Assembling a motorhome theater makes the audio/visual experience more pleasurable
It all started in 1927, with a movie called “The Jazz Singer.” For the first time, audiences were introduced to moving pictures with a synchronized soundtrack, and the cinematic experience was born, drawing patrons to the theater in order to get away from the humdrum of day-to-day life, in order to be truly entertained.
To say we’ve come a long way since Al Jolsen’s controversial classic is an understatement; not only do today’s movies feature computer-generated images, eardrum-ringing explosions and $200 million budgets, but the way we watch them has evolved as well. We no longer have to pack in to crowded movie houses to see the latest Hollywood flick, as modern technology allows us to view these cinematic gems (or duds) from the comfort of our homes, with picture quality and audio rivaling that of the local movie theater. And, naturally, that technology has extended to our motorhomes – why should stick-house owners have all the fun?
In order to enjoy a fully immersive cinematic experience, there is a fair amount of equipment involved, much of which comes standard on your motorhome. But understanding what you’ll need in order to get the highest-quality experience is more important than ever, and can be a bit more involved than simply flipping a switch and flopping down on the couch.
To begin with, there obviously needs to be a way for a motorhome to receive television-programming signals. At minimum, your motorhome likely came equipped with an antenna that has been designed to acquire free, over-the-air (OTA) signals, and which can be adjusted from inside the motorhome in order to find the best reception – though its effectiveness is limited by local-signal strength. There is a variety of OTA antennas available to receive free programming.
KING offers the Jack antenna ($159), with a wider signal range than traditional batwings and a built-in signal meter for added convenience.
Shakespeare’s SeaWatch lineup (msrp begins at $56.99) offers four omni-directional, in-motion antennas to receive over-the-air signals to view local programming. Each antenna is equipped with a low-noise amplifier (for improved signal quality) and is able to receive HD signals, depending upon the availability in the area in which you’re traveling.
Winegard offers a quintet of antennas to handle OTA signals. The roof-mounted Rayzar Automatic ($399.99) is designed to receive VHF and UHF signals, therefore increasing the chances of receiving clear OTA HD broadcasts. It automatically detects the best position and locks in for increased viewing performance. The Sensar ($106.25) features a range of 55 miles from the source and is a batwing-style antenna with a built-in amplifier. The Rayzar z1 ($109.99) doesn’t require any cranking and is designed to receive optimal UHF reception in addition to high-band VHF signals where available. The Rayzar (Micro, $29.99; Amplified RV-RZ85, $69.99) is a portable, indoor multi-directional antenna designed for stations within a 30-mile range (50 for the RV-RZ85). The permanently roof-mounted RoadStar antenna ($89.99) offers 360-degree signal reception and doesn’t require hand-cranking for use.
If you don’t wish to be at the mercy of the OTA programming, you’ll need to either utilize the campground cable connection, or you’ll have to subscribe to a satellite provider such as DISH Network, DirecTV or Bell TV. In some cases, the companies offer special packages to RVers that allow users to activate and deactivate the receiver box based on their travel schedule.
Along with the satellite subscription comes the more advanced (and, yes, more expensive) antennas. Your motorhome may already be equipped with a satellite antenna (commonly referred to as a satellite dish). Antennas come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and can be permanent structures on the motorhome’s roof or portable units that are set up on demand. This is where the selection gets much more varied, and prices adjust accordingly as features are added on.
For DISH Network subscribers, KING offers a pair of portable antennas, the DISH Tailgater ($329) and the KING Tailgater ($379), the latter of which can also be permanently attached to the motorhome’s roof. Both are HD-compatible units that feature automatic signal acquisition, and are powered via a receiver. They are designed for stationary use.
The KING Quest ($549) shares many of the same features as the Tailgater series, but is compatible with non-HD DirecTV programming. A portable Quest model compatible with Bell TV is also available ($649), and can be reprogrammed to receive DISH programming stateside.
KING’s flagship KING Dome satellite receives programming from all three providers (DirecTV non-HD), and the fact that it’s an in-motion satellite means the kids can watch TV while on the road.
TracVision satellite TV systems are permanently mounted, in-motion automatic antennas designed to be compatible with the major satellite providers. The popular TracVision RV1 antenna ($2,695) weighs only 8 pounds, while the TracVision A9 ($4,995) boasts a low 5-inch profile and includes a receiver. Both antennas are HDTV-compatible and can support multiple receivers.
When it comes to delivering DirecTV HD programming to your motorhome, your options are limited. RF Mogul offers the Eagle DirecTV Satellite System ($1,995), which the company claims features the fastest satellite lock time of any HD satellite. RF Mogul offers satellites for DISH Network and Shaw Direct as well.
Perhaps the most popular antenna supplier among RVers, Winegard offers a host of satellite antennas to meet most every TV-viewing need.
The portable DISH Playmaker ($329) works exclusively with a DISH HD Solo receiver. The Playmaker is fully automatic and weighs only 10 pounds, making set-up easy. The Carryout G2+ ($649.99) can be permanently roof-mounted or used in a portable configuration, and even enables users to choose a proprietary satellite TV provider. The small and compact antenna is powered through coax cable and supports multi-TV viewing. The in-motion RoadTrip T4 ($1,399) allows passengers to watch TV while on the road. The fully automatic roof-mounted antenna features one-button on/off operation.
