Speakers AlFresco

Audio is not supposed to be fun. That’s why outdoor speakers are a terrible idea. Music is meant to be enjoyed in an acoustically perfect room by a single person sitting in the sweet spot. While you listen, it might be permissible to reverently handle a gatefold album jacket or dutifully edit metadata to make it absolutely perfect. But it is not permissible to swim, soak up the sun, watch the kids play with the dog, pour daiquiris from a pitcher, or hobnob with neighbors. Above all, it is never socially acceptable to barbecue while listening to music. If you are a morally upright audiophile, you may safely assume the rest of this story will be in the same vein. Go now. Retreat to your music library while I discipline the riffraff.

Are We Alone, Fun People?
OK, the great outdoors will never be an acoustically ideal environment for music reproduction. Audiophile speakers need boundary reinforcement to work their magic. But if you have both a nice house and a nice backyard, why must you give up music—or even the news—just because you’ve walked out the back door? When friends and family come over for lazy summer evenings, you may find yourself wanting something more satisfying than a stereo system murmuring through a back window, a compact docking system that can’t play loud, or, heaven forbid, a boom box. Most outdoor speakers are inexpensive, and if you’ve already got an audio/video receiver with unused additional zones, you’re already halfway there—especially if you can verify that your AirPlay- or Bluetooth-compatible mobile device is within outdoor streaming range of the receiver.

Speakers can be designed for outdoor use only, for indoor use only, or both. You’ll often see outdoor speakers billed as either weather-resistant (good) or weatherproof (better). Some manufacturers see a distinction between the two; others don’t. “I wish the terminology were more standardized across the industry,” says Stephen Shenefield of Boston Acoustics. “The makers of ‘bullet-resistant’ glass might advise us to never use the word ‘proof’ since there are no certainties in life.”

Visually, outdoor speakers can take novel forms—not only the popular rocks and planters, but also fountains and frogs, which we’ve refrained from covering for lack of lily pads. Though outdoor speakers commonly get a smidgen of boundary reinforcement from back walls and eaves, most are voiced with a bass boost to compensate, in part, for the lack of full-room reflections. Some manufacturers offer outdoor subwoofers to further boost bass response. We’ll examine our institutional conscience and get back to you about those in some other lifetime.

Even if you choose not to clobber your neighbors with an outdoor sub, the output of your outdoor speakers will inevitably drift over the fence. So if you want to cover a large area, it’s wiser to add more speakers and play them quietly than to play a few speakers loud. Oh, and unless your neighbors are ax murderers, invite them to the party. A little diplomacy may raise the socially acceptable decibel level.

A few other installation tips: The speakers should be situated where they won’t be obstructed during use, often 6 to 8 feet high, and always tilted downward to prevent water from collecting. In many situations a spacing of 8 to 10 feet works well, but every installation is unique. Cables should be certified as safe for in-wall or outdoor use, which means CL2 or CL3. Only cables specified as “direct burial” should be placed underground—and to extend the life of the installation, consider burying cables in conduit as well. Caulk around cable holes. Allow a few extra inches of cable for tilting. To ensure everything goes right, especially if you’re not perfectly confident in your ability to drill holes in wood or masonry, consult a CEDIA-certified custom installer with a track record in outdoor speaker installation.

The three outdoor speaker models reviewed here share the following traits: All are midsized, as outdoor speakers tend to be. All are voiced for enhanced bass response to compensate for lack of boundary reinforcement. None is beamy—wide dispersion is a desirable trait in outdoor environs. These speakers have perforated metal grilles, their plastic enclosures taper toward the back, and they have no ports to let in little critters. All are supplied with metal C-mount brackets that can tilt either horizontally or vertically, depending on how you install the speaker, and are held in place by easy-to-adjust dial screws with 2.75-inch heads. All have hexagonal, plastic-nut, gold-plated binding posts. While these are not the cheapest outdoor speakers on the market, all three models are affordable, and they come with a minimum five-year warranty or better—so your installation and investment should make you happy for some time to come.

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COMMENTS
Toslink's picture

Hi, Mark:

Excellent article. I’d like to chime in on an approach to backyard audio that I rarely see advocated in publications—but one that I’ve had great success with. I work for a large audio-video-control retailer. About three years ago we made the switch from “8-ohm” speakers and amplifiers to commercial 70-volt speakers and amplifiers for outdoor sound systems where the client is looking for an immersive audio system that blends into their outdoor environment. The key advantage of a 70v system is it allows an almost unlimited number of speakers to be used-—provided the relationship between speaker power settings and amplifier's output wattage is adhered to.

We place the speakers very close together (~5ft to 6ft apart), generally on custom aluminum speaker stakes near ground level hidden behind shrubs at the perimeter of the yard with the speakers pointed into the listening area. This allows the system to "blanket" the listening area, with a near constant acoustic output through the listening area. Placing the speakers low and pointing into the yard helps keep the sound in the listening area, rather then projecting it into the neighbor's yard. A typical "large" system has between six and 25 speakers distributed throughout the yard.

We describe it as the “Disney Land Experience”, where their excellent outdoor audio system provides a near constant sound level as you walk through the park. This is accomplished by using more speakers with lower power per speaker vs. higher power and fewer speakers.

One additional advantage is since 70v is a “bus” system, where multiple speakers are wired (parallel wiring connection) into single 2-conductor speaker cable, a backyard can be wired with fewer cables compared with an 8-ohm system. Oftentimes, a yard can be wired with as few as one 2-conductor cable. This makes the installation of the speaker cable a snap. We always use direct-burial rated cable and we follow NEC electrical code guidelines to meet minimum burial depth requirements.

As far as brands go, we’ve had great success with the Crown and Extron 70v audio amplifier lines. For speakers, we most often use the JBL Control 25AV monitors. They’re excellent!

Just another angle to view larger outdoor audio systems. Perhaps the Home Theater readers will consider this approach. Or, perhaps this might make a good topic for an article in the magazine. Who knows, right?

--david

Jeff D's picture

I bought these speakers in early 2k, purchased at Best Buy, for around 50 bucks. They have 4" poly woofer, 2" cone poly mid and a 5/8" piezo mylar dome, with an all aluminum case and grill w/plastic capped binding posts, also non-ported design. The reason for the long explaination, didn't think they were still available, found online for six bucks!? These have been great speakers when you consider they're tiny size,and price. Still use them every summer, they are definitely waterproof, made the mistake of leaving them out all winter, still sounded great in the spring! We eventually bought three more pairs. I have tried them both ways, v. or h., liked verticle the best. I'm sure they are not aluminum anymore but at this price I could afford several pairs as long as they sound good, as you can tell I really like these. They are small enough to hide and still preform. Though, I will ask, are 70v systems expensive to put together, know what it is, just have no experience. Have really large yard, am considering the different options.

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