How to Set Up a Home Theater Outdoors

What you need to set up an outdoor home theater

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 will need the following:

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

Making 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 are using two sheets, sew them together (long sides joined) with white thread.

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

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

Purchasing a Projector Screen for Outdoor Use

If making and hanging your own screen is too difficult, you can opt to purchase a large free-standing portable screen. A professional projector screen will provide a better image due to its reflective surface, but it will also add additional cost to your setup. If you plan to go with a pre-made screen, get one slightly larger than you think you need, as this will give you more flexibility when setting up the projector.

Take special precautions to keep your projection screen clean when using it outdoors, and take it inside during inclement weather.

Choosing 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 how much distance you have between the screen and the projector. Ideally, you'll want at least twenty feet in between.

Video projectors can be expensive, but there are many budget projectors available that can 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. It's also important to note that 3D works best with a projector that can put out a lot of light in combination with a very dark surrounding environment.

The Outdoor TV Alternative

Although the projector/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 in size from 32 to 65 inches.

TVs made for outdoor use feature heavy-duty construction that makes them weather and temperature resistant, and some are also rain-resistant. To compensate for temperature variations, some also incorporate both cooling fans and heaters, enabling them to be used all-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 (e.g. under a covered patio). These TVs are more expensive than an equivalent size LED/LCD TV and do not 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, but an external audio system is suggested for a backyard home theater experience.

Content Source Devices

If you want to play DVDs, an upscaling DVD player would be better for very large screens. Better yet, invest in a portable Blu-ray disc player. Another option is to connect a laptop with a DVD/Blu-ray drive to your 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 possible 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, and 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, they output those signals in standard definition.
  • TV antenna: If you are using an outdoor TV (which as a built-in tuner), you can 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/satellite box to an outdoor TV.
  • Media streamer: If you have a media streamer, you can connect it to the video projector using the composite, component, or HDMI options.

If you can't access your home's Wi-Fi network from your backyard, consider investing in a Wi-FI extender.

Backyard Home Audio

Although there are a small number of video projectors that 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 opt to purchase wall-mounted, in-wall, or outdoor speakers that blend in better with your 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 slightly angled in towards the center to better direct the sound towards the listening/viewing area. Experiment and see what speaker positions work best.

Outdoor speakers and subwoofers in a garden
Speakerlab Outdoor speakers and subwoofers. Lifewire

Another alternative is to place your video projector on top of an Under TV Audio System (also referred to as Sound Base, Sound Stand, Speaker Base, or Sound Plate, depending on the brand).

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 your amplifier or receiver.

Lastly, you still need two speaker wires going from the amplifier/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 your amplifier/receiver. If your 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 your video projector and other components.

Power Cord and Surge Protectors

For everything to work, you need a very 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 just 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 your components and the main power outlet. Plug the surge protector into the other end of the cord and plug your 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 your 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. Compact video projectors can generate a lot of heat, and they 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 any community noise regulations and be sensitive to any reasonable complaints.
  • Your backyard is not a commercial movie theater. You can't advertise to the general public (no fliers, banners, or neighborhood newsletter), and you can't charge admission in a setting where a copyrighted movie or TV show is being shown.
  • Place your components away from swimming pools and grills. Be aware of humidity, smoke, water, etc. If you live in a southern state, where it can get very humid, you may not want to place your video projector on the top shelf of your rack. This may mean you need 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 your 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.