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11 Things You Should Know About Surround Sound Speakers

Surround speakers in a home theater room


Installing surround sound speakers in your room is a must for any home theater. But it does make things more complex. Get the answers to some common questions.

There is no doubt that installing surround sound speakers in your room will bring a significant improvement in your home theater experience.

But, even though I am a big fan, I will also admit that it can make things more complicated.

However, if you are willing to make the step up to surround sound, you will definitely be happy you put in the effort.

To make things a little easier for you, I’ve selected a list of common questions about surround sound speakers and given some straightforward answers.

I hope you find it helpful.

1. How to Play Music Through All Your Surround Sound Speakers?

Most music is recorded in stereo. So usually, you will hear the music on the stereo left and right speakers of your sound system.

However, if you have a multichannel amplifier like an AV receiver, you might want to play music across all the speakers in your room.

This can be especially useful when you have friends over and want background music playing around the whole room.

To enable this to happen, you will need to select a different listening mode on your amplifier. Most AV receivers will have a sound mode that will spread the music across all your surround speakers.

By default, stereo music will usually play using the stereo listening mode – which means you only hear the music over the front left and right speakers.

The name of the sound mode for playing music around all your speakers will vary between brands – however, they all do the same thing.

Here are the names for some popular brands:

  • Denon/Marantz: Multi Ch Stereo
  • Yamaha: All-Channel Stereo
  • Sony: Multi Channel Stereo
  • Pioneer: Ext.Stereo (Extended Stereo)
  • Onkyo: All Ch Stereo

You will usually change the sound mode – sometimes called a listening mode, sound field or processing mode – by selecting it from your remote control.

Refer to the manual for your brand and model for more information on this.

2. Is a Center Channel Speaker Necessary?

No, you don’t need a center speaker for home theater surround sound.

When you set up your AV receiver, you will tell it which speakers are connected.

This can be stereo speakers only – or you can have stereo speakers at the front and surround sound speakers at the back of your room (plus a subwoofer if you wish).

If the receiver knows there isn’t a center speaker, it will downmix a 5.1 movie soundtrack to play on the available speakers – however, the success of this process can be hit and miss.

Having said all this, I wouldn’t recommend playing surround sound movies without a center speaker.

The center speaker is a fundamental part of the surround sound experience and will allow you to hear the dialogue more clearly.

3. Is Surround Sound Good for Music?

Some popular music albums have been mixed in multichannel surround sound.

These can sound great on a surround sound audio system and offer a unique and new perspective over the traditional stereo recording.

Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway - Surround Sound DVD
The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (Genesis) – Surround Sound DVD-Audio

However, some people may find the experience difficult to adjust to if they are used to hearing a particular piece of music in stereo.

You can also play stereo music on a multichannel speaker system.

Many AV receivers will have a sound mode that will spread the two-channel audio around all your speakers. This can be good for parties.

Or, you can create a virtual surround sound mix by using the Dolby Surround or DTS Neural:X listening modes on a stereo music track.

However, these processing formats are meant for upmixing movie and TV audio to use all the speakers in your system, and I wouldn’t recommend using them for stereo music.

4. Which Speaker is Left and Right?

When setting up your sound system, you will need to place your front left and right speakers an equal distance apart in front of your listening position.

The front stereo speaker pair should ideally be the same type, but does it matter which goes on the left and the right?

In most cases, no. Most speakers, especially those designed for home theater, will perform the same regardless of their position. So it won’t matter which goes left or right.

However, some speakers are designed to be the left and right speakers, which is more likely if you are using stereo hi-fi speakers in your system.

Sometimes, the speaker’s design dictates that one should be placed on the left and the other on the right. This will usually be due to the placement of the woofer and tweeter on the front.

Stereo speakers with matching woofer and tweeter layouts
Stereo speakers with matching woofer and tweeter layouts

Check the manual for your speakers if you want to be sure, and if it is essential, the manufacturer will tell you so.

You will often be able to tell because the layout of the woofer and tweeter will be different when you put the speakers side-by-side. You may need to remove the protective speaker grille to see this.

If the speakers look the same from the front, it is unlikely that it matters which side they should go.

5. Can I Have Surround Sound Without a Subwoofer?

Yes, you don’t have to use a subwoofer in a surround sound system.

Most audio systems for movies and TV use a subwoofer to get excellent low-end performance for all the exciting rumbles and thuds in the special effects.

Having a dedicated speaker for the low bass frequencies is ideal for making your whole speaker system perform at its best.

But, if you don’t want a subwoofer, you can tell the AV receiver that there is no subwoofer connected when you set it up. It will then adjust the output of the audio accordingly.

Selecting the number of subwoofers on an AV receiver
Selecting the number of subwoofers on an AV receiver

A good compromise in this situation is to use a floor-standing speaker for the front left and right speakers.

Floor-standing speakers will have the best low-end performance of all the types of speakers used in home theater – apart from the subwoofer, of course.

