Having a good speaker setup is one of the key factors that separates a home theater from a normal media setup. However, I regularly get people asking whether you really need rear speakers in a home theater, so I’ve decided to look into it in more detail.
So, do you really need rear speakers in a home theater? While you don’t really need rear speakers in a home theater, having them definitely improves the level of immersion. The amount of speakers you have in a home theater is based on many factors, such as space, and will be unique to your needs.
In this article I look at how many speakers is the right amount for a home theater, along with whether they need to match, and how to get the most out of your speaker setup.
How many speakers do you really need in a home theater?
One thing we should get out of the way before we go any further is just how many speakers you really need in a home theater. While the short answer is as many as you want, it makes sense to have more than 2.
Standard TVs output sound in stereo, meaning they have left and right channels (speakers), which also produce the bass. Therefore, if you’re making the upgrade to a home theater system, it makes sense to include at least 3 speakers, along with a subwoofer.
The most important channels in a speaker setup are the front left and right ones, as these are used not only for surround sound, but also as your main stereo speakers if your media doesn’t support surround sound.
A 3.1 channel system will have these, plus a central channel and a subwoofer. 3.1 systems aren’t particularly common, and definitely can’t be classed as surround sound, simply because you’re not surrounded by the sound.
The fewest speakers you can have in a surround sound setup is 5, plus a subwoofer. This is the first level to include rear speakers, which are placed behind your seating location and help to improve the level of immersion.
5.1 channel systems are also the most commonly supported surround sound in media, whether this is TV, streamed media, or DVD and Blu-Ray. Many might support 7.1 channel sound, but this isn’t as common.
So even though it’s not completely necessary to have rear speakers in your system, it makes sense if you want to truly experience immersive sound. Leaving out rear speakers means the only real difference you’ll see compared to stereo sound is improved bass. While this isn’t a bad thing, you might as well make the jump to full surround.
However, there are several factors that’ll impact whether including rear speakers is feasible in your setup. It’s worth considering these before you decide whether to splash out on a bigger set of speakers.
Check out my recommended surround sound set up.
Factors that will decide if you need rear speakers
As with anything else home theater related, it’s important to think about your setup and needs before you start buying equipment. Regardless of whether you’re starting from scratch or adding to an existing system, proper planning always makes sense.
For some, buying new speakers might not be that much of a big deal. However, it’s worth considering the following factors before jumping in to a purchase.
1. Room space
The first thing you should consider before buying speakers is the size of your room. While you can get tiny satellite speakers, this point is less about the room the speakers will take up, and more about how much sound your space can actually handle.
For example, if you have a small room that you’re using as a home theater, surround sound might not make sense. Having 6 speakers in a small room can result in muddy sound because the waves will cross over and bounce across each other, potentially before they even reach your viewing space.
At the opposite end of the scale, large rooms will require more speakers simply because there’s more space to fill. In this context, rear speakers will be entirely necessary because you want the best quality audio that also comfortably fills the space.
In a really small room, you might in fact want to consider a soundbar instead of surround sound speakers. While the audio quality might not be as good, it’ll certainly avoid the problem of muddy sound. Some soundbars even come with an external subwoofer, meaning you can still have deep bass too.
Along with room size, budget is a very important factor in deciding whether you need rear speakers in your home theater. Good speakers aren’t necessarily cheap, and when you factor in all the other equipment, you might find your budget doesn’t stretch to include rear speakers.
If you’re starting your home theater from scratch, then I’d definitely recommend investing a good portion of your budget into a quality AV receiver or amp. Considering these are the devices that’ll transmit signals around your setup, it’s worth spending a bit more on them now.
There are 2 ways around the issue of budget when it comes to rear speakers. The first is to buy a 5.1 channel surround sound system in one package, as these are widely available. However, to accommodate a lower budget, you might find yourself sacrificing audio quality for the sake of having surround sound.
The second option is to invest in good quality stereo speakers, with subwoofer, and then add to the system later. This option allows you to spend more money on high quality main speakers, which can be supplemented with other high quality speakers when you have the money. I’ll discuss this option in a bit more detail later on.
3. Speaker use
The final thing to consider when deciding if you need rear speakers is what your main use will be for the system. Most people consider home theaters to be about visual media, but plenty of people build them for high quality audio media too.
Music is produced in stereo, whereas film and TV often comes in both stereo and surround sound formats. Therefore, if you’ll mainly be using your home theater to listen to vinyl or other music formats, it makes little sense to invest in rear speakers.
