The center-channel speaker is possibly the least appreciated component in all of audio. For those who enjoy multichannel music and watch lots of surround video, it’s arguably the most important piece in the system. At the same time, diehard stereo fans often see the center speaker as an afterthought, if needed at all. If you use your A/V system at all for video, along with stereo listening, there’s no doubting the advantages and sonic necessity of a good center speaker — stereo or fake DSP modes are poor substitutes.
Getting good center-channel performance means more than just having a good center speaker, though that obviously helps. Because so much of our perceptual attention goes to the “middle” during surround listening, actual setup and configuration of the center channel can be as critical to the sound as the native performance capabilities of the speaker. Even a center speaker that’s perfectly matched to the other speakers in its surround setup can (and will) sound wrong — out of place, out of balance — if it hasn’t been tailored properly. On the other hand, it’s possible to make a good unmatched center speaker sound coherent and nicely at home with different-brand main speakers, if you’re willing to work the setup.
I recently spent some time with two capable center speakers from SVS; the company’s basic Prime and upscale Ultra models. The two speakers share similar design criteria and can both be used within any of SVS’s speaker systems. Both models have the same sonic goal — to reproduce the source center-channel information, and coalesce with the left-right main speakers for a balanced, integrated, three-across front stage.
Since I was using these SVS center speakers with SVS mains (Ultra Tower) and bookshelves (Ultra Bookshelf), everything should have, in theory, been as easy as hooking up the speakers, setting an output level (or having the receiver do that for me), and sitting back to a blended listen, yes? In a perfect world, or at least one with superior room-correction technology, that’d be pretty much true. But even serious centers like these from SVS needed some finesse to make the soundfield organic and coherent across the front stage.
Depending what you’re listening to at any given time, up to 70% of all multichannel program material might be emanating from the center speaker. Since this material usually includes the centerpiece vocals (music) and dialogue (movies), your ears are particularly attuned to this speaker — not only for minute frequency shifts, but also shifts in timing caused by front-back distance to the viewing area, or off-axis placement in the vertical plane. Timing artifacts from these factors blur the steering that engineers intend when they map the sound across the three front channels, and that manufacturers like SVS strive for in delivering the integrated “full screen” effect from the multichannel staging.
When the setup and sonics from the center speaker are right, there’s little or no noticeable change in sound character as the music or movie moves back and forth across the front stage. When the center sound is off — and this can easily happen even with same-brand-same-models center speakers — there’s a perceptible difference that calls attention to itself and takes you out of the experience, however noticeably. With the center, good gear is obviously important, but it’s not the whole game. Even the perfect center-channel speaker needs the right tweak.
Two Centers, One Aim
Both the Ultra Center and the Prime Center are designed as relatively full-range speakers. While their design has been optimized for center performance and horizontal placement, the driver array and resulting specs for both products very much resemble a large-ish bookshelf or small-ish tower speaker turned on its side. According to Smith Freeman, Director of Product Development for SVS, both the Ultra and Prime Centers are engineered around a genuine three-way design, with a dedicated midrange driver below the tweeter in its own acoustically sealed chamber, flanked by two ported bass drivers.
The Prime Center Speaker ($349) uses 3.5-inch midrange drivers versus larger 4.5-inch drivers in the Ultra Center ($699), the latter of which also includes upgraded cast-aluminum frames and composite glass-fiber cones. “The larger midrange drivers in the Ultra are able to present more of the vocal range with greater ease due to the larger size and a larger motor,” according to Freeman. The Prime Center uses two 5.25-inch woofers, which takes the speakers frequency response down to about 48 Hz. The Ultra Center’s two flanking woofers are 6.5 inches, which increases overall output capability and extends low frequency response down to 45 Hz. High-end response for both of these are obviously sufficient for everything in the directly audible range, with the Prime reaching 25 kHz and the Ultra going to 32 kHz.
These are very respectable specifications (+/- 3 dB), and each of these centers should be able (and were able) to deliver everything they claimed. But for a moment, let’s leave the specifications behind and take a look at the real-world applications that I tried in two rooms using two placements, and how they introduced challenges that typically need to be addressed by the user to get the best possible performance from the center.
