Outdoor Movie Theater Audio with Consumer and Professional Gear

Audio really makes an amazing difference when it comes having people over for an outdoor movie night. At the end of last year, I ended up with a 5.1 surround sound setup using powered speakers, most of which were of good quality.

It took a number of years to get there though. The setup has always used powered speakers, because I had two from college to start it out. As the years went by, it went from stereo, 3.0, 4.0, 5.0, and then finally 5.1. A lot of the gear was re-used, but not all of it. I also tried to do this as cheaply as possible.

One last note that I’ll repeat again later, I really do not find much of a difference with this setup between a 4.0 and a 5.1 setup. In my opinion, you really do not gain much with a center speaker or a subwoofer.

Finding Equipment

Most of my equipment was purchased either through Craigslist, eBay, Facebook Market, Black Friday sales, or online sites. For the most part, you should never have to buy new equipment and even the latest and greatest equipment is not needed.

Keep in mind, you can find some good deals from people that got into DJ’ing and then decided that it wasn’t for them. I find them on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace mostly. You might have to take some time to sell off the pieces you do not want, but it usually works out in your favor if you take the time.

If you need to buy cables, Monoprice is a good place to get cheap cables. You can also find deals at Sweatwater, from time to time.

The last thing is patience. I was looking for equipment for an entire year before I even started having movies in the backyard. Use search alerts on craigslist and eBay, wait for black Friday and check out the Guitar Center and like ads, and setup alerts on slickdeals.net. I always keep an eye out for good deals throughout the year.


When looking at professional speakers, it generally leads into the thoughts of needing to get professional receivers and mixers to decode the surround sound signals. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot of equipment out there or many people that need it. DJ’s don’t need that type of equipment, so it’s usually the niche businesses that do video of some kind, so new and used equipment really never gets cheap and costs upwards of $1,000+.

On the other side of the house, there is the consumer audio equipment that is ever changing, has lots of units that were produced, and a large number of people that upgrade and then need to sell their old system. The used price for older receivers is extremely cheap. I’m currently running a Pioneer VSX-1018AH, that I had picked up for $20 because the internal AMP stopped working, but the pre-outs worked just fine.

Regardless of what kind of speakers you are going to use; powered, amped, or direct speakers, figure out where you want to go for total surround sound. In this case, I knew I would not want to go above 5.1 surround sound, so I had my base search for 5.1 or higher.

Make sure the receiver has audio pre-outs. Not all receivers have them anymore. This will allow you to get a non-amplified signal out of the receiver, that can be used for either powered speakers (with a mixer) or external amps. As a bonus, you can look for broken receivers where the internal amps don’t work, but the pre-outs still work.

This is optional, but I would recommend finding one that has HDMI in. Anymore, it’s a hassle trying to find a streaming device that has optical out.

The last thing to look at is making sure the receiver has a way to automatically setup the speakers for surround sound. I believe most have it and on Pioneer it is called MCACC. This is beneficial because if you have less than 5.1 surround sound, it will setup the optimal listening for the speakers that you do have. The second reason is that usually the speaker placement changes each time you setup the outdoor theater and some powered speakers have small differences in volume levels. This makes it easy and really adds a better listening experience each time.


If you are going to be using powered speakers, then you will need to get a mixer that will sit between the consumer receiver and the power speakers. This is due to differences in signal levels used on consumer equipment and professional equipment. Consumer equipment uses -10dBu, while the professional equipment uses +4dBu. A mixer is used to convert the -10dBu from the consumer receiver and boost it to the +4dBu that the powered speakers are expecting.

These are not too expensive and I was able to pick up my Behringer MX882 on sale for $50. You could probably find them about the same price or cheaper on eBay or Craigslist.

Key points on this one is to make sure it has enough individual in/out channels for each speaker in your setup. For example, if you are going to use 5.1 surround sound, you need to have 6 in/out channels. I also wouldn’t suggest counting on using the mains for mono channels. For the Behringer MX882, it is an 8 channel mixer, but only 6 channels are dedicated to mono in/out.


In my case, I can only speak of powered speakers, as I did not want to deal with external amps. All I have to do is run a power cable and a XLR cable to each speaker.

In my case, for the last year, I have 3 JBL Eon 515xt front speakers, 2 Harbinger APS12 rear speakers, and a JBL 518S subwoofer. The only reason I upgraded was I found a deal where someone bought the two JBL Eon 515xt speakers, the JBL 518S subwoofer, and a bunch of cables, stands, and microphones for a buddy’s wedding, and then left them in a close for 4 – 5 years until he decided to move. By that time, he wanted to sell them quick, but they were now one or two generations behind new technology. After selling everything but the two speakers and the sub, it cost me about $120.

The rear speakers, two Harbinger APS12, I had picked them up a number of years ago as a Black Friday deal and walked out of Guitar Center with the pair for $100.

I would recommend growing slowly like I did. With a receiver that can calibrate depending which speakers you have, it’s going to sound good outside regardless. I think the perfect sweet spot when using powered speakers for an outdoor movie theater is 2 front speakers and 2 rear speakers.

I started off with the two APS12 in stereo for years. I added another speaker I had gotten really cheap for $20 (died after a year), so I was using the front 3 speakers for a year. Then I had picked up two JBL Eon 515xt speakers and for many years I ran two front speakers and two rear speakers, using the original APS12’s as the rear speakers. That setup works great and provides a really great surround sound. The only reason I upgraded was because I found a deal and realized I could piecemeal everything out and end up with a single speaker for free for the center channel. I fell in love with the sub though, so ended up not selling it (to the wife’s displeasure).

Patch Panel

After getting tired of digging into the middle of the rack constantly, disconnecting up the wrong cables, and not connecting them up correctly, I decided a patch panel was very worth my time. If you have 4 or more speakers, I highly recommend you go this approach.

I first purchased a 1U Rack Panel Punched for 12 x XLR. I then purchased 6 XLR Female to Male Feedthrough Adapter for Panel Mounts and put them in the mounts. I had picked up two more because I was playing with the mains, but they go largely unused.


Sadly, the cable piece is pretty expensive and hard to find used. I’m going to break it down into different parts and cables that you need.

Receiver to Mixer

This needs to be a combination of 4 x RCA males to XLR males and 2 x RCA Males to 1/4″ TRS Males, if you are using the MX882 mixer, due to some of the channels having 1/4″ TRS connections. Get the shortest cables possible.

Mixer to Patch Panel

You again need two different types of cables to go from the mixer to the patch panel. You will need 4 x XLR females to XLR males and 2 x 1/4″ TRS males to XLR males. Get the shortest cables possible.

Patch Panel to Speakers

I’m going to divide this up into front speakers and the rest of the speakers.

I found the easiest way to quickly setup and tear down on the front speakers is to use two 4-Channel XLR Male to XLR Female Snake Cable. Monoprice has them pretty cheap and I had picked up a 20ft and a 15ft to get from the audio equipment to the screen, where the front speakers were. I then bought 2 XLR Male to XLR Female cables to go from the Snake Cable to the Left and Right speakers. The front speaker just connected up directly to the Snake.

The rear speakers and sub were just individual XLR Male to XLR Female cables. You will probably need 25 – 50ft cables, depending on how far away the speakers are and if you are running them straight line to the speaker (and probably where people are sitting) or straight back and then going to the sides. I did the latter after people tripped enough.

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