How to choose a mobile video system


Matt Freeman

A circuitous path, involving England, New York, rural Michigan, Indiana, and lots of parts in between brought Matthew Freeman to Charlottesville, where he's been writing about mobile audio/video for Crutchfield off and on since early 2000. He fosters an eclectic taste in film, and is fond of a wide range of music. A native of Albuquerque, New Mexico, he found his way to the University of Notre Dame, where, in an act of charity unsurpassed in the history of Western civilization, he was given a B.A. in English.

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Mobile video has really taken off as a fun, viable, and even necessary addition to in-car entertainment. Many new SUVs and minivans offer mobile video components as factory options, and a growing number of people have decided to retro-fit their vehicles with video entertainment systems.

Video kid

Why mobile video?

There are plenty of reasons for stepping up to mobile video, including:

  • Entertainment. There's no denying that every trip, from jaunts to the local supermarket to cross-country vacation hauls, are much easier and more enjoyable when the kids have access to engaging entertainment options. Backseat video systems, for which there are plenty of options we'll explore a little later, allow your kids to watch their favorite movies and cartoons, or, in some cases, even play their video game system. As a bonus to you, most incorporate headphones into the system, so they'll be able to hear the movies privately, while you still enjoy the radio up front.
  • Safety. Some video systems give you the option of connecting a navigation system, which provides turn-by-turn visual and voice directions, which help you get where you're going efficiently and accurately. Not having to fiddle with conventional maps is a huge advantage, especially if you're driving through unfamiliar territory for the first time. Some systems also allow you to connect a backup camera, which can be a tremendous safety enhancement to larger vehicles, such as RVs.
  • The Wow! Factor. Few mobile electronics components cause the stir that mobile video does. Take in-dash receivers with monitors for example — if you've got one installed in your dash, the first time your passengers see the retractable monitor motoring out of the dash and into position, they won't be able to help oohing and ahhing. Some systems offer touch-screen controls, which never fails to impress. Just the on-screen graphics alone are enough to produce delight in most people.
  • The car is a fun environment in which to watch movies. It's great to be able to watch your favorite movies in the backseat when the vehicle's in motion. And it's just as enjoyable to pop a DVD in an in-dash receiver, park the car, and start the show. If you go with a comprehensive setup, you can even get true 5.1 home-theater-style sound, which sounds spectacular in the cozy environment of the car.
  • The Wild Cards. Mobile video systems drastically expand the number of entertainment options you can have in your vehicle. Movies, video games, local television, even satellite television (we're not kidding) are all available for use in your car, truck, van, or SUV. And mobile video technology just keeps getting better all the time.
Mobile Video

Backseat video systems can help keep your passengers entertained on trips of any length.

What do I need?

We'll discuss individual mobile video components in the pages that follow. Basically, a mobile video setup requires three things:

  • A video monitor for displaying the images
  • A media player, such as a DVD player or VCR
  • An audio component, such as wireless headphones

Some systems contain all the components you need in one package; others require you to assemble and connect a series of components. Which you need depends largely on where you're installing your system, and what you intend to do with it.

Practically speaking, mobile video can be divided between front-seat and backseat systems (although, there's plenty of crossover applications, as we'll see later).

Most often, front-seat systems consist primarily of in-dash receivers with monitors. These receivers fit in both standard-sized and double-sized dash openings, and usually have a monitor that's motorized. Receivers for single-sized dash openings are capable of retracting into the chassis for storage.

Backseat systems usually involve monitors that can be installed in various locations, such as in the headrests or on the ceiling, separate DVD or videocassette players, and audio components (such as wireless headphones). Complete packages that include everything you need for a basic system are also readily available.

Each type of system has its inherent advantages, as we'll learn in the following pages. Which type is the right one for you depends entirely on what you'd like to get out of your system.

Mobile video, front and center

The easiest way to get a mobile video system that serves the front seats in your vehicle is to install an in-dash receiver with a built-in monitor. These receivers feature monitors (usually LCD, and 6-1/2 or 7 inches) which act as TV screens for your videos, system information displays, and system controllers.

Mobile video receivers are also generally capable of extensive system expansion; most allow you to connect extra audio or video components, plus useful gear like DVD navigation and backup cameras.

Mobile video

Some mobile video receivers, like this Pioneer AVH-X7500BT, fit in standard dash openings, and feature retractable LCD video monitors

If you choose to go this route, you'll most likely want a receiver with DVD playback, which basically acts as an all-in-one solution. In order to play a DVD, you'll have to have your vehicle parked and the emergency brake engaged — this is strictly for safety reasons; you certainly don't want to be distracted by the captivating images of your favorite films while cruising the Interstate at 65 m.p.h.! When you're not watching a film, however, the display will act as your system's command central, and, depending on the model, might even offer touch-screen control. Many video receivers also feature cool graphics, such as equalizer displays, that accompany your music.

The receiver installs just like a standard deck does. The only extra connections you'll need to make are to your emergency brake and any accessories you've chosen to make your ride more enjoyable.

Warning: removing your seat could deactivate your vehicle's SRS system.

