Inexpensive DIY Rear-Seat Entertainment Systems
Automakers charge a lot of money for optional rear-seat entertainment systems, with prices ranging up to thousands of dollars. But if you'll only be entertaining the backseat passengers (kids) once in a while (on long road trips), there are much less expensive alternatives: do-it-yourself systems that you can install only when needed.
Some accommodate those old-fashioned DVDs you may have collected. Others connect to smartphone, tablet or other portable devices that can stream or store downloaded videos. And nearly all are easy to set up––although, unlike those rear-seat entertainment systems built in at the factory, they will tend to clutter the vehicle's interior with dangling cables and velcro.
Here are our picks of the newest and easiest to install do-it-yourself rear-seat entertainment systems to consider for your next road trip.
Even if your car doesn't have a built-in entertainment system, you can still add high-end video entertainment to your vehicle. The easiest (and cheapest) option is to use your existing iPad or Android tablet and a tablet mount that attaches a tablet to the back of a front-seat headrest. This makes for easy hands-free watching, especially if kids are sharing the screen.
Our favorite is the Kenu Airvue ($49.95), which is easily adjustable to fit different cars and different tablets. It takes seconds to mount it on the headrest poles (or your suitcase handle) — simply flex inward and it snaps into place without tools or tightening. The ball mount lets you rotate and tilt the tablet so kids can share.
The mount will fit tablets between 7 inches and 13 inches, including the iPad Pro, iPad mini, Amazon Fire 7 Kids Edition, Samsung Galaxy Tab A and many others. If you don't take frequent trips or rent a car, this is a great solution.
The downside to using your tablet in the car is that it's still a tablet; the touchscreen interface can be awkward to reach on the road, especially for smaller kids. If you want a more TV-like experience (or just more entertainment options), we recommend swapping out your car's headrests for ones with built-in monitors, like these Xtrons 9-inch Headrest Monitors.
This pair of HD monitors costs $279.99 and gives you all the entertainment you need, including two pairs of wireless headphones and two touch screens that can play video from different sources, though it's up to you to provide the source. There's a built-in DVD player and you can use any video player with a composite output—an older iOS devices with 30-pin connectors (with a Composite AV Cable $18.99 on Amazon) or even an older video game console.
Even with access to 4G LTE networks on long car trips, you're likely to get choppy video and/or run through your data plan. For movies and TV shows, you'll want to pack your own videos.
If you've ripped videos from DVD, you can store them on a WiFi drive for playback on tablets and smartphones. Our favorite option for streaming music, movies and tablets is the Western Digital 1TB My Passport Wireless Portable External Hard Drive.
The drive is capable of streaming to 8 different devices at a time via built-in WiFi with a battery that lasts up to 6 hours, making it an ideal companion for long road trips. It's $156.87 on Amazon, an excellent investment for regular road-trippers.
Easy listening with headphones for everyone
If you have a car full of people all trying to watch or listen to different things at the same time, expect family harmony to fade fast.
Solve this problem in advance by making sure everyone has their own headphones and headphone splitters so the entire car can share or listen alone whenever they like.
Let two people listen to music, movies or television on one tablet with a simple headphone jack splitter like the iLuv Splitter Adapter for $10. This adapter plugs into any standard 3.5mm audio jack and lets you connect and independently control the volume for two sets of headphones. The kids can watch their favorite cartoons, and you can drive on in blissful peace and quiet.
For headphones for the kids, the Puro Sound Labs BT2200 ($100 on Amazon) are a great choice, offering volume control that prevents the sound from getting too loud for young ears. They're comfortable for long wear and come in an attractive sliver/white, black/cblack or tan/gold that are sure to please even style-conscious teens. And, they're Bluetooth, so they'll work with iPhone 7. For a wired option, we like the Kidz Gear Wired Headphones ($17), with their plush earcups and easy adjustment for kids as young as 2 years old. Or, if you have a built-in system that supports wireless IR headphones, like the Xtrons headrests, the 2-Channel Autotain Cloud Universal Wired and Wireless Car Headphones are a great option at $23.
Adults might want higher-end sound and noise cancellation capable of blocking out even the worst road trip annoyances. Our favorite is the Bose QuietComfort 25 Noise-Canceling Headphones ($279 on Amazon), which use active noise blocking to make your trip as peaceful as possible. They're an investment, but serious audiophiles (especially those who travel a lot) will definitely appreciate them.
If you don't like the over-ear style of the Bose headphones or don't like their high price tag, we're also fans of the Audio Technica QuietPoint Active Noise-Cancelling In-Ear Headphones, which offer solid noise cancellation for only $49.
Stay connected with Wi-Fi on the go
WiFi can be hard to come by when you're on the road. Although most of us can turn our smartphones into wireless hotspots, that can gobble up your data plan in no time.
The ZTE Mobley on AT&T goes into the OBD-II port of your vehicle, so make sure your car has one before you buy; if your car was made in 1996 or later, it most likely has an OBD-II port. The Mobley shares with up to five devices. The device is free. If you have an existing subscription with AT&T, you can add it to your Mobile Share Data plan for $10; otherwise, you can subscribe to AT&T’s DataConnect plan ($30 monthly for 3GB).
Get both Wi-Fi connectivity and car diagnostic monitoring in one device with the HumX. The device monitors your car's performance and provides Internet connectivity through Verizon. The device costs $150 plus a monthly access fee of $10 if you have a data plan, or you can subscribe to a Verizon data plan, starting at $20 monthly for 1GB.
Power your gadgets
Even the best gadgets will run out of battery life with heavy use, so be prepared to keep your collection of high-tech entertainment gadgets charged up. There's no better or easier answer than a cigarette lighter USB charger. The Anker PowerDrive+ 2 with Quick Charge 3.0 dual USB Car Charger ($20) plugs into your car's cigarette lighter and charges two devices—tablets and smartphones—at the same time. The Quick Charge 3.0 port charges compatible devices to 80 percent in just 35 minutes and the Power IQ port is backward compatible with Quick Charge 2.0 devices.
With all of these tech-cessories, you can look forward to a fun and happy time on the road for everyone.
Updated on 7/20/2017 with new products
[happy kids in car via Shutterstock, Kenu, Xtrons, Western Digital, iLuv, Bose, Verizon, Anker]