When I installed a new pool in my backyard last year, I realized my efforts of entertaining my friends had better change. I had to up the ante to complement my new backyard. Disco was dead and so was the technology that ushered in afros, go-go boots, pastel leisure suits, and my old speakers. What I was looking for was a good set of outdoor speakers. Not just good sounding speakers I could use in perfect weather mind you, but high performance loudspeakers that could take the abuse of high desert temperatures in the summer and snow in the winter. My search ended with three very different outdoor speaker sets. They included an economical pair of speakers from JBL, a mid-priced set from Infinity and a high-end set from Polk. My testing began poolside in the Las Vegas heat and ended with snowfall outside my new Montana home.
JBL Northridge E Series 24AWII - The AW in 24AWII stands for all weather, and that's exactly what I was looking for. Speakers that would play loud and accurate in all types of conditions. The JBL Northridge E Series 24AWII are moderately priced ($199/pair) compact speakers that would be just as at home on a bookshelf as they would be attached to an exterior wall. JBL uses a specially designed weather resistant 3/4 inch titanium-laminate dome high frequency driver with EOS wave-guide and a four-inch low frequency driver for the bass and mid-bass. The four-inch driver has a weather resistant WeatherPlas cone which uses polymer coated cellulose fiber -- the same technology found in JBL's professional commercial speakers. The drivers feature high temperature oversized Kapton voice coils and a special motor structure JBL calls HeatScape to allow the speakers to handle all types of movies and music without concern of heat-degraded sound. For crossovers, JBL takes the KISS approach (Keep It Simple, Stupid) and includes simple straight-line signal path crossover networks to minimize processing. The benefit to such an uncomplicated method is a signal that has less change of degrading through over-processing.
The 24AWII speaker cabinet is small, but efficient. A flared port on the front baffle helps increase bass response, without adding unwanted port noise. The high impact molded enclosures are only offered in off-white, with a matching off-white hard mesh grille to keep out critters. On the rear of each cabinet are two quality binding posts below a threaded mounting point for the wall-mounting bracket. The speakers can be attached to a wall from the back of the cabinet or reversed from an additional threaded mounting point on the bottom. JBL recommends the 24AWII set be placed on a flat surface such as a bookshelf, or mounted to a wall with the included wall-mount brackets. The product is not intended for ceiling mounting, and despite having the moniker "all weather", they aren't "waterproof'. Therefore, protecting the speakers from harsh elements, like flooding and snow, is crucial. JBL recommends mounting the 24AWII set under a patio awning or roof eaves versus being directly exposed to outside elements.
Infinity Outrigger - Sure to keep the tunes pumping, the moderately priced Infinity Outrigger speaker set ($299/pair) is as attractive as it is functional. The two-way 80-watt speakers have waterproof drivers with non-corrosive parts made of aluminum, brass and stainless steel. The high frequency driver is a one-inch Polycell dome tweeter and the bass speaker is a 5 1/4 inch driver made with a polypropylene cone and rubber surround. The rugged and inert-mineral filled polypropylene enclosures have an attractive and unique design. The grille is concave, which adds to the mystique of an outdoor loudspeaker. The enclosure comes in white, but if the color doesn't match your decor, Infinity advocates painting the grille and cabinet. There are even painting instructions in the user's manual for the do-it-yourselfer.
Like the JBL speakers, Outriggers can be placed flat on a level surface or attached to a wall. The mounting brackets included with the Infinity set can be used both horizontally or vertically by changing the position of the brackets. The speakers are water resistant, not waterproof. Therefore, Infinity recommends installing the Outriggers in a protected area away from direct elements. For the perfectionist, the Infinity logo can rotate to an upright position, no matter if the speakers are mounted vertically or horizontally.Polk Atrium 6501 - The Atrium 65SDI is on the high end of the outdoor speaker spectrum, with an emphasis on performance outdoors. They are sold individually, not in pairs ($329.95 each). Each enclosure houses two one-inch dome tweeters with neodymium magnets and a 6.5-inch long throw polymer cone driver with butyl rubber suspension for greater bass and midrange response. The Atrium 65SDI has an innovative dual crossover network that is enabled or disengaged via a simple switch located over the binding post connectors. This unique Dual Input/Single Input switch allows the Atrium 65SDI to be used as either a single high performance stereo loud-speaker, or the left-or-right speaker in a high performance stereo pair. The dual tweeter array has stereo tweeter aiming for good imaging, even in a one-speaker application.
You can use the Polk speakers practically anywhere, because the Atrium 65SDI units have special military spec waterproofing features, including a waterproof power port bass vent. By installing an included cover over the bass vent, the speaker is not merely water-resistant, but waterproof. The aluminum grille and mounting bracket are rustproof and stainless steel and brass hardware used in the construction assure rustproof reliability. The cabinet is available in black or a paintable white finish.
Installation/Setup/Ease of Use
Conditions of the speaker test were maintained with each brand to eliminate any unfair advantage. Each of the three speaker sets were mounted under my roof eaves, spaced exactly 10 feet apart, facing slightly inward. All mounting brackets were simple to install and properly positioned. The speakers were connected to a Monster Cable Multi-Speaker Selector SS-6, which was powered by a NAD 763 AN receiver. The SS-6 gave me the ability to select which set of speakers I wanted to hear by simply pressing a button. Therefore, I could switch from speaker to speaker, even in the middle of a song, while enjoying a frosty drink poolside.