An in-dash monitor is an essential part of a GPS navigation receiver, which gives you turn-by-turn guidance to just about anywhere in the country. Some DVD receivers have optional external navigation systems that you can add, but these days, it's less expensive to just buy a navigation receiver. And unlike watching a movie, you can use the navigation system when the vehicle's in motion (it wouldn't be too useful otherwise, right?).

Mobile video

A GPS navigation system can give you detailed visual directions and voice prompts to get you just about anywhere you go accurately and safely.

Backup cameras can come in very handy, too, especially with larger vehicles. The camera, mounted on your rear bumper, gives you a clear view of what's behind you as you back up. Many video receivers have dedicated backup camera inputs. They'll also automatically reverse the image on the screen, so it'll look completely natural to you as you use the screen to navigate backwards.

Possibly the most impressive feature most video receivers have is dual- or multi-zone capability. Receivers with either of these capabilities will have at least one set of audio/video outputs, as well as at least one set of audio/video inputs. Separate monitors and a transmitter for wireless headphones for the back seat can be hooked up to the outputs. Additional sources, such as a video game console, can connect to the A/V inputs. When you engage the dual-zone feature, you can send the signal from one source, like the DVD player or video game console, to the rear monitors and headphone transmitter; the folks in back will be able to enjoy that source. Meanwhile, you can still play the radio, for example, over the car's speakers. The more zones a receiver can control simultaneously, the more diverse your entertainment options get.

Backseat Cinema

If you're planning on setting up a mobile video system in the backseat, you've got plenty of options from which to choose.

The most common solution is a combination of a component DVD player (or VCR), a separate monitor, and a sound component — usually wireless headphones. The choices you have range in complexity from simple, all-in-one packages to installation-intensive, multi-component systems.

Headrest monitors

In systems that involve separate components, LCD monitors, which generally range from 5 to 7 inches, are often mounted in the front-seat headrests. You can install your own screens in your factory headrests, or pickup headrests with the screens already installed.

Some manufacturers produce mounting brackets that simply secure to the posts of the front-seat headrests. A monitor mounts on an arm of the bracket, which is usually adjustable. Other manufacturers have designed factory replacement headrests that have monitors already installed. They look remarkably like the factory originals, even down to the fabric color and texture, and simply take their place in the seat.

Vizualogic headrest monitors

In either case, once you've installed the monitor, you'll have to connect it to a separate player. Component DVD players (or videocassette players) can be mounted in out-of-the-way locations: center consoles are very popular choices; under the seat can make sense, as well. You'll just have to make sure you can access its front panel in order to insert and remove your discs. And don't forget, you can use an in-dash DVD receiver with backseat monitors; the receiver becomes the main media source in this scenario.

The video outputs of your player should be connected to the video inputs of the monitors with video cables specifically designed for mobile applications — they'll be better insulated than cables designed for use in-home, and will generally keep radiated "noise," which is always prevalent in a mobile environment, from sneaking into the system and degrading your video quality. You'll also have to connect the audio outputs of your player to an audio component in order to hear your DVDs; we'll discuss your audio options momentarily.

Overhead monitors

Fold-down overhead monitors are popular, too, especially in SUVs and minivans where there's plenty of space. Between mounting and wiring them, they demand a fairly significant amount of installation expertise; if you go this route, you might consider letting a professional handle the installation.

Alpine fold-down video monitor

Regardless of who installs it, however, there are certainly some inherent advantages to an overhead monitor. Mounting a monitor on the ceiling makes it much easier for all your backseat passengers to see the picture. This type of monitor is also well out of harm's way whenever you're loading or unloading cargo from your vehicle. Some include built-in dome lights, in case you have to mount it over your vehicle's factory dome light. Some are also compatible with housings that have been designed for specific vehicles (that let you retain factory ceiling-mounted controls and displays).

As with a headrest monitor, you'll have to connect an overhead monitor to a separate media player and to an audio component.

There are, however, overhead monitor packages that help make things significantly easier for you. Some feature DVD players built right into the housings, which reduces the number of wiring connections you have to make. Some overhead monitor/player combos even feature built-in wireless FM modulators, which beam the audio signal over an unused FM frequency directly to your factory stereo, as well as infrared transmitters, that send the audio signal wirelessly to a set of compatible headphones. These all-encompassing systems eliminate the need for you to run wiring all through your vehicle; your primary concern will focus solely on installing the monitor and housing on your vehicle's ceiling.

Player/monitor combos

The easiest solution of all in the backseat mobile video arena is a self-contained player/monitor combination. These usually simply strap onto the back of your vehicle's front seats (typically at the headrest) and plug into the cigarette lighter for power. They'll feature some sort of audio output (such as headphone jacks, and/or an RCA composite set of audio/video outputs). They're convenient, easy-to-install, and totally portable. The only drawbacks: their picture quality tends not to be quite as good as systems with separate components, and their sound-delivery options are slightly limited. They also might not install as neatly as or exactly where you'd like them to, which can in turn limit their visibility. But if you're looking for a "quick fix" that requires no installation work, these are certainly viable options.

