Center Channel Dialogue

I am looking for suggestions to increase the comprehension of vocals for my center channel. I realize many movies and programs are produced such that understanding the dialogue can be a challenge. 

My home theater is mostly Martin Logan: Summit X front, reQuest surround, LX 16 rear surround, SVS and Velodyne subs, and a Stage center. The amp for the Summits is a Pass XA30, all others use an Earthquake Cinenova Grande amp with over 300 watts/channel.

My issue is that I have to cup my hands over my ears to understand the dialogue. I have adjusted the Marantz 8801 pre/pro to maximize the output. I also use one channel of an equalizer to further increase output, and have also adjusted the different frequencies trying to improve dialogue.

I've angled and raised the Stage center the best I could. 

My question is, should I look at different center speakers? I like having all electrostats, and wonder if a substitute non-electrostat would match? Would a horn center like Klipsch make sense? 

Recently I considered a DBX expander, but don't know if that would help or hurt.

BTW, it's tiring holding my hands over my ears to understand the dialogue:)

I appreciate any suggestions.




Center Channel Speaker should be horizontal, located just below the monitor screen. Where is yours?

Stage Center, you mean Legacy? Sensitivity 102 db?

1st, how are you balancing the relative volume of each speaker to the others?

2nd, mixing brands, you can balance the volume, but the frequency response of different brands/model lines can result in a mismatch, i.e. front l and r reproduce frequencies with human voice range more prominently than the center channel does.

3rd, surround speakers may be too loud. you generally should not be aware of them but it should be obvious if you turn them off.

4th, your hearing. have you had an audiologist test your hearing? It could be you have a dip or two in the voice range, and a tone adjustment/equalizer/specifically tuned hearing aid can solve your situation. If so, you will be darn glad you found out and dealt with it, my close friend certainly is.


I had the same issue when I had a Def Tech center. I replaced it with a KEF center and the improvement in dialogue was substantial.  I think their concentric design is the reason. 

My experience, with a lot of measurements, is that where you put the center matters a lot. If you stuff it in a shelf it’s going to be very bassy, but there's a lot of other things to look into.  Lets start with basics.

1.  Speaker

Make sure it's operating correctly.  Turn off any auto-EQ/room correction and listen to it up close.  Does it sound good with your head 1' away?  You can also try hooking it up temporarily as a main speaker, as a diagnostic.

2.  Room and placement

With an ESL center you also have the issue of that rear reflection. My suggestion is to focus on eliminating rear reflections first, try to raise it as close to the bottom of your TV, and then take a surgical scalpel to excess bass resonances.

Use a comforter/blanket behind the speaker to experiment and see if that’s your problem.


Same problem with old Infinity Video one, wife had trouble with dialog. Just upgrade to a Kilpsh KCF C-5. Wife loves it. I am not a big fan of horns but in this case the horn tweeter works great for vocals. And the C-5 must be pretty damn efficient as I had to turn down the dialog lift on my Yamaha AVR.

Good suggestions, and I can clarify a bit...

I have experimented quite a bit with levels of the front and surround speakers, and the level output of the center is much more. 

I have also compared large and small settings for the center, but it did not improve.

Very important is the mention of age/hearing. I'm almost 68 and am sure high frequencies left town years ago. However, some movies I watch have little issue with dialogue making my hearing less a factor. It's more that quieter dialogue is hard to comprehend unless I cup my hands over my ears. 

Yes, it is my concern about mixing technologies (electrostat vs dynamic) would sound wonky, but when I listen to music, I listen in stereo only, unless it's a SACD with surround capabilities. 

The electrostatic panel sits 28" from the front wall. I have a 85' TV panel wall mounted. I have also tried a piece of sound proofing board behind the panel, but it sounds better without.

So far, the only thing that helps is cupping my hands over my ears, which is why I thought of a horn based center.

@erik_squires made some really good suggestions to try.  If they don’t work I’d recommend doing a trial of this SVS center speaker.  They offer a very generous 45-day trial period including shipping both ways so no risk whatsoever to see if it works for you in the context of your excellent system.  If dialogue isn’t clearer through this you’ll at least know your problem lies elsewhere, but my guess is this will fix your issue and at only $800 won’t break the bank either.  If you do this I’d suggest listening with the grill off, and let it break in at least 100 hours before making any firm assessments.  Hope this helps, and best of luck.

