What began with an old pair of Bluetooth headphones to watch late-night TV movies became an all-consuming quest to get great-sounding wireless audio and a reliable connection from my television. It really shouldn’t have been complicated, but it turned out to be far harder than I could have ever imagined. And I’ve spent months and months — and a whole lot of money — solving the problem.
This is how I did it.
Toward the end of 2021, I began watching TV late into the night, and I didn’t want to be “that neighbor” when doing it. So I grabbed a pair of Bluetooth headphones and connected them to my TV. I didn’t think much of it at the time. It’s a modestly sized room so I didn’t expect range to be an issue. It’s a modern television, and the headphones sound very good connected to my phone. I thought it was problem solved right then and there.
The headphones I used were the Marshall Monitor II, and I connected them to my 2017 Sony KD-49XE9005 television, which runs Android TV and has Bluetooth 4.1 with A2DP. The pairing was fine for a short while, but problems started to creep in. The Bluetooth range wasn’t great, and it often got confused if I went into the next room. While the connection was stable, it would suffer from latency issues and would also take around 60 seconds to stop stuttering after the start of a program.
Far worse was the audio performance. It was muddy and lacking definition, volume, and body, robbing movies of presence and excitement. It was a substandard experience compared to even an ordinary soundbar. On Black Friday (never a good time to be “solving” problems), I ordered a pair of Sony CH-710 Bluetooth headphones as an experiment, and although the latency and stuttering issues disappeared, the sound was just as disappointing.
Both the headphones sounded far better playing music when connected to my iPhone 13 Pro though. Undeterred, I threw some more money at the problem, choosing Sony’s WH-1000MX4 headphones. Comfort improved immensely, latency wasn’t an issue, and the noise cancellation is excellent, too. But at the same time, the performance was still uninspiring, yet they sound stellar connected to my phone.
It was beginning to get annoying, but I was in no mood to declare defeat. I went in a different direction next, trying out the Master & Dynamic MG20 gaming headphones. These use a dongle to connect to the TV rather than Bluetooth, lowering latency and providing a 7.1 audio connection too. They sound great with my PlayStation 4, and sure enough, they’re good with the TV, too. However, as the volume control on the TV remote no longer works, you have to use the one on the headset, and it doesn’t have the same tightness of control. It’s either a little too loud, or a little too quiet. Plus, there’s no noise cancellation, and I found they weren’t quite as comfortable as the Sony headphones.
I hate not solving a problem, and this was now becoming very frustrating. I was four sets of headphones in at this point, and although wireless audio listening was decent, it still wasn’t as good as it should be, and everything just felt like a compromise. The WH-1000XM4 came closest to what I wanted, but the sound wasn’t always as full as the MG20’s, which were in turn let down by not having noise cancellation and being less comfortable.
Was this really it? Was I destined to be perpetually disappointed by wireless audio from my television, despite the WH-1000XM4’s sounding brilliant connected to my phone, and the Master & Dynamic MG20’s working very well with my PlayStation?
I did what most others would do and searched the internet for a solution. I found many lists telling me to get a massive variety of different headphones, all of which were apparently “best for television.” Some suggested I should use a pair that come with a separate RF or IR transmitter, but the battery life was usually far shorter than a Bluetooth set, none had noise cancellation, and they were for TV only rather than also being able to connect to my phone or tablet if I wanted the option.
The internet really just led me to the point where I was at the time. The Sony WH-1000XM4 topped several lists, and while I agree that they’re good, I refused to believe what I was experiencing from my TV was the best. Did this mean my problem was a television-related one? Splurging on a pair of headphones every few months was already frivolous, but not nearly as financially crushing as buying a new television, especially as there’s nothing otherwise wrong with the one I’ve got. And what if it didn’t make any difference, or was somehow even worse? Where would it end? A house full of televisions and headphones? Who am I, Caleb Denison?
I mention Digital Trends’ audio and TV expert for a reason, because it was an article of his that set me on the path to wireless audio success.
In his article about why he was wrong about the Apple TV, at one point he writes, “You can easily use AirPods with the Apple TV for private listening.” He says he’s being Captain Obvious, but to me he wasn’t. I hadn’t really thought about this as an option, and an Apple TV 4K was a lot cheaper to buy than a new TV. After more research, but not really finding much of substance, I ordered one from Apple’s refurbished store to save a bit of money, because there was another expensive problem looming.
The only Apple headphones I own are AirPods Pro. They’re excellent and I use them often, but wearing in-ear headphones for hours each day will ruin my ears. I needed over-ear headphones, and that meant only one thing if I wanted to enjoy Apple’s Bluetooth connection technology, called Spatial Audio, and seamless linking: The obscenely expensive Apple AirPods Max. I hated myself for it (and still do, really), but I took the plunge and waited for the Apple TV and AirPods Max to be delivered.
This was about a month ago, and I can now report that all those “best of” lists are wrong. The best wireless headphone experience you can get with a TV is using an Apple TV 4K and AirPods Max. This is across the board. The connection is instant, there are no latency problems. The range is better than all the other headphones I’ve tried. The AirPods Max switch between my phone, iPad, and TV at the press of a button, and best of all, the package sounds incredible.
I don’t blame any of the previous headphones for not delivering the goods. They all do their respective jobs brilliantly when connected to another device. Instead, I think it’s a lot to do with television and its Bluetooth connection. Having taken them both out of the equation, and put the wireless activity in the safe hands of Apple’s H1 chip and Bluetooth 5.0, everything I watch has a full, rich sound with masses of volume, definition, and excitement.
Spatial Audio and Dolby Atmos are part of the package, the noise cancellation is superb, and the comfort — while taking a little while to get used to, and still not quite up there with the WH-1000XM4 — is good enough for hours of listening. The Apple TV 4K is a joy too. Fast and responsive, it has all the services I regularly use available as apps. It was so simple to set up as well, and I only need to take the AirPods Max out of the case for them to instantly connect to it. The Apple TV even lets two people connect headphones to it, if you want to watch with someone else.
It’s almost perfect. Yes, almost. The one problem is you can’t listen to broadcast television, as this (in my case) is handled by the TV and not Apple TV. It means you have to connect your headphones to the TV’s Bluetooth to listen wirelessly. It’s not a big problem for me personally, but it may be for some, and I also expect this will similarly affect cable boxes and other independent peripherals.
Like me, not everyone will own the latest television, and many will keep the one they have for quite a few years before thinking about upgrading. I only recently found myself wanting wireless audio, and most of the advice on finding the best option led me to wireless headphones. Yes, they will connect and work, but the actual results you get will almost certainly vary, and it may all be because of your TV.
The Apple TV and AirPods Max combo package is expensive, but it’s still cheaper than most brand-new, high-spec televisions. If you watch a lot of streaming services, or purchase movies and shows through iTunes, it will deliver a far higher performance and a more consistent wireless listening experience than hoping a pair of Bluetooth headphones connected to your TV will do the job. I’ve certainly found that results from even some of the best headphones you can buy vary massively.
I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all solution to brilliant wireless audio from a TV, but for me, the Apple TV and AirPods Max are the best for 95% of the time. I just wish I knew it the day after I tried the Marshall Monitor 2’s all those months ago, as it would have saved me quite a bit of time, money, and effort.