We look at the market for stereo and multimedia for you car. Wheter you wanty alternative ways of listening to your music collection, or keeping the kids amused on a long trip, you can count on there being an off-the-shelf solution
Take your typical family runabout. If it was built within the last ten years, it probably has a pretty good sound system built-in. However, with the emergence of iPod and MP3 music on our computers, and DVD movies on TV, we’ve become used to a world of on-demand sound and vision, at least in the home. Why should it be any different in the car? The good news is that thanks to the world of In Car Entertainment (ICE) upgrades, your driving time need not be excluded… and your kids will love it.
CD/MP3 HEAD UNITS (£100-£400)
For upwards of £100, the head units you can buy today are significantly more advanced. Yes, they’ll still play CDs and pick up your favourite radio station, but with significantly beefed-up amplifiers, and the capability of playing MP3 CDs recorded on your home PC, or linking up to your MP3 player, there’s no excuse for listening to the same track twice – even on the longest journeys.
PIONEER DEH-P85 BT RRP £399.99 Making calls and playing music through your audio system is made easy with this Pioneer unit. It plays all known audio formats and an iPod can be connected with an optional cable. With its Bluetooth functionality, you can keep your phone in your pocket, and control everything through the head unit.
KENWOOD KDC W3041G CD RRP £99.95 Kenwoods are well built and have been one of the market leaders in the aftermarket ICE sector since the 1980s. This model offers Aux-input for your iPod/MP3 player, can play MP3 discs, and the sound quality is excellent – and all for a bargain price.
Stick to one of the established manufacturers of ICE, such as Alpine, Blaupunkt, Kenwood, Philips, Pioneer or Sony, and you can pretty much guarantee that even the entry level units available off-theshelf for around £100 will offer a significant upgrade. Not just in terms of quality and adaptability, but also functionality.
Move up a peg or two, to around £200, and sound quality increases further (time to change your existing speakers at this point), and you may get feel-good add-ons such as Bluetooth, which allows your mobile phone to integrate with your head unit, dispensing with the need for a potentially costly hands-free kit. There’s also iPod connectivity, a feature becoming increasingly common. For anyone with their music collection backed-up to an iPod, there’s no better way of accessing it in the car than via your head unit’s fascia controls.
MULTIMEDIA/DVD HEAD UNITS (£200-£2,000)
Here’s where the real fun begins. If you’re impressed with the latest generation of factory fitted SatNav audio systems, you’ll be glad to know that if you’re prepared to pay over £1,000 for an off-the-shelf unit, you can retro-fit a similar system to your own car. For instance, Pioneer’s range-topping AVIC includes Double-DIN systems that boast a 7-inch touch screen, the option of playing DVD-Videos, and integrated SatNav.
SONY MEX DV1000 RRP £199.99 Fitting into your single DIN slot, this DVD tuner offers great sound quality and full functionality. If you want to watch films on it, you can connect up external screens. One of the more unique features is the Karaoke microphone input. The kids’ll love that, although you may not!
PIONEER AVIC-HD3BT RRP £1599 Okay, this is an extravagance, but if you’re going to splash out, this is the way to go. With built in navigation, hard disc drive for music storage, and so much more, if you’re going to treat yourself, and your car, you couldn’t do better.
You can connect additional TV screens to keep the kids amused, although it is recommended that you have these professionally installed for the best results. The downside of that is that when you come to sell the car, you’ll more than likely leave them in there.
Of course, you don’t need to spend anywhere near that much to enjoy the multimedia experience. For less than £200, you’ll be able pick up a single-DIN sized head unit that offers the option to view DVDs as well as CDs, as well as play MP3/WMA encoded music DVDs.
You could buy one with a postage stamp sized screen on the front, or the James Bond option, a pop out monitor (usually from £500 for a big name manufacturer). They’re not for watching movies on the run, though, but touch screen control of your audio functions makes changing tracks a real pleasure.
