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What you need in order to build an outdoor movie theater

If you’ll indulge us for a moment, picture this: A warm summer evening spent in the backyard with your loved ones, enjoying a classic movie thanks to a carefully cultivated outdoor home theater. To us, that’s not just the perfect way to spend a summer night, it’s a much-needed escape from the turmoil of everyday life in the year 2020.

Done right, that’s exactly what an outdoor movie theater provides. The ideal setup can match the immersion of the traditional home theater while incorporating the natural environment of your own backyard which, for many of us, is the closest thing we’re getting to an outdoor retreat for the time being.

To create this experience, you’re going to need the right gear, which includes everything from how you’ll watch your content to how you’ll hear it, and everything in between. Just like its indoor counterpart, there is an incredible number of options out there, making building a setup that suits your needs by yourself a daunting task. Fortunately, we’ve put in the leg work by creating several system options for your backyard, ranging from the most premium options to the comparatively budget-friendly.

Samsung

Ground rules

There are many ways to create your own backyard theater, and many of them will not be mentioned in this piece. There’s a reason for that. You can use things like Bluetooth speakers for sound, or cheap mini projectors for displaying content onto the side of your house. And you can even use extra channels on many modern A/V receivers to power a pair of outdoor speakers.

From our experiences, though, Bluetooth can lead to sync issues between audio and video, mini projectors typically aren’t bright enough for anything but pitch-black settings, and A/V receivers can often be difficult to control while sitting in your yard. The goal of the following setups, in stark contrast to each of the above, is to create a semi-permanent, easy-to-use outdoor theater without any significant hiccups when viewing or listening to your favorite content. Because of that, we’ll be recommending wired speakers, outdoor-capable displays, and Wi-Fi-connected and intuitive amplifier solutions.

We also won’t run step-by-step through how to get everything up and running here, though we have done that elsewhere if you’re looking for setup help. Running wires through a backyard can be tedious work, as can ensuring you have met the power needs of your various electronics. For most of these systems, though, it just takes basic wiring knowledge and a little bit of time. Trust us, it’s worth it in the end.

The premium build

Equipment:

  • Sonance 4.1 Patio Series: $1350
  • Sonos Amp (2): $1300
  • Samsung The Terrace 75 inch 4k TV: $6500

Before we go any further, let’s lay the obvious out: This is quite the chunk of change for an outdoor home theater, and obviously won’t be for everyone. But, hear us out. If we were tasked with building a premium, seamless setup, this is the direction we would head. Nothing about this system is cheap, but everything about it is awesome.

That golden dome you see hiding in the bushes is the top of Sonance’s underground subwoofer. Now THAT is how you build a solid foundation of sound.

Let’s start with the Sonance 4.1 Patio Series, which includes four satellite speakers and an 8-inch subwoofer. Sonance says this setup can cover areas up to 1,000 square feet, and by the looks of that hefty in-ground woofer, we believe them. With the right amplification, it’s a setup that will be sure to add some rumble to movie night. Just try and stay courteous of your neighbors.

The right amplification, by the way, is the Sonos Amp, or rather, two of them. Sonos has always been a leader in making listening simple while letting its hardware do the heavy lifting. At 125 watts per channel, a pair of Sonos Amps would be plenty to drive the Sonance speakers (Sonos and Sonance have partnered to offer the Amp and a pair of Sonance architectural speakers together) and fill your backyard with compelling sound. You’d be able to control everything from Sonos’ incredibly functional app, eliminating any hassle when it comes to adjusting the sound as needed.

The Sonos Amp also has an HDMI ARC input, making it pair nicely with the display in this setup. That, of course, would be a selection from Samsung’s new outdoor line of TVs, the 75-inch Terrace 4K QLED display. There have been other outdoor TV brands to emerge over the years, but Samsung is by far the most mainstream and it looks like they’re making quite a push to take over this part of the market. The screen has Anti-Glare technology, 2000+ nit brightness levels, and an IP55 weatherproof rating. Add all the specs that come with a premium QLED display, and The Terrace projects to be a great, if extremely pricey, way to watch in your backyard regardless of what time of day it is.

The budget build

Equipment:

  • Yamaha NS-AW190BL outdoor speakers: $100
  • Amazon Echo Link Amp: $300
  • Optoma HD 146X projector: $549
  • Roku Express HD: $29
  • Elite Screens Outdoor Projector Screen: $75

Not everyone — more accurately, almost no one — can afford to toss a fancy Samsung outdoor TV in their backyard and flank it with an army of Sonance speakers. But just because you’re not made of money doesn’t mean you can’t put together a solid outdoor theater that you’ll love. On the other end of the high-octane, premium outdoor build, we’ve assembled a package that delivers surprising bang for its buck.

