Can You Use a Soundbar as a Center Channel Speaker?
Although tempting, and possibly workable under the right circumstances, you shouldn’t be using your soundbar as a center channel speaker. Between the potential poor sound quality and even damaging some of your audio equipment, it’s not worth it. Especially if you’re aiming for high-fidelity sound.
Here’s how soundbars work and why they aren’t good as a single channel speaker substitute in any home theater setup.
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Soundbars are not individual speakers. A soundbar uses multiple speakers for multi-channel sound projection. Although it may look like a veritable speaker, a closer inspection under the hood will immediately show the differences between a single speaker and a soundbar.
A soundbar usually has a minimum of two speakers in what’s known as a 2.0 configuration. This means the one speaker is front left and one speaker is front right. It’s the basic stereo setup.
A 3.0 or 3.1 soundbar adds another speaker or channel. This speaker is always the center channel speaker. The signal processing will automatically route most of the vocal to the center.
How Soundbars Create Surround Sound
With any soundbar, whether it’s a 2.0, 3.1, or 5.1, the front left and right speakers are always slightly tilted. So, instead of firing the sound waves straight at you (the listener), the speakers direct the sound waves at the walls. This allows the sound to bounce off walls and seem as though from the left and right speakers of a proper stereo system. That’s for music mode.
In surround sound mode, the sound would come from multiple directions. This is what gives the surround sound experience. Some soundbars do it much better than others, of course, and the placement of the soundbar can also matter.
For a more convincing surround sound experience, you can get a soundbar with elevation speakers, or speakers that bounce sound waves off the ceiling to create an overhead sound effect. This is what most Dolby Atmos soundbars use.
Soundbars as Individual Channel Speakers
Now you know how soundbars work. Here’s what you need to know about using one as a dedicated single speaker.
Single Channel Connection
First of all, to make a soundbar play the center channel info, no matter how many channels the soundbar has, you need to connect the center channel output of your A/V receiver to the soundbar. You can also go through a splitter to plug into the left and right inputs of the soundbar. Of course, this is only possible if you have an A/V receiver or surround sound processor.
With this setup, the angled speakers of the soundbar will also play the same sound. However, it will also bounce it around the room which has the undesirable effect of muddying the dialogue.
An alternative to the previously explained method is to connect the center channel, front left, and front right channels from the receiver to your soundbar. Assuming you have a 3.0 or 3.1 soundbar.
Again, using this method invites some serious problems. First of all, by doing this you’ll cause the front left and right speakers to be out of phase with the rest of the speakers. When speakers are out of phase, the room will have dead spots and amplified spots.
Therefore, there won’t be any consistency in the center channel sound. This happens because when the waves projected by the soundbar meet with the waves projected by your speakers, they will interfere with each other. Hence, in some parts of the room they will cancel each other out and in other parts the dialogue will simply get amplified too much.
Amplification Stacking Is Another Issue
As you probably know, soundbars have internal amplifiers.
Most surround sound systems also have to deal with this problem. They either have powered speakers or they need to be hooked up to an A/V receiver with a built-in amplifier.
So, because of the need for amplification, you can run into even more problems when swapping a center channel speaker for your soundbar.
Connecting a device that sends amplified audio signals into a soundbar can cause serious feedback issues and even physically damage the components.
Soundbars are designed to handle a very specific amount of power. By making an active soundbar part of an active surround sound system, through a connection to the A/V receiver, you would run too much power through it.
And, the fact of the matter is that most A/V receivers also have built-in amplifiers because most speakers are passive speakers and require external amplification. Hence a very good reason why using a soundbar as a center channel speaker is not something you should want to experiment with.
Downsides – Recap
After all is said and done, there are two clear reasons why you shouldn’t use your soundbar as a center-channel speaker. First, it’d be so much easier to invest in a center speaker. Second, the audio quality just wouldn’t be better. Even though you may think that the extra speakers would somehow sound better, the physics of how speakers work don’t make this happen.
And, the most important reason, is because soundbars and receivers come with amplification that it’s almost inevitable that you run into amplification stacking. When that happens, it may not take long before you damage the soundbar beyond repair. And this type of damage is unlikely to be covered by the warranty.
Final Thoughts and Recommendations
If you want a high-fidelity surround sound system, do it the right way and don’t take shortcuts. The fact that you’re even asking this question shows that you’re on the right track and you’re not interested in experimenting without having an understanding of how audio equipment works.
My advice to you is to either set up a surround sound speaker system with an A/V receiver or go straight for a compact and neat-looking soundbar. A 5.1 soundbar should do the trick too with a separate subwoofer and two separate surround sound speakers. That’s assuming that you get a soundbar that fits the room’s size.