Outdoor sound has its challenges and great rewards. Sound systems are all about the application, coverage and amplifier choice. If done right, it certainly beats dragging your speakers from the living room on to the deck too!
Outdoor sound has its challenges and great rewards. Sound systems are all about the application, coverage and amplifier choice. If done right, it certainly beats dragging your speakers from the living room on to the deck too!
By Jeff Myatt
Recently, I had been reviewing a number of direct merchant sales catalogs looking at patio furniture, cooking grilles and outdoor products to finish off my outdoor extension of my home. This is certainly a popular development in North America and can be real usable and exciting stuff! My family lives in a middle class suburban development. This fairly young development, though quiet, safe and nice, lacks personality. Like most new developments, the construction methods, materials and choices are limited and I hate normalcy! Call it being a rebel, but white picket fences and vinyl siding just bore me. Unlike most fabricated plastic neighborhoods, we luckily have some land and trees between the houses and the ability to create a little haven of our own in our backyard. So without any argument the decision was made to plan our sanctuary and begin development on our outdoor living space.
We are currently in the planning stages and considering all of our options and a lot of research is needed. New England offers some unique challenges regarding outdoor living environments, decks, patios and etc. Dramatic weather changes, black flies, mosquitoes, lots of rock and sand, irritable neighbors and etc. As with most couples, my wife and I have different views of what type of environment we want to build but one thing was not an option, we both want music in our patio areas.
My family has become very accustomed to music playing in the home and very spoiled (or cursed, depending how you look at it) with the latest and greatest products. Our home has been a plethora of wire, remotes and audio / video products. The one constant in our home has always been the love of music we share and not having music on the patio was never even an option. The only considerations were what kind of products I would install. The challenges would be to satisfy our needs, install products that would be simple to operate and withstand the New England weather challenges.
Having a lot of knowledge about this type of speaker product, the wiring methods and technical challenges ahead, I began to consider my options. Being in the business has always given me a unique perspective of technology and usable versus needed features. For an outdoor sound system, your needs are quite simple, but the product set-up, choices, availability of the product and finding the expertise on the subject is difficult. So I decided to share my findings, experiences and knowledge of the subject to help those considering outdoor sound systems as part of the outdoor living environment.
The first things to consider are your intentions and to determine what you want to accomplish with an outdoor sound system. Often this is simply listing how you like to listen to music. "I like bass. I like to play my music loud. I like to listen to music softly playing in the background. I like to be able to hear my music but want to be able to talk comfortably with others without constant adjustment of the volume. I do not want to disturb my neighbors. I do want to control my music without the need of running back into the house." All of these things are important and can be accomplished easily with products readily available.
The next thing you will want to consider is the environment you are preparing, the materials being used and the climate in which this outdoor living space is to be built. Consider where the sun rises and sets, the areas in which you sit and relax and the areas you work and play. Once you have listed your intentions and detailed environment specifications, begin by researching the speaker types available. Generally speaking, the easiest product to start with is the outdoor speaker. Choices are available from about every formidable speaker manufacturer and every custom installation product manufacturer as well. From products that mount on, in and under the eves of your roof. Outdoor speakers are in abundance. There are some products that produce better sound, are better suited for certain climates, offer technologies to increase sensitivity, volume and bass, and perform better acoustically outdoors. There are products that offer unique styling or blend into the environment with faux finishes. Certain products are meant to be omni directional, like the ones found in amusement parks, and produce sound in all directions. There are also subwoofers developed for outdoor applications too and while they provide deep thunderous bass these products offer other set-up challenges. My intention is to provide insight and help you determine the products that best suit your need, by style, performance and application.
Like most decisions regarding installed distributed audio products, outdoor sound is predominantly a choice based on the application. Typically, outdoor products are not demonstrated properly or at all. Recently, I visited a few popular electronic retail stores with the intention to audition products. I was extremely frustrated with non-working displays, under educated sales associates and poorly thought out product areas. Without naming the stores, let's just say they all take this category way too lightly. I was disturbed by how poor the category was represented and how little the sales people cared about resolving my needs. Hence my reason for wanting to write about this subject based on my experience as a consumer not a manufacturer. I was inundated with what appeared to be plastic boxes with speakers in them. Very little consumer friendly information technically or sonically flanked the speakers available and all were approximately the same pricing. Clearly the intention of the store was to have a product for those who asked for them. After closer inspection some of the products did not even recommend direct outdoor use! Be cautious of any product that claims indoor and outdoor use. I found most of these indoor / outdoor speakers to sound pretty poorly and the materials used were very questionable for the application I intended.
