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How to build a backyard theater

Summer is here again. (Yes, again.) That means more time outdoors. In the sun. in the shadow. In the pool. In the backyard. And while there’s definitely a time and place to shut down the technology and just enjoy being, one of the better decisions I’ve made in the last few years was to turn my backyard space into a proper entertaining area.

When my wife and I decided on a pool in 2017, I had a few extras in mind. I wanted to be able to watch TV outside. Or maybe put on some music with something better than a relatively cheap Bluetooth speaker.

And the cool thing is that it was a relatively inexpensive setup. I did it that way.

A modest house, pool and tree.
Phil Nickinson/Digital Trends

The infrastructure is important

First, a fairly serious limitation. My setup will be different from yours. And my concerns will be different than yours. So you need to adapt this to your specific situation. You might have to worry about long months of freezing temperatures and something I’m told is called ‘snow’. (It looks like sand to us here in Florida, but whatever.) Maybe you have more direct sun. Or less. The point is, take this and adapt it to your environment.

However, there are two things you almost certainly need to figure out before you do anything else: power and internet.

If you have an outdoor TV, you need to power it somehow. Same goes for speakers or lights or whatever. This could require new wiring. That might require some creative (temporary) extension cords. In my case, it was a relatively easy (if not exactly cheap) part of the planning process. I knew where to put the TV. I knew where I probably want to place speakers and lights. So I had certified electricians install new outlets where I needed them.

And I can’t stress enough that you shouldn’t attempt this yourself unless you’re an electrician. Electricity can mean fire. fire is bad don’t be a hero And building codes can vary from place to place. Follow your local code.

Internet however – I can handle that. So I made sure I had a decent signal through the back porch. Again, this will be pretty specific to your setup. But for what it’s worth, I ran one EeroPro 6 Mesh network for a while, and it’s as solid as it gets.

That’s the unfunny stuff. Here come the parts that you have more control over.

The outdoor TV

The only real requirement for what I wanted to put out there was simplicity. It doesn’t have to be awesome, just something to casually watch while we’re in the pool or on the porch. While 4K resolution is always better, it wasn’t a deal-breaker in particular. The price was more important to me.

A TCL Roku TV and soundbar mounted on an exterior wall.
Phil Nickinson/Digital Trends

Search “outdoor tv” and you’ll likely find something that claims to be great in full sun and has a screen and casing that will stand up to the elements. And it’s probably pretty expensive too, considering these outdoor TVs are relatively small.

And that’s actually a very important point – do your homework first. Don’t just buy a 65 inch TV without first making sure it will fit wherever you plan to mount it. I knew I had a room that was 51 inches wide so the TV had to fit in so it wasn’t blocking a window.

Back to the whole “outdoor TV” viewing thing. If you have the money to spend on something that’s more likely to withstand the elements than not, then go for it. Maybe you sleep a little better at night.

But I would recommend a different approach. Again, this is very dependent on where and how you mount your TV. Mine is tucked under the eaves of the house with another about 10 feet of porch coverage above it. Full sun is no problem. Rain — something we get a lot here in Florida — isn’t really a problem either. My biggest concern is really the humidity. And, it turns out, wasps. (The short version is that they love building their little nest in the tiny recessed screw holes.)

So I got something that wouldn’t break the bank — something I wouldn’t feel bad about replacing if things somehow went horribly wrong. I spent $250 on a TCL 3 Series in 2019 and three years later it’s still working perfectly. It’s a Roku TV, which means it uses the Roku OS and has access to all the streaming services I need without having to connect other sticks or boxes. Less is more when it comes to outdoor electronics. But a TV with an Amazon Fire TV or Google TV built-in would also work well.

That TCL TV actually the second TV I had out there. I don’t remember what happened to the first one, but I do remember not bothering to get $25 insurance for it. I fixed that on the second purchase. So knowing that we can go for more than a day or so without using the TV in the back, the coverage continues. It’s probably the best $25 I’ve spent on this little project.

I also use a swivel mount that ensures we can point the TV where people want to see it.

Optional – but something I’d recommend – is mounting a soundbar underneath. I wouldn’t spend a lot of money here if it’s just for the sound for the TV, but you can get something that’s perfectly adequate for maybe $100.

The outdoor speakers

I clearly remember running miles of speaker wire as a kid. My father was into that sort of thing. We walked from one side of the house to the other. Through walls and rooms and wherever to bring this newfangled CD technology to where the pierced ears were. We later went through Brick and mounted a couple of Bose outdoor speakers on its back porch.

It’s much easier now.

I have a pair of first generation Sonos Play:1 speakers in the back about 30 feet apart. Just plug them in and start Dire Straits when the sun goes down. One, seen here, is attached to the brick. The other below sits on a shelf. The only cables you need to worry about are power cords. (See again the electricity part of this piece.)

Interestingly, this is the most expensive part of my setup. A new pair of Sonos One(s) will cost you about $420. But Sonos is great, and the inclusion of its far-field mics and voice control means you don’t have to reach for your phone to play some tunes unless you really want to. (My first-gen speakers don’t have that; I wall-mounted a Nest Home Mini for things like that. And that meant finding another outlet for them.)

While I can’t speak to the longevity of the Sonos One when left outdoors (and that’s not exactly something the company would recommend you do), after about five years, my first-gen speakers still perform excellently.

Sure, there are tons of options when it comes to wireless speakers. You can spend more or less. But what I would definitely recommend is setting up a stereo pair. A single Sonos One works great, but two together sound a lot better.

Let there be light

This part is totally optional, but it’s fun. Outdoor lights set the mood. Maybe it’s a party. Maybe it’s romantic. Maybe it’s a romantic party.

Again, this will likely require an outlet or two. So keep that in mind while planning things. But you don’t necessarily need smart lights – which are still pretty expensive.

Smart Wemo Sockets.
Phil Nickinson/Digital Trends

I ended up going with two strands of white dumb lights connected to two Smart Wemo Sockets. They’re not meant for outdoor use, but they’ve proven themselves in the elements for years. And at around $40 each, they’re not stupidly expensive.

(Fun story: I had to use smart outlets because when I had the electricians run the new outlets, I didn’t have them install switches for the ones that would power the lights. Oops.)

There are many alternatives to Wemo – use what you want. But the cool part is how they turn on automatically when the sun comes up and later in the day when it sets. And because everything is connected, you can easily turn them on or off manually when you need them – just use your voice.

The final result

You can spend as much – or as little – as you like for an outdoor theater experience. Mine is less of a theater and more of a way to watch TV and listen to music while we do other things outside.

Outdoor mounted TV and other things on the back porch.
Phil Nickinson/Digital Trends

You should figure out what you want to do before you buy anything. Need to install new electronics? Do you have some kind of internet access? Will any electronics be relatively safe from the elements?

And how fancy do you want to be? Need the best TV you can get? Or just something good enough to watch casually while doing other things? Do speakers need to be mounted more permanently? Or do you just want to do something portable?

The sky is the limit here. But one thing is for sure – taking the indoors outdoors is absolutely possible.

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