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Residential Systems – The Integration Guide to Outdoor AV

February 26, 2016

 
Residential Systems

This Integration Guide was sponsored by Apollo Enclosures, James Loudspeaker, The DaVinci Group, Near, and Rockustics, as a supplement to Residential Systems, March 2016

Wireless technology continues to push the boundaries of where consumers can enjoy audio and video entertainment, but in the custom integration world, concerns about cable runs, product and installation durability, and future-proofing projects still dominate the backend conversation.

“Homeowners are spending more time and money on improving their outdoor spaces, transforming them into focal entertainment areas,” noted Taylor Nichols, director of marketing for Origin Acoustics. “Our challenge as designers of architectural audio systems has and always will be to preserve the aesthetic qualities of the home and environment while providing the highest level of acoustical performance.”

Providing that outstanding performance has come to include not only great loudspeakers, but also high-quality video and the right equipment to safeguard these expensive AV components year round.
Say “outdoor AV” to anyone, and the first thoughts that come to mind usually involve loudspeakers. For most consumers, this is the starting point to expanding their AV entertainment beyond the living room and past the simple plopping down of a boom box on an old garden table. With the availability of so many good outdoor-grade speakers, the selling point has increasingly become about sound quality.SOUND GARDEN

“Over the last year, Sonance has seen an increase in recreating the immersive sound heard in high-end indoor distributed audio systems for the outdoors,” said Jack Hill, director of marketing for Dana Innovations. “All too often outdoor audio is relegated to a conspicuous pair of speakers mounted to an eave or integrated into a flowerpot. The end result is that homeowners are left with small hotspots of sound that need to be turned up for everyone to hear, and those closest to the hotspots quickly move their conversations away from overly loud areas. This typical setup actually decreases the entertainment area available, and does not enhance the activity being hosted outdoors.”

Jeff Francisco, president of The DaVinci Group, said that the big change in outdoor AV is not within a single technology or product, but rather a broader one of increased expectations.Sonance’s Landscape Series is one answer to the dilemma Hill outlined and is in line with Dana Innovation’s vision of an immersive outdoor speaker system. Featuring three different sizes of satellite speakers, and four different subwoofers to best match various environments that AV integrators work with, the Landscape series is also expandable to cover extremely large areas, providing consistent sound throughout the entire space.

“The category is now one of nearly full maturity, and integrators and users both have very high expectations about performance, reliability, and cosmetics,” he said. “It’s no longer enough to have an ‘okay’ product; it must exceed in all areas. We continue to undertake this challenge in all of our products.”

The DaVinci Group offers a variety of outdoor audio products under its TDG Audio and Vanguard Dynamics nameplates. The first area of concentration with any product the company makes, Francisco noted, is always reliability. “If the product fails, nothing else matters,” he said.

And, despite extensive growth in its landscape designs and ground-based systems assortment, TDG Audio’s bestseller is the more traditional OD-62 6.5-inch two-way cabinet speaker, which integrates only aluminum and titanium speaker materials and crossovers weatherproofed with epoxy resin coatings. Another strong seller is the ORS-602 rock-style outdoor speaker, which is designed to offer robust and balanced overall frequency response and eliminate the need for a subwoofer to achieve a true high-fidelity performance.

“These systems can range from a simple pair of speakers to entertain a small patio area for $600, to a 70-plus speaker layout spanning around an island—yes, we’ve seen it done—for $50k-plus,” Nichols added.Origin Acoustics’ Seasons Landscape Collection is, according to Origin’s Nichols, the evolution of the traditional cabinet and rock speaker, and is designed with a camouflage profile as well as flexibility and expandability in mind. The company’s weatherproof landscape speakers can provide directional, rich, full-frequency sound to any size backyard “without disturbing the neighbors,” he said.

James Loudspeaker sells its products exclusively through the custom integration channel and takes many of its research and development cues from the fieldwork of its integrators. Acknowledging that wireless technology is influencing outdoor speaker design, Ted Telesky, chief marketing officer for the company, is certain that wired solutions, such as James’ W-Series wedge-shaped speakers, are still ideal for “professionally installed outdoor audio” with distances as much as 600 feet or more between components.

“More than any one specific product, integrators have gravitated toward the James Loudspeaker outdoor audio lineup as the ideal complete solution for clients who want real high-fidelity and supreme durability for their outdoor audio,” Telesky said. “From our cost-effective starter systems to expansive packages, integrators cite these attributes as the reason for their loyalty to our products.”

“Integrators love that the 120-degree dispersion of the satellite speakers allows them to uniformly cover a 3,000-square-foot area with only four speakers and a subwoofer,” Keiltyka said. “They would have to use eight spotlight-style speakers to cover the same area. That saves them an enormous amount of installation time and the expense of potentially hundreds of feet of wire.William Kieltyka of NEAR Speakers agrees with Telesky, citing that while wireless technology has given both consumer and integrators easier access to a virtually unlimited source of music, the performance of wireless speaker options cannot compete with wired solutions, because low-current DC power supplies simply cannot provide enough power. For Keiltyka, the NEARSCAPES 4.1 system, which is comprised of four small, two-way ground-stake or wall-mount speakers and an in-ground 10-inch subwoofer, speaks to his team’s design approach of bringing the same level of realistic audio performance outdoors as is expected from premium-quality indoor systems.