It was decided that in my application there were three areas of coverage. One area was a sitting area and was the typical wood deck patio covered with a screened in area primarily used for eating and conversing with family or friends. We wanted the speakers to be flush in-wall product similar to the speakers inside our home used in the dining room. We have a small knee wall around the entire area and it is screened in above the knee wall up to the roof line. I was basically reproducing a typical indoor dining room sound environment. Keeping the speakers low around electrical outlet heights keeps the sound from interfering with your conversations. It is meant to be background sound in this area. I kept the speakers close to the boundary of each corner of the screened patio walls. This provides some added bass even at low listening levels without over powering the speakers. It's called corner loading and is often a trick used to help boost a subwoofers perceived volume. It works for speakers too, sometimes in a very undesirable way! In this case, the outdoor environment lacks the walls found inside the home and will help the speaker perform as desired. Finding an in-wall or in-ceiling speaker that can withstand this type of environment can be a challenge. Most of these products are developed for indoor use and voiced for indoor applications where reflective surfaces, walls, floors and ceilings help or hinder the voicing of the product. I would suggest looking for a speaker that is OK for use in bathrooms or other high humidity areas.
While typically this application does not come in direct contact with the elements, it's a good idea to protect against moisture. Important things to consider would be the hardware used. All of the screws, the speaker grille and the crossover parts must be protected from the elements. Look for hardware made with alloys that do not rust. Painted or not, steel products will rust over time. If you are on the coasts with salt spray prevalent, Aluminum will break down eventually too. Keep in mind a good warranty on these types of products can be beneficial. Humidity, water, sunlight, snow, temperature changes and pollen all affect the longevity of the product. The plastics used for the frame, baffle and mounting hardware need to be UV protected. This often means painting them with UV inhibiting paints. Most plastic vendors can protect the speaker minimally by adding UV inhibitors to the plastic while in liquid form. While this is standard manufacturing practice for outdoor products, it's a good thing to check into. The sun will turn White speakers and non-UV protected plastics a yellowish color in a matter of days.
The second location we wish to cover is the open deck. The deck is where we cook and grille. It is a small area adjacent to the screened in patio and the objective is to operate the volume independently from the patio pair. This requires additional wiring and another volume control point. I decided I wanted to simply add one speaker under the eve of the patio overhang. I wanted a Black product that I could angle down onto the patio. There are a number of products available but I chose to use a dual voice coil, dual tweeter product. This type of speaker mechanically produces a stereo sound from one speaker cabinet. A dual voice coil product offers the convenience of left and right speaker wire connections into one single location. On the back of the product you will find connections for what appears to be two speakers. Essentially the two connections wire both sides of the dual voice coil and to a tweeter representing the left or right side. The tweeters steer the sound left or right and the voice coil acts as a mono driver summing both left and right channels. Because this deck will be a small space and is generally only used while cooking on the grill, I felt the dual voice coil choice best covered the area.
Covering an area with sound is very important. Coverage maintains a good audible level without the need to crank things up beyond comfortable. A good rule of thumb for residential outdoor sound is 1 speaker for every 100 square feet. Commercially you might find as many as 3 speakers for every 200 square feet. In commercial outdoor sound systems, it's a good idea to cover as much area as you can. The theory being that coverage allows the area to be heard clearly without playing at high volumes. Dual purpose systems, music and paging, should not compete with one another and should be legibly heard even at low decibel levels. In designing systems for residential outdoor use, I like to use the same principle. As with sprinkler systems and flood lamps, it's all about coverage. Of course, the more speakers used the more wiring and amplification needed and the bigger the price tag.