When it comes to film and TV, however, you have the option for either stereo or surround sound. As I stated earlier, standard TV speakers are stereo, so it makes sense to invest in surround sound if you’re building a home theater to consume visual media; otherwise there’s little difference from normal.
Be sure to consider these 3 factors whenever you’re choosing speakers, regardless of if it’s rear channels or simply a new speaker system. That said, the difference rear speakers make is very noticeable, so I feel there are very few situations in which it’s not beneficial to include them.
Do rear speakers need to match?
One of my favorite things about home theaters is that they’re so customizable to your personal needs. This includes your speaker setup, and a very common thing to do is to add speakers as your home theater grows.
So, do your rear speakers need to match the others? The short answer is no, your rear speakers don’t need to match. However, the answer is slightly more complex for several reasons.
The only speakers it’s crucial to match are the main front channels, and the center speaker if you have one. While many of these sets will include a subwoofer, it’s not necessary for this to be a brand match either.
The reason it’s important to match these speakers in timbre and output is because they output voices, and so mismatched speakers will result in patchy sound that may have “holes” in it.
When it comes to rear speakers, timbre isn’t as important. Rear speakers only output around 10-15% of the total sound output, and focus on ambient noise rather than “main” noise (such as voices).
A far more important factor is that your rear speakers can output sound at an appropriate volume for your front speakers. In short, this means they should be as loud (but never louder) than your main speakers, and by extension will usually be smaller, satellite speakers instead.
Using different speakers actually gives you much greater flexibility with your sound output. For example, you might buy a set of high-end front speakers from a brand that’s known for them, but then supplement these with a subwoofer and rear speakers from another brand known for their surround sound systems.
The most important thing is to make sure all speakers have similar wattage. Wattage simply refers to how much power a speaker needs to output sound, but in essence a higher wattage rating will mean louder speakers. Therefore it’s important to ensure they all match so your system will work properly.
How to get the most from your speakers
If you’ve been considering adding rear speakers to your system simply for better sound then there might be other options available. While I’m a big fan of surround sound and the level of immersion it offers, it might be worth playing around with your current system before adding in more speakers.
There are a few things you can try with your stereo speaker setup that’ll improve the quality of your output audio. Here are my top tips for getting the most out of your current system.
1. Ensure your speakers are placed correctly
There are many factors involved in correct speaker placement, and while many of these are impacted by the room in which they’re located, they can still be boiled down into several helpful tips.
- Don’t have your speakers parallel. Speakers should be angled slightly so that the audio meets at your viewing/listening location, as this results in the best audio quality.
- Make sure the speakers are level with your head when sat down. Only floor-mounted speakers should sit on the floor; everything else should be on a stand so it’s level with your ears when in your viewing spot.
- Leave a gap between the speakers and the wall otherwise the sound can reflect off the surface and result in loss of clarity.
Proper speaker placement involves a bit of trial and error; so put on your favorite album and play around with the speakers until they sound the best in your viewing spot. Having another pair of hands (and ears) is helpful when doing this.
2. Adjust your AV settings
Most AV receivers will come with a default audio setup that isn’t really appropriate for any room. If you haven’t already, then play around with your AV receiver’s settings because there’s probably something in there that’ll improve your audio output.
For example, in a small room you might benefit from reduced bass, or from reducing bass output in your speakers and directing it to the subwoofer instead. Similarly, many AV receivers feature software that produces virtual surround sound. Although this isn’t the same as the real thing, it might make a difference.
3. Think about your room’s acoustics
Room acoustics will be unique for every room, and there’s plenty of science behind finding the sweet spot for viewing or listening. While this can be useful to know, trial and error is still one of the best ways forward.
Unless your home theater room is very large, you should be able to find the best viewing spot by simply moving your equipment around. Use the tips for best speaker placement, and combine this with some knowledge about the room’s acoustics. Similarly, you could consider introducing some acoustic treatment materials, such as acoustic foam, to improve sound clarity.
Some final thoughts
Although you don’t really need rear speakers in a home theater, aside from budget, I can’t think of many reasons why you wouldn’t want them.
For me, one of the main benefits of a home theater is an improved level of immersion, and this is exactly what read speakers were designed for. Also, if you’re adding rear speakers to your setup, just remember they don’t need to be a brand match.
Jason is a home theater expert with over 10 years of experience in setting up home cinema rooms and systems. What started out as a hobby soon transformed him into an authority in the audio-visual field. He is passionate about providing readers with accurate and up-to-date information on the latest audiovisual technologies and their applications for home theaters. Read more about Jason.