I am now 76 YOA, and I have no trouble hearing my center channel. For years, I used a rather small KEF center, and it worked quite well. A couple of years ago, I did a bit of upgrading on the HT part of my audio system. I bought a new KEF Q 650c center, along with some nice Pioneer surround speakers designed by Andrrew Jones, (which sound wonderful).

Center channel sounds clear, clean, and smooth, very easy to make out dialog.

Good luck in your search. Regards,


Your center is an excellent center speaker and I don’t think chaning speakers will improve vocals. I had an ML center and it was excellent. But the MLs aren’t very sensitive so you need to make sure the levels are adjusted.

Have you set up the levels on all your speakers using the setup in your AV reciever? My guess is your center level isn’t set right. I don't know how to set up your amp but I have a denon AV amp and the manual setup mode it goes from speaker to speaker playing white noise and I adjust each level until they are all the same volume. In your case you might want the center channel up just a little.



Yes, I did adjust the center level on the Marantz pre-pro to max. I also adjusted the equalizer to add more volume. It doesn't seem like a volume level issue now, more of a comprehension issue. Cupping my hands seems to direct the sound waves from the center speaker to my ears, if that makes sense. 


Thanks for the SVS suggestion. I have one of their subs and really like it. I'll look into their center speakers also.



First of all, I am really sorry to hear the problem you are having. Second, there is something very wrong. We have had a great home theater system and a bedroom system (currently a 65” with a Sennheiser Ambeo sound bar) for at least 30 years and never experienced anything like you are. Dialog (typically 85+% on center channel) has always been really easy to understand, never difficult to understand in the least. Your speakers are good and unless completely defective cannot be the problem.


The problem has to be something very big… nothing little like your center channel angle.

When you go through the surround equalization procedure tne center is at the same volume to you as all the other speakers?


The only thing that comes to my mind is your surround processor has a faulty center channel.

@hillbilly559  I agree with @ghdprentice  here. There is something very wrong here. You don't have to do any of these extra stuff to balance left, center, and right speakers. Marantz should have three options for the center channel: phantom, normal, and full range. I would first use phantom option. This will allow the left and right speakers reproduce the center channel. Use the built-in test tone generator and see if you get same sound from left-center(phantom)-right channels. I suspect your receiver may not be decoding the center channel at correct level. If that step works, then take the center per-out and connect it to a separate amp and connect your center speaker to that. If that works, then your Marantz amp driving the center channel is the culprit.

I have use Yamaha receivers in 7 speakers + 2 subwoofer arrangement and never had this problem. There is something fundamentally wrong here.

Have you tried eliminating the center channel all together and allowing the processor to ghost it back in?  I know my home theater setup is anything but idea, but I run a 4.1 setup and certainly have never had any issues with understanding dialogue (at least nothing that subtitles wouldn't resolve...LOL).

I know that a center channel should be superior to not having one, but it might be worth at least seeing how the sound changes.  It might help diagnose the issue.

Reason is you have set it to dialogue. Fix is very simple, just set it to monologue.

btw, your AVR probably has a 2 channel mode. I often find changing to 2 channel sounds better.

That will reassign the dedicated center sounds to both sides equally so that center content’s imaging is still center (but phantom center created by L/R), and still coming from the front.

And no ’other sounds’ from the surround/rear speakers which may be affecting what you hear (your cupped hands are blocking side/rear/reflected sounds).

Sometimes, in a noisy space i.e. restaurant, theater lobby, ... I hear sounds from a distance better than those right in front of me, seems like the other sounds are a precedent, fill my ears so to say..


I agree with mceljo. Ever since I eliminated the center channel speaker and turned my 5.4.4 system into a 4.4.4 system, using the two front channels to create the phantom center channel image where my tv is, my center channel image has been superior to anything I’ve ever had before. My center channel now has the exact same image as my two front Goldenear Triton Ones. When I used a Goldenear Reference speaker for my center channel speaker, though the sound quality was great, the image was much smaller than my Triton Ones.


