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A new vibe in soundscaping

Forget the cheesy gear of yesteryear -- today's outdoor audio really surrounds you.

June 21, 2007|Jeff Spurrier | Special to The Times

HANK and Susie Seitz's home on a hill in Tustin Ranch overlooks the 261 toll road and busy Jamboree Road but the noise from the traffic never intrudes except around the evening rush hour. If it disturbs his enjoyment watching the sunset, Hank puts down his drink and turns up the crickets.

"I have outdoor sounds, the jungle, crickets, water," he says. "You sit out here at night and crank that up."

If the crickets don't satisfy, he also has Canadian brass, Italian opera, Jimmy Buffett and lots of Josh Grogan for their listening pleasure. Live recordings dominate in the soundscape of the Seitzs' yard.

"It's our second living room," Susie says of their garden. "It's like having a Greek Theatre in your backyard. I was the one who said we don't need it, and now I'm the one who loves it."

Thanks to a new generation of audio outdoor gear, sound is the latest indoor creature comfort that homeowners are taking outside. First the kitchen was moved into the yard, and now the family room has arrived with weather resistant, affordable high-quality audio and entertainment setups.

The fake-rock speakers of the past are still around but are clearly no match for the delight of having a true surround-sound system that envelops you like a warm breeze.

By some standards the Seitzs' setup in their 130-by-40-foot yard is modest: one subwoofer and three pairs of Boston Acoustics Voyager 7 speakers. The surround-sound effect, however, is total, so real it seems virtual, perfectly balanced in stereo with crisp highs and realistic, deep lows no matter where one wanders in the garden -- by the pool, next to the neighbors' yard, near the house.

The Seitzs' yard was wired by a neighbor, Terry Mullin of Tustin-based Creative Stream, specialists in outdoor home entertainment. He's put in more than a dozen similar sound gardens for his neighbors, sold mainly by word of mouth.

The pattern goes like this: One neighbor puts in a system, invites others over to show it off at a party, and before long they want one too. Or something bigger. And bigger doesn't always mean louder or present a possible source for a noise pollution issue for neighbors.

Making sure that the music stays balanced and in the yard is one of Mullin's primary concerns. Usually he works the soundscape math for an established garden, measuring levels and bouncing the low-end bass of the subwoofer off the lip of a pool, or smoothing out the surround-sound balance with a centered pair of speakers.

Ideally, however, an outdoor system is mapped from a landscaper's plans, before the hardscape goes in, and is installed right before the area is planted.

Mullin says the final thing he tells his clients is, "Water your sub -- flood it, soak it, drown it."

THE sub in question is the 4-foot-high Boston Acoustics subwoofer whose base he buries underground, followed by a thorough soaking and compaction. The more dense the soil, the better the bass. You might think twice about soaking a $1,500 speaker, but the process will improve the sound by preventing low-end bass loss within the buried cabinet. "Within a week you'll be able to use half as much sound on the controls because the bass will grow stronger as the soil compacts," he says. He finishes up the garden with pairs of BA Voyager 7s ($600 per pair).

Outdoor audio has grown up, moved beyond a couple of funky fake-rock speakers positioned around the pool or a pair of outdoor speakers hung from the eaves of the house, tilted downward. These days hiding the speakers is less important than camouflaging the directional source of the sound.

The hot spots and dead zones of the past are no longer a problem, replaced by a seamless, ubiquitous audio cloud wafting from every bush and shrub, perfectly balanced, coming from nowhere but inescapably everywhere.

Unlike a home theater defined by four walls, a roof and a floor, a garden or yard theater system requires flexibility. "The backyard is never going to be the optimum environment," says Brian Chappell of Experience Audio Video in Yorba Linda. "You're always balancing aesthetics and sound, and aesthetics win nine times out of 10."

For him this means no faux-rock speakers because the sound usually is horrible and they look out of place: "Like a fake rock," he sniffs.

There are plenty of cheap rock-look speakers out there at big box home centers for less than $50 each. But for truly satisfying audio, plan to spend at least a couple of thousand dollars. The "average" for surround sound in the garden ranges from $8,000 to $15,000.

A more affordable choice might be Bose Free Space 51 environmental speakers ($450 each), which are designed to sit flat on a deck or the ground or can be partially buried. These are omni-directional units and are good for a 6- to 10-foot radius.

But don't write off the fake rocks just yet. Boston Acoustics has come out with a new line of Voyager speakers encased in hand-detailed faux sandstone, granite or river rock ($250 to $450 each, depending on size).

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