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An amenity once found almost exclusively on major commercial properties, sophisticated outdoor sound systems are becoming increasingly popular in today’s residential landscapes and gardens.  In fact, says audio specialist Scott Sylvester, modern speaker systems are adding all-new dimensions to exterior spaces, giving watershapers and others the opportunity to provide their clients and guests with a complete outdoor sensory experience.

An amenity once found almost exclusively on major commercial properties, sophisticated outdoor sound systems are becoming increasingly popular in today’s residential landscapes and gardens.  In fact, says audio specialist Scott Sylvester, modern speaker systems are adding all-new dimensions to exterior spaces, giving watershapers and others the opportunity to provide their clients and guests with a complete outdoor sensory experience.   

 By Scott Sylvester

From the striking miniaturization and power of today’s portable playback devices to the satellite radio found in more and more homes and automobiles, the ways we receive music, information and entertainment through our ears have increased dramatically in the past two decades.

With these technologies becoming more and more available and affordable, it makes sense that more consumers than ever before are including quality sound systems in their outdoor environments – and it doesn’t hurt that sound-reproduction technology has gotten fully up to speed in making those exterior systems sound better and better.

Thanks largely to the pioneering efforts of engineers working with or for theme parks, restaurants and resort properties, outdoor systems have been around a long, long time.  In recent years, however, that technology has been transferred to products scaled to residential applications.  That’s great news for watershapers and landscape professionals who know the value of shaping their clients’ total outdoor experience – and even better for those who keep a few key considerations in mind as they sit down at the drawing board.

HEARD NOT SEEN

Even if you’ve never dealt with an outdoor sound system before, it doesn’t take much background to recognize that delivering good sound to the great outdoors is both different and more difficult than it is to recreate a concert hall in a family room or home theater.  

For starters, the components are different.  Indoor speakers, for example, are not made to withstand the elements and will not survive outdoors for the long haul, even if you take unusual measures to protect them.  The basic materials from which the cones of indoor speakers are made, for example, are not compatible with high-moisture environments, and there’s also the fact that they simply are not set up in such a way that they will provide a full range of sound outdoors.

Several companies such as ours – Sonance of San Clemente, Calif. – are now offering various products designed specifically to perform under harsh outdoor conditions.  These companies manufacture high-fidelity loudspeakers that deliver high-quality sound from the guise of common landscape features such as rocks, pedestals, flowerpots, and other outdoor fixtures or natural elements. 

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Sound systems can be wired for entire environments or for more intimate spaces, such a spa or a lounge area with a quality that was once reserved for theme parks and upscale resorts.

The quality and visual adaptability of these housings has increased in recent years, making it increasingly possible for people to enjoy music outdoors without ever seeing where the sound comes from – thus giving the designer an unprecedented amount of flexibility in planning for sound.   

When camouflage isn’t needed, several of these same suppliers offer unobtrusive speaker models for in-ceiling, in-wall and on-wall mounting.  No matter the placement, it’s critical to verify the weather-resistance of both the speaker and its enclosure.  And it’s not just about rain and sprinklers:  Direct sun can be quite damaging, and saltwater is much more troublesome than dew – ample reason to make certain that warranties cover a speaker’s electronics as well as its housing.

But durability isn’t the only issue or even the main one:  The big challenge with outdoor systems has to do with the nature of the space in which the speakers are placed and the fact that the outdoors seem to swallow sound in unappealing ways.

Where interior rooms contain and contour sound, outdoor areas tend to make music sound soft, hollow or unnatural.  It makes sense:  All sounds dissipate more rapidly in open spaces, both because there are fewer hard, reflective surfaces and because there tends to be plenty of soft greenery to absorb and muffle sound.  There’s also competition with traffic noise – and even the pleasant, soothing sounds of waterfalls or fountains.

MAKING IT WORK

The key to making exterior sound systems stand up to the challenge of the great outdoors is giving them more power to work with.  In other words, you combat dissipation by playing music at a higher power level than is needed indoors, simply to generate acceptable volume across the listening area.

This is all why most exterior-sound specialists recommend selecting speakers that handle higher power levels – at least 50 watts in most applications, which is a good bit more than most indoor speakers require to produce good sound.  And this doesn’t mean that high-capacity outdoor speakers will be so loud that the neighbors will complain!

Another feature of outdoor speakers is that they are designed to deliver sound in either single-direction or omni-directional patterns.  This affords the designer an enhanced ability to plan and control the areas to be covered by sound – and avoid areas that will not be set up for sound, a big plus in multi-use areas, small spaces or environments with a variety of large structures, plantings or elevation changes.

Stereo Phonics

One of the issues that invariably arises in discussing outdoor sound systems with clients is the issue of “stereo” sound and how it translates to exterior spaces.  This results from the way home sound systems have been marketed for more than a generation and has left many consumers with the impression that stereo means quality.

Basically, stereo reproduction involves the distinct separation of sound between left and right channels and was developed to create a sense of a live performance in a home or theater.  In stereo mode, sound emanates from “point sources” at one end or side of the space.

