How Headrest Monitors Work

Car Gadgets Image Gallery The Audiovox FLO/TV seatback television system is pictured during the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2009 in Las Vegas, Nev. See more pictures of car gadgets.
AP Photo/Isaac Brekken

In-car video entertainment. For those of us who spent our childhood on road trips, crammed in the back of a station wagon with nothing to do but punch our brothers or sisters, it seems like a godsend. For the parents who were trapped in the same car with three kids who decided to pass the time by punching, pinching and asking, "Are we there yet?" it seems like nirvana. But for today's kids, it's becoming par for the course.

With technology shrinking, drivers are no longer dependent on their radios to entertain passengers. Cars and trucks can now be outfitted with VCRs, DVD players and even the latest video game systems. While the entertainment systems' range includes everything from basic portable DVD players to large ceiling-mounted viewing screens, the most luxurious viewing option for many car passengers is headrest monitors. With headrest monitors, each passenger has a personal monitor mounted on the back of the headrest of the seat directly in front of them. Not only do personal monitors of this sort cut down on issues like sun glare, but in some systems, each monitor can display different programming (ending fights over what to watch) or even use different entertainment devices. That means that while one passenger watches a DVD, another can play video games.


Of course, there are some downsides to built-in headrest monitors.

The systems tend to be very expensive. While some manufacturers offer the systems straight from the factory, they can add thousands of dollars to the price of a car. Actually, only a few luxury car manufacturers currently offer factory-installed headrest monitors -- making them an expensive addition to an already expensive purchase. Aftermarket headrest monitors are more common, but these are still an expensive proposition and usually require professional installation.

­­But, if it's headrest monitors you want, we've got you covered. So buckle up, quit bothering your sister and if you ask to stop at McDonald's one more time, we're turning this article right around and no one will learn anything about headrest monitors. So be good, and go to the next page to learn about the different types of headrest monitors.


Factory and Aftermarket Headrest Monitors

If you're in the market for a new car, you've got a lot of factory-installed entertainment options. Selecting a factory-installed system makes providing entertainment for your passengers easy. The system is set up and ready to go from the moment you own the car. You'll have a warranty for all of the entertainment system's parts and even the labor required to install them. You'll also know that all the components have been designed to work with your car, and they'll fit seamlessly into the design and operation of the vehicle.

For those with their hearts set on factory-installed headrest monitors, you're choices are more narrow than if you considered other factory-installed in-car entertainment systems. Currently, only a few luxury carmakers offer factory-installed headrest monitors on their cars. For those in the new car market who want this feature, you'll have to limit your car shopping to luxury SUVs and crossovers. Some sedans do offer the monitors; however, they tend to be extreme-luxury sedans like Maybachs. Even at the mere luxury level, a factory-installed system will set you back quite a bit. For example, the Land Rover optional headrest monitor package adds around $2,500 to the vehicle's price.


Aftermarket systems can be more affordable. For one, you don't have to buy a new car to get them. The headrest monitors alone are really not that expensive. Seven-inch (17.8-centimeter) monitors start at around $80. However, mounting these monitors can be very complex. You have to cut into the back of the headrest, run the wires into the seats and route them to the input device (VCR, DVD player or game system). And don't forget that you have to put the seat back together again. That's something that's out of the league of many do-it-yourselfers, which means installation costs need to be added to the relatively low price of some of these stand-alone headrest monitors.

A less labor-intensive option is to replace your car's headrests with headrests that have monitors pre-mounted. Many car audio suppliers manufacture these, and installation is as easy as popping your old headrest off, putting the new one on and running the wires to the input device. A set of two of these ready-to-go headrests can cost upwards of $800. Some even hide a DVD player behind the screens, which folds out of the way to change disks. That makes installation even easier since you don't have to run additional wiring to a remote device.


Headrest Monitor Sizes and Limitations

When it comes to the size of a headrest monitor, you're only limited by the size of your vehicle's headrests. However, because of the visibility needs that arise from the fact that these systems are in a car, most headrest monitor viewing screens top out at around 10 inches (25.4 centimeters). If you want a larger screen, you're likely going to have to consider a ceiling-mounted video monitor.

One of the reasons that many people want headrest video monitors is so their passengers can choose their own entertainment. However, just because a car has headrest monitors does not mean that each monitor is capable of playing unique programming. For instance, if you have two kids and one wants to watch the Jonas Brothers while the other wants to watch Spongebob, your system will need to meet some specific requirements.


First, you're going to need more than one DVD player. It's very important to distinguish between scenarios where you'll require more than one player and simply a DVD changer. A DVD changer is a DVD player that holds multiple DVDs in reserve, but can only play one at a time. To play two different DVDs, you'll need either two players (perhaps mounted in the headrest behind each screen) or a DVD player that's capable of playing both DVDs at the same time. Make sure you know what kind of setup you're opting for.

You'll also want to investigate the audio options for your in-car media. One of the benefits of in-car DVD and video is that it can effectively end your kids complaining about how old your choice of music is. Unless you want to listen to everything your passengers watch (which can be very distracting), you'll need to check out your audio options. Some in-car DVD players play the audio through the car's stereo system, subjecting everyone to the same sounds. Others allow passengers to plug headphones into jacks near their seats to select the audio they choose. In this scenario, the audio the driver selects is played over the car's stereo. Still others have wireless headphones that allow passengers to choose their audio. When buying a factory or aftermarket headrest monitor system, be sure you know what your audio options are.

Keep reading to learn more about in-car entertainment system setup.


