How to Set Up a Home Theater Outdoors

What you need to set up an outdoor home theater

What to Know

  • Items needed: Video projector or outdoor TV, screen, audio system, speakers, content source devices, cables or wires, surge protector.
  • You can make a homemade projector screen with some white bedsheets hung from a wall, rain gutter, awning, or clothesline.
  • Ideally, you want at least twenty feet between the screen and the projector. Experiment with the distance until the image looks right.

Your home theater doesn't have to be contained indoors. Here's how to set up an outdoor home theater so that you can watch movies, play music, and entertain guests in your backyard.

What You Need for an Outdoor Home Theater

To put set up a portable home theater in your yard, you'll need the following:

People in foldout chairs watching an outdoor inflatable projection screen
Open Air Cinema

Make a Screen for Your Outdoor Home Theater

You can make a homemade projector screen using one or two ironed king-size white bedsheets. If you use two sheets, sew the sheets together (with the long sides joined) with white thread.

If you use a bedsheet, you can hang it on a wall, a rain gutter, an awning, or a clothesline. You must be able to anchor or fasten the top, sides, and bottom of the sheet so that it remains taut and doesn't flap in the breeze. You may need duct tape, clothespins, rope, or other fastening material to assist in fastening the sheets. You can also use or make a frame (similar to a square trampoline frame, only mounted vertically).

As a last resort, project the image onto a wall. The wall needs to be white and reflective enough to contribute to a bright image.

Purchase a Projector Screen for Outdoor Use

If making and hanging a screen is too difficult, purchase a large free-standing portable screen. A professional projector screen provides a better image due to its reflective surface and adds an additional cost to your setup. If you plan to go with a pre-made screen, get one that is slightly larger than you think you need, as this gives you more flexibility when setting up the projector.

Take special precautions to keep the projection screen clean when using it outdoors. Take it inside during inclement weather.

Choose a Video Projector

When you set up your video projector, experiment with the projector distance to the screen to see what looks best under the environmental circumstances. A lot depends on the distance between the screen and the projector. Ideally, you'll want at least twenty feet in between.

Video projectors can be expensive. Still, there are many budget projectors available that do a serviceable job for about $1,500 or less. If you want to watch movies in 3D, it will be more expensive, as you will need a 3D projector, 3D Blu-ray player, 3D Blu-ray movies, and enough 3D glasses for everyone.

3D works best with a projector that can put out a lot of light in combination with a dark surrounding environment.

The Outdoor TV Alternative

Although the projector and screen combination is the best and most cost-effective option for an outdoor movie viewing experience, you can also opt for a self-contained outdoor TV. There are several types and sizes of LED/LCD outdoor TVs available, typically ranging from 32 to 65 inches.

TVs made for outdoor use feature heavy-duty construction that makes them weather and temperature resistant, and some are rain-resistant. Some incorporate cooling fans and heaters to compensate for temperature variations, enabling them to be used year-round in many locations.

While outdoor TVs have anti-glare coatings so that they can be viewed during daylight hours, they look best when kept away from direct sunlight (for example, under a covered patio). These TVs are more expensive than an equivalent size LED/LCD TV and don't usually have extra features, although some support 4K display resolution.

Most outdoor TVs have a modest built-in audio system that may be sufficient for a small viewing area. However, an external audio system is suggested for a backyard home theater experience.

Choose Your Content Source Devices

If you want to play DVDs, an upscaling DVD player would be better for a large screen. Better yet, invest in a portable Blu-ray Disc player. Another option is to connect a laptop with a DVD or Blu-ray Disc drive to the projector.

Additional source devices you might want include:

  • DTV converter box: Video projectors typically don't have built-in TV tuners. If you want to watch live TV, one option is to use a DTV converter box (the ones that allow analog TVs to receive digital TV channels) and an antenna. First, connect the audio out of the DTV converter box to the audio system. Then, connect the yellow composite video output of the DTV converter box to the composite video input of the projector. Although the DTV converter box receives high-definition TV signals, it outputs those signals in standard definition.
  • TV antenna: If you have an outdoor TV (which has a built-in tuner), connect an antenna to the TV to receive local TV channels. Some outdoor TVs offer a wireless alternative for getting TV signals from an indoor cable or satellite box to an outdoor TV.
  • Media streamer: If you have a media streamer, connect it to the video projector using the composite, component, or HDMI options.

