If I were buying outdoor speakers right now, I’d get the $90 Dayton Audio IO655. I came to this conclusion after extensive evaluations of 17 different outdoor speakers in two blind tests conducted for the Wirecutter, another blind test for Sound & Vision magazine, and interviews with the only two pros I could find with significant experience reviewing outdoor speakers.
In our tests—which were done blind with three experienced listeners—the Dayton Audio IO655 sounded as good or better than the competition, many of which cost 50% more. The IO655 delivers a satisfyingly full sound: a decent amount of bass, clear and natural-sounding vocals, plus plenty of detail and sparkle on trebly instruments like cymbals and acoustic guitar. We also think the IO655’s curved sides give it a more attractive look than most of its competitors, and while the IO655 isn’t entirely impervious to the elements, the sealed design ensures that it keeps out water, dust, and bugs, even amidst a rainstorm.
To our surprise, the Dayton IO655 sounded better than our previous pick, the Yamaha NS-AW390, even though the NS-AW390 is currently about 44 percent more costly. While it’s easy to criticize us for picking such an inexpensive product, once you hear and see the IO655 up close, it’s very hard to make the case for paying more for an outdoor speaker. The warranty is average (one year against manufacturer defects), but the sealed design means you’re less likely to run into issues. The IO655 is a popular model and often sells out, but it’s also available in a 70-volt version that’s about $13 more and sounds almost exactly the same. Just remember to make sure the knob on the back is turned to the 8-ohm setting, and the 70-volt version will work just like the original.
The Dayton IO655 is a fairly small speaker and doesn’t have a whole lot of bass. Of course, we know some people (like Wirecutter audio/video editor Geoff Morrison) just can’t get into the music unless there’s lots of low end. We suggest that those who want a bigger, more dynamic sound take a look at the $150 OSD AP670, which was also one of last year’s top picks.
Our panelists liked the AP670’s big, full sound, but it carries two downsides. First is the price, which (like the Yamaha) is about 72 percent higher than that of the Dayton IO655. Second is the ported design, which can permit water from a stray hose blast to enter the speaker and potentially damage it. This probably won’t be an issue in dryer climates, and we haven’t received any complaints from Wirecutter readers about weather resistance on this pick. But if you live in a wetter, more thunderstorm-prone area, you should seriously consider choosing a speaker with a sealed design, like our top pick.
The AP670 also has a one-year warranty against manufacturer defects, but doesn’t explicitly list damage caused by water entering the non-sealed system, so we wouldn’t count on it being covered.
Those who are more decor-oriented might like the $200 ($100 each) Boston Acoustics SoundWare, a compact and good-sounding speaker that easily tucks under an eave or onto a shelf and is available in five colors/shades. It doesn’t have as much bass as the Dayton IO655 or, especially, the OSD AP670. But most music—voices, guitars, piano, sax—sounds clear and lifelike through the SoundWare. We think some buyers may consider its combination of style and sound irresistible, especially if they’re into lighter music (jazz, classical, folk, light pop, etc.) that doesn’t usually have or need a lot of bass. It has a five-year warranty against defects.
Table of contents
- What do I know about outdoor speakers?
- How we picked what to test
- How we tested
- Our pick
- The big bass choice
- The cool-looking choice
- What about our previous pick?
What do I know about outdoor speakers?
Who am I to say what’s the best outdoor speaker? First, I’ve been reviewing audio gear for 25 years, starting from when I joined Video magazine in 1989. I’m still at it as a reviewer for Home Theater Review and SoundStage. Second, I’ve probably reviewed more outdoor speakers than anyone in the world. That includes numerous single-product reviews and five outdoor speaker shootouts: one when I was editor-in-chief of Home Theater magazine; another when I was editor-in-chief of Home Entertainment magazine; another for Sound & Vision, and two for the Wirecutter. Third, I have an audio switcher I built specifically to do blind testing. And fourth (and perhaps most importantly), I have a backyard—and I’m not scared to use it.
I also had help from two very experienced listeners. One is Geoff Morrison, the Wirecutter’s audio/video editor, who has a decade and a half of experience in evaluating audio gear for such magazines as Home Theater and Sound & Vision. The other is Lauren Dragan, the Wirecutter’s headphone editor, who also writes reviews for Sound & Vision magazine and has been a participant in numerous blind audio tests I’ve conducted in the last five years; she has a bachelor’s degree in both Music Performance and Audio Production from Ithaca College.