Hope this helps.

@hillbilly559  I had the same issue with my Marantz, and found a review video with Andrew Robinson where he walked through why Marantz is very bad at center channel clarity. I think it was his Anthem review. Either way, I borrowed a bubbies Anthem, oh what a difference. So now I am waiting on my anthem. 

yeah yeah, I know, this forum isn’t a big fan of Andrew Robinson…


" a 4.4.4 system, using the two front channels to create the phantom center channel image".

do you have a link to 4.4.4 so I can understand how it gets dedicated center channel info to the sides, that is a nice solution, especially for this OP.


I think understanding dialogue is a widespread problem, myself and my wife included. I settled on a Klipsch RP 504c. We have noticed a substantial increase in clarity. It is not matched with my mains but it doesn't seem to matter much.

My HT system went from a 5.1 to a 3.0 when we moved. The current speakers are Klispch.  The mains are RF3 ll and give a ton of bass and the center is a R250.  The center has a wide dispersion.  They do the job pretty well,  but I do miss the subwoofer!

Stats in front with a RAAL ribbon center works for me.

Meanwhile increase your center volume level.

Put all your levels all down into the minus 10 except the center. Boost that one to plus 10. As a test see what you hear

As others have said, something is wrong here whether it be a setting in the processor, defect in the processor, defect in the speaker itself, speaker connection, speaker setting for how the center content is handled, etc. The center channel carries MOST of the sound and dialog for most everything that has to do with AV sound during a movie or TV show. Try putting ANY speaker in place of the center and see if the speaker itself may be defective. That's an easy thing to troubleshoot, and then work backward to the processor. 

Center channel speakers are generally a problem solver, not a problem creator.  This one is perplexing.

From my perspective:

1) Accurate, high resolution center sound is not leaving the preamp.  This has not been my experience with Marantz surround processor/preamps, but could very well be the case here.  A highly relevant question is what is your movie source?  Your source component?  Cabling? Power delivery?  All of this matters.  Try sending a (variable output) source you trust directly into the power amp and judge the quality of what you hearing at the speaker.  This may tell you if the source and/or preamp are the issue.

2) The speaker has issues.  As suggested by others, try a known speaker in place of the one your are using now.

3) The room.  Try standing 2' away from the speaker at position your ears at speaker level at a moderate level.  If the sound is good, something is happening between you and the speaker.

Some suggested to bypass the center speaker.  This would be simple to do with the preamp settings and specifying the center channel to "none".  This will move the channel channel information equally to left/right main speakers.  You might like this better.  It could make things worse in that the path from a single speaker to you is less complex.  When adding mutilple speakers, you're doubling the complexity of the waveform's involvement with room boundaries, etc.  If you're not located in the sweet spot,the speakers will have a phase/time delay and will blurr the image, making it less intelligible.  Which is not the goal.

If you're seated some distance away, a horn-type speaker will have more controlled directivity resulting in less room interaction, which might be a good thing.

Good luck.

I'm not familiar with your equipment, but I am familiar with the problem.
My center channel is on a cabinet under my TV about a foot from the wall.  The first thing I added were some isolation feet to the fronts.  I noticed cleaner bass, so I added them to the center and surrounds.  Not sure if they did anything for the center and surrounds, but maybe.  The next thing I added was 3 layers of carpet pad foam cover with cloth under my center extending over the back of the cabinet.  That helped a lot, but....  My Denon AVR was getting long in the tooth and was replaced with an Anthem processor.  Great improvement!  I think the Anthem room correction helped with the bass in the room and made everything sound better.  Audyssey didn't work well with my Golden Ear speakers with built in subs.  Great center channel clarity at higher volumes. The final solution was hearing aides....

You didn't mention anything about your acoustical treatments, which are the #1 issue when it comes to unintelligible dialogue.