Keiltyka pointed out that integrators also seem to appreciate that a NEAR system can be powered either by a low-impedance (8-ohm) or 70-volt amplifier. When used in 70-volt mode, integrators can select the power output of each speaker individually with the built-in multi-tap transformers to ensure the right volume level for each area of the outdoor space.”

“Due to this, we have seen people rely more and more on traditional outdoor AV, looking for consistent performance and long-lasting build quality,” Duran said. “This is what has informed and continues to inform our design of Rockustics products.”MSE Audio sales manager Jonathan Duran, whose company markets the Rockustics, SolidDrive, Induction Dynamics, and Phase Technology brands, says there is still a demand (and need) for wireless outdoor AV. But, he said, the laws of physics (i.e. needing power) still pose a barrier to the ease of use that people expect when they hear the term “wireless.”

Duran noted that his company’s rock speakers are still popular because they are engineered to “sound amazing and last forever.” Rockustics also has a line of custom products, such as custom-colored rocks, custom rock wall builds, faux brick speakers, and even speakers that look like a grill return vent you see in outdoor kitchens.

At CEDIA 2015, Klipsch revealed new wired outdoor landscape products, underscoring a focus on what the company’s channel marketing specialist Dusty Thomas summed up as a focus on aligning with customer requests and needs for high-efficiency and low-distortion products.

“With our new outdoor landscape products, we chose wired connections for either low-impedance or 70-volt systems to give integrators the options they want when starting new outdoor projects with high-performance products,” Thomas said.

“Since installers can easily modify our packages by adding or combining different satellites and/or subwoofers, in essence they can create any package configuration they’d like and still achieve the benefits of packages purchasing,” Banfield noted. “We’re looking at wireless signal transmission, but we’re reluctant to consider battery speaker operation due to its inherent limitations.”Similarly, James Banfield, president of Terra Speakers, noted that he has seen significant growth in package sales and 70-volt installations for integrators who are having success in selling outdoor AV this way. For Terra, which makes a line of in-wall/in-ceiling all-climate speakers, this has been a boon.

All of this isn’t to say that there aren’t robust outdoor wireless speaker systems on the market. Coastal Source has created a healthy business with its wireless options, including outdoor-rated wireless streamers, amplification with DSP, along with active and passive speaker systems.

“One of the biggest impacts has been the improvements in outdoor Wi-Fi systems that offer the quality coverage required for our systems,” said Franco D’Ascanio, president of Coastal Source. “In addition, high-resolution lossless streaming services allow our high-fidelity systems to sound their best.”

Bose has also capitalized on the improvement in wireless capabilities, with a refresh in its SoundTouch wireless systems. “This includes our SoundTouch SA-5 amplifier, which offers 100 watts per channel to power up to two pairs of outdoor speakers for even sound throughout an outdoor area,” said Glenn Gomes-Casseres, director of product planning and management, Bose Corporation. “Our SoundTouch app lets you control it all, allowing you to stream music services like Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, and SiriusXM to these speakers.”

Despite extensive growth in its landscape designs and ground-based systems assortment, TDG Audio’s bestseller is the more traditional OD-62 and the ORS-602 rock-style outdoor speaker.

PACKAGE DEALS

Some manufacturers have tapped into the “complete package” concept when selling outdoor AV both as products and as a testament to how far wireless technology has come in extending integration possibilities in this category. An example of the former is Stealth Acoustics and its new and popular Stealth Patio Theater that debuted at CEDIA 2014. Citing a deepening consumer desire to possess the biggest and best products on offer, Brian Azzano, Stealth Acoustics’ sales director said the company has been encouraged to move beyond the design and manufacturing of in-wall speakers.

“This large-format retractable LED display system is truly for those who want to make a big impression on their guests or audience,” Azzano said. “Designed for all-weather durability, the Patio Theater is meant to be set in place and is able to be enjoyed in all light conditions. We have essentially taken the same Jumbotron LED technology you will find in professional sports venues or Times Square’s billboards, combined it with our award-winning Invisible or StingRay environmental speakers, and integrated it all into a turnkey system that allows users to enjoy watching movies or sports outdoors at the touch of a button. Patio Theater was designed with [giving] the client what they really want: To be the envy of their neighborhood.”

At Crestron, the demand for more streaming solutions from its client base has led the automation and control giant to zero in on the flexibility and diversity inherent in mobile devices.

“Our outdoor audio systems will typically include one or more NSP-1 Network Stream Players, the network endpoint for mobile device I/O using Airplay and USB for iOS—the most popular formats,” said Paul Shiner, product line manager of audio solutions for Crestron, who pointed to its Sonnex audio distribution system as an example of the audio zone selection capabilities in such a setup.