Consider investing in a Wi-Fi extender if you can't access your home's Wi-Fi network from your backyard.

Provide for Backyard Home Audio

Although a small number of video projectors have a built-in amplifier and speaker, the output volume is optimized for small room environments, such as business meetings and small classrooms. Therefore, you need to provide the sound for your outdoor home theater.

A simple two-channel stereo receiver should suffice. You can also purchase wall-mounted, in-wall, or outdoor speakers that blend in better with a backyard environment and are optimized for better sound outdoors.

Wall-mounted speakers should be placed either at the top corners of the screen or midway between the top and bottom of either side of the screen. If the speakers are the floor standing type, place them below the left and right corners of the screen. They should be angled in slightly toward the center to direct the sound toward the listening and viewing area. Experiment and see what speaker positions work best.

Outdoor speakers and subwoofers in a garden

Another alternative is to place the video projector on top of an under TV audio system (also referred to as a sound base, sound stand, speaker base, or sound plate, depending on the brand).

Choose Cables and Speaker Wire

You may need S-Video, component video, or HDMI cables going from the media player to the video projector. You will also need two analog RCA L/R cables (or digital optical cable if only that option is available) going from the media player to the amplifier or receiver.

Lastly, you need two speaker wires going from the amplifier or receiver to the speakers. Get a 100-foot roll of raw 16-gauge speaker wire and cut it to the desired length needed for the distance from each speaker to the amplifier or receiver. If the speakers are in-wall mounted, make provisions to have speaker terminals on the wall's exterior that are easily accessible for temporary hookups.

You will need a TV stand or mobile rack of some type that has shelves to house the video projector and other components.

Protect Your Equipment With Power Cords and Surge Protectors

For everything to work, you need a long heavy-duty extension cord and a surge protector with at least three outlets. A twenty-five to thirty-foot heavy-duty type power cord, like the thick orange ones you can get at Home Depot, will work fine. If you have outside power outlets along your house's exterior, you may be able to use a shorter one, depending on the distance between the components and the main power outlet. Plug the surge protector into the other end of the cord and plug the video projector, DVD player, and amplifier into the surge protector.

Socket and plug used on European camp sites
Roel Meijer / Getty Images

Don't turn on the surge protector until everything is plugged in, including the speakers.

Outdoor Home Theater Tips

Here are some additional tips to help make your outdoor home theater experience more enjoyable:

  • Make sure the projector has plenty of air circulation from the sides and back. A compact video projector can generate a lot of heat. It may temporarily shut down if the temperature of the bulb gets too high. You may have to add a supplementary external fan next to the projector to keep it cool.
  • Invite your neighbors over or let them know what you are doing so that they don't get surprised by the noise. Offering food might be a good idea to get them to go along with your outdoor home theater.
  • If you live under a home owner's association, check for any restriction or notification procedures for such an activity. It's important to obey community noise regulations and be sensitive to reasonable complaints.
  • Your backyard is not a commercial movie theater. You can't advertise to the general public (no fliers, banners, or neighborhood newsletter). You also can't charge admission in a setting where a copyrighted movie or TV show is shown.
  • Place components away from swimming pools and grills. Be aware of humidity, smoke, water, and other harmful elements. If you live in a place where it can be humid, don't place the video projector on the top shelf of the rack. This may require a taller rack with an additional interior shelf.
  • Check your environment for other factors that could inhibit viewing, such as ambient light sources from street lights, backyard lighting, and neighbors' properties, as well as outside sources of noise.
  • Designate a storage space in your garage or house for the component rack, sheet, speakers, and power cord. This will make it easy to set everything back up during the summer and on other special occasions.
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