Step into the great outdoors

The pandemic underscored the importance of outdoor spaces as extensions of our homes and encouraged investment. Anna Mitchell finds the trend continues with homeowners creating immersive outdoor entertainment areas complete with high-tech AV systems, lighting, and cohesive control.

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the technology installation industry witnessed a significant surge in demand as people spent more time at home and sought to enhance their living spaces. This trend has not only endured but has evolved, with a notable shift toward investing in outdoor areas, such as gardens and outdoor living spaces. For installers of home technology, this presents a lucrative opportunity.

Alex Jones, director of UK integrator Potters Home Digital, says: “Covid made everyone realise that the garden was the room they’d forgotten about in their home and that has carried on. CEDIA’s UK research is showing that this year will see a 36% growth in outdoor AV.”

Brands offer supporting evidence to back up this data. “We’ve seen a huge uptick in outdoor audio during and post covid,” confirms Jason Girardier, sales manager UK, Ireland and Nordics at Snap One.

The market caught the eye of loudspeaker manufacturer Dali who, at ISE this year, launched into the outdoor space for the first time with its Phantom E-WR speaker series. “It’s something you need to cover if you are a CI product provider,” says Michael Munch, business development anager, custom install, at Dali.

Stepping outside

Installing technology in outdoor environments comes with its own set of challenges, chief among them being exposure to the elements.

It’s imperative for installers to select products specifically designed and rated for outdoor use. From weather-resistant speakers to durable outdoor displays, advising clients to invest in quality, resilient equipment ensures longevity and customer satisfaction.

Thankfully, gone are the days when outdoor entertainment meant sacrificing quality for robust design with Girardier saying, “there doesn’t have to be any compromise in sound quality to make a product withstand outdoor environments. Alongside quality, these systems can also be discreet. We can hide the speakers, we can bury the speakers and achieve immersive, largely invisible set ups.”

Mark Taylor, commercial director of distributor Invision highlights the qualities of Samsung’s Terrace display: “The Terrace is IP55 rated to protect it from the elements and, whilst the Terrace shouldn’t be exposed to direct sunlight, rain, or snow, it can be happily situated in outdoor seating area or outdoor kitchen.

“The Terrace uses QLED technology to increase the brightness and colour of the TV to allow it to produce bright and vibrant pictures even on the sunniest day. And, to help reduce reflections and glare, it has also been armed with an anti-reflection screen.”

“Everything we do in custom install is based on our HiFi DNA,” says Munch. “But, taking great HiFi outdoors takes a lot of development.

“We focused on finding the best ways to protect the products by carefully choosing the right materials. It’s not only the rain and humidity that is a problem; a lot of these speakers are exposed to salty conditions on shorelines. Outdoor speakers are very popular in regions that have a lot of sunshine and therefore UV radiation.”

It’s all welcome news as today homeowners expect the same level of sophistication and functionality from their outdoor AV systems as they do indoors, even extending to the latest immersive audio standards.  

Nick Fichte, business development director, home and yacht at L-Acoustics, offers an example: “A couple of years ago, a residential integrator Homeplay brought an end-user to our showroom, they experienced our 18.1.12 setup and said ‘I want that in my garden’.

“Our application engineers created a system which would give them the closest possible experience. It ended up being a 13.1 system with 10 subwoofers. It is connected to a Storm Audio AV processor, which can decode all the usual surround sound formats. When the install first went live, Atmos music did not yet exist, so the end-user just upmixed their favourite stereo tracks. Now they sit by their pool as a family playing back Atoms music streamed from Tidal and Apple Music on their Apple TV.”

When it comes to speaker systems L-Acoustics is solid choice given its heritage in live events, which demand the highest level of audio quality and are often staged outdoors.

Fichte adds: “Part of our success within this high-performance installation market is due to our Soundvision real-time 3D audio modelling software, which allows our professional users to import the drawings of their space and model placement of a sound system, allowing them to map the SPLs and frequency response throughout,” says Fichte. “This same software is used by residential integrators for their projects. A garden area that a homeowner is looking to cover is usually smaller than most festival fields, so scaling down the process is easy.”

The company is also continuing to innovate. “Just before ISE [2024] we announced two new loudspeakers, the X6i and X8i,” says Fichte. “These loudspeakers are designed for installation and, as with all our ‘i’ series of products, they are IP rated at 55. [The products give] our installers much more flexibility on projects as they can run them without subwoofers. Adding subwoofers will increase the SPL dramatically, but not everyone wants a concert in their back garden.”

Fichte makes an interesting point. While homeowners often want the same quality of products in outdoor spaces as they do indoors, their needs are vastly different, which means that manufacturers are innovating with product design specifically for the great outdoors.

One recent example is Snap One’s Episode Radiance outdoor audio and lighting system. “Radiance is a modular product with a range of fixtures; you can have a pendent, you can have it wall-mounted, you can have a stake in the ground,” explains Girardier. The product comes in a heavy, robust bollard where the main part is the speaker topped with a light fitting. An easy twist movement can remove the light fitting and it’s here the modular element comes in to play with installers and homeowners able to remove and fix the two fittings as required. “You can add audio where you want and add light where you want,” says Girardier. “To our knowledge, it’s the only product that does outdoor lighting and audio in a single unit.”

