Some cruise to get away from it all; others prefer to take along a few creature comforts. This story is directed at the latter. I’m talking about entertainment systems and how easy it’s become to make your boat a bit more hospitable on those rainy days and long offshore passages or just making sure the kids are entertained when boredom sets in. With the explosion of flat-screen television technology and digital media, bringing aboard a year’s worth of music, television shows, and movies is no strain on your wallet, your power supply, or your boat’s interior space.
If you’re interested solely in music and audio books, an iPod or other media player, such as Microsoft’s Zune, can be transformed from headphones-only use into a crowd pleaser with the addition of a speaker system designed for the specific player. These systems, called docking stations, can be a relative bargain-Altec Lansing’s iM414 Speaker Dock for the Zune is $100-or pricey-the Bose Sound Dock for the iPod will run you less than $400. For on-deck use, consider EGO’s waterproof Sound Case, which keeps your iPod dry and uses regular alkaline batteries for up to 30 hours of music.
In order to purchase and play music and audio books, all of the above products require access to a computer, so if you’re not computer compatible, you’ll need to revert to the old tried-and-true combination CD/cassette/AM/FM stereo system. The good news about those is that such companies as Polk and JL Audio have been continuously updating their lines of waterproof speakers and control heads over the years. You can mount the control head below or on deck and place speakers all over the boat, including in the cockpit. A word of caution from someone who’s learned the hard way: The closer you mount your speakers to your compass, the worse your navigation will be. Stereo speakers, especially powerful ones, contain large, electrified magnets; ’nuff said.
Anyone who’s purchased or rented a new car lately has probably noticed the booming availability of satellite-radio receivers. Two companies, Sirius and XM, broadcast commercial-free radio programming via satellites and sell portable or hard-mounted receivers. Both companies, which sell subscription services, offer many different channels arranged by themes and genres that range from all-NASCAR-all-the-time pleasures to classical music to virtually any other type of music that’s popular with American consumers. These systems can also be integrated with many of today’s chart plotters, which allow you to add XM or Sirius weather information to your navigation suite through the same antenna the radio uses.
If you’d like to expand your entertainment system to include video, the simplest solution would be to bring aboard a video iPod that’s loaded with movies, music, podcasts, and audiobooks. For solo viewing, a video iPod, despite its small screen, is a great way to quietly watch a movie or TV show. For a larger-screen experience you can share with others, the iPod can be connected to your boat’s laptop or desktop computer. To make the experience a bit more crowd friendly, simple video players that show DVDs can be had for as little as $150. For example, the 7-inch Philips DCP750/37 Portable DVD Player plays DVDs, but it can also dock, charge, and play iPod media. Because this player is designed for car use and is powered via a 12-volt cigarette-lighter plug, it works well on smaller boats.
The latest chart plotters can also double as entertainment systems. Raymarine, Garmin, Standard Horizon, Northstar, Lowrance, and Furuno all sell plotters that accept input from video sources. This is great if your plotter lives in the nav station and swivels, but it’s not so great if it’s on deck and doesn’t. Many plotters also have the capability of receiving satellite weather and radio via XM or Sirius satellite-radio systems. E2’s Evan Evans-who’s been designing and installing electronics on raceboats for 15 years; his company E2Home, based in Annapolis, Maryland installs boat- and home-entertainment systems-says that plotters are an adequate solution to entertainment, but they’re not perfect. “I think it’s fine, but most of them only do composite input,” he says. “So the resolution isn’t tremendously good. If you’re trying to look at a movie, it’s pretty low grade. I’ve done a couple; one client uses it to monitor what his kids are watching. It’s got a popup window, and he can watch whatever the kids are doing on their TV.”
To come closer to the entertainment system you might have at home, there’s no substitute for a dedicated screen. As you may have seen during the run-up and aftermath of the holiday shopping season last year, the prices have never been lower, and you no longer have to settle for a small screen. Samsung, Sony, Phillips, Sharp, and many, many other manufacturers offer a wide range of screen sizes, and while a 42-inch screen may be overkill, a 20- to 32-inch screen works fine in most saloons, and they aren’t that hard to install, whether or not you’re a professional. Of course, having a pro do it might save you a lot of time and effort in the long run, considering how complex a boat’s system can be these days. “It’s just like installing entertainment systems in a house,” says Jeremy Rudman, a systems installer for Flint Mobile Marine, in Middletown, Rhode Island. “But you definitely have to plan it better. We like to get a set of plans from the boat’s builder or designer and talk to the customer before we install a full system.”
For a basic installation (on a boat with an inverter), you’ll need a flat-screen television; speakers, if they aren’t included; a DVD player; and a mounting bracket or an extendable arm mount. If you want to receive cable from a dockside connection or from a satellite receiver, you’ll also need to run coaxial cable from the dockside connection or satellite antenna to where the flat screen will be mounted. Think carefully about where it’s mounted; keep it far away from any spot where salt water or fresh water might intrude. The bulkhead that separates the main cabin from the forward cabin is ideal, but keep it away from the mast, where leakage is always a possibility.
