Now Try it With Five (or Six!) Speakers!
Auditioning speakers for surround-sound playback changes nothing . . . and everything. Our four listening categories for good sound - timbral uniformity, imaging, dynamics, and bass extension - remain unchanged, though you might give a bit more weight to bass extension and dynamics for movies than for music. And if you're buying speakers for a home theater, you'll probably be shopping for a stereo pair plus specialized speakers for center, surround, and low-bass duties.
The center speaker is the most important, since with movies the center channel delivers all of the dialogue as well as plenty of music and effects. Your most important objective is to find a center speaker whose timbre is as close as possible to that of your front left/right pair. A good match is needed for a seamless soundstage, smooth pans, and convincing lateral placement. An obvious solution is to buy a center speaker from the same maker as that of the front left/right pair - either literally the same model or a "matched" center-channel model designed to work with them.
Here's a fascinating and useful test, which requires the assistance of an accommodating dealer. Listen to a speech-intensive mono program (TV sound with the stereo off works great) through only a front three-speaker array. Use the A/V receiver or processor's level-matching setup routine to balance the center speaker's output with that of the "phantom" center channel produced by the front left/right speakers when you select the "no" center-speaker option. Either disconnect the surround speakers or select the Dolby 3 surround mode (front speakers only), then sit dead center and listen while using the remote control to switch between the "yes" and "no" center-speaker settings. What you want is the closest possible match between the center speaker and the speakers flanking it.
Auditioning subwoofers in a store environment is almost a waste of time - room acoustics and placement influence bass performance too dramatically. You're going to have to rely for guidance on the unholy trinity of dealer recommendations, manufacturers' specs, and reviews in magazines like this one. The best advice is to buy a sub only from a dealer who'll let you try it at home and take it back for full credit if you don't like the results.
The same goes for surround speakers: auditions in a showroom are like trying to catch a feather on a breezy day - fun, but not very rewarding. A good speaker will be a good surround speaker, and a bad one won't be, though treble "air" and deep-bass extension are usually not as critical for surround deployment. It's safe to say that most experienced listeners favor diffuse-radiating dipole surround speakers over direct-radiating surrounds for movies and some music. As with subwoofers, probably the best advice is to follow qualified recommendations and buy surrounds from a dealer who'll let you return them for full credit if you're not happy.
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