In-car entertainment buyers guide

The options for injecting audio and video into your jalopy are as varied as they are comprehensive. Anthony Fordham explains how to make drive time, prime time.

What’s that thumping noise? You can feel it, right up through the floor. Is it an earthquake? Is the Large Hadron Collider finally destroying the Earth? No, it’s just some kid in a blinged-up Suzuki Swift driving around the block testing out his new incar entertainment system.

Since the days of the 8-Track cartridge, there have been aftermarket car audio systems. And they’ve kept pace with technological change elsewhere in the AV world. From radios, to tape decks, to CD players, CD stackers, DVDs, head-units that play MP3 from disc or USB, and today hard-drive based do-everything devices that integrate audio playback, movies and GPS navigation into one double-high install.

If you buy a new car today, and unless you’re investing in the sort of vehicle that attracts luxury car tax, then the entertainment options within will be rudimentary at best. You’ll get a CD player, a radio tuner, maybe a line-in socket into which you can plug a limited range of portable players. An iPod dock will be extra.

Sound quality will be… okay. You’ll be able to understand the lyrics, it will be loud enough to drown out traffic noise. But it won’t have that extra something you, the entertainment junkie, really want.

For that, you need to go aftermarket. Making a choice depends very much on what you want from your incar entertainment, and that can be broadly broken down into versatility, quality and noise.

Big complex head-units with video playback and GPS give you a nearly unlimited range of possibilities, while other head-units offer the sort of signal processing you normally find on a quality AV receiver. Fill the car with speakers and chuck in a couple of dedicated amplifiers and you have yourself a party bus.

Still, by the time you’ve finished this article you should be well-equipped to upgrade your car entertainment to such an extent that choosing between watching a DVD in your lounge room and watching it sitting in the driveway could involve serious thought.