x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Easy listening in the garden

These outdoor wireless sound systems are just what you need to get funky among the ferns.

Remember when we dreamed of a wireless world where tangled cords could be banished to an Ikea storage bin in the laundry room and everything could be connected invisibly? That time has come and the wireless age is not just making a huge difference inside our homes, it's also revolutionising what we do outside - which is good news because one of the great joys of living in the UAE is the ability to spend spare time outdoors for at least six months of the year. Whether we are barbecuing with friends, tending our desert-hardy gardens, lounging in the pool or consuming a novel or magazine on the sun bed, we are mercifully unrestrained by walls, roofs and windows and can feel the sun and breeze on our faces.

If only we had a little music to add the finishing touch to the mood. A little Roisin Murphy or Joss Stone to get the alfresco soirée started on a Friday night, some gentle Mozart to help the flowers grow, and a few classics from the Staples Singers and Bobby Womack to ease us into a Saturday afternoon poolside nap. Back in the days before wireless connectivity, this involved several strategically placed and (hopefully) weather-resistant cables twisting across the patio and lawn, leading to a set of speakers that were dragged out from the living room. A garden wired for sound posed myriad safety risks and turned an otherwise neat and stylish space into something akin to a building site.
Much of this clutter can now be abolished. To match the evolution of wireless technology, product designers are developing more and more sophisticated, stylish and garden-proof stereo systems and wireless speakers, which means that getting funky among the ferns is now most definitely in vogue. The big question when setting up your outdoor audio experience is whether you want the sounds to run off your indoor sound system beaming the tunes through the ether to your wireless speakers, or whether you want an independent exterior sound-base, courtesy of a portable stand-alone unit running on batteries. The range and availability of outdoor audio equipment has expanded significantly in the past few years to cover both solutions - and now extends to every kind of budget, from tiny and affordable wireless speakers and iPod capsules that you can hide among the shrubbery, to the majestic and acoustically superb Zikmu Parrot wireless delights designed by Philippe Starck. More and more are being sold in the UAE while others are available online.
According to Amir Anwar from Dubai Audio Center, sales of outdoor-compatible stereos and speakers rise as more people venture outside during the winter: "Every year when the weather gets as nice as it is currently, people start thinking about having music outdoors." He rates the US-based manufacturer Tivoli Audio, whose SongBook (Dh1,200) is the ideal portable for the great outdoors, whether you want to listen to the radio or your iPod. Its rubber casing makes it scratch-proof and splash-proof so it'll handle the odd drop or two from the garden sprinkler or a glass of mineral water tipped over by a passing cat. It runs on regular AA batteries, rechargeable NiMH/NiCad batteries and on mains power when you move back indoors.
Tivoli's Portable Audio Laboratory (PAL - Dh895) and its sister iPAL (Dh950) both have a built-in AM/FM radio, as well as an auxiliary input to which any iPod, MP3 player or other music source can be easily connected. An FM transmitter will allow playback on the PAL wirelessly if required. The Tivoli people have thought of something else too: a compact music system called NetWorks, which could just be the ultimate global broadcasting device, enabling you to tune in to any radio station anywhere in the world and listen in real time. It also allows you to play music stored on your PC in any room of the house (or your garden) through a wireless connection.
Dubai Audio Center and Boutique 1 both recommend products from the Swiss company Geneva Lab. As well as looking great, all Geneva products have a CD player, iPod dock, amp and speakers built in to a single cabinet and using just one power socket, making them portable enough to use outdoors. That is fine for the GenevaSounds range S model (Dh1,999) but if you are thinking of one of the bigger XL models (Dh12,400 with floor stand) you might like to try lifting one in the shop first - they weigh 38kg.
The GenevaSounds range is possibly the most beautifully designed of all modern HiFi systems but since all of the sound comes from one unit, which must be plugged in to the mains, it's one for the patio rather than the far side of the lawn. Possibly the most user-friendly of all outdoor stereos and speakers is Bose's SoundLink system (Dh2,500), which runs on a lithium ion battery and allows you to plug a USB key into a computer, select iTunes, internet radio and more and have the content beamed to the SoundLink device, which can be carried anywhere through the house or garden.
Bose has also produced a series of self-styled "environmental speakers" which, although not wireless, have been tested rigorously in extreme conditions, making them ideal for the UAE outdoors. Bose says its "environmental" products have been "engineered and tested to withstand snow, rain, salt and temperature extremes of 70C to -40C". And they survived a salt fog test, whatever that is. But what happens if you want to chuck your speakers into the pool so your guests can indulge in a spot of aquarobics? For such a moist environment, anything merely water-resistant will simply not do. Grace Audio (about US$90, or Dh330) has produced the waterproof Aqua Sounder wireless speaker, a space-age orb that floats on the surface of the pool. Its range is roughly 50m, allowing you to keep the music source in the house and well away from the water.
The Aqua Sounder ventures into the "fun" zone of outdoor stereos and speakers, a design sphere that is packed with more gimmicky and humorous products, some of which are favourites with keen gardeners who do not want sleek black (Bose) or red (Geneva) boxes detracting from the organic contours of their flower beds, no matter how superb their sound quality. Royal Gardenscape in Dubai has speakers that resemble rocks and can be tucked neatly among the greenery.
At the more cutting edge of design, Canada-based Hero Design Labs has collaborated with Notcot on two outdoor speaker concepts - one derived from the garden gnome (albeit a far cry from those kitsch little fellows with fishing rods) and the other based on the idea of a tiki or totem (and looking rather like a tree with truncated branches). The US designer Christopher Stuart has come up with a natty gadget called the Hive Audio System, which resembles a garden downlight (similar to those that illuminate paths through hotel grounds) or a mini Darth Vader.
Stuart tucked a formidable speaker inside a tough, all-weather cocoon, which consists of a matte black solid base capped with a transparent dome. The speaker works wirelessly from a main unit in the house and, in truly vast gardens, a series of speakers can be positioned and synchronised. Perhaps the most affordable and accessible of the "fun" products is the X-mini Capsule Speaker by the Singaporean company XMI. The device, which won a Red Dot Design Award in 2008, has given outdoor dwellers what they were looking for: a pocket-sized speaker with excellent sound quality. XMI says the presence of a subwoofer in the egg-sized X-mini means that it's "capable of producing explosive volume and bass over ten times its physical size".
As the X-mini (Dh129) is a solo speaker it's not going to reproduce stereo sound but, with a connecting cable, you can hook a string of X-minis together to boost the 'surround' effect. On the other hand, if money is no object there is a beautiful model that requires your attention. Parrot (Dh8,200 at Boutique 1) is the unlikely name for a pair of glossy black wireless speakers designed by Philippe Starck and manufactured by the French company, Zikmu. They communicate with each other using Bluetooth; one of the metre-tall speakers has an iPod and iPhone docking station built in to the top if it and it's fully compatible with the iPhone, iPhone3G, iPod Touch, iPod Nano and iPod Classic. You can also stream audio from a PC or Mac to the speakers via Wi-Fi and control everything with the remote control that's just as slim and sleek as the speakers.
As well as offering pure audio delight, the speakers are gorgeous works of minimalist design, standing like oversized chess pieces and fitting snugly together in a carry-case for when you want to take the party further afield. Whichever model of outdoor stereo and speaker you fancy, don't hang around too long - before we know it the mercury will be touching 42C again and we'll be indoors until October.