How we picked what to test
The outdoor speaker shootout I did about two years ago for Sound & Vision gave us a head start for the first Wirecutter outdoor speaker test in August 2013. The S&V article was supposed to compare outdoor speakers that cost about $400/pair. However, Niles Audio sent its OS5.5, which typically costs $249/pair on Amazon, and in my blind test, the OS5.5 sounded better than its larger, more expensive competitors.
There are two good reasons why the best model we heard in the S&V test was also the least expensive. First, outdoor speakers use plastic enclosures that tend to vibrate and create their own sounds, which interfere with your music. This may seem like a minor thing, but it’s not—the vibrations can be very audible and tend to create a booming sound. Typically, expensive outdoor speakers are larger than inexpensive models, so there’s more surface area to vibrate.
Second, the difference between one company’s relatively inexpensive outdoor speaker and a more expensive model is usually just the size of the woofer and the enclosure. Many top models feature an 8-inch woofer, which doesn’t blend as smoothly the usual 1-inch tweeter as a 6.5- or 5.25-inch woofer does. Typically the speaker will play louder and give you more bass, but it’ll also give you more of that vibration and boom discussed above, and voices probably won’t sound as natural.
(Note that this doesn’t mean there aren’t any outdoor speakers with significantly better sound quality than the ones discussed here. For example, I’ve been impressed with the $2,500 Sonance Sonarray system. However, anything substantially better will cost you several times as much as our top picks. Also, you’ll probably have to buy them through a custom installation firm, which means you’re unlikely to get much of a discount and you’ll probably have to pay them to do the installation. All of which isn’t necessarily bad, but at that point your costs are an order of magnitude higher than what we’re talking about here.)
The S&V shootout left us with little reason to explore the higher price points when the best thing we heard was $250/pair. And let’s face it, $250/pair is still more than most people want to spend on speakers—especially if you have a large backyard, in which case you might need two to four pairs of speakers to cover the whole yard. Also, since that S&V shootout, a lot of companies have entered the outdoor speaker business with very affordable models, sold through Amazon and other sites. This led to our first Wirecutter blind test, in which we compared the Niles OS5.5 to models from Bose, Boston Acoustics, Niles, OSD, Polk and Yamaha. (There are numerous outdoor speaker brands, such as Sonance and SpeakerCraft, which are sold primarily through custom installers, but we avoided those because it’s difficult or impossible for consumers to buy them directly.)
Two speakers outperformed the Niles OS5.5 in that test: the $150/pair Yamaha NS-AW390 and the $150/pair OSD AP670. The test also found a speaker that sounds pretty good (although without a lot of bass) and has a form factor we think a lot of people will like: the $200/pair Boston Acoustics SoundWare.
Since that first blind test, we’ve found a few new speakers and few we overlooked that we thought deserved a shot against the Yamaha NS-AW390 and the OSD AP670. So I set up the same test system out in my backyard, requested fresh samples of the original winners, and also requested several new models that seemed promising. We stuck with speakers priced under $200/pair, and excluded anything with a woofer smaller than 5 inches, reasoning that it was extremely unlikely that a speaker with a 4- or 3.5-inch woofer would sound as full and satisfying as our past picks.
The models we tested include: the Dayton Audio IO655 (currently $90 on Amazon), the Monoprice MWS-5W ($50 on Monoprice), the OSD AP640 ($130 on Amazon), the OSD AP850 ($160 on Amazon) and the Polk Patio 200. All prices are per pair, and all of the speakers are available in black or white.
How we tested
As before, the test panelists were myself, Wirecutter contributor Lauren Dragan, and Wirecutter audio/video editor Geoff Morrison. We have a combined four decades of experience reviewing audio equipment. All of the speakers were attached to a large wooden panel to simulate wall-mounting. The tests were done in groups of three or four because my switcher has four outputs. Because I marked all the cables by number (without tracing which cable went to which speaker) and because I covered all of the speakers with thin black fabric, the tests were blind. The levels were matched to within 0.5 dB. None of us knew which speakers we were hearing. We listened to the speakers while seated in the “sweet spot” equidistant from the left and right speakers, and we also walked around the backyard to hear how the sound character changed.
