There’s nothing better than enjoying a summer evening outside with friends and family, so why not stay outside as the evening cools and watch a movie? Outdoor home theaters seem to really be gaining in popularity in the US and I think that the lower cost and availability of projectors would have something to do with it. I want take a look at some low budget options for getting a home theater up and running in your backyard. With just a little bit of work you can easily put something together that your entire family can enjoy, especially the kids. Personally, I go the most cost effective (cheap) rout by using an old office projector, DVD player, one of our Aris Speakers and a pressed white sheet. Now, figuring I’m just entertaining a couple of 4 year olds, they think it’s the best experience ever! But if you really want a higher quality experience you need the right equipment. I’ll highlight some items below that can get you started on putting together an outdoor home theater on a $1K budget.
As long as you plan on watching the movie when it’s dark, most projectors are going to work OK, but a good rule of thumb is the brighter the better. For movies you’ll want to look for a 16:9 aspect ratio. This will give you that rectangular shaped screen that is most common with HD Movies. Sure you can find less expensive 4:3 projectors, but it’s not the same experience and the picture is generally chopped down to fit the screen, or the edges are cropped off. There always seems to be some deals out there and I happened to find this ViewSonic model on Amazon for under $500. It has great reviews, a resolution of 1280×800 which will give you 720P. At a out budget of $1k, there isn’t much available in the 1080P range, besides, at 720P the picture is still going to look great.
A good projector took up half of our budget, but that’s ok. The projector is the engine that will drive the Outdoor theater and the screen is the wheels. Without a screen, there is no movie. As I mentioned before, a sheet will work, but there are some major drawbacks like wrinkles and easily being blown by the wind. A decent screen will increase brightness and reflectivity for a picture that is clear and crisp. There are actually quite a few portable options available and if you want an all in one system, they can be had for under $200. However if you are handy with a hammer and saw, you can save some money by just purchasing the screen material like this blackout screen for $40. Keep in mind when either building a frame or tacking the screen to a wall, you want it to be as smooth as possible. Any bumps or creases will be seen and are pretty distracting.
Our budget spent so far is between $$510 and $670 depending if you want to take the DIY challenge with the blackout screen cloth. That will leave us around $300-500 for the all important sound system. A big screen is great, but adding some good speakers will make a massive difference in the overall viewing experience. The nice thing about buying quality speakers is that they are more easily used elsewhere as compared to the screen or projector. You can have a nice 2 channel setup in the Winter and a rocking outdoor home theater in the Summer. As previously mentioned, I used an Allaire Aris speaker system for my outdoor theater. It’s a great all in one system that can play LOUD! That fits our $300 budget and I use in my living room most of the time in any case, so it’s a perfect for many different occasions. With $500 to spend on speakers, I would recommend a good pair of bookshelf speakers like our Intimus 5B and a little integrated amplifier. In contrast to the Aris unit, a good stereo setup will give you a better soundstage and imaging, allowing for a more indepth movie experience. This little Audiosource amp is a bargain, but I would also consider buying a solid 2 channel integrated amplifier off of Ebay, Audiogon or Craigslist as there are definitely HiFi bargains to be had.
Overall, I’d have to say that the experience of watching a movie outside in the summertime trumps the absolute quality of the sound and picture. But as we’ve examined here, for around $1k you can put together a nice outdoor home theater that is bound to please your friends and family for years to come. With a projector, screen and sound system you’ll be ready to have many rocking outdoor parties. Oh, and the one thing we didn’t cover is the video source, but for our budget, the new Chromecast seems like the perfect unit at only $35 and plugs directly into the projector. Enjoy!