One of the most well-received columns I’ve produced here at Rotten Tomatoes was a look at headphones and why you should have a good pair for media consumption. You guys and gals were very enthusiastic in sharing some of your favorites, as well as chiming in on the recommendations I gave. Well, it’s time to revisit that, but this time with a twist. The first go-‘round was all about listening on mobile devices; this time we’re going to talk wireless listening for your TV and home theater setups.
You might be thinking, “But you already gave us some wireless suggestions last time.” This is true, but those were Bluetooth headphones, and while many Bluetooth headphones are quite good with mobile devices, they suffer from a slight latency issue. Maybe you’ve noticed that the sound lags behind the picture when you’re watching a video — that’s the curse of many a Bluetooth headphone set. It’s a curse not shared by the wireless RF technology used by the headphones in this review. Bluetooth is also meant to be a short range, low power technology, unlike the items in this article. You’ll be able to enjoy greater distances from your viewing source, without static and interference, than many of the Bluetooth devices currently on the market, newer Class 1 BT devices notwithstanding.
I’m going to give you three recommendations in this article. One low-cost option that is perfect for those going off to school, or on a budget; a slightly more expensive choice, around $100; and a high-end option for those with discriminating tastes or hearing challenges.
If you search the web, you’ll find this pair of headphones under either the Power Acoustik or Farenheit brand. For this article, I’ll go by the name the manufacturer sent me, which is the Farenheit HP-902RFT. The 902RFT is a $77 barebones unit that comes with two pairs of headphones and a transmitter, but requires 4 AAA batteries and a 12 volt DC charger. It comes with a DC cable for power, but the unit is actually made for automotive use, so that cable is intended to be used for that purpose, not home use. You can pick up a 12 volt DC charger for around $5, and you’ll need to buy batteries because it doesn’t come with them like the Sony option we’ll get into later.
While this isn’t a ringing endorsement, the Farenheits sound pretty good. Though not as crisp as more expensive models, they’ll make for a solid listening experience for 90% of the people who’ll buy them, especially younger listeners who are more used to streaming and MP3 formats. The earcups, though comfortable, don’t quite fit completely over my ears but they do fit comfortably on my ears. Listening to Doctor Strange, streamed on Netflix, I was able to pick out details in the audio mix, like the footsteps when Strange is going head-to-head with Dormammu and he leaps from one sphere to the next. Nuances like that are clearly audible.
Like I said, the whole thing is very, very slightly muddy, but I can say with confidence that most listeners won’t notice because the reproduction is at least balanced. The music and scoring of Doctor Strange were clear. The horns were pronounced, the strings audible, and dialog was clearly discernible, even when there was a lot going on in the background. At no time did I feel like I was struggling to understand dialog during scenes of intense action. Listening to episode 3 of the Luke Cage series further cemented the listening experience the Farenheits provide. With a score that’s heavy in hip-hop and funk, the mids and lows are the most present parts of the sonic image reproduced, and they were abundantly clear. As with Strange, dialog wasn’t hampered, just a bit mushy.
Rounding out the features — and what makes these a viable alternative to the next up on the list — is the fact they come with two pairs of headphones and support two-channel listening, so that you can hook up two separate audio sources. For example, you can listen to your movie on the smart TV while your roommate also listens to a podcast on the Xbox. Just select which channel you want to listen to on the headphones themselves. There’s also a “monitor” button that acts as a mute function and will allow you hear what’s going on around you while you’re holding it down.
Sony’s RF995RK RF headphones have large earcups, but are quite lightweight. They fit completely over my ears and presented a larger soundstage than the Farenheits. Dialog was clear and crisp, and even though they have a “Voice” effect mode, I didn’t find it necessary to use at all. As a matter of fact, I preferred listening without that particular mode activated. Out of the box, you get one pair of headphones, a base station, batteries, a power cable and aux/3.5mm cable. To deal with any interference, you’ll get three channels to choose from on the base station. You adjust the volume with a wheel on the right earcup. The base station also acts as a charging stand for the headphones, which is the perfect way to store them when not in use.
The sound reproduced by the RF995RK’s was much more vibrant than the Farenheits. I’d use “crisp” as the differentiator between the two. Well-balanced, with highs that didn’t hurt your ears by being too crisp and punchy, these are a well-rounded pair of headphones with easy to use controls. The sound reproduced when I tested them, again, on Doctor Strange and Luke Cage, was quite enjoyable. Though not earth-shattering, the bass response from the 40mm drivers was satisfying, without sacrificing the clarity of the dialog and sound effects in the upper register. And with Luke Cage being so heavy on scoring and music, Sony’s headphones did a fantastic job of keeping me immersed in the world showrunner Cheo Coker and musicians Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge masterfully crafted. There were scenes where the score was a bit heavy in the mix, and the RF995RK’s gave me all of it without the dialog feeling like it was fighting the score. A nod to the audio engineers on Cage and the RF995RK’s sonic quality.
