Feature: Audio solutions for challenging environments

From the mountains of Tibet to the Mexican border and many places in between, systems integrators battle with the elements to provide quality sound installations. Armed with sun lotion and thermals, Jim Evans reports…

The live sound reinforcement sector is used to coping with extreme weather conditions. Increasingly, fixed or permanent installation integrators are being asked to provide systems that can conquer the elements for longer than a wet weekend at Glastonbury. And manufacturers have not been slow in tapping into a booming market sector.

Community Professional Loudspeakers can claim to be a pioneer in the field of “weatherised” speaker technology with decades of experience. “The durability and performance of R-Series and WX-Series is renowned as being outstanding. That’s why we offer the user a five-year parts warranty and a 15-year construction warranty on both ranges,” says the company’s Max Lindsay-Johnson.

“Community pioneered the design and use of its Weather-Stop Grille in the first R2 loudspeakers in 1998. Since then, we have continually refined the design using the latest materials and technologies available, to enhance performance and reliability. All hardware is grade 304 stainless steel. We have recently introduced a number of improvements to our original designs, including dual-layer powder-coat (DLPC) technology, UV-resistant synthetic cloth mesh and most recently, NeverWet. Put simply they are designed and built to sound incredible while lasting a lifetime in the most challenging environments.

“The weather hasn’t changed, but what has are the loudspeakers we now deliver that meet the all-weather standards we’ve always achieved,” Lindsay-Johnson added. “Community realised early on that the market required not only completely weatherised products, but ones that were capable of offering strong speech reinforcement while simultaneously offering outstanding musical performance. We engineered the R-MAX and WX-Series specifically to meet these requirements.”

Correct cabling

Specialist cables are, of course, an essential part of the equation. Sommer Cable recently introduced the Aqua Marinex cable series, especially designed for extremely wet weather conditions. The cables are suitable for permanent laying in water depths of 50-100m (depending on which version is employed), says the company. A special protection sleeve prevents the intrusion of moisture and provides the necessary pressure compensation prevailing in the depths. A UV-resistant and sand-repellent jacket surface also enables the Aqua Marinex series to be used outdoors on boats or for inshore installations.

Optocore’s fibre cables are also being employed increasingly in the great outdoors. “Our products are designed to survive even the most difficult temperatures and weather conditions,” says applications engineering manager Maciek Janiszewski. “Our devices can operate in extremely low as well as extremely high temperatures. We have existing customers in the Middle East and Australia as well as Russia and Canada at the other end of the weather spectrum. They all use the same devices. Also fibre cabling is far less affected by the environment and is much more reliable than copper.”

Back at the sharp end, QSC offers loudspeakers that are constructed using ABS materials with UV paint inhibitors on the cabinet and feature aluminium grilles and mounting accessories, which, when combined, tend to wear well in a variety of environments.

“In addition to the use of materials,” says Phil Sanchez, “a few of our loudspeakers feature IP54 ratings, which help to minimise water and particulate incursion.

“That said, every environment affects a product differently and concerns a contractor faces in South Florida or on a cruise ship are very different to those faced by a contractor in the desert of Southern Nevada or the plains of central Canada in the winter. The use of ABS materials, UV inhibitors, aluminium grilles and mounting accessories, and IP54 ratings, are considerations that can help with long-term durability.”

Sanchez cautions: “The term ‘weather-proof’ should to be taken with a ‘grain of salt’ because no loudspeaker is absolutely weather-proof. Weather resistance has always been a concern in tough environments and the fact that AV is being deployed in places typically not seen in the past means concerns over durability are likely increasing.

“As new technologies are introduced across the entire economy, customer expectations are increasing, including the demand for improved durability.”

