Increasingly TVs and companion equipment like media receivers support Bluetooth, so naturally, if you wanted to pair headphones with your TV, you should use that feature. Not so fast. Old-school RF wireless headphones are king.
Why Wear Headphones While Watching TV?
Before we dig into the differences between headphone types and why we’re passionate about the superiority of RF wireless headphones, let’s touch on why you might want to pair headphones with a TV at all.
If you, your spouse, or someone in your household has hearing difficulties, using a pair of headphones with localized volume control is a great compromise between one person not hearing the TV show clearly and the volume being turned up uncomfortably loud for everyone else.
It’s also a great solution even if you happen to be alone at home: Rather than turning up the TV to the point that it upsets your neighbors, you can simply pop on a pair of headphones.
Even when nobody has hearing difficulties, headphones are a great way to enjoy content without keeping other people awake. If you’re prone to late-night gaming benders or Netflix binges, throwing on a pair of wireless headphones lets you enjoy all the action without keeping anybody else awake in the process.
What’s the Difference Between Bluetooth and RF Headphones?
Bluetooth headphones are wireless, and traditional wireless headphones are wireless, so what’s the difference?
Bluetooth headphones use the Bluetooth radio technology that is more like complex radio-based communication standards like Wi-Fi than it is like plain old radio transmissions.
While modern consumers are more familiar with Bluetooth because of its ubiquity in everything from the headphone market to the car accessory market, it’s not the original form wireless headphones took.
The original wireless headphones simply used a low-power radio transmitter plugged into the audio source paired with headphones that could receive the transmission on the same radio frequency. This was the same setup used by early baby monitors—no encryption or protocols, no overhead, just a simple transmission from point A to point B.
Here’s Why RF Headphones Are Superior for TV
No doubt about it, you can pair Bluetooth headphones with televisions and stereo equipment that is Bluetooth compatible. In fact, doing so is exactly how I arrived at the opinion that it’s the inferior option and that using old-school RF headphones is superior.
But hey, don’t take my word for it. Let’s look at the specific aspects of RF wireless headphones that offer a superior user experience.
RF Headphones Have Zero Latency
When you’re listening to music, latency doesn’t matter. There is no reference point to show you that the sound is out of sync. If you’re listening to an album over Bluetooth, it doesn’t matter if there is a fraction of a second delay or a multi-second delay. Other than a lag when you press play or pause, you can’t tell there is any latency.
That’s not the case when you’re listening to audio synced to visual imagery. The human brain is incredibly good at detecting when audio and video are out of sync. Depending on what Bluetooth version the hardware in your TV and headphones is, the latency can range anywhere from 40-500 milliseconds. A half-second delay is certainly noticeable when watching TV shows and movies—and even more noticeable if you’re gaming.
RF headphones, on the other hand, are much faster. In fact, practically speaking, they have zero latency. The radio waves transmitted from the base unit are moving at approximately 186,000 miles per second, with no delay imposed by encryption or protocol overhead.
On your couch, or anywhere in your house for that matter, you will experience the sound through the headphones exactly as you would listening to the TV speakers.
RF Headphones Have Better Audio Quality
Bluetooth is a fundamentally lossy transmission standard because the audio has to be encoded, compressed, encrypted, and transmitted to the receiving device, only to have the receiving device unpack it all.
RF headphones simply transmit the signal from the base station to the headphones—no compression or manipulation involved. Whatever the audio quality that your TV provides is what you’ll get.
Obviously, you can have garbage quality RF headphones that sound bad, but that’s a function of the construction of the headphones or a low-quality transmitter in the base and not a result of quality loss in transmission.
RF Headphones Don’t Require Pairing
Pairing Bluetooth headphones isn’t the most arduous task in the world, but it is a much bigger pain than just plugging in a pair of headphones.
RF headphones offer an experience almost as simple as just plugging in a pair of headphones. You’ll need to link the base to your TV or media center by a headphone or stereo cable. Once you do so, you’ll typically need to use a simple switch or dial on the base unit and the companion headphones to select a channel like channel 1, 2, or 3—but that’s it.
After that, you can use the headphones anytime without worrying about repairing them. Just pick them up off the charging cradle and turn them on.
RF Headphones Scale Indefinitely
This particular point might not matter to you if you’re simply looking to get a pair of headphones for yourself.
But if you’re looking for a headphone system that supports multiple headphones—because, say, you want to have one pair for yourself and one pair for your spouse so you can each listen at different volumes—you can’t beat traditional RF wireless headphones.
The vast majority of Bluetooth devices on the market don’t support multiple connections, which necessitates the purchase of a specialty transmitter that supports multiple Bluetooth connections so you can pair two Bluetooth headphones. Beyond two Bluetooth headphones, you’re looking at buying multiple adapters.
RF headphones, on the other hand, scale indefinitely. Whether you want to connect one pair of headphones, five pairs of headphones, or you want to host a silent rave in your basement, there’s no practical limit to the number of headphones you can connect to an RF base station.
You simply need to buy matching headphones (so that the channel adjustments and charging style match with the base you own). If you have the Sennheiser RS 135 base (or the identical RS 120 that preceded it), you can buy more HDR-120 headphones to expand it.
A Few Sidenotes to Consider
Before we leave the topic, there are two things to be aware of when considering buying traditional RF headphones. One a matter of privacy and one a matter of features.
Traditional RF Headphones Aren’t Encrypted
We mentioned this in passing above while talking about how fast and clear RF headphones are, but it’s worth emphasizing the implications of it more clearly.
Because traditional RF headphones don’t use encryption and simply transmit audio like a tiny radio tower, it is possible for somebody within the range (up to 300 or so feet) of the base station to listen in if they have similar headphones, hobby radio equipment, or even a really old cordless phone or baby monitor that uses the same frequency range.
That’s probably not a big deal if you’re binging episodes of The Office, but if you’re watching something of a more sensitive nature, it’s worth being aware of.
Some RF Headphones Use “Kleer” Digital Audio
So far, we’ve only talked about truly traditional RF headphones, ones that transmit the audio over open air just like a tiny radio station in your living room.
There is a subdivision of RF headphones that is very similar in nature to the division between the original cordless phones (which used basic radio transmission) and more advanced cordless phones (that used a higher radio frequency to transmit and digital audio).
There are RF headphones on the market that use a digital transmission standard called “Kleer” or “KleerNet.” These headphone kits can do things like automatically manage the frequency they use for increased clarity and ease of use and can accept digital inputs from your TV or receiver without requiring an intermediary device like a TOSLINK converter.
They’re also more secure than traditional RF headphones, just like digital baby monitors and cordless phones were more secure than their predecessors.
One of the most popular Kleer digital headphones models on the market is the Sennheiser RS 175.
They’re great-sounding headphones, but there are a few tradeoffs if you opt to use Kleer headphones instead of traditional RF headphones. These tradeoffs may not matter, but they’re worth noting.
First, the Kleer headphone kits are typically only expandable to two pairs of headphones, if they are expandable at all. (And the extra headsets are around twice as expensive as regular RF headphones.)
Second, unlike their traditional RF counterparts, they do have a bit of latency. It’s only around 30 milliseconds, but if the whole reason you skipped over Bluetooth was to avoid the latency, you might want to consider sticking with traditional RF headphones like Sennheiser RS 135s.
Whether you end up going with traditional RF headphones, or you find some of the features of the digital Kleer models to be compelling, either way, you’ll have a superior experience to Bluetooth and enjoy your TV and gaming at just the right volume.