For the most part, we didn’t do extensive testing of the weather-resistance of these speakers, though we did blast them all with a hose to see if they kept working (which they all did). Except for the OSD models, all of these are sealed designs that keep out water, dust, and bugs. They might not survive a hurricane or tornado, but if your house gets hit by a hurricane or tornado, you got bigger things to worry about than your speakers.
The OSD models are ported, which allows deeper bass response but also gives water, dust, etc., a way into the speaker. If you live in the southwest and mount your speakers under your house’s eaves, this probably won’t be an issue. But if you’re in Florida, for example, where heavy, wind-driven rain is common, there’s a significant chance that water could get into your speakers, which could damage the wiring or the speaker drivers or even create a short circuit. For this reason, I did some additional water-resistance testing, which you can read about in the section below dealing with the OSD AP670.
Though our tests didn’t produce a unanimous preference in sound quality from the listening panel, we agreed that the Dayton Audio IO655 delivers the best mix of sound quality, value, and weather resistance. It’s a sealed design, so you shouldn’t have to worry about water or dust getting inside, even despite getting caught in a downpour. And best of all, it costs under $100/pair, outperforming speakers that cost 50% more.
Even at that price, the IO655 was my overall favorite. I thought the bass sounded reasonably full and also well-defined. The midrange was also smoother than that of the OSD AP670, which is our pick for people who want more bass. With the AP670 (and many outdoor speakers), voices can sound a little harsh at times, almost as if the singer was performing after a brief yelling match with the guitarist. Lauren found the sound of the IO655 somewhat bright for her taste, complaining that voices didn’t sound quite as full as she’d like and that guitars sounded a little too twangy, but she noted that some people might like this effect because it can improve clarity outdoors. She also felt the bass was reasonably full and precise, and noted that the IO655 didn’t choke on the super-deep bass notes in the Kanye West tunes she played.
Any kind of music sounds at least pretty good through this speaker, which is important because a backyard sound system has to serve the entire family, playing everything from the kids’ One Direction tunes to Mom’s Colbie Caillat CDs. If you want something with enough bass to get people dancing at your pool parties, though, you should consider the OSD AP670.
As we stated with our previous outdoor speaker pick, the Yamaha NS-AW390, we doubt you’ll be blown away by the sound of the Dayton Audio IO655. But the sound is at least competitive with anything else we heard, and it’s inexpensive and waterproof. It’s also rather nice-looking, at least for an outdoor speaker, with curved sidewalls that distinguish it a little from the usual boxy-looking outdoor speakers. It carries a one-year warranty against manufacturer defects.
Note, though, that after being mounted outside for a year in dry, sunny Southern California, our sample was showing more wear than average. Its metal mounting bracket had started to sag. Some of the paint on the bracket was starting to flake off, with a little bit of rust underneath. The finish was starting to chalk up a little; when I remounted the samples on my test stand, a bit of powdery white residue covered my palms. Still, at such a low price, we can forgive.
We’ve noticed that the IO655 often sells out, but there’s a 70-volt version available for $13 more that works just as well. The 70-volt version is designed for applications where many speakers need to run off one amplifier — i.e., office buildings or the backyards of mansions. It requires a special 70-volt amplifier. However, the 70-volt version works like a conventional speaker if you turn the knob on the rear panel to the 8-ohm setting. The two speakers aren’t 100-percent acoustically identical; the 70-volt speaker has a transformer inside and weighs 7.6 pounds compared to the original’s 7.0 pounds. (This suggests it might sag a little more on its bracket than the standard version does, but that’s not such a big deal, especially if you mount it horizontally.) The effect of the extra parts on the sound is negligible. I could barely hear a difference between the two and didn’t have a preference for one or the other. I also did frequency response measurements — the same technical tests that speaker engineers perform in the lab — on both speakers, and the results were almost identical. (The measurements were surprisingly good for such an affordable speaker, too.)
The big-bass choice
Last time, we picked the $150 OSD AP670 as the best choice for people who like a fuller, bassier sound. Geoff and Lauren both loved the AP670’s big, full sound; it was Lauren’s favorite in both tests, and Geoff’s top pick in the first test and second pick in this latest test. In the first test, I dissented, calling the bass “bloated and one-notey:” the kind of sound you hear with one of those way-too-loud car stereos that make the car’s side panels and roof vibrate and that make every bass note sound exactly the same.
