Sound Gardens: Top-Rated Outdoor Speakers

Conventional · Landscape · Subwoofers

Outdoor speakers still are the king of the backyard barbecue, because they deliver more power and more bass than do their portable Bluetooth speaker counterparts. Manufacturers also are introducing more outdoor subwoofers to provide bass range that outdoor speakers can’t.

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We get it. Conventional and landscape outdoor speakers can be cumbersome to set up. Typically, the process involves burying a speaker wire in the ground and drilling a hole in the side of your home to connect the wire to your indoor receiver. Furthermore, wireless outdoor speakers’ batteries have to be recharged or replaced every 6–8 hours.

Despite the drawbacks, we found that outdoor speakers still are the best option if you want the best overall sound quality outside and if you want to fill up a large outdoor space and clearly hear your audio from at least 20 feet away. We wondered whether the latest portable Bluetooth speakers would fill the bill, because most new models are designed to be used inside or outside, and they include batteries that last at least 10 hours on a single charge. However, we found that portable Bluetooth speakers don’t cut it, because they aren’t powered by an external amplifier, as are outdoor speakers.

“The battery-powered amps that are inside these [portable] speakers might be generating a few watts; some of them can go up to about 10 or 20 watts,” says Brent Butterworth, who is the home-audio editor for The Wirecutter, which covers consumer electronics. “With outdoor speakers, you might be getting 100 watts or more. They’re bigger, they produce more bass and they’re louder.”

In other words, outdoor speakers still are relevant. Thanks to their relevance, and an increase in new-home construction, the market for speakers slowly is recovering from its near-collapse in the days of the housing bust and recession, according to Consumer Technology Association. What’s best of all is that prices have been steady over the past 4 years.

BASS STATION. If you’ve heard bass-heavy music through outdoor speakers, you probably were disappointed. It’s acoustically difficult for a speaker to reproduce deep bass in open air, because the sound waves aren’t reflected by walls.

Fortunately, we found more choices of outdoor subwoofers (starting at $330) than ever before. The latest subwoofers typically have a 10-inch woofer that reproduces booming bass frequencies, and we found that they help an outdoor audio system to deliver a balanced range of bass, midrange and treble.

Of course, you’ll want the extra bass boost only if you listen to pop, rap, rock or techno music. Classical music and jazz music don’t have much bass. Furthermore, if you have an outdoor speaker that includes an 8-inch woofer, which is common at all price ranges, you don’t have to have a subwoofer. We found that most outdoor speakers that have an 8-inch woofer deliver satisfactory bass. The problem with outdoor speakers that accommodate an 8-inch woofer is that a few of them are so large that their plastic housing vibrates, and they create unwelcome distortions.

That’s why it’s important to ensure that the woofer is made of a stiff material, such as aluminum, Kevlar or other polymers, Butterworth says. Fortunately, these woofers are available in outdoor speakers that are in all price ranges.

“Plastic can be a really fantastic material to make a speaker out of, if you take the trouble to use a plastic that’s quite inert and that doesn’t vibrate,” Butterworth says. “The problem with a lot of cheap speakers is that they don’t do these things.”

Speaking of bass, we’ve seen a few new premium outdoor speakers (starting at $500) that have ported enclosures, or vents, in the front of the speaker. Experts generally agree that ported enclosures deliver deeper, more powerful bass than do sealed, or airtight, enclosures. Most outdoor speakers have sealed enclosures, which prevent animals, bugs, dust, water and yard waste from getting inside of the speaker.

“Living in [Florida], I can tell you from personal experience that I would never consider a ported speaker for outdoor usage unless the speaker is under a covered lanai,” says Gene DellaSala of Audioholics, which covers audio and video equipment.

In other words, a ported speaker isn’t worth the extra bass boost unless you can keep it raised and out of the natural elements.

Daniel Kumin has been a contributing technical editor for Sound & Vision magazine for 25 years.

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