Backseat Movies

Car DVD entertainment systems now come in a wide range of types and prices -- and the cost is dropping fast

The car is packed. You've checked and rechecked your list of things to take. Now, all that remains is to deposit the kids in the backseat and steel yourself for the inevitable question: "Are we there yet?"

This summer, for those road trips where I-spy and license-plate bingo are no longer enough, you might want to consider another way to fight the fidgets. Thanks to a wealth of competition, prices of in-car video systems are coming down fast. The average car DVD entertainment system now runs about $640, according to market researcher NPD Group. That's a big drop from more than $1,000 two years ago.

You can get a portable, battery-operated DVD player for as little as $200 -- and take it on airplanes as well as in the car. Or you can pay thousands of dollars for a custom-installed miniplex with five-channel surround sound, satellite TV -- and multiple features playing on several screens.


  If you're looking for a bargain, start your shopping with what one wag calls "home theater in a bag." These are videocassette or DVD systems -- complete with a player, flat video screen, and speakers or headphones -- all packaged in a zippered, nylon carrying case. You either hang it from a front-seat headrest or mount it, facing rear, between the two front seats with straps that go around the seats. It plugs into the cigarette lighter or the cell-phone power point often found in the car's center console.

Prices range from $298.84 for Wal-Mart's entry-level Xtreme model, with a DVD player and 6.4-inch screen, to about $1,500 for versions with huge 15-in. video displays. Audiovox, which dominates the category, sells a VHS/DVD combo unit for less than $600: With an optional $200 second screen, you can play two movies at the same time.

The big advantage of bag systems is that you can use them at your destination as well. Just tote them into the hotel room or Grandma's house. Not convinced? Rent one for your next road trip. For $150 to $200, Drivin' Sane ( will let you try out a Video Traveler model for 17 days, shipping included, or get one for a weekend trip for as little as $49.


  If you want to build a rear-seat entertainment system right into your car, you can get the basics for $500 or $600, plus an installation fee that starts at around $150. From $1,000 to $2,000 or more installed, however, you'll get a bigger screen or additional screens, and a DVD player instead of one that plays only VHS tapes. The big decision is where to mount the video screen. You can get displays that tilt down from the ceiling and can be seen by everyone in the back. Or you can mount individual screens in the back of the front-seat headrests. The player is usually stowed under one of the front seats.

You now have ways to add the video screens without permanently altering the car's interior -- good news if you're leasing your car. Several manufacturers make overhead consoles with drop-down video displays for all the popular sport-utility vehicles and minivans. They're designed to replace the console that came with the car, but still look as if they were installed at the factory. Most models, however, are built to fit any car or SUV. They often mount right where the dome lamp is now, so there's no need for any new cuts in the fabric overhead.

New this year are systems that incorporate the DVD player in the same overhead console as the screen, such as Rosen Products' CV6880D, with a 6.8-in. screen for about $1,300, or the similarly priced VOD806, with an 8-in. screen, from Audiovox. With no wires to run to a separate DVD player, the new designs simplify the installation -- perhaps enough so that serious do-it-yourselfers can tackle it at home. It's a three- or four-hour job.

Whether you buy a unit with the DVD player and screen combined or separate, look for models that can receive a TV signal. You'll be surprised at how good the reception is. And make sure it has extra video inputs, so you can plug in a video-game player or hook up your camcorder and show the movies you take on the trip.

If you want the screens in the headrests, the easiest way is to replace the entire headrest. VizuaLogic makes headrests with a 7-in. screen built into the back that match the upholstery in many cars, right down to the type of stitching and color of thread. They list at $599 each, so a complete system with a pair of headrest monitors, DVD player, headphones, and associated electronics typically runs around $1,500.

Most systems broadcast the audio track to an unused channel on the car's FM radio, or you can have them wired into the car stereo so that the sound plays through the car speakers, or through the rear speakers at least. That's an unnecessary expense. Because the systems are designed for backseat passengers only, they almost always include a wireless headset or two. Tip: If your children bring along their friends, you'll want extra wireless headsets. They're about about $30 each.

You can get front-seat video, too, but most of those units replace the car stereo and cost $2,000 and up. Besides, most states prohibit video that the driver can view unless the car is stopped; the systems operate only when the parking brake is on. That means now, when you're ready to roll, the biggest argument might well come from the adults: Who gets to sit in the backseat and watch movies with the kids?

By Larry Armstrong

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