How to Add Bluetooth Headphones to Your HDTV

Adding wireless headphones to your TV is a great way to watch without disturbing everyone else in the house. Here’s how to outfit your TV with wireless Bluetooth headphones.

Why Would I Want to Do This?

You’ll need to hook up a Bluetooth transmitter to your HDTV, since most don’t have it built in. The transmitter you select depends on what audio outputs your HTDV supports and whether you need to hook up one or two headphones. When the transmitter is in place, you can pair any set of Bluetooth headphones with it. Expect to spend $20-50, plus the cost of the headphones themselves.There are really two questions to address here: “Why add headphones to your HDTV at all” and “Why choose Bluetooth over something like an RF headset?”

There’s a variety of reasons you might want to add headphones to your TV watching experience. If one person is hearing impaired—or if you and your viewing partner can’t agree on how loud the TV should be—adding headphones lets you both listen at different volumes. If you’re trying to watch a movie or play video games without waking up your spouse or kids, wireless headphones are great for that too.

So, why Bluetooth instead of another solution like an RF headset? The truth is, there are advantages and disadvantages to each technology. A good RF wireless headset—like the Sennhesier RS120 ($60)—provides better sound quality and listening range than many Bluetooth headsets. However, RF headsets require connecting a large transmission base to your television that also doubles as charging station. In addition to the bulk, you can’t use the headphones with other devices unless you plug the whole transmitter into that device (so you can’t take your nice Sennhesier headphones on an airplane with you). Further, additional headsets are pricey (the well loved Sennhesier RS120 we linked to costs $60 for the base and the headphones…and another set of headphones will cost you as much as the original package).

Bluetooth headsets offer more flexibility because you can pair them with any device that supports Bluetooth, making it much easier to use them wherever you want—you can splurge more on a nice pair because that pair isn’t locked to just your TV but can also pair with your, say, iPhone for use outside the house). Also, because Bluetooth headphones are ubiquitous at this point, it’s much easier to find exactly the kind of headphones you want without having to settle for limited RF models out there (or dealing with the headache of figuring out whether different brands use the same frequency) and if you want to buy more than one pair it’s far more economical to do so.

There is one potential pitfall with Bluetooth headphones that’s worth mentioning. Some models—especially older ones—suffer a tiny bit of lag between the time the sound comes out of the source and the time it hits your ears. When you’re listening to music—or even playing video games—this lag is not so noticeable. But when you’re watching video, even the tiniest bit of lag can make people’s voices feel out of sync with their lip movements. It can be pretty distracting. It’s worth worth paying a little premium for Bluetooth equipment that employs newer low-latency standards to avoid this pitfall—more on this in a moment.

What You Need

It’s easy to add Bluetooth headphones to your smartphone, since Bluetooth has been a standard feature on new phones for some time now. Adding Bluetooth headphones to your TV gets a bit trickier. Despite the fact that modern HDTV sets should come with Bluetooth support built in by now, most don’t. You’ll likely have to retrofit your TV with Bluetooth support.

The first stop in retrofitting your TV is to determine how sound exits your TV—or media center—so that you can purchase the correct adapters (if necessary) and ensure you’re connecting your Bluetooth audio solution appropriately.

Identifying Your Setup

If you have just a TV and no other sound equipment attached—like a receiver—you should check the available ports on your TV. If you have a receiver or sound bar that all your audio sources feed into, you’ll want to check the ports on that instead of the TV. This way your new wireless headphone setup will work for not just watching TV, but for listening to music and whatever other audio you pipe through your home media center.

The image above highlights the relevant audio ports for our purpose. This particular TV includes the three primary audio port formats, highlighted by the red rectangle—a composite Left/Right audio output (labeled “L” and “R” in the photo), a standard 3.5 mm port (labeled “AUDIO”), and an optical TOSLINK output (labeled “OPTICAL”).

Your TV might be different, but the vast majority of HDTVs—and receivers—have at least a TOSLINK optical port and either a 3.5mm or L/R composite ports. The headphone jack and L/R composite jacks output the audio in analog format and require no conversion, but depending on the model Bluetooth adapter you purchase you may need to buy a cheap L/R to headphone adapter like this one ($3).

If, for some reason, your TV only has a TOSLINK output and no analog outputs, you’ll need to purchase a digital to analog audio converter to change the digital optical out feed into an analog stereo signal. We’ve used the Portta PETDTAP ($12) with success. Even though a good optical-to-analog converter costs less than $15, you should still carefully check your ports before running out to purchase one.

Selecting a Bluetooth Transmitter

The next thing you’ll need is a Bluetooth transmitter. This device hooks up to one of the audio outputs on your TV or receiver, and then pairs with whatever Bluetooth headphones you decide on. There are two big factors to consider when purchasing your Bluetooth adapter.

First and foremost, you want an adapter that supports “aptX low-latency”. The aptX low-latency codec is a set of, as the name implies, low-latency Bluetooth compression algorithms that significantly minimize audio delay when paired with headphones that also support aptX. Give the increasingly negligible price difference between older Bluetooth transmitters and newer aptX models, there is very little reason to not get the superior ones. If the product you’re looking at doesn’t note “aptX low-latency” as a feature, then skip over it in search of a superior product.

