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Invisible upgrade: Puccini on the patio

Disguised as rocks or concealed in plantings, the latest outdoor speakers can set the perfect mood for alfresco entertaining.

September 23, 2004|Matt Lait | Times Staff Writer

Brian Dunn's "party place backyard" didn't come cheap. He spent thousands replastering the swimming pool, pouring new concrete around the patio and strategically placing lights throughout his newly landscaped yard. But the crowning touch came from two pairs of $150 outdoor speakers and a $15 CD by a reggae legend.

"There's nothing like Bob Marley by the pool," the 31-year-old lawyer said as he cranked up the tunes in his backyard in Rossmoor, in north Orange County.

That clunky old boombox with miles of extension cord draped over bushes is so post-college. The latest outdoor speakers tap into your indoor home stereo system and practically disappear. Some come disguised as frogs, rocks or planters. Others are designed to be partially buried in a garden or flower bed. Those that tend to look like traditional speakers have been downsized to fit under roofs or patio eves.

"The goal of our products is to disappear," said Jeff Francisco, vice president of product development at SpeakerCraft in Riverside, which manufactures Bahama Sounds outdoor speakers. The company's most popular speaker? The one that's hiding inside a poly-resin and fiberglass rock.

Advancements in technology have made outdoor speakers much more weather resistant and have significantly improved audio quality, according to experts in the field. When SpeakerCraft built speakers into large planters, they consulted botanists to make sure that Mother Nature and electronic equipment could coexist in the same pot.

"We're always doing environmental testing to make sure our products survive the elements," Francisco said.

Bose, considered one of the top manufacturers of audio equipment, said it had devised a speaker that could withstand temperatures from 158 degrees down to minus 40.

There's a huge range in speaker price and quality, and often a direct correlation between the two. Speakers can run from $40 a pair to $800 or more. Bose, Infinity and Polk are among the more popular brands, and all offer more affordable as well as higher-end products.

"If you spend $150 to $270, you can find a very good pair of speakers with fantastic range," said Ollie Boren, the owner of All-in-One Electric in Long Beach, which installed Dunn's sound system.

Max Reynolds, of Reynolds & Associates Inc., has installed outdoor audio equipment for many of Southern California's corporate executives and Hollywood celebrities. For them, money's not the issue; nature is. "The big obstacle with them," he said, "is overcoming the sound of the ocean." (The pesky problem of too much Pacific Ocean noise is often overcome by using a lot of speakers.)

Two to four 6-inch speakers usually do the job for those of us who live more than a stone's throw from an ocean cliff and have a more modest backyard.

"It's not brain surgery," Reynolds said. "It's all about what sounds good to you."

Sid Wilson, who installs audio systems for restaurants and other businesses, said homeowners needed to consider something else besides cost when buying outdoor speakers: the neighbors.

"You've got to be careful not to put on a concert for the neighborhood," said Wilson, who mounted a pair of speakers near his Bellflower patio this spring. "I play it loud enough to drown out the city noise." Strategic placement of speakers can maximize sound quality for the homeowner and mitigate any sound intrusion for the neighbors, installers said.

Proper installation is key to making an outdoor sound system look and sound good. Though it may seem relatively easy -- plugging speaker wire into a stereo receiver-- it can be rather tricky. Generally, the speaker wire is concealed under the house or in the attic to the point where the speakers are mounted. If the speakers are camouflaged in the garden or in planters, wires are threaded through a conduit and buried underground.

Professional installation costs vary depending on the difficulty of the job, installers said. Labor can cost $150 to $300. Audio-equipment retailers such as Circuit City charge about $160 to install speakers.

When it is just too cumbersome or expensive to run speaker wire to outdoor speakers, wireless speakers can be "a great alternative," Boren said, but they cost more than their wired predecessors.

Plugged into an outlet or powered by batteries, wireless speakers can receive audio signals up to 300 feet from the stereo. Expect to spend about $600 on a pair.

Boren homeowners should consider installing volume controls outside when setting up speakers. Who wants to get out of the lawn chair and go inside to adjust the volume?

Volume control is a constant struggle for Dunn when his friends and family are over.

"He likes it loud," said Dunn's wife, Lisa. During parties, she's always trying to get him to turn it down a bit.

Yet both said their parties wouldn't be the same without the speakers.

"We really like to entertain, and the music adds to the whole ambience," Brian Dunn said as he twisted the two knobs that regulate the volume on his four speakers, blasting another Marley song. "We definitely get more use out of our backyard now."

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