For the past few weeks, I've been indulging in what is fast becoming a favorite summertime activity: getting home from work, kicking back in an outdoor lounge chair with a cold beer, and listening to a pair of rocks.
Well, they're not actually rocks. They're Paradigm Rock Monitor 60-SM loudspeakers ($249 each) cleverly constructed to look like rocks. Perhaps surprisingly, they sound great. Best of all, even when I'm blasting Back in Black, my neighbor is unlikely to complain. After all, what's he going to do, ask me to turn my rocks down a few decibels?
The increasing popularity of outdoor loudspeakers -- or landscape speakers, as they're more elegantly called -- is part of a trend toward all-but-invisible "architectural" electronics. Just as wall-mounted flat-panel TVs and in-wall speakers are transforming how audio and video gear looks inside the home, speakers shaped like boulders, planters, and even fish are making audio equipment blend into outdoor spaces.
Not surprisingly, reaching sonic nirvana in the open air presents a challenge. Since the speakers will be exposed to the elements, their enclosures need to be durable and weatherproof. Moreover, the absence of walls or other reflective surfaces means sound coming from outdoor speakers will dissipate quickly, greatly reducing the area of coverage achieved with comparable indoor models. As a result, many outdoor speakers, such as the SpeakerCraft Wide Coverage Rox ($299 each) I tested, feature offset woofers and tweeters that fire in opposite directions, spreading the sound over a larger area. Others, such as the cylindrical Bose Free Space 51 ($404 to $450 per pair), sport designs that radiate sound in all directions.
Outdoor speakers are by no means new. Splash-resistant bookshelf-style models, mounted under roof eaves and soffits, have been around for years. Technically, so have rock-shaped speakers, which marched into backyards after years of use in commercial installations such as amusement parks. What's new is the dizzying array of choices. Rockustics, which pioneered the category, has nearly 30 models that run the gamut from amusingly named rock speakers (such as the Pavarocci, about $600 a pair) to planter speakers that can be used with real flowers to the offbeat hanging CocoNutz ($450 to $500 a pair). StereoStone offers more than a dozen rock-shaped models, including the Palos Verdes, a speaker rock that can be mounted in exterior stone walls or barbecues (about $150 each), along with four planter-type speakers.
PUMP IT UP
Companies even make speakers that resemble benches, shiny garden orbs, and fish and frogs for around ponds and fountains. Should you want to pump up the bass, outdoor subwoofers abound, with models ranging from the powerful (Rockustics' $3,500, 300-watt WhereWoof sub) to the unusual (StereoStone's $400 Tree Stump Sub).
Along with the wider assortment, the other marked change is dramatically improved sound quality. Many well-regarded home-speaker brands, such as Bose, Niles, Paradigm, Russound, Sonance, and SpeakerCraft, have entered the category, bringing improved technology to outdoor products. Both the Paradigm Rock Monitors and the SpeakerCraft Wide Coverage Rox that I tested use the same high-quality dome tweeters and polypropylene woofers found in their highly rated indoor speaker models.
With so many ways to get great sound outdoors, it seems a shame to settle for a boxy, generic model. My suggestion is to get a speaker that really rocks -- and see what your neighbor has to say about it.
By James K. Willcox