Another US manufacturer whose name crops up regularly when outdoor installations are mentioned is Technomad. “We’ve been producing weatherproof loudspeakers for 20 years, geared towards the requirements of the pro-audio market, with secondary business in the residential market,” says vice president Rodger von Kries. “More recently, we’ve expanded our range to also offer weatherproof amplifier modules, the PowerChiton series, which can drive two to three speakers per module. With available audio distribution options such as wireless, ethernet and twisted pair, installers can now easily deploy entire audio systems without having to worry about providing a weather-secure location for the electronics.

“We’ve designed and sold subwoofers for a large theme park customer, which were installed below street level in vaults which could fill up with water during rain storms, an example of extreme water exposure. Recently, a customer installed a large system of Berlins and PowerChiton amp modules in a ski area in the Alps where the entire system will be operating in snow and freezing temperatures for months on end.

“We also have a separate but related product line which is used extensively by the US Armed Forces for mobile field PA systems.”

Meyer Sound systems are regularly chosen for their ability to endure significant outdoor use. “Our weather protection techniques have evolved over the years as more customers that emphasise reliability and durability turn to Meyer Sound for audio needs in some of the harshest environments,” says Meyer’s business development manager Marc Goossens. “For example, power users in the cruise ship industry provide a valuable opportunity for us to continue to improve our design and materials, and our success in these challenging applications has attracted new customers who need weather-protected products.

“Some new customers have turned to Meyer Sound because they heard about our weather-protected products on cruise ships enduring prolonged use at sea. And we have been implementing the lessons from these power users to other products, including the new steerable CAL column array loudspeaker. CAL has now been installed in outdoor applications such as the California Memorial Stadium at the University of California Berkeley and the Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex in Doha, Qatar.”

Climate control

French manufacturer APG regularly customises its products for use in different climates. Managing director Grégory Dapsanse reports: “All speaker membranes in standard APG products come with a weatherproof coating treatment.

“Whether its boiling hot or freezing cold, APG is able to provide robust gear for every need. Our products are used in saline and damp environments like tropical islands as well as mountain environments where temperatures can often hit sub zero.

“For example, our APG Sector SC20 loudspeakers have been withstanding tough weather mountain conditions day in day out for the last eight years in the Potala Palace Place in Lhasa (Tibet). Pilgrims have also been kept informed on their way to Lourdes since 1991 by 250 APG speakers, and the products are still delivering flawlessly. We also fitted the main stadium in La Rochelle, which is less than 500m away from the Atlantic Ocean, with Matrix 4000 and coaxial MX4N loudspeakers. Both systems were entirely tropicalised in order to withstand the heavy saline air.”

All at sea off Ibiza

Float Your Boat is the warm-up boat party for two of Space Ibiza’s most famous nights: Carl Cox and We Love. The biggest boat party on the island, in season, it takes guests on a stunning three-hour cruise with music from world-famous DJs. 

It needed a club-quality sound system that could be quickly and easily installed in port before each event. There were a number of challenges, ranging from corrosive sea air to power supply issues, and the team commissioned Pioneer Pro Audio and The Shop – Ibiza to design and install a system that would rise to the occasion.

The new speakers had to be lightweight and compact without compromising on sound pressure level or audio quality. And the speakers had to be built to withstand frequent handling and the corrosive sea air.

The Shop’s owner Simon Friend had worked with Pioneer Pro Audio on a number of installations, and identified the XY Series as the ideal match for the boat’s requirements.

Boat supplier Ibiza Boat Parties opted for white speakers to complement the open-air environment and blue skies. The white Warnex paint was treated with a UV chemical to stop the sun turning the paint yellow. 

Plus, the XY Series speakers feature water-resistant drivers to protect against corrosion. 

Marine environments are the worst, suggests Funktion-One’s Tony Andrews, whose loudspeakers have been utilised in extreme environments from the Nevada desert to the ski slopes of Russia. “Conditions on a beach present the perfect storm,” says Andrews. “You’ve got salt spray and plenty of oxygen, plus high temperatures – it all accelerates the chemistry of corrosion. It can really rip in to the magnet structure – you start to get a build up of oxides.

