If I wanted to buy wireless RF “home theater” headphones to use while listening to television and music in my home, I’d choose the Power Acoustik Farenheit HP-902 RFT set. Why? After spending dozens of hours researching every RF headphone system we could find, and considering 32 of them, we then read what few professional reviews we could dig up. Next we tested 14 pairs total between our original guide published in March 2014 and this update (including a direct back-to-back listening comparison of the best-reviewed and newest RF headphones with our expert panel). After all of that, we concluded that the HP-902 RFT headphones sound decent, offer useful features such as a mute switch and the ability to switch between sources, and give you the best value for your money of anything that’s currently available. We preferred the sound of the Sennheiser RS 165 (the update to last year’s pick, the now-discontinued Sennheiser RS 160)—but for less than the price of the RS 165, you get two pairs of headphones in the HP-902 RFT set.
The HP-902 RFT package (which you can find under both the Power Acoustik and Farenheit brands) gives you an RF transmitter, two pairs of headphones, zippered cases for those headphones—and nothing else. The headphones run on AAA batteries (not included) and don’t come with an AC adapter (though you can easily get one on Amazon for around $5). For the price, however, they’re a great value. They sound fairly neutral (no serious issues in the frequency response), have two separate RCA inputs, and offer decent range; you can wander a few rooms away with no interference. The downside: These headphones feel cheap and plasticky, and a little breakable. But every other product we tested in their price range was equally flimsy—and produced much worse sound, included only one pair of headphones, lacked a case, and made for a less comfortable fit for all of our panelists.
If you’re planning on using your headphones for watching TV frequently, and you’re willing to spend around $200 on a pair of wireless headphones for use at home, we recommend the Sennheiser RS 165, which is that company’s current base wireless model and the replacement for our previous pick. The RS 165 sounds much better than the HP-902 RFT headphones, but no one on our panel was thrilled with its sound in light of its price tag. We preferred our previous pick, Sennheiser’s cheaper, more-balanced-sounding, and now-discontinued RS 160. If you use this kind of headphones only occasionally, spending $200 or more on a pair is likely not a worthwhile investment. But if you are a frequent home theater headphone listener and you don’t mind dropping that kind of cash, the Sennheiser model is a good option.
Not only did I do extensive research and consult with some of the other top professional reviewers (you can read more about that below), but I also hold a bachelor’s in both music performance and audio production from Ithaca College. I spent several years in terrestrial radio before moving on to become a professional voice actor in Los Angeles, a job I continue to do and love. (In other words, I’ve spent more than a decade in and out of top recording studios.)
Around the same time, I started reviewing high-end home audio equipment for magazines like Home Theater Magazine, Home Entertainment, and Sound & Vision. Since landing at The Wirecutter, I’ve had the pleasure of listening to and reviewing hundreds (yes, hundreds) of headphones, and my articles have been featured in Electronic House, Fast Company, Forbes, and Time. With all of my experience, I’ve got a pretty good handle on what’s out there, and what’s worth your time and hard-earned money.
And then there’s our panel of experts: In addition to myself, we had Brent Butterworth, a Wirecutter AV writer with decades of experience in the audio field for publications such as About.com, Home Theater, Sound & Vision, and many others; Geoff Morrison, writer for CNET and Forbes, and AV editor here at The Wirecutter; and John Higgins, a session musician (with a music master’s degree from the University of Southern California) and a music and audio teacher at The Windward School, a private high school in Los Angeles. Last time, we also worked with Phil Metzler, a professional musician based in Los Angeles.
As for outside advice, I consulted a number of experts, including Tyll Hertsens of InnerFidelity and Steve Guttenberg of CNET. I read reviews on Engadget, Forbes, PCMag, Sound & Vision, and other professional sites where available.
Why would you want to buy wireless home theater headphones? These models fill a specific need. Maybe you live in an apartment with thin walls (or sensitive neighbors), or you like your movies loud but don’t want to stretch a cord from your TV to the couch. Or perhaps you have several kids and could use a break from the sounds of video games blasting through the house.
You could also be hard of hearing (or living with someone who is), with a need to crank up the volume in order to understand dialogue. Or maybe you have a different sleep schedule than your partner and don’t want to disturb their slumber. Whatever the reason, you need headphones that allow you to listen to what’s coming out of the entertainment center without being attached to a cord.