The Trav’ler is Winegard’s crown jewel and is designed for enhanced performance with live TV programming and DVRs. The Trav’ler can receive programming from multiple satellites and is available in the DirecTV Slimline ($1,899) and DISH Network 1000 and Bell TV ($1,599) models, both of which fold down to less than 10 inches for storage.
Whether or not you have satellite service, to watch a movie or TV content you need the proper equipment. Naturally, that begins with a TV (or two, or three …). In many cases, your motorhome may have already been equipped with a Jensen TV from ASA Electronics. These Jensen TVs have been road-tested to withstand vibration and temperature extremes. The JTV4015DC is a 12-volt-DC-powered TV available in either 28- or 40-inch models. The TV is housed in a rugged metal cabinet and offers component video, stereo-audio and two HDMI inputs. The TV’s integrated jCOM protocol provides direct, seamless communication to Jensen HDMI-equipped head units and DVD players. Additionally, a Jensen 120-volt-AC-powered lineup of flat screens ranges in sizes from 19 to 55 inches.
Aftermarket manufacturer Furrion offers LED TVs made specifically for the RVing segment as well. In addition to HDMI inputs, each TV features a Vivid A+ LED panel, Furrion’s Climatesmart technology (to withstand harsh weather conditions), Furrion’s Vibrationsmart technology (to withstand vigorous vibration and shock created during travel), audio out through RCA audio cables as well as an optical port and side or bottom access controls. They are available in sizes ranging from 19 to 65 inches.
Many newer TVs offer Ultra High Definition (UHD; also referred to as 4K or even 8K) technology, which is like HD but up to 16 times the resolution of standard HD. It should be noted that not only do you need a source (cable/satellite provider) capable of broadcasting that kind of enhanced resolution, but it is quite difficult to discern the improvement in picture quality, unless you have a monitor that’s way too large for a motorhome, or you prefer to sit with your nose against the screen. Adjust your budget accordingly.
Of course, you could always go to the local electronics store and purchase a TV, but be warned: many of the TVs on the market have not been designed to withstand the on-the-road bouncing and banging, nor are they engineered to experience the temperature extremes of units manufactured specifically for the RV market.
So, now you have a signal, and a monitor, so it’s time to turn our attention toward the audio-visual (A/V)/stereo receiver, or head unit. An A/V receiver handles both the visual and the audio aspects of your motorhome’s theater experience. Residential-type receivers can certainly deliver on both fronts, but may not be ideal for mobile use and are usually big and bulky. Plus, a motorhome is often pre-wired for a mobile-type unit with easy-to-operate CD/DVD/AM/FM stereo features, so it makes sense to look in that direction when considering a new/upgraded purchase.
When selecting a head unit, it’s important to first plan out how you’ll be using it. Convenience items like Bluetooth connectivity, app control and auxiliary input can add a few dollars to the cost, though the additional coin is generally well justified. It should be noted that these units are not capable of playing Blu-ray discs, so if that’s on your wish list, you’ll likely have to look outside of the models designed for RV use. You should also note that due to the random placement of the speakers in a motorhome, calibration for enhanced-audio features like Dolby Digital Plus and DTS-HD Master Audio aren’t possible and therefore are not included. To enjoy those features, a traditional A/V receiver would be needed; a growing trend has even seen some of the more expensive motorhomes being outfitted with these higher-end audio components.
There are a few recognizable names on the market, most notably those from Furrion, Jensen and Fusion. Examples of motorhome-friendly units include the Furrion DV3300, which features HDMI ports and Bluetooth, and can be configured to handle up to three TVs. Furrion also makes the DV7100, which can also handle multiple TVs and offers a front HDMI jack, perfect for HD game systems like Xbox1 and Sony PS4. As of press time, msrps on the Furrion units were not available.
The Jensen JWM9A features a slot-type DVD/CD-player mechanism and AM/FM electronic tuner. A jControl downloadable app controls the functions of the stereo, which ASA Electronics claims is the RV industry’s first wall-mounted unit with all-digital connectivity and Apple (iPhone/iPad) control via a USB port. The unit supports up to three TVs, up to 1080i resolution and offers up to 160 watts of total power for audiophiles.
Fusion, headquartered in New Zealand (but offering many products stateside), offers the MS-AV750 ($799.99) marine AM/FM/CD/DVD receiver, which runs a standard-definition DVD picture via HDMI, but its built-in Bluetooth, ability to control up to four zones and the fact that it’s water-resistant certainly up the cool factor.
Half of the theater experience is the audio, so it’s important to select high-quality speakers/soundbars to deliver the proper kaboom of an on-screen explosion while still being sensitive enough for the whispers of a conversation. In all likelihood, your motorhome is already equipped with ceiling-mounted speakers, for stereo (or all-channel) playback. Again, speaker placement makes it difficult to enjoy a pure, fully immersive audio experience using the latest in digital technology, but, c’mon, we’re just splitting hairs here. Today’s speakers blow the doors off their larger, bulky forefathers, and there are dozens of manufacturers that produce these replacements.
