NEAR IG 6 Outdoor Speaker System
AT A GLANCE
In-ground installation allows the speakers to almost disappear
Incredibly clear audio at high, and low, volume levels
Designed to last in any type of weather
Back-breaking work to install permanently
A speaker system designed for the rigors of outdoors with the performance of high-end indoor loudspeakers.
As a home theater die-hard, I spend way too much time indoors, regardless of the season. But my wife encourages me to get my vitamin D whenever the weather is nice, and there’s nothing like spending a leisurely Saturday afternoon lying by the pool while listening to music or some San Francisco Giants baseball. I’ve had an outdoor speaker system installed for the last 15 years. I think those speakers cost me under $1,000 (including amplification), and whereas they sounded great when new, they’ve gotten progressively worse as the years have gone on—even though I uninstall them in the winter to keep them from getting waterlogged when the rainy season hits. This isn’t a knock on the unnamed company that made my outdoor speakers; it’s just an acknowledgement of what happens when drivers bake in the California sun and have cheap “all weather” plastic enclosures.
NEAR (New England Audio Resource) was founded by Bill Kieltyka, a former engineer with the speaker company Bozak, which was known for its innovative curvilinear aluminum speaker cones. Bill left Bozak in 1988, started NEAR, and designed its first product, the outdoor AEL-2.0 (All Environment Loudspeaker), featuring an aluminum cone woofer. The AEL series was a huge success and was featured in Universal Studios theme parks as well as atop New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington, one of the harshest environments in the continental U.S. As time has gone on, NEAR has continued to evolve its products and has developed a new line of outdoor speakers, the in-ground IG series, which promises full-range performance in any environment without sacrificing sound quality. That’s quite a claim, but can they back it up?
Designing a speaker for outdoor use isn’t as easy as it may seem. First, it can be incredibly noisy outside, especially if you happen to live near a small airport (as I do). Furthermore, when you’re outdoors, you don’t have the benefit of room gain, which can influence the way a speaker sounds. Some speaker manufacturers like to tout that they take their indoor speakers and adapt them for outdoor use, but when you take the innards of an indoor speaker and house them in a plastic enclosure (reinforced or not), the sound quality will change—and in many cases, it will be a step backward.
This is where NEAR enters the picture. When designing their IG series, they had two key goals in mind. First, the speakers must sound great at any reasonable volume level, and second, they must endure the rigors of an outdoor environment.
The IG series has a unique look. At first glance, the speakers resemble the eggs from Alien with some ridges along the sides. But don’t worry: Some face-sucking beast doesn’t fly out when you fire them up for the first time. There are three different models of main speakers, the IG 5, IG 6, and IG 8, offering 5.25-, 6.5-, and 8-inch woofers, respectively, and each having a 1.1-inch tweeter. NEAR sent me a pair of IG 6s for this review.
Even though the IG 6 is claimed to reach down to a respectable 45 hertz, NEAR recommended and sent a 12-inch IGS 12 passive in-ground subwoofer, which they say reaches down to 32 Hz to enhance the low end. All the IG speakers have an omnidirectional design—they directly radiate evenly in a 360-degree soundfield. Some other speakers may use a curved plate or inverted funnel in front of the drivers to bounce the sound in multiple directions, which often colors the sound. And many outdoor speakers radiate in only one direction, creating multiple hotspots in the yard, which is a problem I’ve had with my prior speakers.
While the speakers look and sound great when they’re freestanding, NEAR recommends that you partially bury them in the ground, for two reasons. One is improved sound quality, due to the dense earth surrounding the enclosure, which reduces enclosure resonances. The other reason is added security. If the bad guys want to steal your new speakers, they’re going to have to bring shovels and picks and be willing to perform some manual labor to uproot them from the ground. Given the price of the speakers—$779 each for the IG 6 and $1,599 for the IGS 12 without a companion amplifier—that’s something to think about.
It’s obvious some serious engineering prowess has gone into the design of these speakers. It starts with the enclosures, which are fabricated from Linear Low-Density Polyethylene (LLDP), a polymer that resists moisture, dirt, chemicals, and paint from sticking to the surface. UV-inhibitor pigments are embedded throughout the material, so the sun shouldn’t fade the color, and if you accidentally hit one of the speakers with a garden tool, you won’t have an eyesore in your yard.
The ribs on the sides of the IG series serve to stiffen the enclosure and break up panel resonance. The grille is powder-coated stainless steel, and a hydrophobic fabric covers the drivers to shed water and prevent debris buildup.
Yes, the speakers look pretty in the yard, but it’s what’s on the inside that counts. First, the basket material of the woofer is designed out of cast aluminum, which makes it strong, corrosion-resistant, and also non-magnetic. Typical outdoor speakers use plastic baskets; plastic is great for its anti-corrosion properties, but it breaks down under heat and turns brittle when cold—not a good combination for longevity in the great outdoors.
The IG series woofers utilize what NEAR calls an Upside Down, Inside Out (UDIO) motor structure, with powerful magnets positioned inside the voice coil former. The Upside Down part is the inverted-cone woofer diaphragm, designed to shed water and provide even dispersion. The Inside Out refers to voice coils wound both inside and outside the aluminum former. Double windings help to increase linearity, power handling, and efficiency.
The speakers use NEAR-patented Magnetic Liquid Suspension (MLS), an advanced high-magnetic-density, low-viscosity ferromagnetic fluid. This replaces the usual mechanical spider found in traditional drivers. It allows the voice coil to remain centered and operate with longer cone excursions, and it promises more consistent long-term performance. Bass response of the system is impressive, which is readily apparent the first time you hear these speakers in action.
Last, the woofers and tweeter diaphragms use materials specifically designed for outdoor use. NEAR’s Metal Diaphragm Technology (MDT) alloy cone is ceramic-hardened aluminum with thin sheets of soft rubber applied to the rear to dampen higher-frequency resonances. The tweeters utilize titanium diaphragms and are suspended with UV-resistant rubber-like material, similar to that used for the woofer surrounds.
The IGS 12 subwoofer is similarly designed, and by adding one to the system, you cover the last half-octave of bass that really makes a difference when listening to music. It shares many functional similarities with the IG series full-range speakers—MLS suspension, MDT cone, UDIO motor structure, and its enclosure is made from the same LLDP material. The subwoofer cabinet is a compound design: The 12-inch driver is sealed in the bottom half of the enclosure, with the woofer firing into a vented chamber so that the sound can escape above ground when buried.
You can terminate the speakers by either of two methods—a typical 8-ohm connection (positive and negative) or a 70-volt connection (most often found in commercial sound systems). The advantages of using a 70-volt amplifier include the viability of smaller-diameter cabling and the ability to connect many speakers in parallel to the same amplifier channel. I chose 8-ohm for my application since I already had speaker wires running to my equipment rack.
For powering the speakers, NEAR sells an optional 600-watt-per-channel stereo amplifier, the 6XL ($1,499), which they also sent for this review. It’s a truly impressive beast that can drive either 70-volt or 8-ohm lines, and the stereo inputs have level controls and switchable High Pass/Low Pass filters. The Low Pass filter incorporates subwoofer EQ contouring for bass boost below 40 Hz. Input options include both RCA and XLR jacks. The amplifier knows whether you hook up in 8-ohm or 70-volt mode, so there are no switches to flip. Under 70-volt operation, you could have up to 30 speakers, simply wired in parallel, operating at up to 16 watts each.