Why not use Bluetooth headphones? Bluetooth and RF headphones both use radio waves to transmit the sound data. Bluetooth broadcasts in the frequency range of 2.4 GHz to 2.8 GHz, while other RF headphones use varying ranges from 900 MHz to 3.2 GHz. Because Bluetooth operates in a set, standard range, lots of devices can pair with a Bluetooth product. But while Bluetooth headphones solve the cord problem, many have noticeable latency—a small delay in processing that causes what you see on the screen and what you hear not to line up perfectly. This effect can get annoying after a while. Also, many Bluetooth headphones are meant to be used only a short distance from a device, so their signal strength isn’t as robust as that of the RF headphones made for home theater use.
So if any of the above scenarios apply to you, read on. If not, you could save a lot of money and hear audio just as well with our corded over-ear options.
First, I researched the options available. I checked out the writing of experts such as Steve Guttenberg of CNET and Tyll Hertsens of InnerFidelity to see what they liked. I read reviews on Head-Fi, Sound & Vision, Top Ten Reviews, Trusted Reviews, and various other sites.
I combed through the offerings at Amazon, Best Buy, B&H, Crutchfield, and the like to see what new products shoppers liked or didn’t like. Generally speaking, I didn’t find a whole lot to go on research-wise with these new models (but hey, that’s why we do what we do). From there, I brought the top seven new models in for testing with our panel.
The panelists used a variety of material that they chose themselves and with which they were very familiar, including music, movies, and TV shows. After comparing all seven new headphone models back to back, they gave me their thoughts. This time around, we didn’t find an easy answer. After we talked about our favorites in terms of sound and fit, we factored in price and overall value to come up with our final pick.
We recommend the HP-902 RFT, which you can find under both the Power Acoustik and Farenheit brands. These headphones do the job well for the least amount of money, and with the least number of drawbacks. Yes, we know—that isn’t a ringing endorsement. But with the discontinuation of our previous pick, the Sennheiser RS 160 (the RS 165, which we talk about below, is more expensive, and we like that model less), we didn’t have many fantastic or affordable options. However, we know that home theater headphones are a must for certain situations, and we think that the HP-902 RFT package gives you enough for your money that it’s the best option out there for now.
Our panelists differed in opinion as to which headphones we’d want if money weren’t an issue (we were split between the Sennheiser RS 165 and RS 185), but once cost came into consideration, everyone agreed on the budget-friendly HP-902 RFT headphones, which sound pretty good and offer a decent array of features. We all appreciated this affordable package’s inclusion of two pairs of headphones, and typically you can get additional pairs for about $30 each; the transmitter supports up to four pairs.
Although they’re technically designed for use in car or RV entertainment systems (which is why they come with a DC cable instead of an AC power supply), the HP-902 RFT headphones have a few nice features that work well in your home, too. The Monitor button serves as a mute control so you can hear what’s going on around you. The headphones have ⅛-inch cable jacks, so you can also use them with a cord. And the receiver broadcasts on two channels, via separate pairs of RCA inputs (you can toggle between those on the headphones), so one person can listen to one sound source while a second person listens to another. This setup can come in handy if, say, you want to watch the football game and your kiddo wants to put on children’s radio.
As Brent put it, “for the price they sound a lot better than they have to.” The overall balance is relatively even across all frequency ranges. Intense low bass on a soundtrack won’t drown out everything else happening in a scene, and unlike with some competing models, the consonants on words won’t be so intense that they feel like they’re piercing your eardrums.
Unfortunately, that middle-of-the-road evenness also means that music can sound a little dull and lifeless—nothing really pops. The bass is rolled off in the low frequencies, so cannons in battle scenes won’t be as big sounding as you might like. And if you turn the volume way up, you will hear a bit of hiss (though not as bad as on most competitors), especially if you walk a few rooms away from the transmitter. Phil nailed it during our original panel when he said, “they’re not offensive, they just don’t do music any justice either.” And that’s why these headphones don’t have us jumping for joy.
The HP-902 RFT headphones get the job done when you’re watching TV or playing a game, but they aren’t something you’ll sit around and luxuriate in while listening to HD recordings. But, hey, for the affordable price, they’re a good solution to a specific problem. And believe us, as soon as something better comes along, we’ll let you know.