Headrest Monitor Setup

While a number of factory and aftermarket headrest monitors have a DVD player in the headrest, behind the screen -- remember, the screen slides out of the way to access the player -- there are a number of other system options. While the headrest monitor and DVD player combo may be the easiest to install, it also has some limitations. In many cases, it means that both headrests can't watch the same DVD. These systems also make it difficult for the monitors to show other media, like video games.

It may seem like a small point, but where the media players are located is actually pretty important. Some factory systems place the DVD player (or players) in the dash, making it relatively simple for the driver or front passenger to load discs for the passengers. Other factory systems place the DVD player in the rear cargo area. That allows for a lot of different types of media in the car. A large DVD changer can fit, and so can one (or more) video game systems. However, this placement has its downsides, too. It can't be safely accessed while the car is in motion. Also, if there's cargo in the cargo area, access to the media may be further limited. Plus, running the wires from the monitors through the vehicle and into the cargo area also complicates installation for aftermarket systems.


Other systems put the media between the front seats, facing the rear seat passengers. That allows for the back seat passengers to access the media players to change discs or games. On the other hand, such placement puts the media players at risk for getting kicked or stepped on as people enter or exit the car, and not every vehicle has enough space between the front two seats for a media player (or two).

The way many headrest monitor manufacturers try to solve these difficulties is by providing wireless remote controls with each monitor. That way, even if the media player is far away from the passenger, they're still able to control it.

We've been mainly focused on DVDs so far, but on the next page we'll discuss how headrest monitors work with video game systems.


Car Headrest Monitors and Gaming Systems

Models show, from left, the Xbox 360 Arcade, the new 60-gigabyte Xbox 360 and the Xbox Elite during a Microsoft press conference in Tokyo Monday, Sept. 1, 2008.
AP Photo/Koji Sasahara

­While being able to watch a movie on the road sounds heavenly to some people who remember road trips with nothing to do but watch the scenery pass, today's cars offer even more entertainment options. One of the most popular is adding video gaming systems to a car's entertainment capabilities.

While no auto manufacturers are adding video games systems to their cars just yet, installing a video game system in your car -- identical to the one you have in your home -- is relatively easy. When it comes to headrest monitors and video game systems, you're limited only by how much you want to spend.


In order to have headrest monitors that can display video games and other types of media, the monitors need to be able to accept more than one media input at a time. Monitors that have multiple media inputs allow the user to switch between media inputs with a remote control.

Merely seeing the game isn't enough -- of course, passengers will want to play the games, too. If the game system is located within the passenger cabin, wired controls should work fine. However, if the game system is located some distance from the passenger seats, wireless controllers are a popular option. In order to make sure the signal from the wireless controllers make it to the game system, you may have to purchase a signal repeater. These repeaters are usually inexpensive and can be easily mounted on the front of the headrest monitor.

Finally, when choosing a video game system for a car, you should keep safety in mind, too. Some games that require a lot of player motion, like some games for the Nintendo Wii, probably aren't the safest choice for in-car play. Just imagine trying to explain to a police officer that you ran off the road because your passengers were having a heated round of Wii Boxing.

Not sold on headrest monitors? Keep reading to learn more about your other options.


Alternatives to Headrest Monitors

Car headrest and overhead DVD systems by Audiovox are shown at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2008.
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

So, after reading all of this, you're still not sold on headrest monitors? Well, they are expensive to install compared to other systems, and in fact, they may not work for all cars. But what are your options?

­Ceiling-mounted monitors are a popular alternative to headrest monitors. Not only are they offered as factory-installed options on many cars, including several non-luxury cars, but they're less expensive as aftermarket accessories as well. However, the diminished costs often bring some diminished capabilities, too. Though ceiling-mounted monitors are usually larger than headrest monitors, they can only show one type of media at a time. That means that passengers will have to agree on what they choose to watch. Also, the same audio concerns that apply to headrest monitors apply to ceiling monitors. If the driver doesn't want to hear the audio of what passengers are watching, look for a system that offers headphones.


Another alternative to headrest monitors are in-dash monitors, which put a video screen in the car's dashboard. While this setup makes it tough for rear passengers to watch the media, it allows the driver and front passenger to watch media -- something they can't do with ceiling and headrest monitors, both of which are mounted behind the first row of seats. Dash monitors usually combine some entertainment capabilities with navigation or review camera functions. While it's nice that the driver and front passenger can use dash monitors, it has its limitations: The monitor will not display DVD or video game media unless the vehicle is in park. If you drive a manual transmission-equipped vehicle, most systems require you to apply the emergency brake first. This is a safety feature designed to avoid distracting the driver. While other system manufacturers haven't taken the technology quite this far, Mercedes-Benz offers an in-dash monitor with split-screen capabilities. The driver sees the navigation system while the passenger can watch a DVD [source: U.S. News Rankings and Reviews]. Even without the luxury of a split-screen, in-dash monitors are a good option for drivers and passengers who often end up waiting in the car for extended periods of time.

If it seems like in-car entertainment technology has exploded, well, it has. With DVD players, gaming systems, and even WiFi systems, cars and trucks have come a long way from entertaining passengers with only the passing scenery and a scratchy radio. Headrest monitors are just one of several ways to keep your passengers happy.

If you'd like to read more about automotive electronics and other related topics, follow the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Brikowski, Gary. "How to Install Car Video Products." Sonic Electronix. (Jan. 17, 2009)
  • Crutchfield. "How to Install a Mobile Video System: General Tips." June 16, 2003. (Jan. 17, 2009)
  • Healy, James R. "Sirius, Chrysler team up to put satellite TV in your back seat." USA Today. March 30, 2007. (Jan. 17, 2009)
  • U.S. News Rankings and Reviews. "Mercedes Develops Split-Screen Nav System." Dec. 11, 2008. (Jan. 17, 2009)