If you're still carting a boom box out to the deck so you can flip burgers to music, it's time to consider the advantages of built-in outdoor audio. Just think of how nice it would be to enjoy high-fidelity sound anywhere on your property.Today's rugged, all-weather sound systems are easier than ever to incorporate into your landscape, whether it's a couple of box-type speakers mounted on the outside of the house, or cleverly disguised versions hidden in planters at poolside.
"Outdoor speaker companies have really tweaked and perfected the technology and the products," says Scott Trusty, a residential audio/video consultant and installer based in Stamford, Connecticut. "The quality's gotten a lot better, and the components last forever."
The key to any system's longevity is speakers that can take a beating from Mother Nature. There are two basic types of all-weather speakers: simple bookshelf-type models wrapped in protective casings, and stealth speakers that masquerade as garden rocks, flowerpots, even benches. Although they're made to be left out year-round, outdoor speakers will last longer and look better if installed in a sheltered area, such as under the eaves for box-type speakers or, in the case of rocks and planters, protected by natural covers like trees and bushes.
Outdoor Speaker Systems: Before You Install
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.
How to Get 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."
Installation and Wiring Outdoor Speakers
What's true of outdoor speakers is equally true of the wiring that connects them — it must be rugged enough to carry sufficient power over long distances while it withstands the harshest of elements year-round. Most professionals use at minimum 16-gauge "direct-burial" cable, which is designed to go right into the ground, and bury it at least 12 inches deep. (The plastic casing of indoor speaker wire isn't thick enough to protect the copper within from moisture damage.) Some communities require all outdoor wiring to be run through conduits. double-check the code in your area.
You don't want to have to dig up the wire to relocate speakers once your system is installed, so before burying the cable, test out the speakers to see how they sound in the locations you have planned.
Using an existing audio control system
Outdoor speakers can be integrated into an existing home-audio control system, or you can mount a separate all-weather control port on the side of the house or out by the pool. If you're piggy-backing on your indoor sound system, you'll need to invest in a zone selector with volume controls that allow you to set sound levels for indoors and outdoors separately; you don't want to blow out the eardrums of people in the living room while your buddies are having an air-guitar competition on the lawn.
Installing a separate receiver
Some installers recommend a separate receiver just for the outdoor setup. "It's a good way to go, because it will reduce the load on the amplifier inside," says Alan Poltrack, president of Video Installations Plus in Hartsdale, NY. "You can get a receiver for a couple hundred dollars."
Now that you've got your outdoor audio bases covered, the only challenge remaining is what you're going to listen to: Beethoven, the baseball game, or the Beach Boys for the pool party?
Where to find it
Residential audio/video consultant and installer:
Video Installations Plus
Sheer Sound Cable
Des Plaines, IL
Special thanks to:
Jill Kent of Electronic Interiors
Spencer Martin of Audio Video Systems