speakers at the rear for an even greater sense of space.

These extra 7.1 speakers fall into the same category as the surround left and rights - so, like the surrounds, they will ideally be the same quality as the front speakers, but you can get a way with less here and not notice too much.

The surround speakers are more likely to be smaller satellite, bookshelf or in-wall speakers, but if you have the space (and the money) there's no reason why you can't have floor standing speakers as surrounds.


The subwoofer is completely different to the other speakers.

The subwoofer is there for one reason alone - to reproduce the low bass end.

A subwoofer can make an amazing difference to the perceived quality of your sound system, as many people don't often have the equipment available to them to play such low frequencies.

Canton Ergo AS 650.2 SC SubwooferCanton Ergo AS 650.2 SC Subwoofer

When you have a good bass system in your room, you may be surprised as to how this improves the listening experience.

It will usually housed in a large, heavy box (some look rather cool.......some don't!).

It has to be pretty big, as this is the only way to successfully build a speaker to reproduce bass. The physical size is required to get that deep bass in your room.

Home Theater Surround Sound Systems Summary

Although it might not seem important, it is easy to see why it is useful to know what each speaker is doing in our system.

Once we know why home theatre surround sound systems insist on having all these speakers cluttering up our room, we can make a better judgment as to which type of speakers we want for our room - or what system would be better suited for our home.

You are now in a better position to judge if satellite, floorstanding or bookshelf speakers will be right for your room.

Or, when it actually comes down to installing them and getting all the speakers in the right position, you will understand a little more about what is required because you understand the job of each speaker in the room.

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