Outdoor settings, however, generally don’t lend themselves to conventional left/right speaker placement or provide a suitable environment for recreating the stereo image you get indoors.  To address this concern, you need to explain that high-fidelity outdoor speakers come with either single-channel or stereo inputs.  

The single-channel mode is used when stereo separation can be achieved outdoors at a satisfactory level.  The stereo input combines information from both left and right channels, meaning all of the sound comes through the same speaker.  This is the right approach, for example, along a walkway, where the speakers create an even sound and the conventional left/right configuration would sound incomplete.  

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A directional speaker, for example, would be recommended for use near foundation plantings or placed close to or against a wall or fence or dividing line from which you’d want the sound to travel in one direction and not another.  By contrast, an omni-directional speaker would work well on a patio or other place where people might take places anywhere around the speaker.  

This all leads to a most important point:  Speaker layout is one of the key issues in developing an effective outdoor sound system.  Certainly, the number of speakers to be deployed depends on the needs of the space and the speakers, but as a general rule, positioning speakers from six to 15 feet apart in the area to be covered is recommended.  

Too much space between speakers means loud and quiet spots in your sound field and a failure of stereo effect, while too little space is a money-wasting form of sonic overkill.  This is why it’s recommended that you walk around and listen to how an array of speakers sounds before mounting any of them in place or burying their cables.

For all outdoor applications, you need to use speaker cable that has been designed for burial as well as weather-resistant wire connectors.  Burial cable features a tough outer housing and internal stranding for greater strength and will offer decades of trouble-free service.  (Note that in commercial settings, these cables may need to be carried in conduits, depending upon local codes.)

If the cable runs will be moving through hardscape, a bit of planning can go a long way.  Installing runs of conduit before deck installation, for example, is easy to do, while finding places to bury cable around hardscape perimeters after the fact can extremely difficult.  Also, sub-deck conduit runs facilitate replacement of cabling if any problems arise down the line.

IN CONTROL

Another point to consider in laying out speaker arrays is that some residential clients may want different music in different areas – very often the case with commercial installations and something that can be done in any backyard courtesy of multi-zone systems.  

These multi-zone systems allow you to distribute audio – either from the same audio source or a different one – to more than one area at the same time.  You can have pop music playing out by the pool, for example, while the news or a jazz station plays on the patio or indoors.  Or you can have the same music playing in two or three different areas simultaneously, so a stroll through a Japanese garden can be enhanced with the same music throughout.

The ability to hide sound sources in a landscape is an important design criterion and is being met in a number of different ways, as with this speaker hidden within a planter.

The concept of zoning opens up the subject of control, and the fact of the matter is that just about anything can be accomplished if the right technologies and products are applied.  There are two keys to making the backyard entertainment environment as pleasant as can be:  control of music selection and volume – both without the need to run inside to play with switches and dials.  

One approach, in cases where you have a protected area or a weatherproof enclosure, is to set up outdoor controls that are similar to what you’d find indoors.  These systems are easy to use and can be made even more convenient through use of hand-held remote controls.

If there is no good outdoor space for such a control system, there are radio-frequency remotes that that can transmit signals through walls, offering your clients the convenience of changing channels or CDs without having to leave the comfort of the hammock.  In fact, there are waterproof remotes, so they won’t even have to get out of the pool or spa.

The systems that generate the sound delivered by the outdoor speakers can range from standard home-entertainment systems to professional, rack-mounted arrays with separate amplifiers and pre-amps for various speaker runs.  These are the same products used for all-indoor systems, and coordinating location is a factor because the outdoor speakers must be linked to the amplifier with cables.  

This cabling can become quite complex – so much so that when multi-function or multi-zone systems are being installed, manufacturers generally recommend that a sound- or low-voltage-system contractor should be involved.

NEW GROUND

There are professionals in the sound business who can handle any and all jobs, from the simplest to the most complex.  That said, the placing of speakers, the running and burying of speaker cables, the making of connections to the audio source and the programming of volume, source and remote controls are all relatively simple tasks that should be within reach of most contractors.  

In the event you want to call in a professional, look for someone with Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association (CEDIA) certification.  CEDIA is the trade association for custom audio/video installers and provides special training and continuing education on installing this type of wiring and equipment, indoors and out.

Whoever sets things up, the beautiful thing about outdoor sound systems is that they can be used in a variety of settings, from the most elaborate resort-like spaces for estate homes to average backyard gardens – and everything between.  To get started, watershapers certainly do not need to become audio experts:  All it takes is recognition that outdoor sound systems bring you one step closer to providing your clients with the complete outdoor experience.  

 

Scott Sylvester is director of technical services for Sonance, a manufacturer of whole-home audio systems based in San Clemente, Calif.  Since 1984, the company has pioneered development of architectural, high-fidelity audio products, including in-wall and in-ceiling speakers, subwoofers, amplifiers, multi-source control systems, cables and other products for distributed-audio and home-theater applications.

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