What Is the Difference Between a Center-Channel Speaker & a Sound Bar?

By David Lipscomb

Sound bars and center-channel speakers play different surround-sound roles.
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A conventional home theater featuring five, six or seven speakers plus a subwoofer adds impact and dimension to movies, games and television programming. However, all those speakers take up space and remain visible even if they're small or recessed. Arguably the most critical of these speakers is the center channel, providing nearly all of the onscreen dialogue and special effects steered to this speaker. Sound bars are combination speakers featuring the center channel, left and right speakers and other drivers used to simulate virtual surround speaker positions. Although a sound bar and a conventional center channel are placed similarly, they are quite different.

Conventional Home Theater Layout

In a conventional media room or home theater, two speakers are deployed to the left and right of the screen. Immediately above or below the screen is the center channel. Positioned to the left and right of the primary seating are surround speakers, along with a single or pair of speakers immediately behind, providing surround back duties. This arrangement creates a sonic bubble around the listeners, immersing them in the audio environment. Adding to the impact is one or more subwoofers, providing tactile reinforcement to explosions and drama to soundtracks. In this context, the center channel anchors onscreen material to the screen, so no matter where listeners are seated in virtually any size environment, sound is positioned where it should be.

Room Considerations

Sound bars, like center channels, are meant to be positioned directly over or under the TV. They use a multitude of smaller drivers inside one cabinet, providing the dialogue and onscreen effects. All sound bars also position or angle a set or pair of speakers to the sides, leveraging the side walls in a smaller room to bounce simulated surround content around the room. The effect can be very convincing, but not very effective in larger rooms where the side walls are positioned more than 10 to 15 feet apart. Home theaters come in nearly any shape and size, with speaker sizes a quantity chosen to match. For this reason, there is no real limitation to when and where conventional surround sound can be used. However, aesthetic requirements along with the intended level of investment in the audio system may preclude numerous speakers, especially in smaller spaces or where the appearance of technology needs to be limited.

Relative Price

Sound bars, like any home theater product, come in a variety of price ranges. You can pay more for a single sound bar than for many low- to mid-fi home-theater-in-a-box packages, and you might end up with better results. Moving beyond rudimentary surround packages and into larger costlier speakers, however, most sound bars are considerably less expensive once all of the speakers, cabling and installation costs are considered. For spaces where media consumption and overall sound quality is a secondary concern, a sound bar adds plenty of dimension to casual viewing without investing the space or cost for up to eight speakers. Additionally, mounting a sound bar under a flat panel is something most reasonably handy homeowners can manage using basic tools, contrasted with fishing wires through walls and ceilings as in a conventional setup.

Sound Bar Installation Requirements

Some sound bars are self-powered affairs, offering on-board decoding for Dolby Digital and DTS and precluding the need for a separate home-theater receiver. Many sound bars also offer outputs for a separate subwoofer, augmenting the smaller compact speaker. In all cases, sources are still required including a Blu-ray player, cable or satellite decoder and possibly a media streamer or game console. For passive sound bars, a receiver is still required along with various sources, but in most cases speaker wiring is included or relatively short runs are required, depending on the location of the speaker relative to the sound bar. HDMI and subwoofer cables are needed in either case to connect sources and a standalone subwoofer to either the receiver or A/V receiver, depending on the sound bar's configuration.

Center-Channel Positioning

In a conventional home theater, mounting the center channel directly under or above the screen is desirable. Since movie mixers deliberately place onscreen content in the center, placing it to the left or right of the display not only looks odd but sounds strange as well. Additionally, center-channel speakers should ideally be placed at the same height as the main speakers, which are ideally at ear level when you're seated. Center-channel speakers are aimed directly at the listener, although in most cases it is sonically acceptable to orient the speaker horizontally or vertically as installation requirements demand. Placing rubber feet under the speaker also helps increase intelligibility by preventing the speaker cabinet from interacting with the TV or shelf it sits upon.