Audio is the bread and butter of the residential technology integration business. CEDIA’s recent Integrated Home Market Analysis shows audio systems as the single largest category by revenue, making up 17 percent of the more than $20 billion industry. The same report forecasts continued growth in outdoor AV; already a hot category, integrators estimate they’ll be doing 25 percent more outdoor jobs in 2022 than 2021.
It seems like the perfect marriage of expertise and opportunity – but not so fast. Indoor audio best practices don’t translate to the great outdoors, because the environment, use cases and goals are totally different. Weather and particulate resistance rating aside, solutions that are a great fit for a home theater, media room or dedicated listening area simply will not deliver a great experience outdoors. Conversely, the portable outdoor speakers that are marketed directly to consumers as an outdoor entertainment solution work very well – to entertain 2-5 people at a time. Achieving “just right” outdoor audio requires a new approach, borrowing from the best of both the commercial and residential technology worlds.
Defining Our Goals
Most residential audio systems are aiming for suspension of disbelief or the sonic re-creation of the original live event. I’ve waxed poetic in this magazine’s sister publication, Connected Design, about how a great home theater audio system invites you into the world of a film – just like a great Hi-Fi system put you right in the studio. These immersive effects are achievable because they’re targeting a defined listener area. Outdoor audio isn’t that.
In an outdoor entertainment, you can assume your listeners are moving around and exploring the space. Audio provides the backdrop against which the evening plays out; it’s a sauce, not the entrée. What you’re looking for is consistency throughout the listening area: a little taste of sauce in every bite. That’s a more common goal in commercial applications than residential. It’s what you’re looking for in a PA system or speech reinforcement for a lecture hall. Therefore, we can look to the ProAV world for standards and best practices here.
AVIXA’s Audio Coverage Uniformity standard provides a well-defined target. According to this standard, a truly uniform audio system will have undetectable variations in volume across the whole range of human hearing. The idea is that listeners never notice how far away they are from the nearest speaker, because they can hear equally well in any position. Even if you’ve got a stereo source, I recommend summing the inputs and sending a mono signal – it would sound the same wherever the listener roams.
The goal is impossible with a single source like a Bluetooth speaker. It’s just physics; as you move away from the source, the amount of sound energy that reaches your ears drops off exponentially. In order to reach people 20 feet away, you have to practically deafen those closest to the speaker. You want everyone to be able to both hear the audio and hold a conversation. Also achieving coverage uniformity takes precise speaker positioning, testing and tuning, as detailed in the AVIXA standards. The obvious solution here is multiple speakers, installed in the ideal positions.
Fine-Tuning the Gear Choice
To many consumers, this is where an outdoor audio system can start to sound expensive and invasive: “You want to tear up my beautiful yard to install a bunch of big ugly speakers?” For house-proud customers that spend more per year on landscaping than they do on healthcare, that’s a non-starter. Luckily, it’s also a myth.
Most outdoor audio speakers are constant voltage, like their ProAV distributed system cousins, and some of them are actually quite dainty compared to the amount of sound and frequency range they can produce. They can be ground-mounted, using a stake or base plate, or wall-mounted if you’d rather leave the yard unscathed. These speakers are easy to conceal with flowers or shrubs; a well-designed outdoor audio system is visually unobtrusive and blends into any environment.
Unless you’re all about that bass. You can get some bass frequency response out of 4-in. or 6-in. landscape speakers, but in most cases, you won’t get much. An outdoor subwoofer can add a great deal of depth and richness to the soundscape, but they also add some additional design considerations – because unlike outdoor speakers, most outdoor subwoofers are variable impedance. This is important to know when choosing an amplifier.
Call it a side effect of the neither-fish-nor-fowl nature of outdoor audio, but a complete outdoor audio system usually calls for a hybrid constant voltage/variable impedance design. That means that the amplifier needs to be able to manage constant voltage and variable impedance channels simultaneously. The amp needs to have adequate power. Fortunately, in constant voltage systems this is easy to calculate; because of the background nature of the application, 500 watts per channel is typically plenty to drive most landscape systems. It also needs to be rugged. Look for an amp with at least one variable impedance channel in addition to the constant voltage channels, and robust protection circuits to prevent overdrive, underdrive, overheating and short circuits from damaging the amp.
With an installed distributed system, built with unobtrusive components, homeowners can kick back and enjoy their yards. They never have to worry about annoying their guests with music that is too faint or too loud; they’re not tripping over speakers or trying to incorporate giant fake rocks into their landscape. The outdoor ambience is always just right.