Second, if you plan on buying an adapter for use with two headphones, say for your and your spouse, instead of a single pair, this is where the fine print comes in. Not only is it harder to find a Bluetooth adapter that supports multiple headphones, it’s even harder to find one that—if you read the fine print—offers the speedier aptX codec on both connections. If you buy one of the cheaper models like this then one of two things will happen: only one headphone set will get the aptX transmission or, even worse in some cases, it will turn the aptX off altogether and both headphone sets will get lower quality audio.

With those considerations in mind, we have some recommendations. First and foremost, our current favorite adapter (and the product line successor of our previous favorite adapter) is the Avantree Dual Link Priva III. For $45, you get a Bluetooth adapter that offers not only aptX low-latency connections, but offers them on both headphones at once. We were happy with our original Avantree Priva II and we’re even happier they now offer dual aptX with the Priva III. This is, hands down, the best value if you’re looking to link up two headphone sets at once (or just want the option to do so in the future).

If you only need a single pair of headphones or if your budget is under $25, you have loads of options. There are thousands of Bluetooth transmitters on the market. Among them, we highly recommend the Rockrok 2-1 ($26). It’s in the $25-30 range you’d expect to pay for a quality Bluetooth device, and includes two neat features: an internal battery and the ability to both transmit and receive. This means you can not only use it to transmit audio from your TV to your headphones but you could also use it as a receiver for Bluetooth audio, giving you the ability to turn any speakers into Bluetooth speakers or any headphones into Bluetooth headphones—a nice added value. Once you get below $25 or so, you’ll find that the quality falls off and the support for aptX low-latency vanishes (something to keep in mind if you find an adapter for $12 that seems too good to be true).

Selecting Bluetooth Headphones

The market for Bluetooth headphones is enormous. Just like the regular headphones market, there are budget headphones you can pick up for twenty bucks and there are premium headphones that cost as much as a modest car payment. If you’re purchasing these headphones primarily for movie and video game use, it’s important you seek out a pair that supports the aptX low-latency codec to take advantage of your aptX transmitter.

While it is well beyond the scope of this tutorial to coach you on purchasing the perfect pair of headphones, we can certainly offer advice for those of you looking for the good enough and cheap variety. For $55 you can pick up the Avantree Audition aptX over-the-ear headphones, or for $49, these Naztech XJ-500 over-the-ear headphones that also support aptX.

“But guys!” you say “I already have a great pair of wired headphones I love and I don’t want to spend more money on headphones!” Remember the last section? If you really love a pair of wired headphones and want to use them with a Bluetooth setup—in order to, say, keep anyone from tripping on a headphone cable dangling across your living room from your TV—you’ll need to jump through a minor hoop. In such case you’ll need a Bluetooth transmitter for your TV and then, in addition, a small Bluetooth receiver to plug your headphones into. You can buy a device like the Rockrok 2-1, mentioned in the previous section, that can function as receiver. (If you’re using a Rockrok connected to your TV, then you’ll have two total). Put it in receive mode, pair it with your transmitter, and plug your high quality wired headphones right in—consider it a $25 tax to keep using your favorite headphones.

Whether you pick up the Rockrok or another model, the most important feature to look for (aptX compatibility aside) is an internal battery—so you can place the small receiver on your lap or beside you on the couch without getting stuck hooked up to a charger.

How to Set It All Up

You’ll most certainly spend more time reading over the feature lists of the Bluetooth adapters and shopping for headphones than you will actually setting the system up. The whole thing is a very straightforward affair.

In the previous section of the tutorial, you identified which audio output you’ll use on your TV or receiver. Now it’s time to plug everything in. If you have a 3.5mm or a L/R composite audio output, you can plug the Bluetooth receiver directly into those outputs, using the supplied headphone-to-composite adapter if necessary.

If you are using the optical audio port, you’ll need to add the TOSLINK converter into the sequence, linking the TOSLINK output on the TV or receiver to the converter and then plugging your Bluetooth adapter into the converter. In our example photograph above, we have a TV that sports a headphone out jack, so we can simply plug our transmitter directly into the TV—no adapters required.

Once that’s hooked up, just pair the headphones with your Bluetooth transmitter. In the case of the Priva and most other similar units, you just have to press and hold the main button on the unit and wait for the light to blink. Then, you hold the pairing button on your headphones. A few blinking lights later and you have a link between the two. Pop the headphones on, fire up the TV, and test the audio.

If you can’t hear audio from the TV, you can easily test whether or not the headphones are paired properly by unplugging the Bluetooth receiver from the TV and plugging it into another audio source (like the headphone jack on your smartphone).

If you can hear audio when troubleshooting the headphones with a second audio source but the TV audio isn’t working, you likely need to go into the menu on your HDTV or media receiver and look for an entry related to the headphone jack or “auxiliary speakers”. Some units won’t pipe sound out to the auxiliary audio ports unless instructed to do so. Barring that potential minor hiccup, however, the entire experience should be plug and play.

Jason Fitzpatrick is a warranty-voiding DIYer who spends his days cracking opening cases and wrestling with code so you don't have to. If it can be modded, optimized, repurposed, or torn apart for fun he's interested (and probably already at the workbench taking it apart). You can follow him on if you'd like.