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Making a personal oasis: How I built my own outdoor theater

In my short time on this planet, I’ve built a lot of backyard theater systems. Like, if I had to sit down and count all the different variations, it would probably give both you and I serious pause. I can’t really explain my obsession with it; for me, no backyard was ever complete without at least a pair of speakers and a projector.

Now, to be clear, this isn’t meant to be a pompous statement. The vast majority of these monstrosities were created with the budget of a college student or a rookie journalist’s salary. Most of them were functional, but none of them were pretty. From old floor standing speakers thumping into the yard on a summer afternoon to 100 feet of RCA cables ran around the perimeter of a backyard to deliver old-school, standard definition video to my cheap projector, I’ve run through the gamut of shoestring setups.

So, when my editor told me to create my own ideal backyard home theater for the purposes of a story, you can imagine my excitement. After all these years of dreaming of the best but settling for the budget, I was finally getting a chance to build one the right way. I recently wrote a great guide to building your own backyard home theater which served as the backbone for the choices I made here.

Here’s how I took those recommendations and used them to build a setup that worked for me.

The goal for the outdoor theater

Before setting out on any project like this, it’s important to determine what exactly you’re hoping to gain from such a system. If you just want to listen to music while you’re grilling in the evening, then the build should reflect that. If you’ve got a sprawling yard that you want to fill with sound and a giant screen for summer movie nights, then you should plan accordingly.

BenQ TK810 projector
Nick Woodard/Digital Trends

For me, it was a combination of the two. I don’t have anywhere near the backyard of the size someone could describe as “sprawling,” but I did have a space that was well-suited for a modest-sized screen. Plus, I’ve been known to grill a mean tri-tip from time to time, so having great audio at my disposal sounded like a swell idea. Because of that, I wanted to build something that could do both — crank out some Zac Brown Brand while I monitor the meat from the safety of a lawn chair, and skillfully stream Avengers: Infinity War while cozying up by a bonfire.

There were some additional parameters that I weaved into the goal as well. I wanted something incredibly easy to use, preferably with an intuitive app that eliminated the hassle of physically turning down a dial when you wanted to adjust the volume or other features. I wanted something at least semi-permanent, meaning the speakers would be fixtures in the yard that I wouldn’t have to store inside during inclement weather. And for the purposes of this story, I wanted a streamlined setup process. I wanted something that could be assembled easily without a ton of A/V experience, even if it did take a little bit of time to build.

The gear needed to build a backyard theater

With the goal clearly identified, I went searching for the right equipment to incorporate into my setup. Bluetooth speakers were out of the question since I didn’t trust the technology’s ability to produce lag-free sound. I could have used an A/V receiver, since many modern models come with Zone 2 features for powering a pair of speakers in an area other than your living room, but I didn’t think that would net me the ease of use I was aiming for.  And as sweet as an outdoor-specific TV would have been, the logistics of building a system in a specified amount of time during a pandemic made a projector the far likelier outcome.

Polk Atrium 6 speaker
Nick Woodard/Digital Trends

With simplicity and seamlessness being the intention, here’s what I came up with:

Before going any further, please note that this isn’t the only route to go when building a backyard theater; far from it, in fact. And as I mentioned we’ve already put together a roundup of the best potential outdoor theater setups at different price points, and there are countless other options beyond those outlined there. This just turned out to be the collection of products that made the most sense for my project.

With that said, let’s break it down. I’ve personally been a Polk Audio fan for years. They were the first aftermarket door speakers I put in my first truck a decade ago, and they make the gargantuan floor standing speakers sitting in my living presently. I’ve always been familiar with their Atrium line (see obsession above), and it seemed like a good fit for my space. A pair of the Atrium 8’s would create my front soundstage, a pair of 6’s would be my surrounds, and the passive Sub100 would fill out the low end of my setup.

Polk Audio Atrium Sub100
Nick Woodard/Digital Trends

To me, the Sonos Amps were kind of a no-brainer for my needs. There really isn’t anyone else creating such high-quality products that are so easy to use. Each Amp splits 250 watts between two channels, which seemed like plenty both for my speakers and for the space I would be using. I’d be able to control everything about the sound straight from the Sonos app and, as soon as Sonos confirmed that I could in fact set up the rear Amp specifically to be the surround channels of my system, I was sold.