But either I’ve warmed up to the AP670’s sound, or the design has been changed a bit, because I found the bass in this new sample much better controlled. I could actually pick out the individual notes in a song’s bassline, whereas before they all seemed to blur together. To me, voices sound more natural with the Dayton Audio IO655; the AP670 has a tendency to make a singer like Colbie Caillat sound somewhat more shrill (like Janis Joplin) and somewhat more husky, like Bessie Smith. Still, the AP670 was my clear and close second choice. For those who want a big, full sound with plenty of bass, the AP670 is clearly a terrific value. It carries a one-year warranty against manufacturer defects, though that doesn’t explicitly cover water that enters the speaker through the port.
So why isn’t the AP670 our top pick? Because its front ports provide a way for moisture to get in. The AP670 might not survive an accidental (or intentional) hose blast. I hit it with a blast from a garden hose for 8 seconds, then disassembled the speaker to find that about a half-cup of water had gotten through the grille and the port. That wasn’t enough to cause problems, but if enough water accumulates in the enclosure, it could eventually damage the internal wiring or the speaker drivers, or create a short-circuit that will likely make your amplifier shut itself off.
Is this a fatal flaw? It depends on where you live and how you mount the speakers. If you live in a place where rainstorms are common, we recommend you get a completely sealed outdoor speaker. If you’re in a dry setting like Southern California, Nevada or Arizona, you mount your speakers under the eaves where they’re seldom exposed to moisture, and you’re not in the habit of cleaning off your speakers with a hose, the AP670 will probably work fine for you. In fact, I’ve had a pair in my Los Angeles backyard, and they have survived a winter’s worth of rainstorms even though it’s completely exposed to the elements. But of course, a winter’s worth of rainstorms in L.A. is less than Houston or Tampa might get in the course of two days.
The cool-looking choice
The $200 ($100 each) Boston Acoustics SoundWare isn’t our favorite outdoor speaker, but it is definitely the best-looking one we’ve seen. Despite its tiny size, there’s enough bass to make most music sound enjoyable, though the tonal balance tends to sound treble-heavy with a lot of tunes. Imagine if you were listening to your friend’s rock band live, and the bass player turned his amp down about two notches—say, from 7 to 5 on a scale of 10. That’s pretty much what the SoundWare sounds like. So the sound is still good, but it doesn’t have as much kick. Obviously this is a bigger issue if you’re into R&B, rock, or hip-hop than it is if you’re into jazz, folk, or softer pop music. Voices also sound fairly natural through the SoundWare, although of course the deeper the voice the more it might sound thin; it’s full-sounding enough for Katy Perry’s voice but probably not Barry White’s.
The SoundWare is a fully sealed design—like our top pick, it shouldn’t have any problem with moisture-resistance even in stormy, humid climates. It carries a five-year warranty against manufacturer defects, which is five times as long as the warranty our other picks carry, but in our experience manufacturing defects in speakers tend to show up quickly so this probably isn’t a big advantage.
Most outdoor speakers share a generic, industrial look: plain white or black plastic molded into a more or less rectangular shape. The SoundWare is unique—a cube-shaped design chopped off at angles in the back so it can sit on a table or shelf. With most outdoor speakers, you can pivot the speaker only on one axis, i.e., either up and down or right to left, depending on how you mount the speaker, but not both. With the SoundWare’s gimballed mount, you can pivot the speaker up, down, diagonally or wherever you want. It’s also much smaller than most outdoor speakers, occupying less than one-third the physical volume of the IO655. And it’s available in seven different colors/shades. Thus, if design and looks are a priority for you, the SoundWare is a great choice.
This is one of the few outdoor speakers for which we could find a professional review other than the ones we’ve done. As J. Walter Clarke’s review on Audioholics.com put it, “The Boston Acoustics SoundWare indoor/outdoor speaker is a winning combination of price, aesthetic and performance that I highly recommend.”
What about our previous pick?