“With the marine environment, we use an oil-based protection. Even if the magnets are zinc-plated, corrosion will eventually eat through that. You get a mixture of white salts and rust that can build up in the magnetic gap and start to compromise the way the coil can work. The oxides produced during corrosion tend to be a lot more bulky. When you’re talking about clearances of a 15,000th of an inch, if you get your magnetic gap corroding it will cause trouble.”

At Dubai’s 360°, a nightclub perched at the end of a pier in the middle of the Arabian Gulf in the heart of the immense Jumeirah Beach Hotel, Funktion-One loudspeakers are at the sharp end. “We’ve got some equipment there that has been in place for three or four years,” explains Andrews. “It’s extremely exposed to the humidity, heat and salt in that part of the world. At 360º, we oiled the magnets and put silicone spray on the cones and used yacht paint for the enclosures. You have to be careful when waterproofing the cone so as not to spoil the fidelity. We also used stainless steel grills and fittings.”

“Sunny environments can bleach out the colour of the speaker, for one thing,” continues Andrews. “Obviously, there are paints that will resist this. Another consideration is if you have amplifiers at an ambient temperature that is high, the threshold of overheat stays the same but you’re an awful lot closer to that threshold before you even start.”

“General build quality is essential for these kinds of environments,” he adds. “We use birch ply – you can’t beat it, other than with glass fibre, which tends to be totally waterproof and doesn’t degrade. If we had plastic boxes, I’d be concerned about them in a UV-intense environment because UV tends to make plastic go brittle, whereas with birch ply, regardless of whether the paint stays on or not, it just seems to soldier on.

“We’ve made covers that are completely water- and sun-proof, which we can put over enclosures like the Resolution 2 SH. It’s a mid/high device, which is moulded out of polyurethane foam and would ordinarily suffer from sun damage. It’s a water and UV-proof jacket with a mesh front that lets the sound out. It goes over the whole thing and completely protects it.”

At the opposite end of the temperature scale from the Arabian Gulf, Funktion-One was closely involved with installations in Sochi for the last Winter Olympics. “When it’s cold it’s also usually damp so you construct equipment accordingly,” says Andrews. “The structure of the MST speakers, which we used at Sochi, is all based on glass and resin, which is very waterproof and doesn’t seem to get upset by UV either.”

Andrey Kremenchugskiy and his company Edelweiss Audio worked on the Sochi projects. “Essentially, it’s all about good sealing and other protection measures,” says Kremenchugskiy. “A different type of connector hidden in the IP-rated box is used. Paint that could withstand both precipitation and moisture as well as abrupt temperature changes is also applied. During installation, when the sun was above the mountain top it was hot enough to work in shirtsleeves. At dusk, the temperature dropped to freezing point in just half an hour.

“Also, as we were firing up the mountain and had to point horns a bit upwards – special mesh was used for horn mouth protection against small stones and nesting birds. Some products, such as MST10s, are made of composite material, which is practically immune to weather conditions. All metal hardware is made of stainless steel and imbedded into horns during manufacturing.”

Looking to future business prospects, Kremenchugskiy notes that Russia is to host the next football World Cup in 2018. “The demand for products which combine quality, efficiency and good weather protection should be high. But the competition is getting keener. We have won the tender to provide the sound system for a soccer arena just recently. We had to take part in face-to-face listening test with 10 other competitors. Now, for sports venues, that’s something I had never heard in 18 years of being an installation engineer.”

Back in warmer climes, amid more than a little controversy, Qatar is gearing up for the 2022 World Cup, with stadium builds continuing apace. Qatar’s bid organisers say that the nine stadiums involved will be zero-carbon emitting and climate controlled. The stadiums will take measures to reduce solar radiation and warm winds, and provide soft air conditioning to provide adequate climatic conditions (these measures have not before been deployed on stadiums of this size). The authorities promise “innovative cooling technology to ensure an optimal playing temperature of 26ºC”. The air-conditioned stadium? Watch this space.