Middle-of-the-road sound aside, we found a few bummers when it came to the Power Acoustik Farenheit HP-902 RFT. First, as mentioned above, the package doesn’t include anything aside from the transmitter, the headphones, and the cases, so you’ll need to buy a power supply and some AAA batteries. While the lack of a built-in rechargeable battery means you don’t have to worry about seating the headphones on a cradle improperly and finding them uncharged when you want to use them (a likely problem with a few of the other models we tested), it also means you’ll need to keep disposable batteries on hand or to invest in a rechargable set of AAAs. And if you use the headphones a lot, purchasing batteries frequently could get annoying and costly.
Additionally, while the transmitter is small, it isn’t much to look at. It has two sets of RCA inputs and a little DC cable trailing like a tail off of the back. But when you consider that every single home theater headphone system we tested came in only basic black, and that most of the transmitter towers look like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, you realize that none of these things will win any design awards.
Some readers inquired about the lack of surround-sound capabilities. Achieving true surround sound is more complex than just buying some headphones that have the capability. We expound upon this topic more in What about surround sound? below.
Six months in, the Power Acoustik headphones are still hanging in there for our readers. We haven’t heard of any major build or performance issues. The one comment that pops up on occasion concerns the battery life. A lot of folks go through batteries pretty quickly with extended use, so we recommend getting some rechargeable AAAs or a big pack of batteries to have on hand.
While we think most people will be best off with the budget-friendly HP-902 RFT set, if you’re interested primarily in sound quality—and willing to pay significantly more for it—we recommend the Sennheiser RS 165, the successor to our now-discontinued pick from last year, the Sennheiser RS 160. Although we don’t like it as much as the RS 160, the RS 165 isn’t a bad pair of headphones (we’ll explain the faint praise later). Dialogue is clear and easy to understand, and while the bass is a bit forward, so long as you keep the bass-boost feature off, it’s smooth and defined. Although the experience isn’t the same as being in a theater, you still get good left- and right-channel separation. Because the highs are a bit boosted in the consonant range, small noises tend to pop more than feels natural. Footsteps on leaves, the crackle of a fire—these sort of subtle sound effects tend to feel closer to your ear than they should based on the camera angle. People who like that extra detail may enjoy this as crispness.
But—and this is important to note—if you were to compare the RS 165 with any of our corded picks in the $150 range, it would be no contest. The corded options would win every time. Among home theater headphones, however, the RS 165 is one of the best, with our panelists bestowing such high praise as “pretty good,” “fine,” and “decent.” When you consider that we described some of the other options we tested as “awful,” this model is a definite step up.
Initially our panelists split between recommending the Sennheiser RS 165 and the Sennheiser RS 185. We all liked the RS 185 better than the RS 165 in both sound and fit. However, the RS 185 headphones have an open-back design. As a result, they let out some of the sound you’re listening to (which could bother your sleeping partner), and they also let in noises happening around you. For many people, this design defeats the entire purpose of home theater headphones. Additionally, the RS 185 costs around $300 currently, which just isn’t practical for headphones that aren’t your main listening source.
The RS 165 is lightweight, which is really nice. The right earcup has built-in volume controls and a bass-boost on/off switch. The headphones charge when you place them over the transmitter, so as long as you remember to put them back in the cradle after use, you should be good to go. All of our panelists (even Geoff, who usually loves extra bass) found that the enhanced-boost setting made the low end boomy and muddy. We also encountered some clipping when we tried to turn the volume on the headphones way up; we believe some sort of volume limiter must be in use.
But the lightness comes at a price: The padding on the earcups feels cheap. Both the underlying foam and the pleather covering feel as though they would break down quickly. The earcups are also a bit large, so if you have a smaller head like I do, the combination of an unyielding foam plus a large cup size equals a less-than-stellar seal. If the RS 165 cost closer to $125, we might not be as bummed out about the build quality. But at about $200, we can’t understand why Sennheiser didn’t just use the RS 185’s better-feeling plush padding across the entire RS line.
If you want to add a second pair of headphones to the system, you can. The transmitter supports a maximum of two (as opposed to the Power Acoustik Farenheit HP-902 RFT’s maximum of four). And you’ll need to buy those headphones separately for an additional $140 each as of this writing. On top of that, the only input on the receiver is a single ⅛-inch analog connection, which isn’t a major issue, but at this price we’d like to see at least an RCA option.
