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Spring Planting

As winter retreats and people return to the garden, what better time than now to focus on outdoor audio?

TruAudio’s RK-6 rock speakerAs winter retreats and people return to the garden, what better time than now to focus on outdoor audio? With the housing downturn continuing to take its toll, those who want to leave no stoneand, dare we say, rock speakerunturned in their search for ways to sow more sales opportunities will find plenty of possibilities here.

Outdoor installs heated up before the recent downturn, observed Alan Rottner, VP of sales and marketing for outdoor speaker company StereoStone, a trend he hopes will continue as the weather improves. Up until recently, with a huge downturn in the economy that I think affects everybody, weve noticed a pronounced trend in peoplenot just in the warm-weather coastal areas, but throughout the United Statesdoing more and more entertainment outdoors, he said.

The increased interest in outdoor sound seems to reflect an even larger trend toward greater investment by homeowners on the outside of their homes. Were seeing more outdoor home theater, more outdoor kitchens, and generally more outdoor lifestyle. The category is definitely growing, said Frank Sterns, president of Niles Audio.

NuVo’s Accent PLUS1 rock speakersNuVo Technologies U.S. VP of sales, Rick Powers, is also capitalizing on the consumers growing desire to expand his or her living space outdoors. With the introduction of our Grand Concerto and Essentia E6G whole-home audio systems, weve seen an increase in outdoor zones due to the fact that our new control pads are weather-resistant. Our customers can now have a complete, acoustically matched NuVo system from the inside out, he said.

Examining the Trend
Al Baron, product line manager for Polk Audio, said that his firm conducted a significant research effort in the outdoor audio market last year to better understand the opportunity, figure out what the trends were, talk directly to consumers about what theyre looking for, and talk to integrators about what their ideal products might be.

Polk Audio’s Atrium 65SDI outdoor speaker (a 6.5-inch two-way) is switchable between stereo-input and single-channel input.Baron said that, although, as part of the package, nearly 100 percent of all the multi-room audio systems that are installed do include some form of outdoor speaker, its not necessarily being asked for by consumers, because its really something that is not as well-known as it should be.

This puts the onus on dealers and integrators to plant the seed of outdoor sound when talking to their clients and prospects about custom integration projects. Outdoor sound has to be a part of every single presentation, if its not already, Baron argued. The close rate is extremely high.

Wanted: Not Sight, but Sound

A pair of Rockustics Pavarocci rock speakers soak up some rays (they have UV protection). Polk Audios research found that invisibility is one of the key factors for consumers who are considering outdoor audio. They want the sound, but dont necessarily want to see the hardware that produces it, Baron said. So, the intrusion has to be minimized for a lot of these folks, in order for them to be on board with outdoor sound.

Another trend involves mounting traditional ceiling speakers flush under eaves, leading manufacturers such as Niles to design new in-ceiling speakers that are waterproof. Sonance is also going this route, with the Symphony Extremean in-ceiling speaker that is mounted under the eaves, as well as aboard yachts.

Manufacturers are responding to the interest in outdoor sound with a dizzying array of products, ranging from the traditional under-the-eaves, box-type enclosures, to speakers disguised as rocks, tree stumps, planters, and even coconuts (in the case of Rockustics).

StereoStone offers custom color-matching as an option-the better to blend in with the surroundings. Can you spot the rock speaker in this pool setting?

Sonance’s CRK10 Rock Speaker, a 6.5-inch two-way system.Sonance offers its traditional outdoor speakers under the Mariner line, but also has added rock speakers. Yet another solution is the companys SoundHenge line, which are covers molded specifically to fit over Mariner speakers, giving them a rock disguise.

TruAudio fields a traditional outdoor speaker line, called the OPx.1 series, and several rock speakers. The OP x.1 series is available in a 5.25-inch two-way (OP5.1) and a 6.5-inch two-way (OP6.1), as well as a single-stereo dual-tweeter/dual-voice coil 6.5-inch woofer model (OPD6.1), have improved cosmetics, including cabinet end-covers that hide the screws holding the speaker cabinet to the U-bracket mount. The speakers are ported, for increased bass, but when used in more-exposed situations, plugs can be put into place.

Polk Audio also takes this approach on the Atrium65SDI, with what it calls its Power Port bass vent. This model also features a clever electrical/mechanical switching arrangement, so it can quickly hop between a dual-input modefor single-speaker stereo applicationsand being a conventional single-input speaker.

Phoenix Gold is taking a good/better/best approach to its outdoor speaker offerings, according to director of engineering Stewart Millager, with the ATO Series, ATO2, and IHS lines filling those respective positions.

Klipsch’s AWR-650-SM rock speaker.
Klipsch has offered a line of outdoor speakers thattrue to Klipsch formutilize ported enclosures and horn high-frequency drivers, to maximize efficiency. There are also a couple of sealed-enclosure models. For the horns, said Jim Garrett, the companys director of product development, weve gone with symmetrical coverage patterns, so that they can be oriented either vertically or horizontally, without affecting the coverage pattern of the overall system.

The most recent addition to Klipschs outdoor lineup is the AWR-650-SM rock speaker, which utilizes a 6.5-inch two-way single-stereo system with dual 0.75-inch dome tweeters and a dual-voice-coil woofer.