The final area is the uncovered patio at ground level. We had decided to build a patio with the natural rock found in around New England. A stone fireplace is to be the focus of this area and the surfaces surrounding the fireplace are hard and very reflective. There were a number of options available and I wanted this area to sound good without disturbance of the surroundings both aesthetically and acoustically. This also meant not wanting to disturb the neighbors when I wanted to turn it up to eleven. (All my systems go to eleven!) I looked at all sorts of landscape speakers options. There are many omni directional speakers and garden speakers of all sizes, materials and shapes. I even saw speakers that looked like Gnomes! I never did find a gargoyle though….In the end, I chose a pair of dual voice coil Granite faux rock speakers. My plan is to hide them into the landscape and attach a pair of Black outdoor speakers to an area under the deck. The Black pair needed some punch both in the bass and mid frequencies, not an easy task for an outdoor speaker. This will be my only shameless plug I promise! I decided that the new Monitor Audio Climate 10 outdoor speaker fits the bill offering a sealed enclosure and passive radiator for additional mid bass and sensitivity. It was the only product fit for my acoustically challenged area. The idea was to cover the 600 square feet patio space with the pair of Climate 10s and the landscape speaker flanking the outline of the rock patio. The landscape speaker drivers will be directed back towards the house. The Climate 10 products will be directed straight down towards the rock patio, like a spotlight, off the columns of the upper deck. They would also provide the real punch on the patio. They were the only speakers with any real separation and I chose what I perceived to be the best sounding speaker for my application.
Now that the speakers were decided, I began to look at my electronic needs, control options, wiring and accessories. This is no easy task for the beginner. But if you are handy, have a decent aptitude for ins and outs and don't mind a little trial and error. I would give the level of difficulty on this job a 6 out of a possible 10. There are generally four technical considerations when deciding your outdoor sound system electronics. The first consideration is the wire path. If you have chosen your speakers, you have already probably considered the areas they will live based on the application. The wire path is the plan you have to get the wire from your amplifier to your control point, usually a volume control, and then to your speakers. On the subject of wire, this is also the time to consider the type of wire, the number of conductors, the gauge (AWG) and the time to involve a professional.
In the case of my home, it was relatively easy to get wire to where I wanted. By use of conduit and an unfinished basement, I am able to reach points outside to make the wiring easy. Likewise, I had the luxury of building my home and during the construction process I ran several runs of wire to a large weather proof housing used for transformers in low-voltage lighting systems. I would highly suggest using such a junction box device if you are preparing your outdoor project during construction of your home. If you are in a pre-existing home things can be a bit trickier. Having a professional available can surely simplify the process, especially if you are unfamiliar with typical building methods. Look to use crawl spaces, basements, attics, wire chases and conduit devices to help hide and rout wire to needed destinations.
The second consideration is the type of system you are assembling. There are commercial products that operate at a constant voltages using transformers. Usually found in 25V, 70V and 100V sizes, these transformers are connected to the amplifier on the primary side and then send one pair of relatively thin stranded wire from device to device. Every transformer has a primary and secondary side. In the case of the 70V audio transformer, a mono audio signal is fed and kept at a constant 70V signal. The 70V keeps the signal from degrading but does not have the same fidelity associated to a standard 4 or 8 Ohm system connection. However, the voltage systems offer some real advantages. Less wire, longer distances without degradation, better coverage capabilities and easy installation. The speakers used in these systems will also have a transformer with connections called taps. Taps are based on a Wattage specification. The number of speaker transformers and the size of amplifier connected at the head end determine what tap is used. Usually one can find multiple choices, or taps, from low wattage to higher wattage. Probably one of the biggest misconceptions is that wattage equals volume. While wattage and volume are directly related, you will be surprised at the amount of volume from a one Watt tap. In most cases, the sound systems you see in malls, amusement parks, office building and paging systems use this form of wiring at low wattage taps. While it is not generally used for residential systems, there are times when I have recommended these types of commercial systems. Here are a few reasons you may consider transformer-based voltage driven systems. 1) Really long runs of wire, over 500 feet 2) A need to page over the speakers 3) Lower cost product options 4) Lower cost of installation materials.
In most cases for residential set-ups, the system will be a 4 or 8 Ohm system design. Most consumer electronics retailers offer some assortment of outdoor product. The available products at retail are developed to connect to a stereo receiver or an amplifier. Generally, I like to amplify outdoor systems with a separate amplifier. Using the same amplifier for indoor audio distribution can cause a lack of needed volume. Like water pressure, the more faucets you have open, the less water pressure there is available. Outdoor speakers need more power. As a good rule of thumb, I always use a separate amplifier to send music to the outdoor speakers. Don't forget it's about coverage but if you lack pressure to your sprinklers system it will not distribute enough water to the areas you wish to cover. This water analogy works great to visualize the issues present when using too little power amplification. It's all about coverage!