I agree that room acoustics are a major part of good sound and the OP should probably focus on that first. He didn't mention anything about his room and maybe I I incorrectly took that for granted..
I have an irregular shaped open room, vaulted ceilings, and tiled floors.  I added some absorptive panels, shag throw rugs with padding, and a crude bass trap. It made my room better, but still not ideal.  I forgot to mention I did all of that before the other things and still didn't have clear dialogue.  So, I guess the "first" thing I said I did wasn't really the first. 
I'm not sure if you can cost effectively "treat" an average room to the point of making any system sound good, but maybe?

@elliottbnewcombjr - If the AVR has an auto setup with a microphone you just disconnect the center channel and run the setup.  It won't hear a center channel and will simply eliminate it from the processing and as a result split the signal into the L/R mains.

You can also manually turn off individual channels and it'll do the same thing essentially without the benefit of the auto setup.



for simplicity, let's say center channel is dialog.

I understand your method, HOWEVER,

that does not solve 5.1 movies/music videos, streaming. 5.1 has DEDICATED center channel content (mono) as well as dedicated L/R rear/sub out. The 5.1 center channel content does not exist in the L or R channels, thus, for 5.1 content you NEED a center channel speaker.

When you tell your AVR to use 2 channel/stereo mode (as I often do), it then reassigns the mono center channel content to the L and R channels  (dual mono) so a phantom center image exists as it does with our 2 channel music systems. The L and R are also making phantom imaging (a bit left/a bit right/center) like 2 channel stereo does. The rear and sub out are also moved to the front L and R, directional cues lost, but content present.

@elliottbnewcombjr - Your AVR can take 5.1 and make it 4.1 without an issue just like it can take a 5.1 and make it stereo. I have always had a 4.1 setup.

You simply have to make sure that the AVR is setup to not have a center channel.



I see you can do that IF the particular AVR offers it.

I just checked a few Denon AVR’s on Crutchfield, manuals do not mention 4.1, perhaps the ’no center’ choice is there but unmentioned.

"Try setting it up for 5.1 and then go to SETUP MENU > SPEAKERS > MANUAL SETUP >SPEAKER CONFIG, and set Center to None (instead of Small or Large). I have the same model, and just tested this out with the first scene of the Godfather, which is all dialogue. With 5.1, the dialogue is all in the center, with faint echoes in the L/R channels. With the Center disabled, the dialogue was evenly split between the L and R. Can’t guarantee that it’s true 4.1 with all the center channel data folding into the L/R channels, but it certainly sounded that way to me. Good luck!"


HOW would this help OP understand dialog better? Seems to exist to omit buying/fitting a center channel, why else would you do it?

IF he is cupping his ears, then he is blocking the rear surrounds and reflections from them.

Perhaps they need to have their volume reduced in the menu, speaker adjustments

OR, go to 3.1 mode, omitting the rear sounds he is blocking with his hands

@elliottbnewcombjr In terms of dialog clarity, did you prefer the 5.1 or with the center channel disabled?



the issue is the OP, not me. Presently he needs to cup his hands at his ears to get ’better’ dialog.

It could be that he needs to get in the AVR menu and properly adjust his speakers. He could raise the center channel volume a bit more than the front left and front right. His rear speaker level ought to be generally ’non-apparent’ until he turns rear off. i.e. ready to do their job: Apparent for Black Hawk Down helicopter; Jurassic Park ...... in his case LOW.

Also, OP should try turning the REAR SPEAKERS OFF, by:

a. in the menu

b. change AVR to 2 channel stereo mode


Me: I have 5.1 balanced, use it for ’true 5.1 source’, i.e. BluRay movies, Music DVDs.


Cable content: Some is good at 5.1, I often check ’Direct’, and may change to MUSIC 2.0 which frequently is better, coming from the stage. I think there is a lot of Pseudo surround, poorly done.

@elliottbnewcombjr - The primary reason that I suggested that the OP give 4.1 a try was for him to see if it made any significant change.  It seems like something is off in the setup, so trying different things will sometimes provide good feedback that can be used to identify the issue.

I have an Integra 50.1 receiver that is either 7.1 or 7.2 and the auto setup uses the microphone to detect which speakers are connected and then does its thing after that.  There isn't a specific 4.1 setting.  I think it just takes the center channel signal and splits it between left and right.