Car Multimedia Basics

Audio, Video, and Pulling It All Together

car multimedia flip-down screen
Car multimedia systems can use a ton of different video options, including flip-down screens. Don Mason / Blend Images / Getty

For a long time, car multimedia was limited to applications like high-end cars, limousines, and recreational vehicles. The idea of watching movies or playing video games in a car didn’t hit the mainstream until the late 90s and early 00s, and even then car multimedia was largely limited to expensive video head units and bulky VCR- or DVD-in-a-bag systems.

Today, in-car multimedia can be enjoyed through OEM infotainment systems, feature-rich aftermarket video head units, portable DVD players and screens, and a variety of other setups. There’s almost no limit to the ways you can configure a car multimedia system, and the only sure thing is that you need both an audio and video component.

There are dozens of different pieces of equipment and gear that all need to work together in car multimedia, but they all fit into three basic categories:

Car Audio Multimedia Components

The audio portion of an in-car multimedia system typically consists of the existing sound system, though there are a couple differences. Some of the audio components that are typically found in car multimedia systems include:

Headphones can be found in regular car audio systems, but they are much more commonly used in conjunction with car multimedia. Wired headphones require a headphone jack in the head unit, video player, or elsewhere, while wireless headphones can make use of IR or RF signals.

Most of the other audio components are very similar to those found in traditional car audio systems, with a few exceptions like the head unit. While a regular car stereo can be used in a multimedia setup, video head units are much better suited to the purpose.

Car Video Multimedia Components

Every car multimedia system needs at least one video component, but they can also have a lot more than that. Some of the more common car video multimedia components include:

While the head unit is the heart of any car sound system, it can also function as a video component of a multimedia system. Some single DIN head units have small LCD screens or large flip-out screens, and there are also double DIN head units that include large, high-quality LCD screens.

Multimedia head units also need auxiliary inputs and video outputs in order to handle additional video sources and remote screens. Some head units are also designed to work with headphones, which can be especially useful with multimedia systems.

Car Multimedia Sources

In addition to audio and video components, every car multimedia system needs one or more sources of video and audio. These sources can be virtually anything, but the most common ones are:

It’s also possible to use an iPod, smartphone, tablet, laptop, or other portable media device as an audio or video source. Some head units are specifically designed for use with an iPod, and others include one or more auxiliary inputs that can accept external audio or video signals.

Bringing it all together

Building a great car multimedia system can be a complicated task due to the variety of components that have to mesh together, so it may be helpful to consider the different components individually. If you build a great audio system, it will probably work fine when you start adding video components.

However, it can also pay to think ahead. If you’re building an audio system, and you plan on adding a video component later, then it might pay off to choose a video head unit. In that same vein, it’s also a good idea to think about all of the media sources you want to take advantage of when you’re building the audio system. If you want to use a media server, watch wireless TV, or play video games, then you’ll want to make sure to find a head unit that has enough auxiliary inputs to handle everything.