While lighting, audio and display technology are the visible elements of an outdoor technology installation, and the ones likely to draw customers in, there’s little point installing these if the use of them isn’t as seamless outdoors as it would be indoors. And in today’s world that means extending network connectivity outdoors.

Snap One is one of the leaders in this space and Girardier says Covid played a part in wider understanding of investing in a network which has, in turn, helped people appreciate the benefits of extending this capability outside.

“Before Covid networking seemed expensive,” he says. “Customers didn’t see the value because they got a router from their ISP and that did what they wanted it to do. During covid we all retreated to our homes and our networking requirements grew. Now we see networking as our second used category below control. Having solid WiFi everywhere in the house, and that includes the garden, is one of the things that’s high up customers’ priority lists these days.”

Skilling up

Installers should note that successful outdoor technology installation goes beyond simply choosing the right products; it requires expertise in outdoor installation techniques. Installers must possess the knowledge and skills to properly weatherproof and secure the entire system, considering factors such as moisture, temperature fluctuations, and UV exposure.

Jones says: “The additional components, the additional labour time and the additional attention to detail that needs to be undertaken in doing outdoor connections is critical. It’s the difference between delivering a working, reliable system or one that will fail quite quickly.

“If you install an outdoor speaker system in flowerbeds, you’re not just having to buy the system, you’re having to then buy waterproof IP junction boxes for every speaker connection. The speaker might be waterproof, but have you considered the connection you’ve just made?”

“It’s the manufacturer’s responsibility to fulfil the requirements of a rating, for example IP 65, IP 66 etc, but it’s actually the installer who has to understand everything,” agrees Munch.

What’s next?

Installers should also keep ahead of the game to ensure they aren’t just meeting customers’ requests, but are able to make suggestions that deliver surprising outcomes. “Think outside the box,” advises Ficthe. “Atmos Music is rapidly gaining traction, but most integrators are limiting Atmos playback in the house to cinema rooms and media rooms. Don’t forget that with Airplay 2 you now don’t even need to have a TV with the system. You can have an Apple TV, AV processor and correctly designed speaker layout to listen to Atmos Music anywhere in the home, including outdoors.”

“I think we’ll see more and more multi-channel set ups outside,” adds Munch. “Technology developments mean that you’ll be able to get increasingly smaller cabinets that are more powerful and that will offer more flexibility.”

On the topic of flexibility Munch says PoE has the power to make a real difference for garden installations where cabling is hard. He believes however that the industry could go further.

“We should be looking at alternative power for electronics in the garden,” he says. “As battery technology improves dramatically it will become very interesting in this space. Those batteries could also be solar powered.”

In the summertime…

Jones says that the weather can be a huge help, and conversely has the power to kill sales. “Last summer in the UK was terrible and the nicer weather came right at the end,” he says. “By then, people were already out of the mindset of upgrading their gardens. The momentum had gone.”

Seasons and the weather may be the primary deciding factor to invest but large summer sporting events can have the same impact on outdoor AV installations as they do in driving investment in technology indoors.

“We see a great opportunity to increase demand for The Terrace, especially with headline events happening over the summer like the Olympics, Paralympics, Euros, Wimbledon and the T20 World Cups,” adds Taylor. “There are plenty of reasons to host watching parties outdoors over the summer.

“The flexibility of the Terrace TV, from an integration point of view, means it can be controlled over IP and has an HDBaseT connection allowing the integrator to connect content across multiple sources and control it however the client wishes.”

Enticing customers to consider investing in outdoor AV that hadn’t considered it before sometimes requires some inspiration. “Go and experience what is possible,” advises Girardier. “Understand what capabilities are on offer and give your customer the ability to make an informed decision.”

That’s harder to do with outdoor technology; your average trade show or showroom doesn’t allow for accurate demos of outdoor technology in the environment they will ultimately be installed in. 

While many brands, including Snap One, have plenty of demo areas and showrooms there isn’t a resource quite like the Potters Home Digital garden showroom.

In addition to its technology partners, Jones and Potters Home Digital created the space by collaborating with people and companies specialising in gardens but not in the technology space to forge into an untapped market.

“We worked with the likes of London Stone, one of the UK’s biggest material providers, and a master of stone company who machine and hand cut natural stone products and we integrated speakers and technology into their products.

“Other partners included a Chelsea garden designer. I can design a cinema room all day long but, working with these partners, much as you would with an interior designer, helped us make sure we were doing the right things for a garden.”

Jones additionally offers an interesting perspective. While it may seem logical to expand your business by suggesting garden installations to existing customers who have installed technology in the home, Jones believes the garden is great starting point. “If you can win the garden, you’re in the back door. You’ve then got the chance to go in and sort the network out in their home, sort out other things that might come up.”

As the trend of investing in outdoor spaces continues to gain momentum, installers of home technology are presented with a golden opportunity to expand their business by venturing into outdoor technology installation. By offering high-quality products, mastering outdoor installation techniques, and staying attuned to evolving customer preferences, installers can position themselves as trusted experts in creating immersive and technologically advanced outdoor environments. In doing so, they not only meet the growing demand for outdoor technology solutions but also unlock new avenues for business growth.

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