No matter how much effort you put into building the ultimate home theater sound system, life sometimes gets in the way. Kids need to nap, your spouse needs peace and quiet, or you just don’t want to wake the rest of your apartment building with ground-shaking bass. With the right pair of home theater headphones, you can make your life a little easier without sacrificing great sound.
Home theater headphones aren’t just gimmicky headsets with surround sound built in. In fact, most don’t have any sort of “surround” sound at all. Instead, home theater headphones are wireless headsets that use RF instead of Bluetooth, and usually feature more TV-friendly inputs, like RCA or digital optical. Once hooked up, you can just grab the headphones off their charging stand, toss them on your head, and start watching—no need to mess with absurdly long headphone cables strewn across the room. And as someone married to a light sleeper and a second kid on the way, I’m hooked.
The Stars of the Show: Sennheiser’s RS 185
Home theater headphones aren’t as big of a product category as, say, audiophile headphones or Bluetooth headphones (which we’ll get to in a bit). But if you want the best quality and comfort the field has to offer, I recommend something from longtime headphone champion manufacturer Sennheiser.
Your best bet—as long as you’re watching TV in a room by yourself—is the Sennheiser RS 185. Its list price is $300, but it’s often available on Amazon for $220 or less (including the time of this writing). The soft velvet-y ear pads are super comfortable, the open-backed design produces a pleasant, natural soundstage for movies, and there’s little to no background hissing, which is not something all RF headphones can claim. Watching the club scene in John Wick with these headphones blew me away all over again, and my sleeping wife and child were none the wiser.
Now, about that “watching TV in a room by yourself” part: unfortunately, due to their open-backed design, the RS 185 will leak a lot of noise. This isn’t a problem if you’re trying to avoid bothering neighboring rooms or apartments, but if you’re watching TV right next to your sleeping spouse, the RS 185 might not be ideal. In that case, you definitely want a closed-back model like the $184 Sennheiser RS 175 (or less, if you buy refurbished). Its ear pads are leather, which may make your ears get a bit hotter than the RS 185’s more breathable cushions, but you won’t get as much sound leakage. The RS 175 also includes a virtual surround sound mode, plus a bass boost mode that can be activated with the press of a button. If that’s more than you want to spend, the $150 RS 165 is a bit chapear, eschewing the surround mode and sporting a shorter range (30 meters instead of 100 meters).
There are cheaper wireless headphones from other manufacturers, like Sony, but you get what you pay for, and at that point, I’d rather use the corded headphones I already have. If you really want to go wireless and you’re on a budget, though, the Power Acoustik HP902R—which is technically designed for cars, not home theaters, and requires a separate 12V DC power adapter—is often recommended for under $100. It can also be found under the “Farenheit” brand, if you’re having trouble chasing it down. Just know that the cheaper you go, the more sound quality you give up.
RF home theater headphones are awfully convenient once they’re all plugged in, but that initial setup involves some trial and error. Most of Sennheiser’s models offer both digital and analog input options, and the one that works best for you may depend on your gear. The analog input worked fine when plugged directly into my TV’s headphone jack, but experienced clipping problems when plugged into my receiver’s headphone jack, even at fairly low volumes (probably my receiver’s fault more than the headphones, but you get the idea). You may have to fiddle with the automatic or manual level control to get clean sound.
Using the digital optical input avoids this problem, though it may have its own quirks. When I connected to the “Zone 2” output on my receiver, it wouldn’t work unless I turned off passthrough for DTS/Dolby Digital audio. It’s a little weird that these headphones can’t decode the most widely used digital audio formats in the home theater space, but a simple settings tweak in your Blu-ray player or set-top box should fix this. I was also able to connect them directly to my TV’s optical port, which worked without any settings tweaks, so that’s the connection I settled on in the end.
So while the Sennheisers work beautifully, it took a few tries before I found the ideal setup, and you may have to do the same, with your experiences varying depending on the TV, receiver, and other gear you have. Just make sure you mute your speakers if you use the digital output, since they likely won’t mute themselves automatically.
If you do connect via analog, you’ll be contending with two different volume controls—the one on your headphones and the one on your TV or receiver. You’ll probably want to keep the headphones on a lower volume and turn your TV up to avoid hissing, particularly on cheaper models, but again, a little trial and error should get you to the ideal balance.
I know that sounds like a pain, but trust me: once you get past the initial setup, you should be home free, and the headphones will “just work” from then on. These RS 185s sound amazing, and while I wasn’t planning on purchasing a pair for myself, it’d be hard to go back to my old corded headphones. I’ve come to love popping the Sennheisers off the stand, throwing them on my head, and enjoy loud explosions without being a nuisance to anyone around me.
Advocating for RF headphones may seem weird in an age where everyone has a pair of Bluetooth headphones (thanks to Apple’s headphone jack shenanigans), but there are a few reasons the above headphones are still ideal for home theaters.
Bluetooth, in general, provides lower quality audio unless both your headphones and the source (your TV, receiver, Blu-ray player, or set-top box) support a higher quality codec like aptX. They also have a shorter range, so you may experience problems if you get up to grab a snack. Most importantly, though, Bluetooth comes with a bit of inherent latency. That’s not usually a problem for music, but it means your audio won’t be quite in sync with your TV when watching movies, which is infuriating. This, again, can be overcome if both the source and your headphones support a version of aptX known as “aptX Low Latency,” but that’s a bit rarer than regular aptX, especially on the headphones you may already have for music.
If you already have a pair of Low Latency Bluetooth headphones in your house, then by all means, give them a try! (And if your TV or receiver doesn’t have aptX LL Bluetooth built-in, you can always get an inexpensive Bluetooth receiver like this one.) Since my older home theater gear doesn’t support Bluetooth at all, and my Bluetooth headphones are exercise earbuds—not the ideal candidates for movie-watching bliss—the Sennheiser RF home theater headphones are perfect. I imagine many others in my position will feel the same. And if you just can’t bring yourself to spend the money right now...well, there’s always that extra long headphone cable to hold you over in the meantime. Just don’t trip over it when you get up to make popcorn.