March 04, 2020
By Steve Kindig
To set up your own backyard theater, you'll need the following ingredients:
- A projector and a stand or table to place it on
- A video source, such as a DVD or Blu-ray player, media streamer, or laptop computer
- An outdoor projector screen
- Powered speakers and speaker stands
- An HDMI cable and audio cables to connect the speakers to the projector or video source
- Extension AC cords and a multi-outlet power strip with surge protection
Read on to see how it all goes together.
I grew up in a small desert town that had a few drive-in theaters, but only one "walk-in" theater. So until I moved away for college, I saw most movies from the cargo bed of a parked pickup truck, with the stars shining overhead.
I still like watching movies outside in the fresh air, and while I haven't hosted any outdoor movie nights at my house, I've helped with the setup for a few at friends' homes, and I wanted to share some of the things I've learned.
Help with a Movie Party
Jason, a friend and art director at Crutchfield, has been hosting movie parties in his backyard for years.
"After seeing a friend's outdoor movie setup, I wanted to try it," Jason told me. "First, I borrowed his equipment, but after a few parties I got tired of lugging it over to my house. I bought a cheap screen, but it was a pain to set up."
When Jason announced his most recent movie party, a few of us invited ourselves over and brought some new gear to simplify the setup and ramp up the fun.
Step 1: Projector
Jason had previously borrowed a friend's low-cost projector, which was really made for showing PowerPoint presentations at work. So we brought a compact Epson Home Cinema 2150 HD projector that's designed for watching movies.
Some home theater projectors made for indoor use can only produce a vivid picture in a dark or near-dark room. The Epson, like most LCD-based projectors, can get pretty bright. It delivers punchy contrast with accurate, lifelike colors, and can produce a clean, crisp picture on a huge screen, even in less-than-total darkness.
Tip: A projector's light output is measured in lumens, and for outdoor viewing you should look for a projector with at least 2,000 lumens.
Step 2: Video Source
For outdoor setups, especially with a large screen, high-definition sources will ensure a sharp picture. Blu-ray disc is one of the best options, and Jason already owned a Sony Blu-ray player that was the perfect source for his backyard theater.
If you want to minimize cable clutter and stream video wirelessly, you could use a high-quality streamer like a Roku box, Apple TV, or a Blu-ray player with built-in apps.
Tip: If you plan to stream a movie, make sure your Wi-Fi network can maintain a robust signal at the spot where you'll set up.
Step 3: BIG screen
When it comes to screens, bigger is better. Jason had purchased a large screen, but he said it was a real hassle to set up. So, Elite Screens generously provided us with one of their Yard Master 2 Dual portable outdoor screens.
Some of the smaller-size Yard Master models can be assembled and set up by just one person, but the 150-inch screen we used was much easier to handle with two people.
One of the cool aspects of Elite's Yard Master 2 Dual screens is the bi-directional material means you can use the screen for either front or rear projection.
Front projection — where the projector is in front of the screen — is the typical arrangement, and it's how we did it, partly because our equipment was set up more than 100 feet from an AC power source on Jason's deck, and projecting from the rear would have added another 40 to 50 feet of distance.
With rear projection, the projector is placed behind the screen and the image is projected through the screen material. This way, folks watching can stand up and move around without creating shadows on the screen. And you don't have to deal with cable clutter in your viewing area.
Tip: Do yourself (and your guests) a favor and plan on using a projector screen. Even an inexpensive screen will provide a picture that looks way better than projecting onto a bed sheet.
Step 4: Sound
What's the best audio option for outdoor home theater? After trying a few different approaches over the years, I'd recommend a pair of powered PA speakers.
Jason had recently upgraded his sound setup to a pair of Behringer 1000-watt powered PA speakers. Mounted on a pair of Gator Frameworks speaker stands, they created a huge soundstage that synced nicely with the jumbo-size image, while the 12-inch woofers pumped out impactful bass.
As is typical for PA speakers, the Behringers featured XLR inputs rather than standard RCA or minijack inputs. So, from the projector's minijack audio output, we connected a mini-to-XLR adapter cable, then connected that to a pair of microphone cables with XLR connectors to plug into the Behringers.
Those speakers sounded great with music, too. While we waited for it to get dark enough to start the movie, Jason paired his phone to the Bluetooth-enabled speakers, and moments later, one of his indie rock Spotify playlists filled the backyard.
Jason's Blu-ray player had built-in Bluetooth, so we could have streamed the music and movie sound wirelessly to the PA speakers. But wired connections offer superior sound quality and stability.
- Make sure you have some decent-quality long extension cords and a power strip for your gear. For Jason's setup, we needed one 150-foot extension cord to the projector and player, plus two 50-foot cords to the powered speakers. Try to use a heavy-duty power strip like the Furman SS-6B.
- Remember: It needs to be dark to see a crisp, colorful picture, so plan your start time accordingly.
- Use blankets and tarps to cover cables so people won't trip over them in the dark.