DIY Car Video System

For a town that is generally a tech backwater, Des Moines, Iowa contains a proliferation of autos with overhead video screens. A visit to any local gym in town reveals more portable CD players than media players, but apparently Iowans need movies on wheels. The number of wireless hotspots in Des Moines rivals almost no one, yet the youth of Iowa will not be without their Finding Nemo DVDs while being transported from home to the local grocer. So far, I haven't seen anyone watching anything they wouldn't want their mother to see, which hopefully speaks well of drivers here.

Buying a car with a DVD player and multiple screens built in seems to be easier than finding one without. It's almost like asking for a car without power windows; the salesman will just tilt his head to the side and assume you've gotten too much sun. For those of us who aren't ready to upgrade to a new car, just so we can add video, third party add-ons still look very expensive. A headrest with built-in screen runs $1500 in most places.

The creative shopper can easily put together a headrest multimedia system for under $200, using a little creativity and a trip to the local Best Buy store or Next week, I'll walk through the installation process. In the meantime, I'll make a list of the hardware I'm using to get the job done.

The screen: Audiovox VBPEX56. This screen is intended as an add-on for the Audiovox portable DVD player line, allowing two simultaneous viewers. Luckily, the screen works with anything capable of outputting S-Video or Composite signals. Built in speakers provide adequate sound, although sound may optionally be routed almost anywhere, including the car stereo system. Best Buy seems to have the best price on this unit, coming in at a mere $99.99. If you can track down an Eddie Bauer by Audiovox MEX1020 at Target, you have the same screen. Part of the reason for choosing this model is the included strap system for easily connecting the screen to the back of a headrest. It comes with both a 12V car adapter (you know, the cigarette lighter plug) and traditional AC cable.

The DVD player: CyberHome CH-DVD 300S. The most important factor about a car DVD player is size. The only convenient place to stash a player is under the car seat, which means the form factor needs to be small enough to fit under the seat, while still providing convenient access to the controls. CyberHome makes this disposable model half the size of a normal home theater component, making it perfect for hiding below the front passenger. It even fits in the under seat drawer, although I would need to cut out the drawer front to provide room for the tray to open. This particular model is louder than anything I would want in my home entertainment system, but for car use, the noise blends in with the grind from the road. And did I mention the DVD player claims to work with both NTSC and PAL?

Power Supply: The Audiovox screen includes a 12V connection. The DVD player uses a traditional plug connection, so powering both devices is a two stage process. Unless the car you drive includes two power outlets on the console, a 12V Y-adapter is necessary to power both devices. One side of the adapter will connect the Audiovox screen. A power inverter plugs into the other side of the 12V splitter, adding traditional outlets. This Tripp Lite model with 375 watts of power provides enough juice for the DVD player and a laptop, if one of your passengers needs a battery charge.

A run down of component costs:

Audiovox VBPEX56 Screen:   $99.99
CyberHome CHDVD 300S:     39.99
12V Y-adapter:        7.49
Tripp Lite Inverter:     39.99
Total Cost: $187.46

All necessary cables should be included. Pictures and a detailed explanation of the installation process are coming next week.

Integrating audio into the car stereo system gets a little more difficult. Most high-end factory systems include auxiliary input jacks on the back side of the receiver. More plain-vanilla varieties require a system upgrade. Unless you are looking for the boom emanating from the lowered Nissan Sentra in the next lane, the Alpine CDC-X204 makes a sensible replacement for a factory system. The 22 watts (45W peak) per channel may not seem impressive, but it bests most factory models (my Suzuki is rated at 14W). Why this model? It's one of the few car players with a front face 1/8-inch auxiliary port. That single little port offers a line in for the DVD player, and more importantly, no more FM broadcasts from a portable media player to the car stereo. This addition brings the total to just under $300. For future compatibiility with XM, look for an XM ready stereo with additional inputs on the back.