At long last, here is the complete write-up on how I installed a killer outdoor speaker setup, complete with 12″ subwoofer, using mostly gear from Craigslist, Amazon, Crutchfield and The Home Depot. I’ll go into how I designed this outdoor speaker setup as well as how I ran the speaker wire, mounted the speakers, built the subwoofer and my preferred method for playing wireless/streaming audio on a budget. If you’re about to tackle a similar project, then read on! Hopefully some of the methods I used here are helpful to you or at the very least will get you thinking about different ways to take on your own outdoor speaker/subwoofer project.
First off, let’s just get right into the specs and the audio gear used in this setup:
Polk Audio Atrium5 2-way 5″ Woofer with 3/4″ Dome Tweeter Outdoor Speakers
AudioPulse Epic 12″ Aluminum Cone Subwoofer in a Sealed Sump Pump Basin Enclosure
Russound R235LS 2-Channel Single Zone Amplifier (2×50 watts into 4 ohms to sub)
Russound DPA1.2 2-Channel Single Zone Amplifier (2×35 watts into 8 ohms to Polks)
Optimus 12-2011 3-way Active Crossover set at 90 Hz
Apple Airport Express with iOS or iTunes on PC
500 feet 16 gauge 2-conductor speaker wire (direct burial rated) pure copper
100 feet 3/4″ Schedule 40 Conduit and PVC pipe
Various Elbow and T-fittings for conduit and PVC pipe
(4) 1″ Conduit Clamps
SpeakON 4-Pole Connectors for subwoofer
4-speaker Binding Post Wall Plate
(2) Single Gang Low Voltage Retro Boxes (the orange ones)
1/8″ to RCA cable and (2) RCA-RCA Cables
12 Vdc 1A wallwart AC-DC adapter (for the crossover)
The Polk Audio Atrium5 Outdoor Speakers
So let’s talk about the speakers. I don’t buy many commercial speakers, since I enjoy building speakers more (isn’t that obvious?) but I have to make exceptions when it comes to certain types of speakers, like computer speakers, in-ceiling speakers and certainly outdoor speakers. I could have whipped up a 2-way speaker design using some nice poly or aluminum-cone drivers from Parts Express and attempted to build some kind of waterproof enclosure but realistically it seemed faster, easier and simpler just to buy a pair of finished outdoor speakers and save me the time and hassle. Man I’ve gotten lazy in my old age. After I received a gift card from work to Crutchfield for $100 it sort of sealed my fate and ended up buying a pair of Polk Audio Atrium5 outdoor speakers on sale for $169. Why the Polks you might ask? Besides the 5-stars reviews from just about every major retailer who sells these speakers, I’ve been a fan of Polk Audio speakers ever since I was little kid and went to my first real stereo store sometime in the late 80’s. I must have been 12 or 13 years old at the time but I still remember walking into this little store in a strip mall right next to the Miller’s Outpost (tell me you didn’t buy all your clothes from Millers Outpost?) that literally only carried high-end audio gear (this was no Circuit City) and that’s when I saw them, this massive pair of Polk Audio speakers, with a driver array as tall as I was, multiple woofers, of bank of rectangular dome tweeters and a huge 15″ flat subwoofer (that I would later learn was a passive radiator) right there in the middle of the showroom floor. These speakers were like nothing I had ever seen before and I was completely taken back by the shear visual appearance of them towering over every other speaker in the store. I have no idea what they sounded like, we never auditioned them that day, my dad was in the market for a pair of speakers I’m sure, but nothing like what those Polks had to offer. Of course the speakers I saw were none other than the SDA Stereo Dimensional Array line of speakers, what would now be considered Vintage Polk or Classic Polk Audio, the speakers that basically put Polk Audio on the map. I guess I’ve just respected Polk Audio as commercial speaker brand ever since, even if I never owned a pair of those speakers. Even today I don’t actually own any Polk Audio speakers (except for a CS1 center channel that I use in my garage theater and now these Atrium5’s), still whenever I see some Polk Audio speakers on Craigslist I’m always tempted to pick up a pair to play around with. So the Atrium5’s are basically the first pair of Polk Audio speakers I’ve ever really owned. And let’s just say, I am not disappointed. Though 12-year old me would be just a little bit disappointed I didn’t get something flashier. And outdoor speakers? C’mon man!