According to Evans, LCD televisions are the way to go. “LCDs tend to work better for most boats because they’re a little better with brighter sunlight,” he says. “There are specific LCDs manufactured now that are super high-bright and daylight viewable, but unless you really need one on deck, there are drawbacks. They burn a lot of energy, and they get bloody hot. For most of the applications we’re seeing, LCD is the predominant format unless you’re going up to serious yacht/megayacht size. Then you’re moving into plasma. Plasmas don’t really come into play until you start looking at screens over 42 inches.” Evans is firm about his choice for manufacturers, preferring Sharp. “The best bang for the buck is Sharp,” he says. “The color, clarity, and controllability is excellent, and dollar-for-dollar, you can’t beat it. The Aquos line is fantastic.” The latest Aquos from Sharp, the Aquos Widescreen 720p HDTV series, is available in a 32-inch model (LC-32D44U) for $1,300.
Figuring out a way to mount a flat-screen television requires some thought. A basic mount is fine, but it won’t allow for articulation. An articulating mount gives you more flexibility as to location, but you may want to look beyond what’s offered at the electronics discount store. “Most mounts aren’t going to live well in a marine environment. They’re steel, and they’re going to rust,” says Evans. “Larger boats that have the energy to keep themselves dry tend to do fine with off-the-shelf mounts, but for smaller boats, I like to have things custom fabricated. It’s a lot more expensive, but an aluminum or stainless-steel bracket is a nice way to go. It will last longer, and it won’t stain the varnish.”
Most televisions come with speakers, but they don’t do justice to movie soundtracks (or music), so additional speakers are a good idea. “Bose makes a lot of systems that utilize very small speakers with its Acoustimass systems,” says Evans. “The sound’s not that fabulous, but it’s not bad, either, and you can tuck the speakers away in a nice place, and it’s a convenient way to get surround sound.”
You can get away with buying a cheap DVD player, but then again, plugging one into a high-definition-ready television is like putting a vinyl interior into your new Porsche. By the way, it looks like the competition between the Blu-Ray and HD-DVD formats has been decided, with most major studios deciding to go with Blu-Ray. That’s the way to go if you’re planning on buying all new DVDs for the boat, but if you’d like to bring your “old” DVD collection aboard, there are other ways to get the definition your TV demands. There are DVD players that “up-convert” DVD signals. “A manufacturer named Oppo makes a fantastic little unit for less than $100. It up-converts the DVD signal to a higher scan rate that allows it to display a little nicer on an HD TV set,” says Evans. For the true movie fanatic, especially on a larger boat with plasma TVs, there’s the more expensive option: a video processor. They run about $2,000, but they’ll turn a regular DVD, which leaves blank spaces on either side of the screen of a wide-screen TV, into a full-screen presentation.
On larger boats, with multiple staterooms each requiring a video feed, you can distribute high-quality HD video and audio using a single Cat 5 or Cat 6 cable instead of coax cables. Cat 5 and Cat 6 cables are high-performance conductors that consist of four twisted-pair wires; they’re used mainly for data transmission. The twisting of the pairs gives the cable protection from interference. Cat 5 cable is typically used for Ethernet networks running at 10 or 100 megabytes per second.
“There’s a huge amount of interference on any boat,” says Evans; using these networking cables helps block it out. Evans now uses upgraded cable, Cat 6, in which the twisted pairs of wires have higher twist ratios (for better interference rejection and higher bandwidth capabilities) and are physically separated by plastic jackets. The outer sleeve on the Cat 6 cable is also more robust, making it easier to fish in and out of the tight spaces you encounter on boats. Cat 6 cables aren’t as susceptible to damage, either.
Usually, three coaxial cables are needed to transmit the three components that make up a video transmission. A single Cat 5 or Cat 6 cable can replace them. At both ends of the cable, a transformer separates out each of the three signals, so each can run down a twisted pair, then recombines them at the other end and uploads them to the display screen. All this is done without active circuitry, so no power is required except for the monitor and sending device.
The biggest advantage, says Evans, is that the signal isn’t susceptible to interference from alternators and pumps.
“One thing we try to do is buy pre-manufactured cables,” says Evans, “because they don’t use solid-core wire, and we don’t have the capability to make the terminations at the end.” Generic lengths-30, 40, 50, and 100 feet long-are readily available. When installing any type of wire, remember that a little bit of extra length isn’t a problem to coil and store wherever it’s convenient. As Evans and any other electronics installer will tell you, you always want to have extra lengths of wire, called service loops, on any installed electronics; these allow you to remove the unit from its mounting place and work on it.
Installing a basic entertainment system is probably well within the capabilities of most sailboat owners who enjoy messing about with electronics, but more complex systems will require the installation services of such companies as E2 and Flint. More elaborate systems can include computers, from which an entertainment system can be managed; satellite-communications antennas; multiple displays; and an entertainment hard drive, such as iTV, from Apple, or Slingbox, which can hold hundreds of gigabytes of media files.
The future of onboard entertainment systems is wireless, and it’s not that far away. Sony already offers a wireless television, and any Apple fanatic will tell you about how iTunes on a wireless network can stream movies, music, and even slideshows to any TV/sound system via an Apple or Windows computer equipped with a 802.11 wireless card or a transmitter/receiver.
With all of the equipment options available, not only you can take the show on the road; you can take it to sea, too.
Tony Bessinger is CW’s electronics editor.