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Getting a back yard to rock

Published Sep. 1, 2005

Moving outside to the patio or pool for these lazy summer days?

You don't have to leave your music behind.

Today, there's an incredible range of options for hooking up outdoor speakers to the household stereo system.

"At one point, it was just a neat thing we did occasionally," says Jeff Hoover, president of Audio Advisors (www.audioadvisors.com). "Now there's probably not a job we do where some kind of outdoor music isn't included."

The popularity of backyard audio has spawned an entire industry, in fact, from manufacturers that specialize in weather-resistant speakers to installers who figure out their optimal placement.

Dozens of manufacturers now make specially sealed outdoor speakers for mounting under eaves or hiding in the greenery. Some have eliminated the hassle of wiring by building in radio receivers to catch signals from home-entertainment base stations.

Others have created elaborate disguises for outdoor woofers and tweeters.

At the high end, people such as Art Powers, chief executive of Madison Fielding (www.planterspeakers.com), build ornate, weatherproof speaker enclosures in the form of benches, decorative columns and functional flower containers.

For $2,995 a pair, Powers will sell you his Flagstone Planter. Not only does it hide the speakers, but its acoustic arrangement reflects sound off the patio in a way that makes it almost impossible to discern the source.

"If it's close to a wall on a patio, the sound reflects up about four feet, and the high frequency hits the wall and reflects again," Powers said. "People walk right by the flowers, and they have no idea where the sound is coming from."

Many such high-end products were developed for theme parks, zoos and other locations where aesthetics are paramount. But homeowner interest has opened new opportunities. Creative makers are now mounting speakers inside landscaping rocks and hanging flower baskets for direct sales to consumers. One, Rockustics, has even created weatherproof speakers that look like hanging coconuts ($550 a pair).

Outdoor audio needn't be complicated or expensive, experts say.

Most stereos let you hook up remote speakers and switch between them using an A/B switch. Alternatively, you can install external switches for less than $200.

After that, it's a matter of snaking speaker wires through the attic or crawl space to the desired location. Buy a pair of weatherproof speakers (prices for good-quality products range from $50 to $500 a pair), hook them up, and you're there.

Well, almost.

Without control over the outdoor volume, people wind up making endless treks inside to tweak the output.

"It's the same thing as putting music in every room of your house," Hoover said. "If you don't have control over the volume, you're not as likely to use it or enjoy it. It becomes too much of a hassle."

It's fairly simple to run the speaker wires to a weatherproof volume control mounted in an eave or patio wall. Controls can be purchased for less than $100 at most electronics stores. Experts say volume controls should be placed in a convenient location, outside the patio door.

For a little more money, you can add an infrared repeater. These gizmos, costing $100 to $200 from brands including Speakercraft and Xantech, take commands from a remote control. You aim the remote at a receiver on the patio wall, and it relays the command to its companion inside on your stereo component.

Infrared, however, doesn't function well in bright sunlight.

A remote keypad can be more reliable, though it's also more expensive. Keypads require a little more wiring. In addition to the speaker wires, they must be connected to the indoor audio center with Category 5 cabling. And most keypads aren't waterproof, so custom installers often build plastic enclosures when mounting them in gardens or at pool side. Otherwise, they should be mounted just inside the main door to the patio.

"If you do put in a keypad, you can change selections and raise and lower volume easily," Hoover said. "You'll use it every time you're outside."

Of course, cranked-up outdoor speakers can upset neighbors. Most of the time, conflicts can be avoided with proper planning. And, Hoover says, some solutions are not obvious to those inexperienced with outdoor acoustics.

"Often, they put just two speakers outside because they think four or six speakers would be too loud," he said. "The issue is exactly the opposite."

Mount two speakers up or near the deck, and you may be forced to pump up the volume when entertaining elsewhere in the yard.

"What you're looking for is equal, good coverage in all areas," Hoover said. "If you have six speakers outdoors, you can have a nice, moderate volume everywhere. Otherwise, it's always way too loud right next to the speakers and not loud enough down by the pool."

Planning an outdoor system involves some basic considerations, experts say.

First, establish the most likely listening area. Separate the speakers at equal distances from that location. And keep the distances between the speakers slightly less than the distance to the listeners. That way, you maximize the stereo effect.

When burying speaker wires in the garden or lawn, use direct burial cables, installers advise. These cables are heavily sheathed to prevent water damage. Many custom installers take the extra precaution of running the cables though plastic piping. That way, it's harder to cut through the cable when digging in the landscape.

Hoover says speakers that look like rocks, fountains and other landscaping objects don't necessarily produce the best results. "If cosmetics are particularly important and there is a style of rock speaker that blends into the cosmetics, that's one thing," he said.

But in general, he has found that dark green or black weatherproof speakers hidden in bushes or trees give consumers better bang for their bucks.

"They sound better for less money, and they last just as long," Hoover said.

Regardless of the speaker design, running wire through a yard carries a risk.

"Anything you bury in the ground or put somewhere outdoors certainly has the potential to be a lightning problem," Hoover said. "You might think you've got all your electronic equipment safe using surge protectors. But very seldom will a surge protector save you when lightning hits a backyard speaker.

"That," he said, "can really mess you up."

Finding outdoor speakers

Here are some makers of outdoor speakers designed to look like part of your landscape:

ROCKUSTICS

www.rockustics.com

The company offers a variety of rock-disguised speakers in an equally wide range of prices.

PLANTERSPEAKERS

www.planterspeakers.com

PlanterSpeakers features elaborate, freestanding planters with legs. Speakers are positioned underneath to reflect sound upward.

STEREOSTONE

www.stereostone.com

Outdoor speakers are mounted in planters, rocks and decorative columns.

SONANCE

www.sonance.com

Sonance sells water-resistant, sealed planter speakers.

_ Dallas Morning News

TIPS FOR MOUNTING OUTDOOR SPEAKERS

+ Always use direct burial cables when running wires through flower beds and landscaping.

+ Consider enclosing speaker wire inside plastic conduit to prevent accidental damage from digging and tilling.

+ Rather than flooding the back yard with sound from two large speakers, spread multiple, smaller speakers throughout the landscape. You'll enjoy the sound more in all the important regions of your back yard and lower the risk of irritating neighbors.

+ Install a separate volume control for outdoor speakers attached to your household audio system. Don't make yourself run inside to adjust the volume.

_ Dallas Morning News