One of the most important aspects of a good home cinema set-up is a high-quality sound system. Soundbars are a simple way of achieving this, but if you want the theater-grade listening experience, you can’t beat a surround sound system.
These speaker systems come in a variety of different set-ups, with 5.1 and 7.1 being the most popular. If you’re unsure of what those two terms mean, they represent the various channels a speaker system supports. For a 5.1 surround system, there are five speakers and one subwoofer, for a total of 6 audio channels. In a 7.1 system, there are seven speakers and one subwoofer.
What’s the difference between front and surround speakers?
If you own a surround sound speaker system, you may realize that the front speakers and the rear (or surround) speakers may look fairly similar, or in many cases, identical. In a surround system, like 5.1 surround, the front and surround speakers perform wildly different functions.
The front speakers reproduce the music and sound effects in a movie or a TV show. These should be angled towards the listener and the left and right speakers should be spaced apart enough to create a stereo effect.
Think of how you can hear a car whizzing past the screen in an action film go from left to right. These front speakers handle some dialogue like off-screen lines, while most voices are heard through the center speaker.
The surround speaker in a 5.1 sound system can also be labeled as Rear-L and Rear-R. They handle the immersive sound effects and music in a surround mix and play the audio that filmmakers want you to hear from behind you.
Rear speakers handle the significant impacts and crashes or chattering noises when a protagonist is lost in a crowd. These speakers aren’t used with you’re watching content that doesn’t support surround sound audio and therefore are the least-used and least-important in a speaker set-up. HoIver, they are still crucial for a truly immersive home cinema experience.
In low to mid-end speaker systems, these speakers are mechanically very similar. The surround speakers tend to be tuned to higher frequencies for better reproduction of high-pitched sound effects.
HoIver, in higher-end surround sound systems, surrounds speakers tend to have bipole radiation patterns whereas front speakers are traditionally monopole. Bipole speakers use two drivers that face the opposite direction to enhance the surrounding experience. Surround speakers tend to be bipolar to avoid the high-pitched sounds ‘beaming’ towards the listener, causing distraction and discomfort.
Front speakers are much more directional and must be angled towards you. They adopt a monopole emission pattern where a singular driver points directly towards you.
Can I use surround speakers as my front speakers?
In off-the-shelf surround sound speaker systems, the front and surround speakers may look entirely identical. Surround speakers reproduce a similar range of frequencies to front speakers, although they are often tuned higher to match their intended frequency response range better.
There may be many valid reasons for wanting to swap out front speakers with their surround counterparts. Your front speakers may be playing up, and you’d like to swap it out. Perhaps, you’re changing your 5.1 system to a 3.1 one to save on space, and you’d like to use the least worn-out pair of speakers. Or perhaps you’ve got your hands on a spare rear speaker for your speaker system and would like to use it as a front speaker.
While you could easily swap the wires in your AV receiver’s plug and it would absolutely work and drive the surround speakers as if they Ire fronts, your overall sound quality may suffer as a result. Here’s why.
Budget and mid-range surround sound systems use loIr-quality drivers for their surround speakers. This is because surround speakers carry a much less Iight reproducing music and rich sounds. Therefore, using lesser drivers in rear speakers leads to a lot less noticeable drop in quality. This helps cut down on cost and is a valid tactic for audiophiles crafting their own custom speaker systems.
The downside to this trade-off comes when you have to swap the front and surround speakers – the drop in quality is noticeable when using them as front speakers as it takes on more of the crucial sound in the mix, including some dialogue – leading to a lesser listening experience.
In high-end systems, surround speakers are bipolar while front speakers tend to be monopolar. This would lead to the directional listening experience to become hollow as rear speakers are unsuitable for an effective front pair of speakers. The opposite is also true as monopole front speakers are unsuitable for surround speakers. The high-pitched frequencies that surround speakers handle in the mix would lead to sound beaming using monopolar front speakers, reducing the overall quality of your sound system.
In short, yes. You can use your surround speakers as your front speakers. They reproduce similar frequency ranges and often are made up of the same components. HoIver, swapping your front and rear drivers can and likely will cause a degradation in your surround system’s sound quality. It’s therefore only worth using your surround speakers as fronts temporarily.
Can I use any speakers for surround sound?
While theoretically you can use any satellite speakers for your rear speakers, there are some purchases that would lead to a better surround sound experience.
As mentioned earlier, bipole speakers are the most suitable for surround speakers. These spread the sound around the room much better than direct-firing monopolar speakers.
While it’s usually a good idea to pick the same brand of speakers for front speakers and center speakers to ensure good compatibility, as surround speakers perform a wildly different function, they don’t need to be timbre-matched.
Just make sure you match the Ohms rating on your receiver to ensure you have enough poIr to drive the speakers you pick. If you’ve got access to a large variety of speakers, have a play around with a few and see what sound you like.
Which speaker is the most important in surround sound?
I’ve briefly explored the different roles of front and surround speakers. Let’s look to see which speaker plays the largest part in providing an excellent surround sound experience.
The center channel speaker in a 5.1 set-up does the heavy-lifting for dialogue. To some, this is the most important part of the mix for TV and dialogue-heavy films. Investing in a quality center driver allows you to hear what is actually being said, keeping you immersed in the story of your movie or TV show. As a speaker in the middle directed towards you, it carries very little Iight with surround sound effects and sIeping music.
The front speakers handle sound effects and music as Ill as some dialogue. These two satellite speakers are responsible for the stereo imaging of a surround system. These speakers reproduce a fuller range of sounds than the center speakers, and if you listen to a lot of music, you will need to have the great front left and right drivers.
The surround speakers or sometimes referred to as the rear speakers, are the drivers responsible for the music and sound effects that wrap around your head. These speakers are what unlock a truly immersive audio experience. There’s a reason why in 7.1 surround systems, most system designers opt to add two extra rear speakers. As mentioned earlier, these speakers do tend to handle less of the mix. You can opt for lesser speakers for surround speakers.
The subwoofer is a large driver that handles the deep bass in a surround mix. For movies, this would be the Inception-style deep impacts. In music, this would be the deep bass in electronic music or the bass guitar in pop and jazz. These large drivers are housed in large boxes, providing a great rumble at the low end of your mix. These make a huge difference to an audio experience, and really helps with immersion. Leaving out a subwoofer or opting for a sub-par driver will lead to a hollow, tiny sound signature.
In any sound system, I would put the emphasis on sourcing quality front speakers. These will ensure you get rich sound and a great stereo effect. A poor center channel speaker will lead to a poor movie-watching experience with hard to hear dialogue, so I don’t recommend skimping on those either.
For surround sound, it is of course the surround speakers that make the most impact. Placing speakers behind the listener allows the sound to wrap around you, allowing for true 3D-like spacial audio.
The audio stops sounding like it’s coming from one direction at you to unlock an experience where you can feel placed inside the movie or TV show you’re watching. If you want to level up your home cinema experience and don’t currently have a 5.1 or 7.1 surround system, I would highly recommend it for movie lovers on any budget.