In the previous text, we briefly discussed amplifier technologies, which bring us to our third consideration. Choosing the correct amplifier is probably the most crucial decision in the planning of any audio system. Without the proper amplifier, correct accessories and proper impedance matching devices the system will probably fail to perform as expected. Expect to spend a minimum of 50% of your budget on this product decision. Without a good engine your car doesn't perform why should your audio system? The amplifier is the heart of the system. Never skimp here! I like to use multi-channel amplifiers found in custom audio manufacturers product line ups because they offer some unique features such as signal sensing, stereo to mono summing, individual gain (volume) adjustments per channel, lower impedance capabilities and are designed for longevity. This is typically not a retail product but there are some products available with a bit of research. I decided to use a 12 channel (six pairs of connections) product that has all the bells and whistles mentioned above and it will allow for expansion. If you are on a budget, this sort of product may not be the best solution for you, though I highly recommend it.
The key to a good system design is to maintain the proper impedance. Impedance is the nominal load placed on the amp. Think of it as the pressure put on the amp to produce the music coming out of all speakers. If a pump has to push out more water than it is capable the pump will eventually heat up and fail. Amplifiers will do the same if they are asked to produce more than they are capable. Most individual speakers present a nominal 8 Ohm load to the amplifier. Every time a speaker is added in parallel this figure cuts in half. If I were to use just a 2 channel amplifier in my design, I would present the amplifier with an impedance of 1 Ohm. Surely my amplifier would heat up and fail. There are devices that can help my amplifiers survive the rigors of 8 speakers connected. Devices such as the impedance matching speaker terminal block, impedance matching speaker selector and the impedance matching volume control offer the protection needed to safely operate an amplifier for many years. This still is only one part of the equation and speakers still require the current needed to support the number of products connected. In my case, I am using the multi-channel amplifier which will supply each speaker with ample power. In a case of a 2 channel receiver or amplifier being used, every time you add a speaker to a channel not only will you affect the impedance you will cut the current in half to that speaker. Half the pressure in the sprinkler means half the coverage. So again, don't skimp on the amplifier! If you want a car that lasts look for an engine that performs above its typical output.
The last consideration is stereo or mono sound. Monaural sound is often acquainted to "bad" or AM quality. This couldn't be further from the truth. Often time's a mono signal will provide you with more information and more fidelity than a stereo signal. Sound isn't always based entirely on the product sold. Separation of the speakers being used can greatly reduce the performance in an outdoor sound system. Every outdoor system I design I prefer monaural signals to reach the speakers simply because you have several speakers covering a large area and left and right signals are subjective when in these large spaces. As mentioned in the previous amplifier discussion, one of the features I like the most about the product I am using in my system is the feature of stereo summing the left and right signals into one mono signal. This gives me 12 channels of monaural versatility and the flexibility of speaker placement. Likewise, inside walls normally help determine the boundaries of left and right. I tend to use mono summing indoors in many rooms like long hallways, bathrooms, kitchens, dining rooms and other active areas based on the movement and separation of the speakers in those areas. Speaker / acoustical engineers typically develop a speaker tonally based on the interior of a typical room. Their passion for music is obvious when you visit these labs. However very few acoustical engineers design speakers for off axis listening. Meaning, they are developed to listen to while sitting in a chair at a predetermined distance. Rooms reflect sound differently than the normal outdoor environment. Bass is harder to produce outdoors and the typical speaker normally sounds thin in an outdoor environment. Conventional design prohibits a speaker from truly performing great in both environments so cut the retailers some slack regarding the demo areas for these types of speaker products.
In conclusion, when planning your outdoor sound system, it's always great to research your options and consult with the experts. Thanks to the internet, a number of great resources are just a click away. To re-cap, outdoor sound has its challenges and great rewards. Sound systems are all about the application, coverage and amplifier choice. If done right, it certainly beats dragging your speakers from the living room on to the deck too!
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