As for the BenQ TK810, it was pulled into the mix out of a well-timed coincidence. I already had this projector on hand for testing purposes and after looking at the specs, the TK810 started to seem like a viable fit. It got bright enough (3,200 lumens) to be able to effectively watch something before dark, it had a built-in streaming platform (Aptoide TV) that eliminated the need for a separate streaming device, and it was lightweight enough (9.2 pounds) to carry inside every time movie night was over. Plus, a 4K-capable projector is never a bad idea these days.

The final piece of the puzzle was the Elite Screens outdoor screen. Now, I could have easily projected against the side of my house, and chances are I would have been happy doing so. But adding a screen into the mix would help immensely with contrast and make it a lot easier to see what I was watching well before the sun dipped completely behind the horizon.

The setup of the outdoor theater

I know I said earlier that I wanted to make this build as easy as possible in terms of the knowledge needed, and that’s still true — you really don’t need a ton of expertise to get things up and running. But you do have to be able to accept two constants before going into a project like this. First, it’s always going to take a little more time than you thought. And second, there’s always going to be some sort of compromise involved. Always.

BenQ TK 810 projector
Nick Woodard/Digital Trends

For me, the compromise came literally a day before I was set to start the build, when I was informed the owner of the house I’ve been renting intended to sell. That erased any hopes I had of mounting the Atrium 8s to the side of the house and frankly put me in a bit of a pickle. But a quick trip to Home Depot and some flexibility solved that problem. It wasn’t perfect, but I’d still be able to mount the Atrium 8s up front at an acceptable height, and I’d still be able to effectively conceal my wiring.

Speaking of wiring, that’s an important part of the gear list that often goes unnoticed but shouldn’t be unaccounted for. I opted for some standard outdoor-rated speaker wire from Amazon, and a lot of it. I probably went a little overboard when I purchased 250 feet, but I’ve learned the hard way that it’s a lot better to buy more than to buy less when it comes to cable. There’s no more defeating feeling than to find out you’re 10 feet short from connecting your last speaker.

The mounting of the speakers and wiring went smoothly, and I was able to keep most of the wiring out of sight be weaving it around the perimeter of my yard. By far the easiest part of the build, though, was introducing the Sonos Amps. Sonos is already a master at simple setup, with its app guiding you through the entire process. To me, the impressive part came after I set up the front soundstage. When I powered on my second Amp, Sonos offered me the option of using it as the system’s surround channels right away. It’s a feature I knew was possible, but I honestly thought I was going to spend 20 minutes digging through the settings to find out how to do it. Nope. Sonos once again took all the trouble out of the equation.

Getting the projector positioned correctly was a little tricky too, but only because I had to bring it in every night after I was done watching. BenQ has a throw distance calculator that should make it easy to figure out just how far away it needs to be from the display you’re projecting it onto. That Elite Screens display, by the way, is a really quality screen but it is unfortunately not one that’s meant to be set up all the time, at least from my experiences. The screen has a tripod base and comes with stakes to try and keep everything secure. But on windy days, the screen acts like a sail and tries to yank those stakes right out of the ground. I had a lot more success keeping the screen folded up and just unfurling it each time I wanted to watch a movie. It took a few extra minutes but has been worth it.

The sound setup for the backyard theater

My first taste of this Atrium-Sonos pairing was with music since I got things fired up in the early afternoon (too early to use a projector outside with any effectiveness). And let me tell you, I was impressed with what I heard. Each Atrium 8 has a 6.5-inch woofer and a pair of tweeters, and they put them to good use. They took every track I was sending them and returned with clear, well-balanced sound that completely validated the monotonous task of laying wire all over my backyard. They got loud, too. I tried to get some distortion out of them by reaching volumes that surely would have angered the neighbors if I hadn’t warned them first, but they stayed true to form even at near-max volume.

Polk Atrium 8 speaker
Nick Woodard/Digital Trends

The Sub100 was slightly less impressive, through no fault of Sonos or Polk’s. The Sonos Amp has a sub input, but strictly for powered subs. The workaround for a passive sub like the Polk is to wire the sub into the left and right channels alongside your speakers. This definitely works, and the sub did round out the low end nicely, but it causes a couple of quirks. The speakers and sub share the power coming from the Amp, and while this is Sonos’ most powerful amp yet, it was never really meant to drive something like a subwoofer. The Sub100 can handle 200 watts on its own, so it was a bit underpowered in my configuration. Plus, because it was wired in with the speakers, the sub’s own crossover was bypassed. Sonos couldn’t recognize the passive subwoofer either, so both the speakers and sub ended up getting the full range of frequencies.

