You want a great home theater? Then you need to have your room right and you need to have your speakers in the right location. If you buy some awesome speakers, but you put them in the wrong places in your room, those awesome speakers won’t sound nearly as awesome as they could.
In this article, we’ll go through the best practices in setting up your home theater speakers.
As an important note, please keep in mind that loudspeaker manufacturers will have specific guidelines for their products, so always consider the manufacturer recommendations.
One other note, all the discussions you read tend to be about the single seated position. We'll be using the same concept here, but realize that the farther away from that ideal seated position, the more ‘out of alignment’ your audio will be. That is where audio calibration comes into play, but calibration can only do so much and your audio performance certainly doesn't stop with where you position your speakers.
OK, so let’s get started…
Center Channel Speaker
Your center channel is the workhorse of your home theater speakers, and the placement of this speaker is critical. This speaker is where the vast majority of dialogue is located, and the true ‘center’ of the audio you hear while you are listening to your system.
Ideally, the tweeter(s) of your center channel should be horizontally aligned with the tweeters of your front left and right speakers. If you cannot place the tweeters on the exact same height, then you should have the tweeter(s) of the center channel within 12 inches of the tweeters on the left and right speakers.
In terms of where to put the speaker, you should have your center channel positioned directly in the middle of your display. Doing so, gives you three options, one is to place this speaker above your screen, the second is to place the speaker below your screen, and the third option is to place the speaker centered directly behind an acoustically-transparent screen.
There are pros and cons to both above and below the screen. When the speaker is below the screen, the tweeter is more likely within that 12 inch range of your left and right speakers, however if you have multiple rows in your theater, then the viewers in the front row are likely going to block the audio from reaching the subsequent rows.
When you place your center channel above the screen, a downside is that there is a large difference between the tweeter height of your left and right speakers with your center channel. You can angle it down towards the audience, however you might still pickup that the speaker is well above your left and right speakers, and the sound from the speaker may reflect off the ceiling.
Your best option is to place your center channel speaker directly behind an acoustically-transparent screen, with the tweeters aligned in a straight line. You'll need an acoustically-transparent screen surface so that the audio from the center channel speaker can pass right through the screen material and emanate from the center of the screen.
Regardless of your vertical position choice, the center channel speaker is considered 0 degrees from the listening position, meaning it is exactly centered on that seat.
Front Left and Right Speakers
While your center channel is the workhorse, the other two speakers that make up your front sound stage are your front left and right speakers.
These two speakers are, obviously, placed on the left and the right of your center channel. There really isn’t an exact distance apart for these two speakers, rather the distance between them is based on where your seating is positioned.
You should try to have the tweeter of this speaker in line with the ear height of your listening position, and (as mentioned) your center channel should have the same tweet height. This keeps the audio that is moving from left to right, smooth and on the same plane.
These two speakers should be in a range that is anywhere between 22 degrees and 30 degrees from the listening position. With an acoustically transparent screen, this can often place the front left and right speakers behind the screen, so keep that in mind when you are planning your room.
Side Surround Speakers
Your center channel, your front left, and your front right speaker all make up a single soundstage, with audio moving smoothly from one speaker to the other, and with you able to easily follow that movement.
When it comes to your surround speakers, your placement is designed so that the entire surround sound audio blends into an envelope around the side, and rear, of the listening position. While the audio engineer might create sounds that are coming from specific speakers, in general, your surround sound is diffused, and you shouldn’t be able to easily pick out what sound is coming from what speaker.
These speakers are placed anywhere between 90 degrees and 110 degrees from the listening position. And, where you want your front soundstage speakers to have the tweeter at ear height, with your surrounds you do not.
Your surround sound speakers should be above ear height, if your room allows it they should be two to three feet higher than the ear height of the listening position. Remember the idea here is to create an immersive sound field, not point the speakers directly at the ears of the listeners.
Rear Surround Speakers
Your rear surround speakers follow the same basic principles as the side surrounds. This means you want them higher than the ears of the listening position, also two to three feet, if possible.
For placement, these speakers should be anywhere between 135 degrees and 150 degrees from the listening position.
One thing to keep in mind, when designing your room, is that your entrance door is likely on the rear wall, and one of the rear surrounds might have to move, due to the doorway. For most people, every home theater requires compromise in one area or another, if you end up having a surround speaker that is outside the ‘recommended’ range some, don’t let that stop you from building your theater.
Final note: Yes, there are minor differences between using the Dolby specs (which is what this article is based on), the DTS specs, and the THX specs (THX places the rear surrounds right next to one another, centered on the rear wall), but this core information applies to most home theater projects.