Designing Great Audio for the Great Outdoors

Ken Hecht, Vice President, MSE Audio, shares some top tips for growing a successful exterior audio system.

Outdoor audio has been around for decades, and its role is now more critical than ever with the growing outdoor-centric trends in both residential and commercial markets. With outdoor audio becoming a more important part of our businesses it’s crucial we get it right for our customers. With application-specific product choices growing each year, there are criteria to consider when designing a great outdoor system.

Designing the System

The first consideration in your audio design is to determine where you want the audio and how loud it needs to play. Will it be used as foreground sound, for parties or announcements, or as background music to enhance the space’s ambiance? Decide if you need to contain sound in a specific area, like a pool or exhibit or if general background sound is needed for a large area like walking paths at a theme park or an outdoor mall. Area of coverage will vastly differ between products.

Next, determine how many zones are needed. Is this a central system or a zone from an indoor audio system as you would design for an outdoor patio at a restaurant? The answer to this question will guide you closer to selecting your power source whether it be low voltage, a 70v input or a full Dante IP-controlled system. Keep in mind that some Dante/DSP systems can be more cost effective than 70v systems and give you and your client greater flexibility and control of the audio.

Speaker Selection

The speaker selection is one of the most important aspects and will be based on your clients’ needs. Will the speakers be seen or does the sound source need to blend into the environment? For hidden audio, you can get speakers that look like rocks, stones, planters or even coconuts. There are speakers that look like landscape lighting and many other speakers can easily be identified by their distinctive enclosures. Once you determine the form factor, it’s easier to select models to meet your needs.

Outdoor speakers fall into three main categories: omni directional, direct radiators and line arrays. They all serve a different need outdoors. Omni directional speakers offer 360° coverage and work well in situations where you need sound everywhere. They will cover as much area as two direct radiating speakers. Direct radiators (or directional speakers) work well if you want to contain the sound to a specific area and line arrays are great choices if you need to project sound out over longer distances. Line arrays are made for long throw and will send sound out to 40’ with little level drop where a direct radiating speaker will lose too much level over that distance to be heard clearly. Line arrays levels typically drop at half the amount as direct radiators – 6dB versus -3dB with doubling of distance.

Line arrays can be pole or tree mounted. Directional speakers come with multiple mounting options – ground mounted rocks or planters, spike mounted landscape or surface mount speakers.  Look for landscape and surface mount speakers that offer vertical and horizontal pan and tilt as those controls will make it easier to precisely target the sound.

Lastly, just because it is called an outdoor speaker, does not necessarily mean it will stand up to extreme weather conditions, yet some are designed to do just that. We’ve heard stories of major hurricanes blowing through areas causing extensive damages to homes and businesses, yet the outdoor audio gear was still standing. Other outdoor-rated speakers can operate under an overhang, but will fail if exposed directly to rain. Check with your manufacturer and get their recommendation on the correct weather rating for your application.

What’s important in an Outdoor System

Differences in indoor audio and outdoor audio should be taken into account. Indoor speakers are designed to blend into the area, using the room to help balance the highs with the lows. The lack of walls in an outdoor environment changes those dynamics. Without the walls of a room to load the bass and reflect the sound, audio outdoors can sound thin like there is a lack of bass and presence. For this reason, good outdoor speakers will have a little more bass energy and highs then their indoor counterparts.    

Outdoor speakers need to be sturdy and durable enough to withstand all environmental conditions they will be exposed to. Wind, dust, bugs, reptiles, rain or snow, the heat and degrading effects of direct sunlight can all cause a speaker to deteriorate quickly. Marine and coastal environments will require rust-resistant components and mounting hardware to survive for any amount of time. Some speakers are rated for both indoor and outdoor applications. Be sure you follow the manufacturer’s guidelines during the installation. For instance, on some models you may need to use a port plug to make the speakers water resistant.

Don’t forget to consider an outdoor-rated subwoofer in your project. It will enhance the listening experience with full range sound. Most outdoor subs are direct burial with only the port showing above ground.  A few landscape speakers incorporate the sub into the design which saves on installation time and produce more even sound in the listening area.

Other Considerations

For well covered outdoor patios you can consider in-ceiling speakers. They cover more area, and many are moisture resistant and commonly used for humid environments like bathrooms or saunas.

If your area has an awning, surface mounted speakers will work great. Remember, most outdoor speakers are water-resistant to a degree, so the awning can protect them from degrading from weather and keeping the speakers out of direct sunlight – which can extend the life of the product considerably.

Make sure to use safety cables and locks to prevent injury to the product or persons if the product does fall, but also to prevent someone from taking your product in the dark of night. 

In Closing

Some manufacturers will expediently design an outdoor audio system for you. This service saves you time and money as they can recommend the exact number of speakers to provide the best coverage needed. Don’t hesitate to reach out for this free tech support.

The bottom line is that using the right product for the right application is critical to a successful outdoor audio experience.  Amaze your clients with outstanding acoustics without breaking the bank by doing your research and working with your loudspeaker manufacturer.

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