“If there is a big whole-house party, we can route the ‘house music’ stream to all zones with a single preset recall or we can configure it for music just in the pool and patio areas; it’s totally up to the client,” Shiner continued. “For large estate applications, we route our Sonnex multi-channel audio over fiber using audio network Link Extenders. The key to the system’s success is the easy selection of the source and the flexibility to route and play the program in any of the defined locations, indoors or outdoors.”

“The number-one aspect of the Peerless-AV Xtreme displays is that they can be dictated by aesthetics as to placement, whether in direct sunlight, under an overhang, or in a shadow, as well as placed in front of the sunlight,” Mares said. “If you have ever attempted to take a picture with the sun in the background, you will understand that sunlight will dictate how bright the overall picture is perceived, as many times the object being photographed will appear as a silhouette. With the technology that we integrate into the displays, the image can be viewed at any angle or any orientation. This is why the Xtreme displays are chosen most often for environments with other constraints.”At Peerless-AV the focus has been on delivering a residential market solution that best integrates with any outdoor TV. For Todd Mares, director of emerging technologies, this can be found in the company’s Xtreme Outdoor Soundbar, which he noted has an IP rating and provides more presence than the standard audio output from the AD (audio to digital) board of the display, in tandem with Peerless-AV’s Xtreme line of outdoor displays.

Last year, SnapAV acquired outdoor-display manufacturer SunBrite in response to dealer reports of the growth of outdoor AV. Combining SunBrite’s outdoor displays with SnapAV’s Episode landscape speakers was a natural next step for the sister brands.

Not to be left out of the discussion is the role enclosures play in safeguarding AV components from the elements, something Apollo Enclosures knows a lot about. Lynn Stearn, president of Apollo, highlighted the ability of her company’s enclosures to accept televisions fitted with the latest technologies, namely smart TVs that allow internet access and television programming via Wi-Fi.“As far as displays go, our SunBriteTV SB-5570HD 55-inch HD Signature Series outdoor TV is the biggest hit with integrators and their clients,” said Eric Harper, vice president of product marketing for SnapAV. “The price point, sleek design, and brand reputation for safety, durability, and performance hits the sweet spot and resonates with the custom residential install market. On the audio side of the solution, our versatile Episode 6-inch Landscape Satellites are a home run with installers and consumers, bringing big sonic performance to the outdoors.”

“The cable and satellite companies also have introduced Wi-Fi devices that can easily fit into the Apollo enclosure, allowing all of the content available on their system to be transmitted wirelessly and played outdoors through the TV inside the Apollo enclosures,” said Stearn, who pointed to Apollo’s 65-inch and 55-inch models, (AE6560 and AE5550) as popular among her dealer base.

The Apollo enclosures house the latest large-screen LED televisions within a slim and sleek enclosure that more closely resembles the style and quality of the most expensive brands of outdoor TVs. “As the cost continues to become more affordable for larger LED televisions, the larger-model Apollo outdoor solution becomes an easier sell at a savings of [more than] 50 percent,” Stearn added. “Our ‘easy and simple’ installation design is also a favorite among our dealers, and the inclusion of a weatherproof mount of choice completes the environmental solution.”

As with all aspects of custom integration, installing technology with “future proofing” in mind has become a significant challenge for dealers. Outdoor AV is no different, requiring just as much vigilance against evolving technology standards and the connectors that tie systems together.CULTIVATING LONGEVITY

“As TVs became smart and a lot of those category cables were used up for hardwired network feeds to the TVs, all of a sudden there was no way to upgrade the customer to a full 1080p system,” Peerless-AV’s Mares reminded. “This, in essence, voided many expensive installs because of the legal halt put on full HD resolutions using component as the medium. Then Cat-6 became a real thing, which was thrown in just in case more bandwidth was needed, as well as greater distance. That quickly became the standard for extenders, even as early as five years ago (HDMI extenders and finally HDBaseT). Now integrators are faced with the possible inclusion of fiber-optic lines, which will support the bandwidth needed. The caveat there is expense and expertise. I feel that the need for more bandwidth will drive most all new technologies we see this coming year in the AV industry.”

In addition to maintaining the best connectivity standards—both wired and wireless—in outdoor AV systems, NEAR’s Keiltyka proposed something even simpler: a 24/7 approach to the category.

“Integrators need to play a bigger role in promoting and expanding outdoor AV penetration,” Kieltyka said. “They need to start thinking of outdoor AV as a year-round activity and present the possibilities to clients 12 months a year.”

The DaVinci Group’s Francisco predicted two areas of impact for future shifts in outdoor AV. “I believe they are both driven by the larger scaling of systems with multiple speakers,” he said. “With larger, more complex systems, I think the need to have more control and discrete zones will become very important. To make this practical the loudspeakers themselves will have to move away from high SPL and wide coverage to more specific and targeted dispersion so as not to impact areas outside of the listening zones they are intended for. Following on this is the need for more seamless content control within the various outdoor zones.”