Sennheiser discontinued our previous pick, the RS 160. That’s unfortunate, since it was a great pair of headphones that we liked better than the RS 165 for a few reasons. First, the RS 160 had a small, low-profile hockey-puck-sized transmitter that took up little space on an AV cabinet. Second, we really liked the older model’s sound quality: When compared with the RS 160, the newer RS 165 seems to have slightly more elevated high frequencies. Some people may interpret that effect as more detail, but others might find it fatiguing after a while. Third, the build quality of the RS 160 seemed higher, as it felt more substantial (and moderately heavier) than the RS 165, and the fit and the tactile aspect of the earcup foam and the plastic headband felt superior. And last, but most important, the RS 160 cost about $30 to $40 less than the RS 165 currently does at the time of this writing.
Still, the RS 165 is a decent pair of wireless home theater headphones. It just isn’t amazing—and if we were spending around two hundred bucks, we’d want more than “decent,” so we want the same for you. So we’re recommending the sonically inferior but much more affordable Power Acoustik Farenheit HP-902 RFT package. But if you use home theater headphones a lot, or don’t mind the price tag, the Sennheiser RS 165 is one of the best options currently on the market.
Blurex Digital Wireless Headphones: With an affordable price tag of about $60 and a four-star Amazon rating at this writing, this model seemed to be a possible competitor to the Power Acoustik Farenheit HP-902 RFT. Sadly, it didn’t hold up. The sound was boxy, and muddy in the mids and lower end. It didn’t produce a ton of low lows, so somehow explosive sounds ended up both dull and blurry. The Blurex model handled dialogue fine, but add a score or try to listen to music, and it sounded messy. Even for the low cost, we weren’t thrilled. Also, the Blurex pair looks uncannily similar to the RIF 6, which we also tested. You can read more on that model below.
Insignia Wireless Over the Ear Headphones NS-WHP314: We came across this model at Best Buy and saw that it had some great user reviews. We have no idea what those people were thinking. Everyone on our panel disliked these headphones. Geoff remarked, “In every way a headphone can sound wrong, these are wrong.” Nobody could get a good seal with the earcups, but even when we held them flush to our heads, the overall sonic experience was, as Brent put it, “hollow and thin and dull.”
As an aside, we purchased our review model. When I tried to contact Insignia during the company’s stated business hours using a number on the Insignia website, I got a recorded “This user does not subscribe to voicemail. Please try again later.” Although for us that was a minor issue, it did make us nervous about how Insignia would handle customer service. So this pair was out.
RIF 6 Digital Wireless Headphones: The RIF 6 and the Blurex look a lot alike. Uncannily so. Our guess is that the two models may have been made in the same factory. The RIF 6 has a ⅛-inch input on the headphones themselves, so you can listen while corded if you like—a neat feature.
The sound of the RIF 6 was a little different than that of the Blurex. The RIF 6 had a bit more low-frequency intensity, which made bass notes sound boomy and movie explosions sound muddy (think “kuh-BLUUUUUUUH” instead of “ka-BOOM”). To me, it almost sounded as though the lower notes were reflecting off the inside of the earcups and reverberating around.
Additionally, the left and right channels created a sense of stereo so separated, it almost sounded like the sonic space had no center. For example, if a character walked across the screen while talking, it sounded as though they were talking into your left ear at first, and then a switch flipped and they were suddenly talking into your right ear.
All in all, the nicest thing we can say about the RIF 6 or the Blurex is that, for the price, both are acceptable. But we’d suggest spending the extra cash on our pick.
Sennheiser RS 175: Yet another Sennheiser replacement model (the RS 170 was discontinued), the RS 175 ended up being a huge flop with our test panel. Brent summed it up: “These are a mess.” The RS 175 has a bass-boost option; in our tests, with the bass boost turned off, the overall sound was thin and edgy, lifeless. Piano sounded like a bad digital-keyboard representation of a piano sound. The low end was somewhat pitchless, so hip-hop and intense orchestral soundtracks (like that of The Lord of the Rings) seemed to lose their oomph. Geoff also remarked that the highs had a sizzly quality when the volume was turned up.
Then we turned the bass boost on. The Q on the bass was huge, making the bass a muddy mess. It sounded as if explosions had reverb on them. When a soundtrack really kicked in, or an explosion happened, it completely blurred everything else we were listening to.
