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Car Video FAQ


Q: Why would I want a car video system?

A: That's an easy one — entertainment! Families are finding that those long summer trips go more smoothly with a backseat video system. Imagine watching your vacation videos on the way home — just plug your video camera into the system's auxiliary input. And any teenager will tell you that Saturday night at the movies doesn't compare with parking in a car with a rockin' video system.

On a more practical note, think of the advantages of being able to watch videos in your van. Review the details of the business conference you just attended. Athletes could check out their performances on the way back home, while musicians fine tune their show by watching last night's gig. The list of applications is endless, but the key word is fun.
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Q: How do I put together a mobile video system?

A: The easiest way to envision the structure of a mobile theater system is to break it down into three kinds of components:

  • Source:a DVD player, VCR, TV tuner, video game console — anything that provides an audio/video signal for your system.
  • Video: a built-in monitor, portable TV, or anything that allows you to watch video information.
  • Audio: an in-dash receiver, amplifier/speaker system, surround processor, headphone system, or a TV monitor with a built-in speaker — anything that will allow you to hear the sound track.

All mobile video systems boil down to different combinations of these three components. An extremely simple system might consist of a DVD player (the source) and video monitor with built-in speaker or headphone jack (sound and sight) in a zip-up case that straps to the front seat of your vehicle. Another popular inexpensive option is a portable DVD player with headphones (source, sound, and sight).

At the other end of the spectrum, a very sophisticated system might consist of a DVD receiver (video source and sound), installed in the dash. The video signal runs from the DVD player to a flip-down video monitor (sight) in the roof of the vehicle or headrest monitors in the backs of the front seats.

If you find yourself confused by all the car video equipment you find on this site, it might help to keep these three categories in mind— it will clarify the role that each potential component might play in the system you design.
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Q: Do I have to buy everything for my system at one time?

A: As long as you have a clear picture of where you're headed with your system, adding one component at a time will work fine. Many customers begin by purchasing an in-dash DVD receiver, and a backseat monitor or two. Simply run the video signal to your monitor(s), and you're off to the movies.

Possible upgrades:

  • Movie soundtracks contain a great deal of low-frequency information, so consider adding an amplifier and subwoofer to bring out their full impact.
  • Replace the factory speakers in your vehicle for the added intelligibility of enhanced midrange and high-frequency reproduction. Some customers opt to install a headphone system, so that backseat passengers can enjoy movies and video games without disturbing the driver.
  • Add a satellite video system, a video game console, or a TV tuner (for local broadcasts).
  • Install a surround processor (which decodes movie soundtracks into 6 channels of audio) and a multi-channel amplifier. Watching a movie with a Dolby Digital soundtrack in a vehicle with a fully-realized 6-channel audio system is a powerful experience. Some DVD receivers even feature built-in surround processors.

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Q: What about multi-channel sound mobile theater?

A: When you watch a movie in a theater, you hear six separate channels of audio information: front left, center, front right, rear left, rear right, and low-frequency. The speakers all around you create a convincing sonic illusion of great power and depth. Now imagine this process taking place in an area the size of your car's interior, and you'll get an idea of the impact a full-blown car video system can have!

To enjoy fully the multi-channel soundtracks on most DVDs, you'll need to include the following equipment in your video system:

  • Surround processor — some in-dash DVD receivers have built-in processors capable of decoding Dolby Digital soundtracks, otherwise you'll need an outboard processor.
  • Speakers — you'll want to install a center speaker and subwoofer, in addition to the 4 front and rear speakers in your vehicle. (If you don't want to install a center speaker, most receivers or processors offer a "Phantom" mode which compensates for the lack of a center speaker.)
  • Multi-channel amplifier — you must have six separate channels of amplification. Keep in mind that it takes a lot of power to amplify the bass information properly, so assign at least half the power in your system to the subwoofer.

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Q: What do I connect to the mobile DVD player/receiver's optical or coaxial (RCA) digital output?

A: The optical and/or coaxial digital outputs on a DVD player's back panel are for sending various types of digital audio bitstream to compatible components. If you're playing a DVD movie, the multichannel audio (Dolby Digital or DTS?) is sent to the decoder in a surround processor, which separates it into six channels of audio (front right and left, center, rear right and left, and subwoofer).

Although coaxial connections usually have standard RCA-type connectors, the cable itself is specially designed to handle the much wider frequency bandwidth of digital signals. With optical connections, the signal is transmitted as pulses of light through a fiber-optic cable.
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Q: Can a DVD player/receiver play my music CDs? And if so, will it sound as good as a CD receiver?

A: DVD players and receivers are "backwards-compatible" with CDs — they'll play them perfectly. A DVD player's advanced disc transport and digital-to-analog converters are designed for the demanding task of reading and processing the huge amounts of audio and video information on DVDs. By comparison, playing a music CD is a piece of cake.
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Q: What is DVD-Audio? Will my DVD player/receiver play these discs?

A: DVD-Audio is a music-oriented format that can carry up to 6 channels of 96kHz/24-bit audio (music for 5.1-channel surround sound systems), or 2 channels of ultra high-resolution 192kHz/24-bit audio. Few car DVD player/receivers are currently capable of DVD-Audio playback, though most DVD-Audio discs also carry Dolby Digital or stereo soundtracks for playback on DVD players that lack DVD-Audio decoders. A DVD-Audio disc may also contain liner notes, lyrics, menus, and still pictures that display on a video monitor.
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Q: What are the different screen aspect ratios? How do I know which versions are on each disc?

A: The screen aspect ratio is the ratio between the width and height of an image or display screen. There are two basic screen options:

  • Widescreen — most movies are made for the wide screen of a theater, and are originally displayed at the wider ratios of 1.85:1 or 2.35:1. Widescreen versions are preferred by many film buffs and videophiles because they keep the director's original vision intact.
  • Standard — picture that's reformatted to fit a regular direct-view TV (4:3 aspect ratio). With this option, some of the original picture is lost.

DVD's huge data storage capacity makes it possible to include multiple versions of a movie on a single disc — a Standard (4:3) version on one side and a Widescreen version on the other. Although not every mobile monitor is capable of Widescreen viewing, some offer up to 5 selectable aspect ratios, so you can choose the best format for your screen size.

Your DVD's packaging should say which versions are on the disc. On the data-free center area of each disc, it should indicate which version is on which side. For a more detailed explanation, see aspect ratio in the Glossary.
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Q: Is it possible to watch movies while my vehicle is moving?

A: It is illegal for front-seat passengers to view movies on your mobile video monitor. Most in-dash mobile video receivers require a wire connected to your emergency or parking brake so that movies can only be viewed when the brake is engaged. Rear seat passengers will be able to view movies while your vehicle is in motion if you have added an additional rear seat monitor.
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