Soundscape and Acoustics

Planning Your Soundscape

The first thing to consider when embarking on an outdoor audio project is simply, How big an area do you want to fill with sound? If you only plan to listen on the deck, for example, two box speakers mounted 8 to 10 feet up on the side of the house, angled down toward the middle of the deck, might be enough. But if you have a deck with an adjacent pool or recreation area (or both), you'll need speakers in multiple locations. As a rule, one pair of speakers can cover 200 to 400 square feet. Alternate between left and right channels throughout the area, so wherever you are, you'll always be listening in stereo.

Think about where on the property people will be gathering, and plan for speakers as close as possible to the audience. Otherwise, you'll have to crank the volume too high, risking distorted sound and the ire of your neighbors. To avoid sound traveling where it isn't wanted, try to direct speakers away from neighboring properties wherever possible.

Getting the Best Acoustics
The next question to ask yourself is, What kind of listening do you plan to do? The quality of the experience you seek — soothing background music, hard-driving rock, or symphonies on the lawn — will determine what type of speakers and how much power you need.

Most outdoor speakers are "two-way," meaning they consist of a tweeter, which covers the high-tinny sound spectrum, and the woofer, which provides the bass and mid-range sounds. There are also subwoofers disguised as rocks for audiophiles who want to pump up the bass, and omnidirectional speakers that can be buried in the ground and project sound 360 degrees, say from the middle of a flower bed to the areas on either side.

Keep in mind that an outdoor system can't take advantage of the reflective surfaces that make indoor speakers more efficient. "The acoustic realities of an outdoor environment are drastically different," says Tony Satariano, director of sales and marketing for Denver speaker manufacturer Rockustics. "The floor, the walls, the ceiling — all contribute to the fidelity of the speaker. Outside, you don't get that." And you do get ambient noise from passing cars, chirping crickets, and kids at play.

So you need speakers with enough oomph to overcome those natural obstacles, as well as an amplifier with sufficient wattage to power them. The most common mistake people make with outdoor systems is underpowering them, Satariano says, which can lead to distorted sound from overworking the amp or, worse, blown speakers. Most outdoor speakers require at least 40 watts per channel, so make sure your receiver can deliver at least that amount. If your area is large, try to spread the load among multiple speakers. "Use as many speakers as you can," says Scott Trusty. "It's better to use multiple speakers softly than just two speakers trying too hard."

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