The other sound-customization option is a surround feature. This does add a little depth of field, but unfortunately the other flaws are too large for this positive to overcome. For $250, we expect more. If you want a Sennheiser wireless system, we’d say to go with the RS 165 or to spend the extra money for the RS 185.
Sennheiser RS 185: The RS 185 has an open-back design, which, as mentioned above, can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you want to use your wireless home theater headphones. If you aren’t sure whether open-back headphones are for you, take a look at our “Which Headphones Should I Get?” guide to get a better sense of the pros and cons. Basically, though, if you’re shopping for a pair of wireless headphones to watch TV next to a sleeping partner, the RS 185 isn’t for you.
Still interested? Great. One nice thing about open-back headphones is that (generally speaking) their design gives your ears the illusion of more depth of field. Of all the wireless home theater headphones that Sennheiser currently makes, the RS 185 has the most spacious sound. It also produces the most balanced sound, from bass to mids to the lower treble. It does have a bit of an upper-treble spike, which is a common aspect of the “Sennheiser sound,” so if you know and like classic Sennheiser headphones, you’ll like the RS 185. For the uninitiated, this means you’ll notice a little extra volume on consonants in dialogue, snare hits in music, or crackle in a fire. Geoff mentioned that he’d like a little more bass in the mix, but generally speaking, all of our panelists were really happy with the sound.
All of us found the fit to be comfortable too, although people with glasses might find that the padding presses on their glasses’ earpieces a bit. That said, the velvet-covered foam earcup pads on the RS 185 are much more supple and comfortable than the pleather on the RS 165 and RS 175. The headphones themselves have a left and right balance control as well as a volume control on the right earcup, though the buttons are a little too close to each other; as I was toggling the volume, more than once I ended up accidentally pressing the balance controls instead. It’s a design flaw that you probably could get used to over time, but it remains annoying on a $300 pair of headphones.
The RS 185 has both an analog input and an optical input, as well as an ALC/MLC option. ALC, automatic level control, adjusts the volume of the incoming audio (from a TV, say) so that it doesn’t overload the headphones. This function worked pretty well in our tests—we got plenty of volume from even mobile devices—so we aren’t sure of a situation where you’d need manual level control. You’ll have to be careful when do you use MLC, though, because if you turn the knob up too high, the sound clips.
As with the other offerings in the RS line, you can purchase a second set of headphones and pair it with the RS 185 transmitter, but a compatible set costs about $200 currently. And that’s where we start to sour on the RS 185. A one-headphone system is $300. If you want to listen with a friend—like you can with our main pick—that’s a grand total of $500. Do the RS 185 headphones sound better than the Power Acoustik Farenheit HP-902 RFT headphones? Absolutely, hands down, yes. But do they sound $430 (or even $230) better? Well, our panel says no. But really, that’s a call only you and your credit card can make.
Sennheiser RS 195: Created in conjunction with the Fraunhofer Institute for Digital Media Technology, the RS 195 is designed for people with slight hearing disabilities. Because this model has so many options and settings, we were hoping that it might hit the sweet spot as something that a person with hearing loss and a family member with typical hearing abilities could share.
Unfortunately, our able-hearing panelists were exceptionally unhappy with the sound. We realize that we’re not who the RS 195 was designed for, though, so it would be unfair for us to criticize without taking that into account. We’ll just say it is entirely possible that someone with a particular kind of moderate hearing loss might find the RS 195 sound profile helpful, and leave it at that. We’ll certainly revisit the RS 195 should we in the future explore the capabilities of headphones addressing this specific need, but that is a different article.
For anyone else, the RS 195 will not be a good fit. While the build quality is nice, and the headphones themselves are as comfortable as the RS 185 pair, the sound is all mids and highs. A dial offers settings that range from A to G, and with each click through the alphabet the sound gets tinnier and tinnier. It boosts from the female vocal range on up and makes everything sound more and more two-dimensional.
Additionally, this model has dedicated dialogue and music modes, as well as a left and right balance knob. It has so many possible settings that I couldn’t help but imagine that anyone who isn’t technologically savvy would get really frustrated trying to set all the knobs and buttons to the perfect combination.
And then there’s the $400 price tag. For a person who is having difficulty hearing and for whom this system works, perhaps it’s worth that amount of money. Aside from that small group, however, the RS 195 isn’t for anyone else that we can think of.
