The Really Great Outdoors: Part 3
When you take matters into your own hands, you can save money. But, if you have the money, you should turn the duties over to professionals who make their living out of outdoor A/V installations. And, as I got to experience firsthand in one case, the results can be mighty impressive. Let's take a look at a few options in the professional-install world, and I'll point out some more interesting, cutting-edge products to enhance your outdoor theater.
A company named Cal Spas, based (you guessed it) in California, specializes in a variety of outdoor products. For the high-end consumer, many of their products and outdoor arrangements include A/V systems, complete with built-in speakers and plasma TVs that, in most cases, raise and lower via a lift system into a cabinet so that they can be concealed and protected from the elements when not in use.
In most of their products, speakers sit on either side of the TV and are part of the whole panel that raises and lowers. In the case of the $31,399 Galaxy 3 hot tub, there are two more speakers on the shell of the tub. Cal Spas' speaker configurations vary with the particular package.
Their "island" packages, like the $45,000 2007 Sports Bar & Grill or the $42,000 U9100 Ultimate Outdoor Kitchen, are semicustom individual pieces that Cal Spas can equip with everything you need, such as grills, ovens, refrigerators, beer taps, fireplaces, and much more—in addition, of course, to TV and audio. Other packages, like the $60,000 U8100 Outdoor Room and $70,000 Cal Flame Ultimate Outdoor Theater, add other items to the mix. This includes weather-resistant luxury recliners, a fireplace, or perhaps a bar area with seating.
As you've surely noticed, Mark has taken several opportunities to mention that you shouldn't usually expect precisely the same performance you'd get in an indoor theater. However, I do know that it's possible to achieve superior sound in your backyard. I've heard it myself.
Terry Mullin is the CEO of Creative Stream, an installation company based in Southern California. They do home theater and other indoor installations, but they specialize in the outdoors. They also have a particular knack for visually blending or obscuring speakers into an outdoor setting without sacrificing performance.
I had the chance to go to Mullin's home and meet with him and some of the folks from speaker manufacturer Boston Acoustics. Mullin works exclusively with and has been involved in the development of Boston outdoor speakers. He primarily uses the Voyager 7 speaker, the flagship of the Boston outdoor Voyager line, as well as the Voyager Sub12. And, although he is normally averse to rock speakers from an audio standpoint, he is endorsing Boston's new line of rock speakers.
What I heard in Mullin's large backyard was nothing short of astounding. I heard distinct instrument separation. (His is a 2.1-channel setup.) I could hear the subtle textures in vocals and the picking of acoustic guitars. The soundfield was spread out yet distinct and powerful wherever I stood.
How does he do it? He pays special attention to things in the backyard that he can use to aim and reflect sound off of. Using a digital sound meter, some math, and his own ears, he can achieve remarkable outdoor sound. A Philips Pronto, coupled with Creative Stream technology developed in conjunction with ELAN, controls everything, plus it provides easy access to music from the Yamaha music server.
Mullin's setup does include a large flat-screen display that sits near the grill/bar area and is viewable from certain distances out by the pool. But this display is not the focal point of his setup.
So, what about other video options? A company called U.S. Nippura has an interesting approach. Their Blue Ocean rear-projection screens consist of an inert micron particle diffuser cast inside of a clear acrylic plate. This design allows for short-throw projection behind the screen, which reportedly reduces the diffusion that occurs with long-throw setups and results in brilliant colors and a bright image. These are the very challenges outdoor projection faces. In fact, one of the applications Nippura suggests for their Blue Ocean screens is outdoor theater.
In one of Nippura's sample installations, they placed a Blue Ocean screen in the center of the wall of a garage that faces out onto a patio. They installed a projector on the ceiling of the garage facing the screen that projects images that are viewable from the patio. The company says that normal wear-and-tear scratching has no long-term effect on the performance, and they insist that a polished 10-year-old screen will perform like a new one. They do recommend that you install doors or shutters to protect from high winds and projectiles.
Odds and Ends
Two other companies, Stewart Filmscreen and Open Air Cinema, make screens similar to Nippura's Blue Ocean screens, which produce bright, high-contrast images. Stewart's StarGlas features a screen laminated between a special glass substrate, whereas Open Air's CineGlass uses Cast Optical Acrylic. You can set one of these up with a projector in your backyard for movie time and stow it elsewhere when not in use.
If you prefer the simplicity of TV, a company called Lux makes a number of outdoor flat-panel TVs not unlike the SunBriteTV set that Mark Elson mentions. Peerless Industries makes a weatherproof enclosure for large flat-panel TVs. You place a TV inside of it and watch through its glass panel. It even has a heating and air-conditioning system for winter and summer, respectively.
A couple of unusual products from Clark Synthesis caught my eye. One is the Aquasonic AC339 underwater pool speaker. Like the Electrovoice speaker that Mark mentions, it plays music underwater. It retails for $600 each. For $400 each, you can get Clark's All Weather AW339 tactile sound transducer. Attach the disc-shaped device to your outdoor deck, for example, and the deck itself, according to Clark, becomes a "full-fidelity, full-frequency speaker."
The state of outdoor home theater is gaining momentum. In this realm, there's lots of room for experimentation, so don't be shy—get creative.