Your Own Backyard Movies, on a Budget

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We’re mixing things up, and today we’ll hear from Geoffrey Morrison and Adrienne Maxwell, our friends at Wirecutter, a product recommendation site owned by The New York Times. They have tips on how to make a backyard movie theater this summer.

Creating your own outdoor movie theater at home can bring your family a lot of joy, but while setup is easy (you need only a few things), the costs can add up quickly.

A good projector can run a thousand dollars or more, and a dedicated outdoor screen is easily a few hundred — and that’s before you add a media player or sound system. If you want to keep the cost of the whole system around $1,000 (we know that’s not exactly cheap either), here’s what we’d choose.

(If you’re able to spend more, check out the full Wirecutter article we recently published for more product suggestions).

A projector

Many of today’s home projectors are small and light enough to carry outside and set on a table, yet they are bright enough to produce a large image (100 inches diagonal or more).

The BenQ HT2050A ($750) is our favorite budget projector for home theater, and the same traits that make it great indoors also make it great for an outdoor movie night: It serves up a bright, detailed picture with better color and contrast than others in its price class.

For a smaller backyard where the distance from the projector to the screen is less than 10 feet, the similar BenQ HT2150ST ($800) is a better choice because it uses a short-throw lens to produce a larger image from a shorter distance.

If you’re looking for something less expensive and even easier to set up outdoors, you could go with a portable projector like BenQ’s rugged GS2 ($600), which has a built-in rechargeable battery and some internal streaming apps (so you may not need to attach the media player below). But be aware that these lower-priced portable projectors are significantly dimmer, so you won’t be able to get as large an image as you would with full-size projectors.

A “screen”

A big, white sheet is the most affordable outdoor screen solution that can still deliver a decent image. (You could also project the image on a wall, but you’d see every little bit of wall texture.) We got surprisingly good performance from these Target sheets (from $50) when we tested them for our guide to outdoor movie screens, but any clean, white sheet you have should work.

You may need to budget in the cost of supplies to secure the sheet so it doesn’t flap or show wrinkles. This could be as complex as building a wood frame or as simple as tightening a few screws or taping the sheet to a wall.

A media player

Gone are the days when you had to bring a Blu-ray or DVD player out to the yard along with the projector. You could still do that, but a streaming stick is a far simpler option because it connects directly to a projector’s HDMI input, draws power from its USB connection and uses your home’s Wi-Fi to stream movies from Netflix, Hulu or your other services.

The Roku Streaming Stick+ is our favorite stick design ($50). Some projectors, like the BenQ GS2 mentioned above, have streaming apps built in, so you may not need to connect a media player at all.

A better speaker

All of the projectors we highlighted above have built-in speakers, but the performance is lackluster (to put it mildly). We don’t expect anyone to lug a full surround sound system out to the yard, but a good portable speaker will be a huge improvement.

We recommend a variety of portable speakers for music playback that suit yards of all sizes, but the Soundcore Rave Neo ($100) stands out as an affordable option that has good dynamic ability and a bit more bass for movie playback.

You can run an audio cable between the projector and the speaker or, depending on which projector you choose, stream the audio wirelessly over Bluetooth. A growing number of projectors offer Bluetooth output: The BenQ GS2 does, though the HT2050A and HT2150ST do not.

You can add Bluetooth easily with a separate Bluetooth transmitter like the 1Mii B03 ($55), or if you’re using the Roku Streaming Stick+, you can output the audio through your phone’s Roku app and pair the phone to the speaker. A potential drawback to the Bluetooth approach is that it may create lip-sync issues, where the audio and video don’t perfectly line up.

That’s it. Even if you bought the most expensive items we’ve listed, your total would be $1,000; opt for a cheaper projector, and your costs shrink even more. Building your own outdoor theater doesn’t have to be a huge investment of time or money, and the reward is a great setup that can bring you and your family enjoyment for many seasons to come.

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