Now that the chill and gray weather is (hopefully) behind us for the season, many people will be stepping out of the dark caves of their home theaters and into the sunlight—in their back yards.
As any realtor or home remodeler will tell you, the backyard (or deck, patio, roof…) is the new favorite place for entertaining, relaxing and enjoying friends and family. Just look at the growth of the landscaping and outdoor kitchen business as proof. But what happens when you bring all your party guests over for some grilling, swimming and chillin, but the cool AV gear is all in the house?
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Outdoor entertainment systems are popular, and very practical. They’re used frequently (depending on your climate of course) and bring a lot of ROI in terms of enjoyment. We spoke with Consumer Electronics Pro Steve Hunter of the Hunter Group for tips on planning an audio/video paradise of your own.
Getting the Best Sound
Let’s start with speakers. The market is flooded with inexpensive portable Bluetooth audio systems that have replaced the boomboxes of the past, but while they’re convenient, they’re a big letdown if you’re going from a killer indoor audio system to a couple of cheap drivers in a shoebox for the backyard.
Instead you should fill your outdoor space with quality outdoor speakers. There’s a variety of styles available, from in-wall/in-ceiling models (good for lanais and covered patios) , wall-mountable models (popular for hanging under a home’s eaves) to rock-shaped speakers and in-ground speakers (check out these 22 awesome outdoor speakers).
Speaker placement in a backyard or outdoor space can be trickier than in a living room or home theater. Outside sound travels and can either travel far, into the yard next door, or not far enough so you may only get sound in localized spots. “Placement really needs to be thought out carefully,” says Steve Hunter. “You want the sound to be even across the whole area.” He noted that in the west Los Angeles area where his business is, yards or patios can be small, so he needs to be careful about where the speakers are projecting. “Typically I’ll put a set of speakers in the back of the yard, on a wall [if the yard has a wall] so they’re facing toward the house, and a set on the patio under the eaves,” he explains. This way the sound is all focused toward the living area of the yard and not simply blasted out into the neighborhood. For larger yards he uses landscape speakers that look like landscape lights. He’ll place them roughly in a circle pointing toward the listening area so that everyone can hear at the same volume. Because low frequencies have very large waves, they tend to dissipate quickly, so Hunter also recommends a subwoofer to fill in the sound. Subwoofers that can be partially buried are a good option.
People understand the need for separate audio zones in a home, but in the back yard? Yes, multiple audio zones can be very helpful, even in outdoor spaces that aren’t very big. Hunter recently did an installation (pictured above) that includes a pool area, a cooking/BBQ area and a lanai (which includes an outdoor TV, which we’ll get to later). Now this entire yard could easily be filled with sound all at once, but what happens when not everyone wants to hear the music at the same level. Kids in the pool might want to turn up the volume to play over their own screaming, while the people at the BBQ or lanai want to tone it down to conversational levels. Speaker placement also comes into play here. If one seating area is closer to the speakers than another, someone’s going to be blown away with music while another person keeps cranking it up. Being able to control the volume and source independently makes the yard more enjoyable for all.
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When I was a kid, my father would occasionally drag out a portable TV with built-in rabbit ears, plus an extension cord, so he could watch a baseball game on the back deck on a nice summer night. Today there are much better ways to do that.
First off, you need the right TV and that means an outdoor TV. TV’s designed to withstand the rigors of the untamed world are made by Sunbrite, Seura and other companies. While outdoor HDTVs certainly cost more than standard TVs, Hunter says they’re worth the price. “People may want to buy a cheap TV and put it on a patio,” he says, “but eventually they get tired of replacing them.”
Outdoor TVs are weather resistant, which means you don’t need to worry about rain and snow. Even if your patio if covered, it only takes a little rain blown in by wind or a squirt of a hose by the gardener to ruin a standard TV. Even high humidity, especially with salty ocean air, can damage a TV that’s not built to withstand the elements.
Aside from getting the right TVs, placement is an important factor. When you’re outside you have the sun to deal with, and the sun’s position changes throughout the day. “I almost always put outdoor TVs on full articulating mounts,” says Hunter. If there’s only one TV in the area, he wants the mount to be adjustable so the screen is viewable from multiple locations.
Atlanta Home Theater designed and installed this outdoor A/V system
Just like in home theaters, screen size is a factor. With an outdoor TV, viewers are often further away from the screen than they would be indoors. Anything smaller than a 46-inch TVs is probably too small unless you’re certain that the viewers will always be close to the screen.
Most outdoor TVs come with built-in speakers, just like regular TVs, but frequently Hunter will use external speakers for the TV audio. First, external speakers will sound better, and they can be part of a zoned audio system. If you’re having a pool party during a baseball game you can play the TV’s volume on speakers all around the yard.
A well-designed outdoor lighting plan can turn a plain yard or patio into a special retreat. Hunter recommends multiple lighting zones in a yard as well a multiple scene settings designed for different purposes—such as a party mode or a relax mode. Pathway lighting is useful for getting around late at night without tripping over things. If you frequently have guests over for evening events then pathway lighting is a must.
This elaborate lighting design was done by DSI Entertainment Systems
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Home networks have become a valuable part of in-home entertainment and control. The situation is the same outdoors. The problem homes can face is that Wi-Fi routers are often buried in the center of a house, so the signal has trouble reaching outside, especially if there’s a large yard. Outside Wi-Fi is important because the most common devices for controlling audio, video and lighting systems are smart phones and tablets. If your iPhone can’t connect with the control system, then you can’t turn the music up. It’s also common to set up a guest network so people spending the afternoon enjoying your cookout can log on to easily check their email or post party pictures to Facebook.
Hunter says in one three-acre property he worked on he had to put multiple Wi-Fi antennas around the outside to ensure that every inch was covered.
How to Plan
Hunter says that if you want to turn your backyard into more than just a place for the dog to wet the grass, then some early planning helps a lot. Just as with home integration, pre-wiring is crucial for outside systems. If you’re having landscaping work done, call in your integrator before the pavestones have all been placed. Have sizable conduits run under sidewalks and to all ends of the yard. Plan for speakers, lights and network connectivity everywhere, even if the immediate plans don’t call for so many devices. It’s easier, and in the long run cheaper, to wire first then add more devices later.
Check out some of these great outdoor systems:
Outdoor TV Rising Out of Custom Cabinet on Roof
Backyard Bellagio Includes Lights, Music and Fountain
Backyard is Outdoor Electronics Showpiece