We still like the Yamaha NS-AW390, which Yamaha told us is now sold exclusively at Best Buy. But we feel the Dayton Audio IO655 has a clear, more natural-sounding midrange, fuller and better-defined bass, and smoother treble. If you already own the NS-AW390, stick with it—we feel you won’t get a big enough improvement in sound to justify making a change to the IO655. If the Dayton Audio IO655 is sold out or discontinued and you need an outdoor speaker that’s waterproof and has a more robust sound than the Boston Acoustics SoundWare, the NS-AW390 remains a good choice.
What do you connect these to?
Practically any stereo amplifier will work fine for powering a pair of outdoor speakers. An especially good choice would be a stereo receiver that has outputs for two pairs of speakers, usually labeled Speakers A and Speakers B. With these, you can connect the receiver to a pair of indoor speakers and a pair of outdoor speakers and easily switch them on or off. Also, many of today’s 7.1-channel surround-sound receivers give you the option to set up a 5.1-channel home theater speaker instead of 7.1, and using the extra two channels to power a pair of speakers in another room. This, too, is a convenient way to power outdoor speakers.
If you don’t need or want to connect your outdoor speakers to your existing stereo system, you can use almost any separate amplifier as long as it has a volume control. An old stereo receiver should work great, or you can use one of the inexpensive Lepai, Pyle or Topping stereo amps sold on Amazon or Parts Express for as little as $20. Add a Bluetooth adapter and you can easily source digital music files, online streaming audio services and podcasts sourced from a smartphone, tablet or Bluetooth-equipped computer, as long as you keep the Bluetooth adapter close to where you’re sitting outdoors—typically 15 to 30 feet max.
You will have to keep the amplifier indoors and run the wires through your walls and/or attic to the outside of the house. Obviously, this operation requires a certain amount of skill and experience. Most localities allow running low-voltage (i.e., audio, video and networking) cables through walls without a permit, but you should check your local building codes to make sure. Be sure to use CL2 or CL3-rated cables, which are fire-rated for safety.
What about Bluetooth speakers?
If you don’t need or want to play your music very loud outdoors, and if you don’t need to fill a large yard with sound, a waterproof Bluetooth speaker with a rechargeable battery might be a great alternative to conventional outdoor speakers. Instead of having to run wires through walls, you can just carry the Bluetooth speaker outdoors when you need it. You can actually use any wireless speaker outdoors, provided it’s within range of your phone or tablet (with Bluetooth) or your home network (with AirPlay or Sonos). But in our experience, you’re likely to forget and leave it outside at some point—and unless the unit’s waterproof, you’re probably just one rainstorm away from a dead speaker.
For our recommendations on waterproof Bluetooth speakers, check out our Best Rugged Bluetooth Speaker article.
The Monoprice MWS-5W (listed on the Monoprice site as product ID 6971) has an unnatural sound in the midrange and very little bass. It also has an unusual connector instead of conventional speaker terminals; the connector is waterproof, but you have to splice the wires from the connector onto your existing speaker wires, which is a pain to do and unlikely to be waterproof or durable unless you have some experience in electronics. The MWS-5W is only $57, but you can get much better sound for $20 more with the Dayton Audio IO655.
OSD’s AP640 costs less than the OSD AP670—just $108 on Amazon—but the sound wasn’t as smooth or full as the AP670, and it wasn’t as clean and natural as the Dayton Audio IO655.
We had hoped that the OSD AP850, with its large enclosure and big eight-inch woofer, would deliver lots of powerful, deep bass. Geoff found the overall sound balance to his liking, but neither Lauren nor I cared for it, and the AP850 seemed to deliver less bass than the much smaller AP670. Like the AP670, the AP850 has two front ports that allow water to enter the speaker.
The Polk Patio 200 looks nice, but it delivers very little bass compared to many competitors, and it tended to make voices sound thin and shrill in our tests.
The Kicker KB6000 is stylishly designed and well-constructed, especially at its $95-per-pair price, but we found its sound rather blaring and midrange-heavy; you could say that singers’ voices sound almost as if they were yelled rather than crooned.
The Monitor Audio Climate 60 might be the most beautifully designed outdoor speaker we’ve seen, with neat magnetically attached end caps covering the mounting bracket, but for our taste, its midrange didn’t sound very smooth and it didn’t have enough bass to satisfy us.