LISTENING TO YOUR MP3 PLAYER ON THE MOVE
Even if you have the oldest car stereo known to mankind plugged into your dashboard, you should still be able to play your iPod or other MP3 player through it. There might be no Auxinput to plug into, but if you have a cassette player, there are nifty adaptors that will do the same job. Shaped like a cassette, you pop in the adaptor, and then plug in the attached lead into your MP3 player’s headphone socket. If you’re a little more flash, there are FM tuners that plug directly into the posher players, such as the iPod or Walkman. The little adaptors attach to the expansion port of your player, and then broadcast its output in a form that the FM radio tuner in your car stereo can pick up. They’re cheap and reasonably effective, although can suffer from interference in built-up areas, where background radio waves bounce off buildings. Nearly all head units now come with an Aux-input on the front, and these work fine, but for true integration, try and buy one with an iPod (or Walkman) interface lead as standard. You’ll be able to control your iPod from your stereo fascia, but it also means it’ll get charged up as you play.
Finally, most mobile phones come with built in music players, and if it’s a Bluetooth enabled model, you’ll be able to listen to your tunes by buying a Bluetooth enabled head unit and synching them up. It’s a simple process, and once connected, you’ll never need to touch your mobile again while in the car.
TECHNICAL TERMS MADE EASY:
In Car Entertainment salesmen love to baffle you with acronyms – it’s all part of the sales pitch: confuse, impress and convince you that you need to buy something that you really don’t need. Here’s the What Diesel guide to what those mysterious terms actually mean.
AUX INPUT: Got an iPod or other MP3 player? Get yourself an input lead to connect from the headphone socket into the front of the stereo. Connect them up, press play, and you can hear it play through your car speakers.
BLUETOOTH: Wireless communication. If you have a bluetooth enabled car stereo, you can connect it to your phone for hands free operation, or MP3 player, similarly equipped, to listen to the music on it.
DIVX MOVIES: A compressed file format to enable you to fit more film and video files onto your recording media. If you buy an in-car multimedia player to watch films recorded on your PC, DivX basically means you can store more films on your discs.
DOUBLE DIN: Want a more fully featured stereo? Double-DIN units fit in a slot that’s twice as big as your standard car stereo slot. And just in case you think that wouldn’t fit in your dashboard, if your car has a coin tray above the stereo, it’s probably removable, revealing a nice big aperture.I
ICE: In car entertainment – can you live without it anymore?
ISO/DIN: Comes from the German institute for standardisation, and in ICE terms generally refers to the size of aftermarket audio head units. They can generally be used to replace factory fitted stereos, too, when used with an adaptor plate.
MP3/WMA: Compression formats that allow you to fit more music onto any given storage device. So if you’re creating a CD with MP3s on it from your computer to play on your MP3 head-unit, you’ll typically get ten times as many songs on one disc.
RCA AV OUTPUT: With these, you can connect separate TV screens to your head unit, allowing passengers to view videos or movies.
RCA PRE-OUTS: With an RCA output, you can plug a separate amplifier into your car stereo, to drive additional speakers, and supply more power. Check your existing speakers can handle the additional load.
USB CONTROL: Plug in pen drives and other MP3 players to listen to music saved from your computer.
Not everyone wants to upgrade their stereo to the latest all-singing specification, but could do with entertaining the kids on the go. How about buying one of the latest generation portable DVD players with integrated screen? Improvements in battery technology and screen quality means that these free-standing systems are perfect for in-car use, and most now come with mounting packs for just that purpose. Cost is no longer prohibitive, and it won’t take much searching to find units for around £100, although you’ll need to choose carefully if you want something rugged enough to withstand the rigours of that long family holiday. Buy one, together with a pair of headphones, and strap it to the back of your headrest, and you’ll be amazed at how long it will keep children amused. It also means you can carry on listening to your own music without interruption. Remember, though, always remove from sight when you park the car, and lock it away with your portable sat/nav for peace of mind. And don’t forget about the mounting. If it’s left on show, its a big clue that a unit may be locked away in the boot or in a glovebox, which could make it an easy target for thieves.
It doesn’t matter if you spend £50 or £2,000, a little investment in aftermarket ICE makes all the difference to your driving pleasure. If familiarity with your car is breeding boredom, perhaps its time to invest in a little upgrade. You won’t break the bank, and as we have seen, your time behind the wheel will be greatly enhanced. The only dilemma you may find yourself in is stopping yourself from taking the long way home on every trip.