JVC HA-W600RF: We brought this pair in as a potential budget choice and because we thought its intercom option was potentially useful. (You can press a button on the base, and it will transmit your voice to the headphones—handy for people who need to get the attention of immersed listeners.) But tragically, the build quality was lacking, and so was the sound. These headphones were by far the worst sizzle offenders: Every sssssong had ssssso much ssssssssssizzle and hissss. (Think reading that sentence was annoying? Imagine listening to all of your music that way.) Brent remarked that it seemed to have an octave-wide peak around 4 kHz. Everything high-end sounded overemphasized in an unflattering way. I’ll spare you exact quotes from the panelists, but they were adamant that this pair was not their choice.
Sennheiser RS 120: Moderately priced (less than $80 at this writing), the RS 120 set has a nifty charging cradle in its transmitter base, but unfortunately we just didn’t love these headphones. Brent immediately seized on how quickly they ended up with hiss (you have to tune them in on the side of the headphones, which you can easily bump), and Phil disliked the build quality. The pads feel flimsy, and John found them uncomfortable to wear for long. All of us commented on the sizzling high end of the frequency; every snare hit had a “TSS TSS” piercing aspect that was unpleasant for me. Overall, if you want to save money, get the Power Acoustik Farenheit HP-902 RFT instead.
Sennheiser RS 160: This model was our winner last time, but alas, it is now discontinued. You can still find it here and there, however, so if you see it, you should snap it up—because for everyone on our panel, it was the best-sounding model, hands down, even compared with the RS 165. Brent was impressed (which is a tough thing for any set of headphones to achieve). It “sounded very close to dead flat in frequency response,” he said. “The bass was a hair soft for my taste, but overall really, really, really, good. At about $165, it’s better than a lot of $300 headphones.” (Whoa—three “really”s.)
The highs were clean and clear, with no sizzle (a word I use to describe many other models in this category) and mids that were well represented and balanced. The lows were full, rich, and not overpowering. All of us on the panel also found this pair to be very comfortable, despite our various head shapes. The headphones were light, the earpads were sturdy yet had a nice squish to them, and nothing pinched or chafed. I could easily watch a movie with no complaints. We’re so very sad this model isn’t being made anymore.
Sennheiser RS 170: Like the RS 160, this model is discontinued. This pair also sounded darn near identical to the RS 160. The two even had the same overall build.
We found two key differences: The RS 170 had bass-boost and surround options, and it was able to transmit a bit farther. Everyone on the panel loved the sound of the RS 170, because without engaging the bass boost, it sounded exactly the same as the RS 160 to our ears. The bass boost did what it claimed, and it seemed nice for someone who wanted that extra oomph.
As for the surround, well, to be honest, nobody found it especially useful. I tried it with music and movies, and about all I could say for it is that it somewhat increased the audibility of dialogue in films and didn’t overtly hurt the sound. I wouldn’t purchase this model simply for the surround option. But if you find the RS 170, and the RS 160 isn’t available, feel confident in snagging it.
Sennheiser RS 220: Another one bites the dust—like the RS 160 and RS 170, this pair is discontinued. But if you see it on sale, here’s what you need to know: First of all, these are open-back headphones, which come with pros and cons. If you not sure whether that’s a good thing for you, read our piece on which headphones you should get, and then come back here.
Still interested? You should also know that you need to charge these headphones fully to prevent signal dropouts. This model has a list price of $500, too, but keep in mind that you’ll get a tower that has several kinds of inputs (⅛-inch, RCA, coaxial, and optical), a control on the headphones themselves for volume as well as left and right balance, and a high-end heavy sonic mix that appeals to the folks who post at Head-Fi.
We’ll be honest: It’s not our favorite sound profile, but we recognize that some people love that sound and will pay anything to get it. If that’s you, the RS 220 is the wireless headphones set for you. But there are better options for the rest of us, like Phil, who said, “For me, they were kind of like listening to a Cadillac. Definitely luxury and expensive, but I kept wanting to like them more than I actually did.” We all thought we had better uses for our money. But hey, if you’re a Cadillac person and you find an RS 220 somewhere, you’ll be happy with it.
Sony MDR-RF985-RK: This model has huge earcups. They’re light, but they also feel as though they’re made of brittle plastic. And at the time of our review, they retailed for about the same as the much better built Sennheiser RS 160. Everybody on our panel independently commented on how compressed-sounding these headphones were. Phil even said he liked the sound of the Power Acoustik Farenheit HP-902 RFT better. And as with the Sennheiser RS 120, that sizzle problem cropped up again. To be honest, I couldn’t tell if it was due to interference or the drivers, but overall, everyone agreed that we would pass on this pair.
