Ahh, Spring. When a young audiophile's mind turns to great weather, BBQs and lazing away the day in a hammock. And, of course, no day in the sun is complete without your favorite music playlist cranking away in the background.
Now, I've spent the greater part of my life in Manhattan apartments, which means outdoor space was as rare as a taxi at rush hour... in the rain. Worse yet, even if you did find a patch of grass in Central Park, or a friend's rooftop to bake yourself on, your tunes were usually relegated to a portable system like the Bose SoundDock. Not that there's anything wrong with those options - the solar-powered Soulra XL is a particular favorite of Big Picture Big Sound. But even if you could get past the relatively small sound they produce, and the lack of true stereo separation, you still had to worry about noise complaints from your fellow outdoor-lovers, or the Tai Chi class happening across the park.
Now that I'm (relatively) grown up (don't tell anyone), I've fulfilled my quest for a backyard, a BBQ and a hammock. There was just one thing missing: my music.
As you can imagine, as co-founder of this site, my house is fully A/V'd to the hilt. Everything's wireless and controlled by my iPad, Android phone, Harmony remote or Kindle (ok, not the Kindle). But the outdoors remained sadly soundless (well, with the exception of the neighbor's kids and the ever-present weed-wacker). Until now, that is.
Enter Definitive Technology's AW6500 All-Weather Loudspeakers, a pair of speakers developed to perform equally well both indoors and outdoors. But it's outdoors you'll want to use them and that's exactly what we did.
Keep in mind, these aren't powered speakers, like the Russound AirGo Outdoor Sound Station. The AW6500s require an amp of some kind or an available speaker output on your main receiver. You might at first think that's a showstopper, depending on the placement of your electrics and your appetite for installation. But it really shouldn't be. Even powered speakers need a source of power, so whether the amplifier is built into the speakers or in a separate module, it's really just a question of logistics. And frankly who wants powered electronics outside, exposed to the elements? Luckily, I have a detached carport, with electricity, in close proximity to where I wanted to install the speakers, and this proved to be a perfect hub for my outdoor tunes.
For the amp, I chose the AudioSource AMP 100 due to its small size, reasonable price ($179.99, but available for much less online) and its ability to auto-detect a source signal and power on/off appropriately. If I had to manually turn on the amp every time I wanted to listen to outdoor tunes, that would've been a showstopper.
Installing for time
The first step, and most important step, was to hang the speakers in the proper location on the carport. Though they're "All Weather", the manual is sure to state that "you will achieve the longest life of the speaker by positioning it to minimize exposure to the elements". And that's fair. But it also helps in terms of sound, as I discovered next.
The AW6500s are designed with Mid/Bass Driver & Tweeter on the side with the Def Tech logo, and the Low Bass Radiator on the other side. So, when choosing to hang your speaker, it's important that you select a location that will allow for the Driver/Tweeter side to face the listening area and the Low Bass Radiator to (if possible) bounce sound off a surface to create louder bass. Under an eave is an ideal location because it also provides some protection from the elements.
You can mount the speakers horizontally or vertically. I chose the latter for aesthetic reasons and positioned them at either end of the carport, about 25 ft apart.
As far as hanging the speakers goes, well, let's just say this is clearly not an Apple product. It's pretty DIY. There are two holes on the attached mounting bracket and...that's about it. There's no included hardware (e.g., screws), and not even a paper "actual size" diagram that can be used as a template to position the speaker on the wall (since the bracket can't easily be removed from the speaker, that would've been helpful). It's not the end of the world, but the manual asks that you choose hardware "that is capable of holding the weight of the speaker". So it would've been nice to include some. Def Tech tells us that they do this because they don't know how and where the speakers will end up -- e.g., on a brick wall, aluminum siding, or perhaps a convenient 4x4 wood column -- and using the wrong mounting screws could be problematic, so they think this is a choice best left to the installer or home owner.
After hanging the speakers (using two 2" wood screws each), I ran some all weather speaker wire with a staple gun (I'd paint it later to match the carport) and connected it to the AMP 100 in my carport (I drilled a hole for the wires behind one of the carport's shingles). I connected the wires, and I was ready to go.
Going to the source
Now that the speakers and amp were connected, I needed a source for the music (duh). Since my home system is based on a Windows 7 server running iTunes, and each zone of my house is controlled through Apple AirPlay using an AirPort Express, adding another AirPort Express ($99) to the garage seemed like the perfect way to go.
First I ran a test to make sure the wireless signal reached the 75 ft from inside my media room to the outlet in my garage where the AirPort would be plugged in. No problem there, even with the garage door closed (whew!). So next, I configured the new AirPort Express to my wireless network, plugged it into the receiver, fired up the Remote app on my phone and...
I gotta tell ya. Maybe it's just the years of being confined to Manhattan apartments, but being able to listen to and wirelessly control my entire music collection while lounging outside was a revelation.
A Bass in the Sun
But enough about the configuration, how did the speakers perform? In order to "balance" the two speakers in the yard, I set the AudioSource amp's volume to 75%. Remember, I wasn't going to be touching the amp at all from here on. Its power would just turn on/off as needed, so I determined that 75% volume was high enough that, even if I had turned the iTunes volume to 100%, I wouldn't risk having the cops at my door.
Even at 50% iTunes volume, the AW6500 speakers proved to be more than a match for my yard's quarter acre. As expected, the positioning of the speakers was vitally important. The ability to bounce the Low Bass Radiator off the underside of the carport added a depth to the sound that I've never had outdoors before. For fun, I tried adjusting the speakers so that the Low Bass Radiator didn't face a solid reflective surface and the difference in sound was mind-blowing. Allowing it to bounce sound off the wall gives the sound outstanding depth. Goodbye to the "tin can" sound of other portable speakers.
In all cases, the speakers performed beautifully. The highs were bright without being harsh, the mids weren't muddy and the lows - courtesy of that Low Bass Radiator - were full and luscious. Plus, having the separation of the left and right channel gave the music a real sense of depth and immediacy. The AW6500s sound like having a real stereo system in your yard - and they're All Weather!
To test that claim, Mother Nature was kind enough to bestow upon us a few convenient thunderstorms during the review process. The positioning of the speakers was such that the right side was fairly protected from the rain, but the left got a good soaking. As the cloud rolled in, I quickly went outside and turned on The Cult's "Here Comes the Rain". Once the storm abated, I blasted The Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun" (cause that's the kinda guy I am). After the rain, the speakers were none the worse for wear and, somehow, in the stillness after the storm, they sounded even better.
So here I am all grown up with stereo sound in the backyard. As rites of passage go, this was a pretty fulfilling one. Of course, I'm back to worrying about noise complaints from neighbors. But that a nice problem to have.
If music be the food of love, then this is dining al fresco. If having your music truly present outdoors is important to you, and you don't mind having to get a powered amp and run some wires, the AW6500s will not disappoint.
Available in Black or White:
Manufacturer's Contact Details:Definitive Technology
On the web: www.DefinitiveTech.com