by Paul Williams

The events of “9/11” caused many people to re-think their plans to travel by air. Instead, they’re travelling by road.

Consequently, sales of mobile entertainment systems are booming. At least, that’s how André DeRouchie, of Derand Motorsport in Ottawa, sees it. “Since New York we’ve noticed a real increase in the number of people buying our mobile audio-visual systems,” he says. “Their popularity increased big-time after last September. Now, word’s getting around about what’s available, and demand is up even more.”

Naturally, consumers are looking for the kind of movie systems they’ve experienced in planes. But they may be surprised. Entertainment systems for your vehicle now go well beyond in-flight entertainment technology.

You can select from a vast array of sophisticated components that transform your humble conveyance into a veritable Blockbuster on wheels.Systems are available for just about every vehicle, from small car to big SUV. They’re priced for most budgets.

If you’re in the market for mobile video, you have several choices. First, you’ll select between an economy, portable system, a fixed “off-the-shelf” system, or a custom-installed component system.

You’ll spend about $500-700 for an economy portable system in a carry case. This would include a VHS tape player and a small TV-type monitor. This type of system straps between the two front seats, plugs into your 12-volt lighter socket, and is available at Canadian Tire. For many people, it’s all they need to keep the kids entertained on a long trip.

A step up is a system that bolts permanently into your vehicle. Your choice is between an overhead model with a flip-down monitor, and a floor-console model.

EZ-Fit Kid Pathfinder
EZ-Fit Kid Pathfinder
Click image to enlarge

Overhead models mount pretty much above the driver’s shoulder. Console systems mount on the floor between the two front seats, and often include storage compartments for DVDs and videotapes. Power is supplied by tapping into the vehicle’s wiring harness.

Some of these systems are specifically designed for particular vehicles, and others are generic. Audiovox, for instance, offers systems for the Chrysler Town and Country, Dodge Durango, Ford Explorer, Lincoln Navigator and many other vehicles. Each one features small variations that enable it to fit properly.

Clarion is another name-brand system that comes highly recommended by Mr. DeRouchie. An Audiovox or Clarion system like this typically costs $1995 installed. Additional monitors can be connected to these systems, and fitted to the rear of your vehicle’s headrests for $399 each.

You’re not restricted to videos, though. Mobile entertainment systems can handle whatever media you choose – even TV signals if you purchase a separate antenna.

If your household has a Nintendo or Sony Playstation, you may be able to take that on the road as well. You’ll need a converter from 12-volt to 110-volt ($149). Check that your system has the appropriate inputs for a game system first.

Mobile DVD systems, by the way, are specially designed to endure bumps and thumps experienced on the road. Jury-rigging your home unit in the car is not a practical option. However, many people have found they can successfully use their Playstation 2 game console to play games and watch DVDs.

Something that might interest you is integrating your mobile video system with your car’s existing audio system. This is accomplished by using an FM modulator ($89). Furthermore, the Audiovox and Clarion systems mentioned above are multi-channel units that allow your passengers to listen to the
movie’s audio track through headphones, while the driver listens to the radio or a CD from the speakers.

But in the world of mobile video, this is still child’s play. You’re really integrated when you ditch your car’s existing stereo unit and replace it with a full-function, custom-installed, “multimedia station.” With this you can insert the DVD into an in-dash player, play MP3 audio, or manage a DVD changer and other audio-visual functions from controls on the dash. You can mix and match components to suit your needs with customized systems like these.

A final touch is to connect to a navigation system, laptop computer, cell phone and the Internet. Are we thinking Jetsons yet?

A fully functioned multimedia station like the Clarion Joyride, including navigation and six-channel audio will cost $5000 installed.

A multi-functional system is bound to generate heated discussion in the car. One passenger wants to play a video game; another wants a movie. This is resolved with circuitry that permits playing 3 or 4 different media simultaneously. Systems like the Clarion Joyride come with this circuitry built-in.

You can add a multi-zone switcher that permits your off-the-shelf system to do the same thing for $650 plus installation.

Of course, you’ll need more than one monitor.

Myron & Davis monitors
Myron & Davis monitors
Click image to enlarge

Speaking of monitors, you have more choices. Sizes range between 13-45 centimetres (5-18 inches) and typically, they’re liquid crystal, flat-panel units. A favourite of Mr. DeRouchie is the Myron & Davis line of monitors. This company offers a range of styles, types and sizes.

With flat-panel monitors, however, a bigger size will dramatically increase the cost. Make sure yours has a wide viewing angle, unlike your flat-panel computer monitor that fades out when viewed from the side.

Manufacturers do not recommend installing a monitor within view of the driver. However, some motorists don’t find it a problem to drive while their passengers watch an in-dash video.

Even two-seater sports cars can have mobile entertainment. Check out the new $2499 Clarion VRX-925VD. It replaces your audio system with a stereo/CD/DVD/MP3 player, and features a retractable pop-up, touch screen monitor. Installation is extra.

It should go without saying, though, that operating a motor vehicle and watching a video simultaneously is dangerous and completely irresponsible. But I’ll say it anyway.

Headphones are yet another option. Listening to the electronic chirping and beeping of Super Mario will be irritating for the driver, so headphones are recommended. Most systems now come with wireless headphones.

Car manufacturers are not unaware of the interest generated by in-car entertainment systems. Many mini-vans can now be purchased from the dealer with such a system.

So far, only the Saturn L-Series car (the big Saturn) can be ordered with video from the factory.

How can you tell if the system you’re considering is a good one? According to Mr. DeRouchie, ask where it’s sent if service is required. He points out that name-brand systems like Clarion and Nakamichi are sent to their respective manufacturers. Many other systems are sent to generic service
outlets that don’t specialize in particular products. In his view, factory service is superior.

Mr. DeRouchie also cautions that a system’s appearance is not necessarily an indication of its quality. “Fancy lights, graphics and sound effects may look good on the surface, but it’s what’s behind the faceplate that counts.”

Sounds like what my mother told me about people.

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