Koss HB79: Durability concerns and interference issues caused us to pass on this model.
RCA WHP 141: At the time we checked this model’s reviews on Amazon, users commented on a cheap build. Considering that a decent set doesn’t cost that much more, we decided to pass.
Sennheiser RS 110: This is an older model, and an open-back version of the RS 120. See the discussion above to learn why we wouldn’t recommend this pair.
Sony MDR-IF245RK: Infrared means line of sight only, and we like more room to move.
Here’s the deal with surround sound in headphones today. Sadly, it’s not as simple as getting a pair of headphones with a “surround” setting. To be honest, we have yet to hear headphones that really do much in the way of re-creating a 5.1+ sound space with the available technology.
The technology is getting close. At the CES trade show a few years back, Dolby had a pretty impressive headphone surround system to demo. Ah, but there’s a catch: For you to actually hear Dolby Headphone (or any similar proprietary format, such as DTS), you need three things: (1) a movie recorded and encoded in this headphone-designated surround-sound format, (2) a system that can decode that specific encoding, and (3) headphones sensitive enough to reproduce the signal.
Having only the third component doesn’t mean you’ll hear convincing surround sound. Among currently available headphones, nothing that boasts a “surround” option makes a lick of a difference in terms of actual psychoacoustics. But take heart—we’re not far off. We just need to get, you know, movie production companies, gaming systems, Blu-ray players, and other portable movie-playing devices all on the same page and adopting the same format. That shouldn’t be too hard, right? (She says, with every ounce of optimism in her being.) Anyway, until that day comes, we suggest choosing a good-sounding pair of headphones that does the job for an affordable price.
Audio port problems? We have solutions. TVs connect to your other audio gear in many different ways, depending on brand, model, year of manufacture, and so forth. So before you buy a pair of home theater headphones, you should look at the side or back of your TV. What kinds of audio ports does it have? Look for a label that says “Out” or “Output.”
Does it look like A? That’s an optical digital output. If the headphones you’re interested in don’t have an optical input (our picks don’t), you’ll need to get a digital-to-analog converter such as this one, which will work with either of our picks and typically costs about $30. If you are using the Power Acoustik Farenheit HP-902 RFT, you’ll need this male-to-male RCA cable too.
If you have a TV with Dolby surround output and you still want to use the optical out, you’ll have to do one of two things. For the first, you’ll need to go into your TV’s settings and turn off Dolby Digital, using PCM encoding instead. This action will let you use the less-expensive converter mentioned above. Or, if you want to leave Dolby on, you can buy this D/A converter and this optical cable, as well as this adapter for the HP-902 RFT. If you’re using the Sennheiser RS 165, get this adapter instead.
Does the output look like C? For our pick, you’ll need this RCA to ⅛-inch cable. For the Sennheiser RS 165, congratulations, you don’t need anything at all to convert. It’s already an ⅛-inch jack, and the cable is included—just plug and play.
We’re currently looking at the MEE Connect, an audio transmitter that allows TVs to stream high-definition sound to as many as two headphones or speakers wirelessly. If it works—without too much latency—using your Bluetooth headphones as the set for listening to television and music in your home would be pretty great (and a much less restrictive option than the one people have now). We have the Connect on hand, and we will update this guide with our findings when we’ve been able to test it properly.
In March 2017, Sennheiser announced the Flex 5000, an audio transmitter for TVs that allows you to plug your wired headphones in for volume control, audio and speech clarity, and wireless capabilities up to 30 meters. Priced at $200, the Flex 5000 comes with Sennheiser’s in-ear MX 475, which you can use in place of your own wired headphones.
Sennheiser also announced the $250 RS 5000 and $180 RS 2000 headphones. Both RS models include a transmitter that allows you to control your TV’s volume and balance. Additionally, the RS 5000 lets you choose from three hearing profiles to enhance TV, movies, or music; it also has a feature that improves speech clarity. The RS 5000 and RS 2000 have ranges of 70 meters and 50 meters, respectively; as for battery life, the former lasts for 12 hours and the latter lasts for 9 hours.
(Photos by Lauren Dragan.)