Car Multimedia Basics: How to Build an In-Car Multimedia Experience

Audio, Video, and Pulling It All Together

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 an audio component, a video component, and some type of media to play on your system.

car multimedia flip-down screen
Don Mason / Blend Images / Getty

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:

  • Audio gear: This is the traditional car stereo equipment that's been around forever. You need a head unit and speakers at a bare minimum, and the head unit needs to be able to handle video inputs.
  • Video equipment: The video component of an in-car multimedia system can take a lot of different forms. Common implementations include video head units, headrest-mounted screens, and ceiling-mounted screens.
  • Media sources: An in-car multimedia system can rely entirely on physical media, like DVDs and Blu-ray discs, you can go digital, or a hybrid of the two.

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:

  • Head unit: This is the heart of the system, and it controls everything else. You've probably heard the term car stereo used more often, but the component in your dash that you use to control your car stereo system is actually the head unit.
  • Speakers: Great speakers are also key, but the speakers in a multimedia system don't have to be any different from the speakers in a regular car audio system.
  • Amplifier: Every in-car multimedia system, and every car audio system in general, needs an amplifier. Most head units have an amp built right in, but higher end systems use one or more external amps.
  • Sound processor: This is a component found in higher end car audio systems, and it can also come in handy if you want your multimedia system to sound as good as possible.
  • Crossovers: This is another component that's found in higher end car audio systems that's useful in improving sound quality.
  • Headphones: Most car audio systems rely entirely on speakers, but multimedia systems can include headphones as well. This is a really useful feature if you have kids.

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 these 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:

  • Video head units: This is the easiest way to turn a car audio system into an in-car multimedia system. Double DIN video head units have the biggest screens by default, but some single DIN units also have pretty big flip-out screens.
  • Flip-down screens: These displays mount to the ceiling and flip down during use. They're mainly useful to allow all of the rear passengers to watch the same video all at once.
  • Headrest-mounted screens: These displays mount on, or in, the driver and passenger headrests. They allow the rear passengers to watch the same video on both screens, or different videos if you have multiple video sources.
  • Portable screens: These aren't as highly integrated into the multimedia system, but they're more convenient. Some portable screens can be plugged into an in-car multimedia system and then removed and used elsewhere for convenience. You can also use a tablet depending on the system you're trying to build.

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:

  • CD players: Limited to audio, and slowly fading away from OE dashboards, CD players remain one of the best ways to listen to music and other audio content in your car.
  • DVD players: A head unit that has a combo CD/DVD player opens up your entertainment options, and may include a built-in screen or outputs you can use to hook up an external screen. You won't get an HD picture, but the low cost of DVD players and DVDs make this a great choice for in-car entertainment.
  • Blu-ray players: Some head units give you the ability to play Blu-rays instead of just DVDs and CDs. The picture quality is great, but it isn't really necessary when you're using a small screen.
  • MP3/WMA-compatible head units: If you want to be able to burn your own CDs at home, look for a head unit that can play digital media files like MP3s and WMAs.
  • Media servers: The heart of your system, if you want to bring a bunch of digital media wherever you go, is going to be a media server. Most people can safely skip this component, but the best in-car multimedia systems need some way to store and serve a large library of digital music and video.
  • Video game consoles: If you're working on a budget and have an old video game console sitting around, it can make a surprisingly decent start for an in-car multimedia system. Some consoles are capable of playing digital music and video in addition to video games, with the only caveat being that you'll have to figure out a 12 volt power supply.
  • Wireless TV: Why not take your TV on the road? There are a bunch of ways to get this done if it sounds interesting.
  • Internet radio: Some head units come with internet radio built right in, and you can also buy add-on devices if you aren't interested in replacing your head unit. This is especially good for long road trips, since you don't have to find a new station every few hours.
  • Mobile television: A box of DVDs is fine for most road trips, but consider an unlimited data subscription, tethered phone or hotspot device, and a subscription to an on-demand television service for a totally wireless TV experience.

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.