This isn’t exactly ideal, but it didn’t negatively impact the sound from my experiences. Again, this was an issue created by me, not by either company involved. I did reach out to Polk, which suggested the solution I was thinking of as well. The sub would benefit from its own separate amplifier, which could then be connected to the Sonos Amp. The Sub100 would get enough power, and it would get the appropriate frequencies heading its way. If I had more time, this is exactly what I would have done. Even without it, though, the sound was solid.

It may be the college kid with $20 speakers talking, but I was downright giddy watching clips from Captain America: Civil War or Ready Player One. The Polk Atrium 6s do a remarkable job acting as surrounds, to the point where they’re almost under-utilized in the role. They are capable speakers in their own right, after all. The Sonos Amp offered plenty of sound adjustment options, including night mode and voice enhancement features that came in handy as I got deeper into the night. I had the neighbors’ blessing, but I didn’t want to overdo things.

This outdoor theater picture setup

I’ll say this: the BenQ TK810 is a capable little projector. At $1,400, it’s not a premium 4K projector, so it’s not necessarily going to have the best colors or contrast. But with everything I streamed on it, the TK810 performed quite admirably.

Elite Screens Yard Master series
Nick Woodard/Digital Trends

In addition to the action movies I auditioned for audio purposes, I scrolled through the deep catalogs of 4K nature content available on both Netflix and Disney+. Could the colors have been a bit more vivid? Yes. But there’s something about a 110-inch tiger walking through a jungle that just makes you smile regardless. For most movie nights indoors, I’d be content with this projector. Head outdoors, and I was thrilled about the picture quality I was able to get.

The most significant part of this experience was being able to watch before dark. In my younger years, the cheap second-hand projectors I was able to find could only produce a watchable picture when nightfall had completely fallen. Trust me, it’s a bummer telling your friends to come over to watch the NBA Playoffs in the backyard, and not being able to tell the score until it finally got dark enough to see at halftime. With the TK810, it was bright enough to begin watching before sunset. This means that you can start your movies earlier and end them earlier, which should let you keep a good relationship with your neighbors. I wouldn’t suggest trying to break out the projector in the middle of the afternoon unless you have an extremely light-controlled patio, but you certainly won’t have to wait until midnight to get to an ideal viewing environment either.

Elite Screens Yard Master Series
Nick Woodard/Digital Trends

This isn’t an actual review of this projector, so I’ll avoid getting into analyzing the finer specifications and features. But I will note that the built-in platform for the TK810, Aptoide TV, has its flaws. There isn’t a wide variety of apps available on the platform, and it does sometimes act a bit buggy. I was able to find and download YouTube, Disney+, Netflix, and for some reason, Peacock TV. But both the Disney+ and Peacock apps had their share of crashes while I was watching. I still think there was plenty of content available to keep me occupied, but those that want more options, or a smoother operating system may want to add a Roku or Amazon Fire streaming stick.

Reflecting on my finished backyard theater

It had some hiccups and caveats along the way, but I believe this backyard home theater system can only be described as a success. The goal was something I could enjoy listening to during the day, and have fun watching at night and I think this setup knocks that goal out of the park.

That’s not to say I wouldn’t change a few things if I could. If given a second shot at this project, I would find a compatible subwoofer amplifier to pair with the Polk Atrium Sub100. Giving it sufficient power and an actual crossover would go a long way in providing that low-end authority, even if I seldom get to flex that kind of sound within the confines of my backyard.

I would also add a Roku Streaming Stick+ to my projector setup. There’s a ton of different ways you could go as far as streaming is concerned, but I’m confident the Roku operating system would be an instant upgrade to the experience of the TK810. Aptoide TV was at least usable, but it was a far less seamless system than a streaming powerhouse like Roku has repeatedly proven to be.

Beyond that, I’m not sure I’d change much else. The sound combo of the Atriums and the Sonos Amp is superb, and the TK820 provides picture quality to catch a flick. Ultimately, there are so many ways to take a bite out of the backyard theater apple, and you should feel free to go in the direction that makes the most sense for your specific situation. But for me, this was the ideal ensemble to add extra entertainment to my backyard this summer.

Nick Woodard
Former Digital Trends Contributor
  As an A/V Staff Writer at Digital Trends, Nick Woodard covers topics that include 4K HDR TVs, headphones…
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