If, however, you’re looking for specialized RV or waterproof speakers, you’ll want to start with manufacturers like Furrion, ASA (Jensen), PQN Audio and Fusion.
Furrion produces a variety of affordable wall- and ceiling-mounted speakers, many at or below $20. Jensen does the same. Laying some additional money down will get you higher quality units capable of handling a higher range of sounds, such as Furrion’s FSBT43S-BL line.
PQN is a specialty speaker manufacturer that specifically designs speakers for the RV/marine markets, in addition to outdoor applications like spas. PQN’s Audio SPA series speakers (msrp begins at $79.99) are waterproof and chemical-resistant (as in, hot-tub chemicals), and are also available with audio-driven blue LED lighting for additional fun. PQN also offers dual-cone waterproof speakers ($109.99-$119.99) and ultra-slim speakers ($79.99-$84.99) for increased installation versatility.
The 230-watt Signature Series Coaxial Sports speakers (msrp begins at $349 per pair) from Fusion combine beauty and brute strength to bring the (pleasant) noise, and are available with a sound-activated blue or white LED light.
For a lively, outdoor listening party, KING offers a premium Outdoor Speaker and Light combo to replace your traditional exterior illumination. The combo unit ($199-$249) can stream music, is waterproof and produces up to 100 watts of sound for listening enjoyment.
Another alternative to speakers placed around the vehicle’s interior is a soundbar. A soundbar is generally a solid speaker-type unit that connects to the TV/receiver’s audio output for a clean installation. Inside a soundbar, you will often find multiple speakers designed to handle the highs and lows of Hollywood’s finest blockbusters; there’s also sometimes a wireless subwoofer to be placed out of sight that will deliver the big-box explosions to which we’re now so accustomed. Soundbars, like many other components, are easy to find at electronics stores but, once again, we’re looking here for road-tested, RV-specific models. To that end, Jensen’s JSB4000 features six drivers and two subwoofers, designed specifically for installation inside an entertainment-center wall. Furrion also offers a soundbar rated for up to 80 watts.
Overall, that may seem like quite a lot of equipment, and let me assure you, it is. But it most certainly doesn’t have to be difficult to achieve A/V nirvana, as more and more manufacturers are including higher-end entertainment features on their motorhomes standard, or at the very least as an optional package. Apart from that, if you’re looking for an instant-gratification upgrade to immediately up the entertainment factor, changing out the components of your mobile theater is one of the best – and most easily noticeable – investments.
Smart TV Upgrades
Don’t have a TV or Blu-ray/DVD player that offers smart capabilities? No problem; these relatively inexpensive devices plug in to the HDMI port on your TV and connect to Wi-Fi (when a signal is available) to offer streaming capabilities, including Netflix, Vudu, Hulu, YouTube and more.
Roku Stick provides a streaming hub offering access to hundreds of TV apps. Msrp: $39.99. www.roku.com
Google Chromecast is designed to work with a smartphone or tablet to “mirror” its content to the TV screen. Msrp: $36.68.
Amazon Fire TV Stick is designed to stream Amazon video services and is compatible with other popular apps as well. Msrp: $39.
Apple TV is a bit larger than a streaming stick, but offers access to iTunes and App store content for Mac users. Msrp: $149.99 (HDMI cable sold separately).
Anytime you employ the smart features on your TV, phone or tablet, you are essentially at the mercy of the connection speeds at the campground or RV park. And, that can make things like checking email or logging on to Facebook difficult, not to mention listening to streaming music or watching a movie. These manufacturers offer Wi-Fi signal boosters, which are designed to amplify an existing signal (not create a new one). In some cases, depending on the number of users at the time, that bump is enough to stream content directly to your motorhome (though we should stress that although the boosters definitely help with speeds, movie-streaming capabilities are usually nonexistent at a crowded RV park). Other times, although the movie-viewing process can get frustrating due to constant buffering, these products are great at enabling you to surf the web and social media with ease.
C. Crane | 800-522-8863 | www.ccrane.com
PDQ | 858-598-5001 | www.pdqconnect.com
Shakespeare | 803-227-1590 | www.shakespeare-ce.com
Singlepoint | 866-959-9434 | www.yoursinglepoint.com
Wi-Fi Ranger | 208-321-5544 | www.wifiranger.com
Winegard | 800-288-8094 | www.winegard.com
The following manufacturers offer products that are designed to boost your cellphone signal | which can then be used to send a “mirror” image of its screen to your larger, smart-enabled device.
ASA Electronics (Jensen) | 877-305-0445 | www.asaelectronics.com
Furrion | 888-354-5792 | www.furrion.com
Fusion Entertainment | www.fusionentertainment.com
KING Controls | 952-922-6889 | www.kingconnect.com
KVH Industries Inc. | 401-847-3327 | www.kvh.com
RF Mogul | www.rfmogul.com
Shakespeare | 803-227-1590 | www.shakespeare-ce.com
Winegard | 800-288-8094 | www.winegard.com