Car Audio Mobile Video Systems

Mobile video is an exciting addition to the mobile electronics scene mostly made possible by smaller, flat LCD monitors. When determining if mobile video is right for you a few decisions have to be made. First you need to decide what your goals are for your system. Do you want to add DVD, TV, video games, GPS navigation, etc.? This will determine what gear you're going to need to buy and can make sure it all works together.

You can buy head units with built in DVD players that go in your dash. There are also separate DVD players that can connect to stand alone monitors. Video game systems (PS3, XBox, Wii, etc.) are quite common and most good installers won't have a problem adapting the system to 12 volt use.

Mounting Locations and the Law

After you decide what you want (which may be pocketbook limited), you can determine where you will install the equipment. Typical monitor locations are in-dash, on the headliner, in the sunvisors or in the head rests. The possibilities are endless but those are the most common. Obviously the head rest option will be for your rear seat passengers as will the headliner mounting. Be sure to work with a competent installer who knows the laws in your area for mounting video monitors. Most areas do not allow the video monitor(s) viewable by the driver to function unless the car is in park or if the system is used for navigation or vehicle information display. And NEVER let an installer remove either of the airbag(s) in your vehicle to install a video monitor. Besides being a bad idea, it's usually illegal.

Mobile Video Monitor Options

LCD Video Monitor
Image courtesy of Kenwood

Now that you know where you will mount your equipment you can go shopping. Monitors typically are 4", 5", 6-7", 10", 12" and even larger. Expect to pay from $100 each for the small monitors to $1,000+ for the larger models. Make sure the monitor you choose is large enough to be viewable but small enough to fit comfortably in the space you have.

In the showroom you will want to view the monitor at different angles and with differing lighting conditions. Some monitors look washed out when viewed from the side or in direct sunlight. Bring a flashlight to help simulate this. Monitors are rated with a brightness rating specification called a "NIT". Typical ranges are from 200-300 with a larger number indicating a brighter monitor. Look for a high number if you want to be able to view video units during the day. However, if you only need it for night cruising then you might save some money by choosing a unit with a lower NIT value. Some of the better monitors will have built in brightness and contrast controls that viewers can adjust as needed.

Monitors also come in various dimensions. If you plan on viewing movies on your system then you will want to purchase a widescreen monitor. These will have the aspect ratio (width to height ratio) of 16:9. Older television sets have an aspect ratio of 4:3. Since most DVDs and Blu-Ray are in widescreen you would be wise to get a compatible screen.

Remote headphones (usually wireless) are a great option if you have children and you don't want to listen to songs about sponges that live in pineapples. These systems will allow your passengers to listen to the audio portion through their headphones while the driver either listens to another source or chooses to drive in silence. These systems will usually be built into an all-in-one system but can be purchased separately. I'd recommend getting the RF wireless headphones rather than the infrared (IR) or wired models.

DVD/VCR/TV/Satellite Sources

Video sources are a little more straight forward. If you plan on having multiple sources (DVD, TV, etc.) you'll want to get a video switching system that is compatible with your components. For this reason it's probably best to buy components from one manufacturer that are designed to work together. Expect to pay more money for a "does-it-all" system.

For more modest budgets you could have a simpler system. For the typical sedan you might choose a dash mounted DVD/monitor head unit to watch movies and play CDs. This will set you back anywhere from $500-$2,000+. Or you can keep your existing head unit and add a stand alone DVD player for $150+ and connect it to an dash mounted monitor ($200-$700), space permitting. If you want to let your back seat passengers in on the fun you can add a couple of head rest mounted screens for $300-$1,000. Integrating a video game system isn't too much more and you can expect to pay about $300 which includes the game unit. From there the sky is the limit.

One relatively expensive item that is available for the car is satellite television. Using a sophisticated antenna and tracking system we now have the ability to have satellite television in our vehicles, even while the vehicle is moving. The system is called TracVision and is made by KVH. The antenna is only a few inches tall and looks most at home on the top of mini-vans, SUVs, and campers. It's very cool but it's not cheap at around $3,000 plus installation. Alternatively there are options with a more limited program selection and a lower cost of entry like Sirius Backseat TV.

Adding a Video Game Console

Adding a video game console such as a PlayStation or Xbox is very popular. These units can even act as your DVD/Blu-Ray source. Interfacing a video game system isn't that complicated and is comparable to adding a stand alone DVD player. The main difference is that the game consoles will require an electrical converter, called an inverter. This will take the +12 volts DC of the automobile and convert it to the 110 volts AC that the video game console needs. These inverters are widely available and cost about $20-30. If you're installing it yourself just ask for a 12 volt to 110 volt inverter. They're even available at places like Wal-Mart. After your power connection is ready you will need to plug the video output of your video console into your video system. This will vary depending on your installation. It may be your head unit if it has built in video switching or it may be a stand alone switcher/amplifier.

Video Installation Accessories

Just like any component, there's more to installing a video system than the actual equipment. You'll also need cables, video amplifiers, and wiring. Here's a few things to look for:

Cables - Look for a cable that is designed specifically for video. It doesn't have to be a super expensive cable but one that is better than the typical RCA cable will help shield the video system from noise. The audio cables can be the same type as you would use to hook up your amplifier or other audio units.

Trim Rings - Monitors mounted in the head rests will probably need a trim ring to look their best. This may not be the case if you are having extensive custom work done. Most will come with a trim/mounting shroud or are available as a $10 option. Sunvisor shrouds are also available. These will allow (relatively) easy installation of a video screen into a sunvisor.

Video Amplifier - A video amplifier will be needed if you have many screens in your video setup. For example, a dash monitor and two head rest monitors. The video amplifier will keep your video signal from becoming weak as it is passed to the rear monitors. Expect to pay $20-40 for a stand alone amplifier.

Video Filter - You may experience noise from some video units. This is especially true of video game consoles due to their drive units. You will want to use a filter such as the Channel Plus 2501 blocking capacitor to eliminate this video noise if it appears in your system.

Video Switcher - A video switcher is needed so that you can switch between multiple video sources without unplugging cables. These are the easiest to use when they are part of a all-in-one or head unit system. Stand alone units will have a remote control and a built-in video amplifier. Expect to pay in the $150 neighborhood.


The Car Audio Help DVD catalog includes five different videos covering many areas of car audio installation and custom fabrication. Topics range from basic system installation (head units, CD changers, amplifiers, speakers, etc.) and mobile security (car alarms and remote start) to subwoofer box design and fiberglass fabrication. If you're interested in custom fabrication and car audio installation be sure to check out what we have to offer.

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