Tailoring the Fit
As mentioned, one could take either the SVS Prime or Ultra, stand them on their side and they’d likely impress you as a straight-on, full-range L-R speaker, particularly the Ultra. But two beefy 6.5-inch woofers sitting in a typical home theater furniture rack, with closely adjoining objects like upper and lower shelves and other components to the side, can bring you a lot of bass. Given the relatively small distances between the center and the mains in my home theater (55-inch screen, with 10 inches of space between the main speakers and the screen), I found that more bass from the center was not necessarily advantageous, even when the speaker was set to “small” (low-frequency cutoff) in my receiver’s setup menu.
In most surround components, your receiver or processor will set a default crossover cutoff — typically 80 Hz — to feed low bass to a subwoofer or larger L-R speaker. However, at this default setting, I found that in my home theater rack, with the video screen above the center speaker and more gear below, both centers produced enough bass as to blur the dialogue and take impact away from the mains. This, of course, had nothing to do with the Ultra Center’s (or the Prime’s) design or execution, both of which felt and (eventually) sounded exemplary. The problem was a direct result of particulars — my rack, my setup, my room shape, my ceiling height, and my listening distance. Every new user, for these or any other center-channel speakers, will face the same kinds of small particulars.
Fortunately, most A/V receivers that would be commensurate with these SVS centers will provide tailoring options that can let the center shine out properly. I began by moving the Ultra Center’s crossover point up to 100 Hz, which sent more midbass to the mains and away from the center. This brought me the double benefit of more distinct dialogue and sharper vocal focus. While the Prime center’s smaller woofers did not produce as much bass as the Ultra, they also benefitted — in my setup — from the higher cutoff frequency.
In a different rack and a different room, perhaps with left-right mains spaced further apart, or in a different home theater with a projection screen rather than a TV, would the situation have called for this shift? Maybe. Again, much of acoustic performance depends on your environment.
Getting on the Plane
Even when the bass cutoff was properly assigned (for my setup) on the SVS centers, I found that I needed more tweaking to make the L-C-R soundfield genuinely seamless. In my home theater furniture, there’s a shelf directly below the screen that’s meant for the center speaker, where both the Prime and Ultra were placed. While the Prime center is fairly conventionally sized at 7.7 inches high, the Ultra is 8.2 inches tall, which is slightly large for garden-variety home theater furniture. Not oversized, just large; be sure to measure if you’re considering putting the Ultra Center into a non-adjustable home theater shelf.
Since optimal sound is produced when the speaker’s tweeters are placed at ear height or thereabouts, the profile of the furniture rack introduced an anomaly, as most “home entertainment center” furniture will — the center’s tweeters were now nearly 8 inches lower than the tweeters on the Ultra Bookshelves (when used as mains), and nearly 15 inches below the tweeters of the tall Ultra Towers. From a seating distance of less than 15 feet, some immediate localization was unavoidable, Would that be the case with a further seating distance, or if the center was on a stand in front of a projection screen instead of a TV? No… but this was not that room. SVS does sell an 18-inch stand for their center-channel speakers. Wherever that choice can work aesthetically, it would certainly work acoustically. In my dwelling, it was not a realistic option.
The tweaking needed to bring the centers into proper blend in my setup required both a low-tech and high-tech fix. First, I moved the SVS centers into complete flush with the front of the A/V furniture, and then stuck a slim stack of business cards and some Blu-Tack underneath to toe the speaker slightly upwards. Then, I went into the configuration menu of the highly flexible (and rock-steady) Anthem MRX-710 receiver. Using an old Radio Shack decibel meter (the best $30 audio purchase ever, sadly no longer available), I brought the center level up by 1 dB, which from an amplitude standpoint, made the center noticeably more present and commensurate. I then made a distance change in the Anthem’s setup software, bringing the center slightly “forward” in distance, which further enhanced the blended front-stage effect.
A few judicious moves back and forth between level and distance settings, coupled with minute placement changes (fractions of inches) of the centers in their shelves, brought coherence to both speakers. The tweaking ameliorated the sonic reflections off surfaces proximate to the center speaker (upper-lower shelves); attenuated what would have been overloaded bass caused by the relatively confined placement, and compensated in great part for the off-axis placement in the vertical plane — all from about 5 minutes of tweaks. In the end, I achieved what I considered to be very pleasing coherence from the L-C-R, but I had to work for it.