At $99, these headphones are a solid buy, but they aren’t without their quirks, unfortunately. The receiver is rather finicky, the signal easily open to interference. The other issue I ran into during testing was random disconnection, which was seemingly solved by switching channels. I played with the set up a bit more and found that the static can be eliminated by placing the base further away from the TV and any sources of interference.
Let me give you an example. On the right side of the TV in my bedroom, which is where I was conducting my listening test, I have a Google Home, an Amazon Echo, and my mesh network router. That’s four RF devices, counting the Sony transmitter, right next to each other — but there’s also a hidden fifth device. My TV is a Roku smart TV, and it has a wireless radio inside of it. That’s a lot of opportunity to have wireless signal interference, so I moved the Sony transmitter to the left side and a couple feet away from my TV, and the problem was solved. No static and no random disconnects. So, at the end of the day, it appears that you can mitigate the fact that the Sony unit appears to be very sensitive to interference by being very cautious about where you place it. It should be noted that I placed the Farenheit product on the same side of the TV as I had initially placed the Sony unit, and it had no problems with interference whatsoever.
The Flex 5000 from Sennheiser takes a different approach to this setup. While the German-based manufacturer does have products similar to Sony’s RF995RK, they come with a base station and headphones, the Flex 5000 doesn’t. What you get here is a transmitter and receiver, along with the necessary power cords and audio cables. The catch: BYO headphones. The Flex does come with earbuds — the $45 Sennheiser MX 475 in-ear phones, to be exact — but you’ll want over-the-ear headphones for those two- and three-hour movies. More feature-heavy than the previous two options, at the price point of $200, I’m willing to bet that if you’re in the market for these, you probably already own a pair of “favorite cans” that you’ll happily plug into the 3.5mm jack in the receiver. If you need any recommendations, go ahead and look here.
For this test, I used Sennheiser’s newer HD 569 closed back circumaural headphones, which they provided for me along with the Flex 5000. Let me say that the sound reproduced by this transmitter receiver pair was stellar. This will, of course, depend heavily on the headphones you mate to the system, but the signal transmission was rock solid and the features definitely deliver.
Out of the box, what you get is a base station which connects to your system via optical digital input or 3.5mm input. The transmitter is relatively small when compared to the base station of the Sony setup. On Sennheiser’s base station unit, you’ll be able to access three different listening profiles which dramatically change the audio. You access the profiles by pressing the ear icon on the transmitter. The first profile cranks up the bass, the second boosts dialog and background sounds, while the third profile flattens the bass for extra clarity — not that it’s needed — with dialog. Other than listeners with corrective issues, I can’t see needing to use any of these sound profiles. But if you do have some hearing challenges, they’re quite effective, especially when you also have the ability to alter the left and right balance as well, if you don’t hear so well in one ear or the other. Like the Sony option, you’ll also get a Voice mode that is activated by pushing a button on the receiver. What this iteration does is lower all background and ambient sound so that dialog is the most present aspect of the digital image. Other than that, the receiver has a clip so you can attach it to clothing while you’re chillin’, and large volume buttons which also act as the power button. The receiver clips into the transmitter for recharging via a reassuring magnetic fitment.
What I can tell you about the Flex 5000 that makes it the top choice is that unlike the previous two, you’re able to use the optical digital output if your TV has one. 3.5mm is ok, but the circuitry used in the optical digital output will push superior sound to the transmitter. So, any garbage the circuitry in the 3.5mm passes makes it to your ear, while the digital output should net you a more pure audio experience.
Because the experience will also play to which headphones you use, I won’t go into great detail, but the listening experience with the HD 569’s was outstanding. Everything was so plush! The soundstage was expansive and immersive, listening to Dr. Strange and Luke Cage. The score on both movies sounded magnificent. Ambient sounds were present, with the spatial orientation being easily discernible, almost sublime. Bass in explosions and Dr. Strange’s conjuring of those magic weapons was rumble worthy without being headache inducing. I would almost prefer listening to these headphones over the Sonos systems I’ve been reviewing.
So, there you have it! Whether you’re looking for something for the dorm, something for listening while your spouse is lying next to you, or something more formidable for regular listening and those late night movie binges, we have what you need. Do you have a favorite wireless RF pair you’d recommend? Leave it in the comments below!
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