Installation Insights

SpeakerCraft’s 600Rox DT sports dual tweeters and a 6.5-inch dual voice-coil woofer.SpeakerCrafts VP of product development, Jeff Francisco, counsels integrators who are installing outdoor speakers to pay attention to manufacturers guidelines and recommendations, because some products fare better than others when exposed to the elements. Maybe they can withstand outdoor conditions, but theyre better being sheltered under an eave or a patio, rather than being totally exposed, Francisco noted. Therefore, he concluded, its best to seek out installation tips in users manuals, installation guides, and technical bulletins to maximize performance and product longevity.

Cichowski finds that using too few and too small of a speaker is a frequent mistake in outdoor applications. People often want little speakers, because thats all they want to see, and yet they have a huge backyard, he said. And, of course, they crank them up, and something distorts. Thats very common.

When planning the speaker complement and layout, coverage is key. Its better to have multiple speakers, spread evenly throughout the environment than it is to have just a few that have to be over-driven, Francisco agreed. I think the rule of really even coverage in multiple locations is always a good one.

Sound follows the inverse-square law, which means that levels drop off rapidly with distance. This is why its best to have more speakers, placed closer to the areas they need to serve. Dotting the coverage area with speakers means that no listener is far from a speaker, which not only means more uniform sound levels over the area of interest, but no one speaker is forced to play at high levels. That, in turn, reduces distortion and minimizes the chance of speaker damage. Many speakers, playing at low levels, are also sonically much less obtrusive than just a few, playing at high levels.

Architectural speakers, such as rock speakers, tree stumps, and planters fit in well with this strategy, and can be used in place of under-the-eaves speakers, or as a complement to the eaves-mounted type. Speakers placed out on the lawn, facing toward the clients home, are also less likely to get complaints from the neighbors.

Niles Audio’s PS6si planter speakerPlanter speakers can be used anywhere in the landscape, but can also offer an unobtrusive way to get speakers close the patio. Sterns said that Niles has recently begun shipping a new rectangular planter speaker, and also has a round type, called the PS6si. The latter is a stereo-input model, with dual tweeter and a dual-voice-coil woofer.

While some planter speakers use fake flowers for their disguise, many of the newer models are designed for real plants, with attention paid to providing adequate drainage for the soil. The sealed speaker portion keeps water away from this critical area.

Rockustics’ OmniPlanter speaker offers 360-degree dispersion.Rockustics offers three round planters in its Omni-Planter series. The Omni-Planter utilizes a downward-firing speaker that reflects its sound off of a dispersion plate, producing a 360-degree omni-directional speaker. The dispersion plate, which forms the base of the planter, is designed to deliver high frequencies at 12-degrees above horizontal, according to company president Tony Mule. This way, he said, If youre standing in the yard, the high frequencies arent being lost at your feet.

Another speaker designed for placement flexibility is Boston Acoustics SoundWare speaker, a compact cube measuring little more than six inches on a side that has several of its corners truncated to allow the system to be perched or mounted at a variety of angles, and in corners, on walls, etc. Available in seven different colors, its also paintable, for custom color matching.

On the subject of color, StereoStone now offers custom color-matching in addition to the seven different standard colors it offers in its rock speaker lineup. Customers needing a better match to specific rocks, for example, can send a rock sample to the company. Speakers will be finished to match.
Its always a challenge getting ample bass outdoors, so an outdoor subwoofer or two may be in order. Manufacturers have plenty to offer, ranging from Boston Acoustics Voyager Sub12 (which can be mounted under a deck or half-buried in the ground, standing vertically) to SpeakerCrafts SubRox8 to Rockustics 15-inch system, WhereWoof, which the company bills as the worlds largest purpose-built outdoor subwoofer for the residential market.

Go For Hardiness
There are other key considerations to remember when selecting or recommending outdoor speakers. Although sound quality is essential, reliability is just as important, especially when factoring in harsh environmental factors. Manufacturers agree that materials selection is critical to developing products with the ruggedness to stand up to outdoor exposure. Many models feature moisture-resistant plastic or aluminum diaphragm materials, butyl rubber surrounds, perforated aluminum grilles, and gold-plated or stainless steel binding posts. Extended warranties also go a long way toward assuring customers that the durability is there. Sonance offers a five-year warranty on outdoor speakers, while Niles, Rockustics, StereoStone, and TruAudio are among those offering lifetime warranties.

Time to Plant

Boston Acoustics’ rock speakerWhen placing architectural speakers, such as rock speakers, check out the lay of the land, and avoid low spots thatll become puddles or ponds in heavy rains. You want to keep an architectural speaker out of standing water, said StereoStones Rottner. In fact, he added, its best to take advantage of any rises or higher points in the landscaping. Locating it at the highest level in your landscaping will get the sound up closer to ear level, with obvious benefits for high frequencies. Also, dont place a speaker where it would be taking a direct shot from a sprinkler head.

Often, its good to design it by zones, Francisco observed. Maybe there are times when the client doesnt really need all the speakers to be operating around the barbeque, but the pool area is the focus for the momentor the patio or other entertainment area. Its good to think about the outdoors area as not just as one giant zone, but to divide the areas up, as best makes sense.

A former loudspeaker designer, Alan R. Frank ([email protected]) is a networking consultant and freelance writer.