So will you, even with accurate and powerful speakers (especially the Ultra) like the SVS centers. Good room correction technology like Anthem’s Windows-based ARC system has it, but since I’m a Mac user and components change so often at my place, my configurations through that box are manual. If your receiver doesn’t have room correction, manual can be beautiful, get to know it. While it’s not as good as a room-correction system, a dB meter and a few moments of your time can yield improvements as good as a gear upgrade.
Work Over, Now Play
Saving my settings as two separate configurations in the Anthem receiver (a nice feature), I auditioned the Prime and Ultra centers with a variety of movies and multichannel music. The importance of a good center channel is really obvious to a classic film buff like me; these movies are usually pre-stereo, and even though studios like TCM et al deliver them in two-channel, I prefer to watch them with a movie mode engaged, like Pro Logic II. This puts dialogue in the center, as it should be, even when the cable box or Roku is actually receiving conventional left-right stereo signals.
I liked both of these center-channel speakers very much, and which one you might like better might be a question of what you listen to and in what kind of space. Without question the Ultra is a monster speaker overall; in fact, it’s one of the most muscular centers I’ve heard in some time. It should be a must-hear if you’re putting together a THX-centric kind of setup; it plays loud and clean, and if you want it to, it can go low. Left to its best possible setup scenarios — like on a stand mount in a room with a video projector — it’s hard to imagine any listener being less than impressed with what the Ultra center is able to do. The effects stay razor-sharp, and there’s a great sense of speed — so action movies like Jurassic World totally delivered.
That said, in my setup I actually preferred the less costly Prime center. It’s not as pretty looking — missing the piano black finish — and it’s not as beefy, but I found that its slightly more diminutive presence was more at home in my setup and with my listening tastes than the larger Ultra. The sonic profile was less outgoing, and felt better integrated with my setup and my rack. While the Prime also could play surprisingly big bass, proper bass adjustment — really helped with dialogue clarity. A few moments of tweaking is better than having to reach into extra “dialogue-enhancing” DSP in your receiver to help the center artificially (often ineffectively).
Turning to multichannel music, I gave the SVS centers their moment on stage with a few interesting tests. First was bandmember Jerry Harrison’s 5.1 remix of Talking Heads’ classic Fear of Music, and the SVS system really did convincingly present the argument for 5.1 remixes. David Byrne’s anxious monologues clearly dominated the center stage as expected, but as a result of the vivid localizations (versus the original stereo), the rest of the album’s thick layerings of keyboards, guitars, and electronic treatments were now all highly distinguishable and now separated by space, as well by as the mix, presented a new listening experience from a favorite oldie. The five SVS speakers really worked as one organism.
I moved the audition to Steven Wilson’s 5.1 remix of Gentle Giant’s The Power and the Glory, which even in stereo is a nearly perfect studio recording, but in surround really comes alive with the sounds of its strangeness. Odd bursts of instrumentation from the band’s signature eclectic palette punctuated beautifully from the SVS’s spherical stage, with vocals sometimes piercingly up front and center, and other times, dreamily washing across the entire L-C-R stage. Again, the two centers acted beautifully in concert, as impactful (when called for) as the main speakers; part of the action when needed, or leading the action when needed.
The right center-channel speaker for your system is both easy and hard to buy. If you already own L-R mains that you like, a center with a different design, from a different brand, won’t make for the most organic match. However, some setup tailoring and room correction from your receiver, if available, can substantially erase the difference, which frees you to make choices.
If you’re looking for a neutral-sounding, full-range center that can kick out the dynamics for a high-power surround system, the SVS Ultra Center is a monster. It delivers clean dialogue and vocals, has super-fast dynamics and enough midbass muscle to keep up with a THX-level theater system. If your needs and space are less outsized, the SVS Prime seems to me like a steal at its $349 price tag.
Polarization jokes aside, the center doesn’t get much respect these days. In this case, it deserves it, for these two center speakers from SVS — the Ultra Center and the Prime — are indeed HRAC Approved.