Mobile video

DVD player/monitor combos strap to the back of a front seat, and plug right into one of your vehicle's power outlets. They give you everything you need for instant, installation-free video entertainment.

Making sure you can hear your system

With any system, you'll have to find a way to hear the sound. A few monitors out there have audio inputs (so they'll receive the audio signal from the player) and jacks for wired headphones; simply plug the headphones in, and you have instant audio. Most likely, you'll want to connect the audio to a transmitter for wireless headphones.

Audiovox wireless headphones

Wireless headphones, like the Audiovox MTGHP1CA headphones, allow backseat passengers to listen to the video source privately.

There are two types of wireless headphones and transmitters: RF (radio frequency) and IR (infrared). In both cases, the audio output from your media source connects directly to the transmitter via audio patch cables. RF transmitters "broadcast" the audio signal over a specific radio frequency wavelength to its compatible set (or sets) of headphones. Because they use radio frequencies, the transmitters can be mounted anywhere in the vehicle; the headphones act as "antennas." These work remarkably well; the only potential drawback is that they might be susceptible to slight radio interference (although that's generally unlikely). IR transmitters "beam" the audio signal direcly to a set of compatible headphones. They aren't susceptible to interference like RF transmitters are, but the transmitter itself must be mounted within a direct line of sight of the headphones; obstacles will block the signal from reaching the headphones.

You can also use your vehicle's sound system to play your video soundtracks, if you prefer. If your receiver has an auxiliary input (as many aftermarket receivers do), you can connect the audio from your media source directly to the stereo using audio patch cables. If your receiver doesn't have auxiliary inputs, you can use an FM modulator. The audio from your source connects directly to the modulator; the modulator then connects to your radio's antenna input (power and ground connections are required, too), and "broadcasts" the sound over an unused FM frequency.

As previously mentioned, you might find a system that uses a wireless FM modulator. It operates on the same principle as wired modulators, except it doesn't require you to make a direct connection to your radio's antenna input, which is remarkably convenient! Like wireless headphones, wireless modulators may fall prey to occasional interference, and the range of frequencies over which they can broadcast can be a bit more limited than those of hard-wired versions. But they can solve some very tricky installation problems, by eliminating the need for you to access the back of your radio.

You can make your mobile theater sound like your home theater

As with your home stereo, it's actually possible to get true 5.1 surround sound in a car! The cozy, enclosed nature of the vehicle makes it easy to hear the distinct channel separation. Your vehicle's front and rear speakers act as the front left and right and surround left and right channels. You'll have to add a center channel speaker (which can present some mounting challenges; consulting a professional is highly recommended, depending on your experience) and an amplified subwoofer to complete the speaker setup.

There are several ways to get surround sound in your car:

  • Hook your Dolby Digital® and DTS®-compatible DVD player (or in-dash DVD receiver) up to a separate surround-sound decoder. This is usually done with an optical digital cable, although some brands have proprietary connections that work between their own components. It's very similar to a home setup. The signal from the decoder will then have to go to separate amplifiers. You'll need amplification for your front, rear, and center-channel speakers, as well as for your subwoofer. A four-channel amp will work for the front and rear speakers. You'll then either need separate amps for the center channel and subwoofer, or powered versions of both speakers (both of which are available). A very few in-dash DVD receivers let you loop back the audio signal from the decoder and use their internal amplifiers to power the front and rear speakers (which means you'll still need to amplify the center channel and sub).
  • Install an in-dash receiver with built-in surround decoding. These receivers decode the digital surround-sound signal internally, and have all the speaker outputs you need, including center channel. All you have to add in this case is an amplified subwoofer.
  • Use a multi-channel theater component amplifier. The mobile video market in 2004 witnessed the debut of five-channel amplifiers that feature built-in digital surround decoding. These offer front and rear speaker outputs, a center channel output, and a preamp output for connecting a separately amplified sub. These make for clean, powerful installations with excellent sound quality.

Get Everything You Need

Wireless headphones allow backseat passengers to enjoy a movie without disturbing the driver.

RCA composite video cables deliver crystal-clear video transmission — some carry audio signals as well.

Source switchers and video boosters are helpful for video systems with multiple sources and monitors.

Mobile TV tuners for satellite TV on the go.

High-end accessories

Did you know that it's possible to get satellite television in your vehicle? Well, it is. We're not kidding.

The beauty of a comprehensive mobile video system is the number of entertainment options it affords you. In addition to movies and music, you can add video games, local and satellite television, even your camcorder to the mix. What you can add depends on how many audio/video inputs your system has. Some components (video games, notably) might also require items such as power inverters in order for you to operate them in your vehicle.

Adding multiple components makes multi-zone capable video systems all the more fun. For example, if you have two monitors, a game system, and a satellite radio tuner hooked up to an in-dash receiver with multi-zone capability, you can listen to XM over the car speakers, while one backseat passenger watches a DVD, and the other plays a video game. Now that's entertainment.

Whatever you choose to do with mobile video, whether you install a complex, multi-component system, or simply hang a DVD player/monitor combo on your front seat, once you've entered the world of mobile video, you'll never want to leave.

Find what fits your car