Echo Link
Echo Link Amp Riley Young/Digital Trends

Yamaha has long been a fan favorite in terms of budget-friendly outdoor sound, and their NS-AW190BL outdoor speakers exemplify that. Each enclosure houses a 5-inch driver and a ½-inch dome tweeter, and while the absence of a subwoofer in this setup will mean a loss of low end, a 2.0 configuration like this should provide plenty of sound to enjoy a movie in your backyard.

To drive the Yamahas, we’ve chosen the Amazon Echo Link Amp, one of the many products that have tried to emulate the capabilities of the Sonos Amp. The Echo Link Amp generally succeeded in that endeavor, though it is far less powerful at 60 watts per channel. There’s no HDMI connectivity either, and its user interface isn’t quite as easy to navigate. But for a fraction of the price, we’re willing to bet that most folks will be able to live with those issues in exchange for being a budget version of the Sonos Amp.

The Optoma HD146X projector will be at the center of this wallet-saving viewing experience, for a variety of reasons. It may not be capable of 4K, but the HD146X does offer a high definition 1080P picture, as well as plenty of brightness at 3,600 lumens. With a solid screen paired with it – we suggest something from Elite Screens’ reputable outdoor line – you should be able to watch content well before the sun goes down. You’ll have to add a simple streamer like a Roku Stick or Amazon Fire Stick for content, but that’s a small price to pay for the enjoyment this system will likely bring.

The best value build

Equipment:

  • Polk Audio Atrium 6 speakers: $400
  • Polk Audio Atrium Sub 100: $510
  • Sonos Amp: $650
  • BenQ TK810 Projector: $1400
  • Elite Screens Wall 3 Series: $89

This is the sweet spot of outdoor home theater, where value and performance meet to conceive a delightfully enjoyable experience that shouldn’t bankrupt you. If, like the famed home theater expert Goldilocks, you are looking for the system that’s not too big price-wise, but not too small sound-wise, then this might be just right.

Sonos Amp Review
Simon Cohen/Digital Trends

Polk Audio makes an extensive line of outdoor speakers, all with different uses and budgets in mind. Because this setup will utilize a subwoofer, we’ve opted to save a few bucks and run a pair of Polk Atrium 6’s instead of the larger Polk Atrium 8’s. After all, the subwoofer will take most of the pressure of producing low end of the speakers, so we won’t need huge drivers in our left and right speakers to create the sound we’re craving.

That subwoofer, by the way, is the Polk Audio Sub100. Dressed to look like a fixture in your garden an outfitted with a down-firing 10-inch driver and an IPX66 weather-resistance rating, the Sub100 seemed like a fitting woofer to join forces with our Atrium speakers.

We’re bringing back the Sonos Amp for this build, but just one this time. The reasoning behind this is simple: It’s hard to find something that does what the Amp does, as well as it does it. The Amp will easily power the Atrium system while being able to create a phantom center channel to fill out the front soundstage nicely. There aren’t rear speakers in this configuration (a cost-saving measure), but we think the sound you’ll get from this will more than make up for it.

The preferred projector in this setup is the BenQ TK 810 for its 4K HDR capabilities, 3200-lumen brightness, and built-in Wi-Fi to make streaming that much easier. With a projector like this, you’ll get an exceptional picture with enough brightness to watch before nightfall, and you’ll be able to skip the need for a separate streaming device. Remember, you do have to power all the electronics you’re bringing into this setup.

Some final considerations

There will undoubtedly be other items necessary to complete the system (such as speaker wire and extension cords), and you’ll have to factor that into your final budget as well. And, as we’ve said, these lists aren’t comprehensive. There’s an almost infinite number of ways to build a setup like this, and we encourage you to piece together in a way that makes the most sense for your situation. These are simply the most functional outdoor theaters that we can dream up at these different price points.

We’ve also omitted seating from these setups since we have a far greater background in audio and video than we do in furniture and décor. One thing to keep in mind, though: Whether it be folding camping chairs or luxurious outdoor sectionals, you’ll need to plan accordingly to protect them from the elements. That goes for the rest of the system, too. Ideally, your speakers should be the only components left outside. Your amplifiers should be stored indoors, and if you opt for a projector, it’d be a good idea to make it portable enough to haul in/out each time you want to break out the popcorn or s’mores.

With that said, you’re now armed with the information you’ll need to construct your own outdoor theater. Regardless of how extravagant or simplistic you want to get with things, this is a project meant purely for enjoyment. Have fun with it, and don’t make your neighbors mad — at least try not to, anyway.

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