NHT has a rep for making great affordable gear for audiophiles, and the NHT O2-ARC conforms to that rep … except for the “affordable” part. The voice reproduction of this speaker is smoother and more natural than the other speakers featured here, and the bass sounds full and clear. The treble sounds a little soft, so you’ll hear more of a “psssh” sound from cymbals rather than a crash, but it never gets blaring and harsh the way it does with many outdoor speakers. The downside is that the speaker costs $254 each, so more than $500 per pair, which to us seems like an awful lot to spend on outdoor sound. But if you’re so inclined….
The Rogersound Outsider II sounds pretty good, but a little bit trebly, which adds some sibilance and spottiness to voices. It seems better built than the Dayton IO655, which it should be for $199 per pair, but we didn’t think it sounded significantly better.
The wedge-shaped Yamaha NS-AW392 has cooler styling than most outdoor speakers (most of which look nearly identical), but its sound quality can’t match that of the NS-AW390. “It tends to blare, and it sounds harsh relative to the best ones we heard,” Lauren said.
We liked the “two speakers in one” concept of the Boston Acoustics Voyager Metro II, although at $399 it’s undeniably pricy. No, it doesn’t deliver the spacious sound of a pair of speakers, but we found that when you’re milling around the yard that doesn’t matter much. As Fleischmann’s review in Home Theater put it, “No matter where folks are standing (or sitting or swimming), everyone gets an equal shot at hearing both channels, with neither one emphasized.”
Lauren and Geoff agreed. “The bass seems a little bloated, and the treble is too hot when you’re right in front of the speaker,” Lauren said. “But the sound carries well out into the backyard.” Geoff said pretty much the same thing.
None of the other speakers we tested struck us as recommendable.
Even though the Niles Audio OS5.5 whupped up on a lot of more-expensive competitors in the shootout I did for Sound & Vision, we didn’t think it sounded any better than the Yamaha NS-AW390. In fact, while the OS5.5 sounds good for an outdoor speaker, it lost out to the NS-AW390 in direct comparisons. Its hyped-up bass sounded relatively boomy and annoying, and its treble sounded a bit harsh. It is not a bad speaker overall, but we wouldn’t spend $249/pair for it when we can get the NS-AW390 for $132/pair.
While the Yamaha NS-AW190 is technically the NS-AW390’s little brother, they sound nothing alike. The NS-AW190 sounds cheap and crude, lacking bass and highs but featuring a coarse-sounding midrange. “It’s like you’re listening in a hallway,” Lauren said. At $80/pair it’s inexpensive, but trust us, you’ll be glad you spent the extra $52 on the NS-AW390.
We loved the Bose 151 SE’s design and its integral mount; kudos to them for thinking outside the box on this one. But the sound didn’t thrill us. Behind the grille are three “full-range” drivers measuring about 3 inches each. With no tweeter or woofer, the sound is very midrange-heavy. “Too much mids,” Geoff said. “It’s OK on material without much bass,” Lauren said, “but on any music with low-frequency content, the bass just disappears.” It’s also worth noting that the 151 SE has a port, although considering that Bose has sold this speaker for more than a decade, I imagine they’ve come up with a way to keep moisture from getting through to the 151 SE’s innards.
The nicest comment I heard about the Polk Atrium4 came from Geoff, who said, “I didn’t mind it.” Lauren was more critical, saying, “The highs and lows sound muffled—it’s all midrange.” My comments were basically the same as hers, complaining that it’s “all blare, just harsh mids and nothing else—the only thing it sounds good on is snare drum.”
What to look forward to
There weren’t many decent under-$100/pair outdoor speakers when we did our original test, but since then many new models have come out—including a few that appeared on Amazon after testing took place for this update. We wanted to get this article out for spring, which is the time of year most people start thinking about sprucing up the backyard, so we decided that rather than delay the article, we’d publish it and add these new models when we get a chance. If you have any others you’d like to suggest, let us know in the Comments section.
Wrapping it up
The Dayton Audio IO655 sounds very good compared to other outdoor speakers we’ve tried, and its sealed design should make it waterproof enough to tolerate rainstorms and hose blasts for a very affordable price.
- Speakers Al Fresco, Home Theater, July 17, 2012 ,
- Review: Outdoor Speakers, Sound & Vision, July 16, 2013 ,
- Boston Acoustics SoundWare indoor/outdoor speaker review, Audioholics, February 10, 2008 ,