Therefore floor-standing speakers can give you an excellent experience with movie soundtracks and can often make up for the lack of a subwoofer in your room.

6. Can I Replace the Surround Sound Speakers?

If you have an AV receiver, then you can easily replace the surround speakers.

The speakers are independent of the amplifier, and there is a wide range of speakers that you can buy. You should, however, try to match the speakers and amplifier regarding impedance and power ratings.

They will also come with standard speaker connection types that are universal for most amplifiers.

Speaker wire terminals on the rear of a speaker
Speaker wire terminals on the rear of a speaker

If you have an all-in-one home theater system – one that comes bundled with an amplifier, speakers, and sometimes, even the cable – then you might have a problem.

The surround speakers in this type of system are often specially designed to match the amplifier and often come with proprietary connections.

The speaker specifications may also be unusual and not compatible with most standalone speakers.

The same can be said of soundbar systems that come with wired or wireless surround speakers. Often these speakers are specific for the brand and aren’t easily replaceable.

If you feel that you may like to upgrade your speakers in the future, then it would be best to buy an AV receiver and then you will have many more options going forward.

7. Can I Use Floor-Standing Speakers for Surround Sound?

Yes, you can use floor-standing speakers for most of your surround sound speaker system if you wish.

You wouldn’t want to use a floor-standing speaker for the center speaker, but apart from that, you can use floor-standing speakers for the front left, front right, or any of the surround speakers.

You will need a room with plenty of space to install the speakers in their correct positions.

Floorstanding speakers in a room

And, there is an argument that full-range floor-standing speakers may be over-the-top for the surrounds as the surround speakers don’t usually require such a wide frequency range.

Of course, the subwoofer should be a dedicated speaker- and you couldn’t really use a floor-stander for Dolby Atmos as these need to be positioned high in your room.

However, some floorstanding speakers come with integrated Dolby Atmos-enabled modules at the top.

8. Do I Need a Center Channel Speaker for Music?

No. The vast majority of music is recorded in stereo and so only needs a stereo pair of speakers to recreate the sound.

The main reason for installing a center speaker in your sound system is for listening to movie and TV surround sound audio.

9. Can I Use the TV Speakers as a Center Channel?

Generally, no. If you want to hear multichannel surround sound audio, then you need to buy an AV receiver.

An AV receiver has several output channels for connecting to passive speakers – including one for the center channel.

But, you can’t wire your TV speakers to the center output channel of your AV amplifier. It’s just not what they are designed for.

One exception is with the range of Sony OLED TVs. Sony has developed a unique type of TV speaker audio called Acoustic Surface, where the whole screen acts as a speaker.

To achieve this, Sony builds actuators behind the rear panel, which are used to create sound.

Further still, there are two speaker terminals on the TV’s rear backplate to connect the speaker wire from your AV receiver – just like with any passive speaker.

Once connected, the TV will receive the center channel audio from the AV amplifier and play it out through the TV screen.

It might be the perfect solution for some, as positioning the center speaker can be difficult if you don’t have much space.

10. Does 7.1 Surround Sound Make a Difference?

Yes, 7.1 surround sound is very effective at creating an even greater sense of immersion in your room.

It’s not a night and day difference between an optimized 5.1 system, but you will definitely feel even more part of the action in some scenes.

The downside is that there aren’t many actual 7.1 soundtracks – and it is with these, you will hear the most difference.

Also, to get the most out of 7.1, you will need plenty of space behind your listening area. The rear surround speakers must be positioned behind you in the room to get the full effect.

Many people try to fit the extra speakers without having the necessary space – in which case, they won’t get the full surround effect.

In this case, it would be better to configure an excellent 5.1 system than set up a flawed 7.1 surround system.

11. Can a Soundbar Be Used as a Center Speaker?

In most cases, no. The vast majority of soundbars are active speakers with stereo or surround sound speaker drivers.

This means that they have an integrated amplifier to power the speakers. All you need to do is connect the line-out audio from a TV to hear the sound.

On the other hand, a center speaker is a passive speaker – designed to play a single output channel.

This means it has no built-in amplification, and you will need to drive the speaker with the center output channel of a multichannel amplifier.

However, there are a small number of passive soundbars that you can buy.

A passive soundbar will usually have stereo or left, center, and right speaker drivers – and speaker terminals on the rear to connect to your AV receiver.

The advantage of passive soundbars is that they take up less space in your room compared to a traditional bookshelf or floor-standing speaker.

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11 Things You Should Know About Surround Sound Speakers

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About Home Cinema Guide

Paul started the Home Cinema Guide to help less-experienced users get the most out of today's audio-visual technology. He has worked as a sound, lighting and audio-visual engineer for around 20 years. At home, he has spent more time than is probably healthy installing, configuring, testing, de-rigging, fixing, tweaking, re-installing again (and sometimes using) various pieces of hi-fi and home cinema equipment.

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