Anyway, sorry for the diversion, back to the Atrium5’s. After several weeks of very casual listening, I can easily say that these speakers sound awesome, have great treble, clear midrange and decent bass (though they do sound much fuller when supplemented with a subwoofer). You could do without the subwoofer but realize the practical limitation of a 5″ woofer in a small sealed enclosure. I measured the speakers using REW in my house before installing them outside and was pleasantly surprised by the nice flat response from these speakers. Check out the frequency response plots below. There’s a little boost in the treble to keep music sounding bright with a subtle drop in the midrange to prevent overemphasis of vocals. Bass down to about 70 Hz before it starts to roll-off. The enclosure is solid, the 5″ polycone woofer should withstand the elements and you get a legit 3/4″ aluminum dome tweeter. The plethora of 5-star reviews is enough to sell just about anyone on these speakers and after measuring them and listening to them for a few weeks now, I definitely agree with the reviews, these are a great-sounding pair of speakers that will do justice for almost any outdoor setup. A 5-year warranty has you covered for half a decade, so here’s to hoping they withstand the harsh sun of the Arizona desert. I didn’t install them underneath my roof/eaves like they recommend, but I did put them underneath some oleanders which should keep most of the direct sun off of them. They’ll take the full brunt of any rains/monsoons however, so hopefully they can withstand a little water. For now though I give the speakers 5 big stars to add to all the others. I couldn’t have built a better pair of speakers for the price. And certainly not as fast as clicking Complete Order and having them show up on my doorstep 3 days later. I could get used to this whole ‘buying finished/commercial speakers’ thing.
Apple Airport Express and Russound Amplifiers
So let’s move on to how I wired these things up to my whole house audio system. I currently have a 5 zones in my house that use discontinued Apple Airport Express units as the main streaming devices. I think a lot of people forget that these aren’t just wi-fi extenders but actually streaming audio playback devices. This is my go-to setup for whole house audio. They are small, wireless (or wired) and are basically plug and play. Apple Airports work flawlessly with iOS and iTunes. You can pick and choose your zones in iTunes and play music to any single or multiple zones with independent volume control on each. Timing is synced up for all zones so you don’t have the echo/delay effect which can happen when the timing of the music across zones is out of sync. In iOS on your phone you can only select one zone, but that rarely causes too many issues with the wife/kids using their phones as most of the time they only want to play music to one zone at a time anyway. Still you can use iTunes and the Remote App within iOS to control music in your library and play to multiple zones while controlling the music with your phone. You just can’t play music on your phone to more than one zone (or more than one Apple Airport) for some reason. But frankly this setup works great, sounds great, is easy to hook up, is cheap ($20 is the average price for a used Airport Express) and is totally integrated for anyone living within the Apple ecosystem. A similar approach can be done with Amazon’s Echo Dot or Google’s Chromecast, depending on your evil empire of choice. Also, if you pick up Amoeba’s Airfoil software on PC you can stream anything playing on your computer including YouTube, Spotify, Amazon Music, whatever your favorite streaming platform. The Apple Airports just look like an available device and it plays to them like any speaker. Airfoil has worked great for me over the years. The software isn’t free but is definitely worth getting. So we’ll add one Apple Airport Express to create one more zone and we’ll call it “Pool”.
Now that we have a way to get music wirelessly from our phone or computer to something all the way at the other end of the house, the next trick is amplifying that music and then getting it all the way into the backyard and to our speakers. The cheapest way to do this by far is to buy a cheap stereo receiver locally. You can easily find an old Sony or Denon unit for $20-$30 and they have plenty of power for driving a pair of outdoor speakers to levels your neighbors will certainly not appreciate. The only downside, they are big, they are bulky and for the most part you just need to leave it on all the time if you want music anytime. The second best approach is to pick up a small, class-D amp from Amazon brand new. SMSL, Topping and Lepai all make great little amps that can push about 25-50 watts/channel and these things are tiny, they draw very little current and can be placed just about anywhere. Downside again is that they also need to be left powered on all the time. Not as big of a deal as the bulky old receiver because these things are small and don’t draw a lot of current but not exactly an energy-friendly option. The best option, in my opinion, is to pick up an amplifier designed for use in a whole-house audio setup, something from brands like Russound, Niles or Dayton Audio, who specialize in special amplifiers designed for whole house audio distribution. I watched Craigslist and letgo for months before putting together this system and really just got super lucky and managed to find a pair of Russound amps locally from two different sellers. One guy had a brand new, in-box, Russound R235LS single-zone amplifier and he was only asking $20 for it. Another person was selling an older Russound DPA1.2 single-zone amplifier for only $30. I messaged them both and managed to pick them up the next day. So after spending a mere $50 I ended up with a near-matching pair of 2-channel Russound whole-house audio amplifiers to power the Atrium 5’s and the sub. Specs wise these amps can can drive 35 watts/channel into 8 ohms from 20-20,000 Hz at less than 0.05% THD. Both amps are bridgeable, have auto-on/off sensing, and have a 12 Vdc trigger in/out to drive other gear. Plus they are compact and beefy and weigh like 9 pounds a piece. I believe they are class A/B and not not class D although the product manuals do not specify either way. The weight alone makes me think at the very least they are not class D, so class A/B would be the next logical choice. They sound absolutely fantastic and the auto-sensing works perfectly. The amps stay plugged in all the time in standby and kick on as soon as the music starts. I have the trigger out on the one unit feeding the trigger in on the other, so only one unit actually triggers based on audio sensing while the other one just does what it’s told via the trigger. The setup so far works perfectly. So while just about anything can work for powering a pair of outdoor speakers, my recommendation is keep an eye out for anyone looking to get rid of whole-house audio style amplifiers and if nothing shows up in your town then hit up eBay or OfferUp. The auto-sensing and trigger in/outs alone will make it worth your while in the long run.