What are the design characteristics that I should look for in a good center channel for dialog ? I know some of the normal comments: “3 across the front”, “spend as much as you can afford”, “gotta try it out in your room”, etc but how do I narrow the choices down. E.g. many of the better regarded cc’s are 3-way, is this typically the best design ? Should the mid-driver be smaller (ie 3-4") ? Should the cross-overs between drivers be outside of the vocal frequencies ? If I listen primarily on-axis, can a good MTM work for me ? Is a 2.5-way speaker a good concept ? My only constraints are to limit height to 8" and would like to spend <$2000 on the cc which I would then match up with a corresponding L/R and a sub.
Match the tone of your L/R speakers.
Welcome to the groups @daddyo,
Hlg2, has it right. For seamless pans of sound across the front 3 channels, you want a center channel that has the same tonality as your left and right speakers. Many speaker manufacturers sell matching center channels, so I would recommend that you go that route if possible.
If that is not possible and if your speakers image well, when you play a mono recording, it sounds like it comes from dead center between the right and left speakers, then you might be able to get away with a phantom center channel. This is where you don’t have a center channel but due to the magic of stereo imaging, it seems like the sound comes out of the center.
Best of luck!
If your left and right speakers and your amp(s) have enough headroom consider using a phantom center: mix 1/2 of the center into the front left output and 1/2 into the front right. More than once I’ve had people over with the TV on and they kept looking for the center speaker. If you have a good sound stage and speakers with at least moderate dispersion you can be better off without a center speaker: the dialog, etc. can be at the correct height, match your front speakers in tone, etc. and not interfere with the soundstage when playing stereo. Remember to do this your left and right speakers have to comfortable with about twice the power that they’d otherwise get (the center channel is often much louder than the left and right channels.)
If you don’t want a phantom center, I’d use speakers with the same tweeter and hopefully the same mids as the front left and front right speakers (and an amp that’s either identical to the left and right amp(s) or from the same family but more powerful.)
[Edit - mycrowave beat me.]
I had a Paradigm powered center channel speaker for 12-13 years. I like it and thought it was pretty good. I didn’t have Paradigm main speakers, but didn’t really notice any major sonic compromise. A year ago, the amp/crossover started having issues. I used the old-school solution and smacked the side of the speaker to correct the issue. That worked for awhile, then it didn’t.
I started looking for a replacement. I wanted another powered speaker to avoid having to make room for yet another amp. But, I just couldn’t find a powered speaker I thought I would like.
I ended up buying a Martin Logan ElectroMotion ESL C. It is a passive speaker. For power, I pulled out an old Adcom amp and reconfigured it to run bridged/mono. In bridged mode it has 400 watts, so lots of power.
The ML has a folded ribbon tweeter and an electro-static midrange. I felt these would improve the clarity of dialog.
I couldn’t be happier. Once the speaker broke in, I found the intelligibility of dialog, especially during complex scenes to be hugely improved. I’d guess this is due to reduced distortion and perhaps speed of the ribbon and electro-static elements.
I haven’t noticed a problem with this speaker being used with dynamic speakers. I don’t hear a disparity between the two types of speakers. I’m sure there is a difference, but I don’t find it distracting. This might be because almost all dialog comes from the center channel, so the difference isn’t so obvious.
This has been my experience. Good luck on your search for a center channel speaker.
I have always thought the “standard” paradigm of a center channel speaker over or under the screen, in sideways orientation, was off base. In the same vein, but somewhat different approach, of @tedsmith and his phantom center, I have 4 of the same speakers in this role -left front, right front, and two in series at the immediate sides of the screen acting as the center channel. By having all the divers line up horizontally, there is much tighter integration of the sound field with decreased interference filtering. As an added benefit, dialogue is much more centered on the screen, rather than coming from above or below. I suspect you could get nearly the same effect by using two smaller speakers from the same manufacturer as the center pair.