I used Original Monster Cable Clear Jacket high performance speaker cable to conduct the test. This wasn't the highest performance speaker wire I had, but it was a real world representation of what a typical buyer might use for outdoor speakers. Drilling a one-inch hole through a wall to connect large gauge $500 wires to a $300 speaker would give me a jaded opinion of the performance characteristics of each loudspeaker.
Final Take - Because I wanted to weigh my options for cost versus performance with outdoor speakers, this test wasn't meant to be a head-to-head challenge. There's no winner take all or Championship Speaker Battle Royale. It may seem like a cop out, but all three of these speakers are very different and can't be compared fairly. They have different sized drivers, different mounting brackets and stepped price ranges. If I had won the lottery and money was no object, I would line up all the expensive speakers I could find and choose the sweetest performing set of the bunch. However, cost is almost always an issue for most of us, though not the sole determining factor. Therefore my goal was to find the best overall performing outdoor speakers in my price range. The JBL speakers have a small cabinet that can easily tuck under an eave or awning. They practically disappear because of their size. The mounting bracket was the only one of the three that could pivot, so the speakers could be adjusted both up and down, as well as side to side. However, the brackets are not recommended for ceiling mounting, so under-eave installation wasn't an option with the JBL N24AWII speakers.
The JBL manual didn't mention if the off-white cabinets could be painted, so I imagine painting them would void the warranty. While this wasn't a concern for me since I enjoyed the finish of the speakers, consumers looking for a custom installation may have to look elsewhere. Like the other brands of speakers in the test, the JBL's sat level on a flat surface. The binding posts on each brand of speaker were also very similar, however the N24AWII binding posts are close together in a recessed opening, making wire connections awkward, especially for a person with large fingers.
Higher up the rung, the Infinity Outriggers are unmistakably cool. The cabinets have a unique design with a curved grille and grooved sides. Infinity encourages owners to paint the speaker grilles and cabinets if the white finish doesn't blend in with their decor. In fact, there is a painting guide in the Outrigger manual that lists the process from sanding to priming and painting. The Infinity mounting brackets can be installed vertically or horizontally on the sides of each enclosure. This allows for placement in many locations, but once they are mounted, the speakers can only be tilted left and right (bracket mounted vertically) or up and down (bracket mounted horizontally). However, when mounted horizontally, they don't stay positioned very well, no matter how hard the bracket knobs are tightened. Finally, the binding posts on the Outriggers are close together and point at a 45-degree angle downward. They are nearly as awkward to unscrew as the JBL speakers, but much easier to reach.
Polk's Atrium 65SDI speakers have a very elegant design. They are the largest speakers of the group and the heaviest too. That's why the mounting bracket is substantially larger and more robust. The 65SDI speakers can be painted without voiding the warranty and their single-dual input switch means a single speaker can do the work of both the left and right speakers. There are four binding posts on the Polk speakers for this purpose, and they provide the best access of all three of the brands. The Polk speakers were also the only units of the three that claim to be waterproof. Despite having to install a waterproof plug over the bass vent and slightly diminishing the bass output, the ability to use the 65SDI speakers in an extremely wet, snowy or flood-prone area is a feature many people will appreciate.
Musically speaking, I enjoyed all three brands of speakers. The JBLs had a frequency response down to 75Hz, the Infinitys played down to 60Hz and the Polks managed to hit 50Hz. The Atrium 65SDI speakers did have a good low frequency response with adequate presence and low-end detail. Vocals were powerful and well represented by the two tweeters in each of the enclosures. The Outriggers may not have played as low at the Polks. but they were very tight. At all volume levels they were smooth and easy on the ears. I was actually surprised at the spaciousness these outdoor speakers delivered. Not to be overshadowed, the JBL speakers displayed strong fundamentals relative to harmonics. Although the dynamic range of the Northridge speakers was limited by the smaller midbass driver, they did a decent job trying to keep up with the larger models of speakers in the test.
All three manufacturers offer various sizes of speakers at different price points. It just happened that the speakers sent for review varied in design and price. Here again, if cost were no object, I'd choose the Polk speakers. They are superior in many ways. I can appreciate the waterproof design and better performance over the other two speakers. As far as the least expensive speakers, the JBLs performed admirably and would work in many locations. If budget concerns helped drive my choice, the JBL N24AWII speakers would work well. However, my money rests on the Infinity Outriggers. They are less than half the price of a pair of Polk speakers and sound nearly as good. The design is on the flashy side and the mounting bracket is easy to install.
JBL Northridge N24AWII
3/4" High-Frequency Driver
4" Low-Frequency Driver
100 Watts Maximum Power
75Hz - 20kHz Frequency Response
91/2"H x 61/4"W x 4 3/4"D
Weight: 4.5 lbs.
Five Year Limited Warranty
1" High-Frequency Driver
5 1/4" Low-Frequency Driver
80 Watts Maximum Power
60Hz - 20kHz Frequency Response
10"H x x 7"D
Weight: 8.2 lbs.
Five Years Parts/Labor Warranty
Polk Atrium 65SDI
Dual 1" High-Frequency Drivers
6 1/2" Dual Voice Coil Low-Frequency Driver
125 Watts Maximum Power
50Hz - 20kHz Frequency Response
13 1/2"H x 7 11/16"W x 9 5/16"D
Weight: 13 lbs.
Five Year Limited Warranty