Take It Outside
|Niles OS10 speaker ($400 a pair)|
You can greatly increase the flexibility and ease of use - and cost - of your outdoor system by adding a totally separate audio zone. The idea is to have the outdoor speakers feed off a "whole-house" system that uses a distribution amp to supply multiple zones or rooms with music. Seasoned do-it-yourselfers might be able to take on a project like this, but most people are better off hiring a custom installer to do the job. "Doing it yourself can be a fantastic learning experience," says DuBrow. "But it's not a slam dunk. It needs to be really thought out, and you should have a good grasp of the basic principles of electronics."
Figuring the cost of a multizone system can be tricky, since you need to determine things like how many zones you want, what kind of speakers are best suited for the different locations, and how much power you need to do the job. A basic three- to four-zone system using decent speakers and three to four keypads usually runs about $3,000, including installation.
If you're doing new construction, you can add an outdoor zone to the building plans. Or if you're remodeling, you can use the opportunity to add one as a retrofit to an existing whole-house system or install a whole-house system that includes an outdoor zone. The least attractive option is to add a zone when the walls aren't being breached for any other reason. No matter which way you decide to go, the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association, or CEDIA (cedia.org), an industry trade group comprising professional system installers and designers, is a good place to start. "We work hand in hand with architects and landscape designers to make sure everything fits," explains Steve Hayes, a past CEDIA president and owner of Custom Electronics in Falmouth, Maine and Newport, Rhode Island. "That's the beauty of our art."
Jeff Hoover, president of Audio Advisors and current CEDIA president, says his company does most of its outdoor-audio installations during new construction. "We'll get a plan of the lot from the architect and builder - where the pool is going to be, where the homeowner's going to entertain - and design from there," he explains. "It's very common for us to do patio and pool areas, and even garden areas, so the customer will have music there."
No matter which way you go, keep in mind that established audio principles for things like achieving stereo separation and how music sounds in an enclosed space literally go out the window with outdoor systems. "You can't really have a critical listening situation like in the house because you're no longer in a controlled environment," explains Electronic Technology's DuBrow. "It's usually just background music. You can do stereo outdoors, but it's awkward. You can do it in a small space, but it gets much more difficult in a large space."
Michael Taylor, chief technology officer for Urban Design Technologies in San Diego, agrees. "It's much harder to do when you're not constrained by ceilings and walls. For example, you only need a little bit of wattage and small speakers to get decent background music in, say, a 12 x 15-foot room. But that won't work in the open air."
Steve Hayes points out, though, that just about anything is possible given enough money. "If our clients want concert-quality music, they get it. To achieve concert sound, you need to buy rugged, professional-grade speakers, put them in the right places, and feed them enough power." It also helps if you don't have any neighbors within a few square miles.
Strength in Numbers
The most critical part of getting good sound outside will be figuring out how many speakers you'll need and where to install them. "We equate distributing audio with distributing light," explains Craig Abplanalp, vice president of Definitive Audio in the Seattle area. "For example, if you have an outdoor area you want to light, you could either buy two giant floodlights or get more uniform distribution by using more lights running at a lower output level."
The similarities with lighting don't end there. "It's hard to set a mood with big floodlights, just like it's hard to set a mood with giant speakers," says Abplanalp. "Some people put up two big speakers and blast them. But if you're close to the speakers, it's too loud, and if you're out in the yard, you can't hear them. We choose the right number of speakers to create a consistent level of sound in the overall space. Good restaurants do the same thing with lighting and music."
Having the proper number of speakers doesn't really matter if you don't pair them with appropriate amplification. "I've seen customers run four sets of speakers off of an amp that wasn't designed for it," Abplanalp observes. "If you skimp on amplifier power, the sound will suffer even more outdoors than it will inside," cautions Urban Design's Taylor. "People tend to underpower speakers outdoors, so they end up sounding very tinny and washed out. I try to provide as much amplification as I can in the outdoor zone."
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