My mate Bob won’t admit he’s going deaf. He complains that there’s too much background noise going on in television shows to hear the conversation and whenever we go to a movie he comes out saying that modern actors simply don’t care about diction. “Remember Richard Burton?” he says wistfully. “No one can be bothered to enunciate as carefully as he did anymore.”

hp 1When I suggest that maybe it’s him that’s the problem he has a completely logical counter: there’s nothing wrong with the volume levels, he can hear them all right, it’s just that everyone mumbles.

But deafness is not just a matter of not hearing, it’s also about losing detail. Consonants tend to drop out of the audible range. I say ‘it’s hard to recognise speech’ and Phil hears ‘it’s hard to wreck a nice beach.’

There are heaps of people like Bob who have a hearing problem but would rather mine salt that get a hearing aid. For them I have good news, well at least as far as watching television is concerned; wireless headphones.

My local hi fi shop sells heaps of them to baby boomers who can’t hear the telly properly. And they work brilliantly. Suddenly you’re immersed in the action again, the speech is clear and distinct, the music is fine and detailed and you’re blown away by just what you’ve been missing.

There are other benefits too. Everyone else in the house will stop complaining about how loud you have the television, and they won’t whinge about having subtitles on (have you noticed how the subtitles for broadcast television always seem to cover the one part of the screen you really want to see?)

Ah, but there are traps in this business and the big one is the headphone plug on the television. Wireless headphones have a transmitter that plugs into the telly, sending a signal to the headphones wherever they may be. This transmitter needs to be plugged into a power point to get its power and an audio-out to get the audio signal it’s transmitting. The obvious audio-out is the headphone plug.

The trouble is that when you put a plug in here it almost always mutes the television’s speakers. You have glorious sound on the headphones but no one else can hear a thing. I’ve seen televisions (rarely) that have two headphones plugs – one that mutes and one that doesn’t – and there are installers who can modify the plug so that it doesn’t mute the speakers, but the best idea is to plug the transmitter into a spare audio-out that’s intended for an amplifier.

hp 2Some headphones come equipped with a couple of different cables for just this, otherwise you’ll need to buy an additional cable. It’s a point you need to check on-line or when purchasing.

But if you’re running external speakers or have a soundbar, plugging the transmitter into the headphone jack shouldn’t prove a problem; just remember that the headphones will operate on the television’s volume control, not on the sound system’s. And if you have an amplifier plug the transmitter into one of its audio-out plugs.

There are two types of transmitter. Infrared (IR) are usually cheaper but have limited range, being line-of-sight only. If anything gets between you and the transmitter you lose the signal. Radio frequency (RF) transmitters work over a far greater range and operate through walls so the transmitter can be hidden in a cupboard. A range of 50 to 80 metres isn’t unusual. RF transmitters will often also drive up to four or five pairs of the same model headphone meaning multiple listeners can all hear the same program.

The headphones themselves need batteries and almost all are fitted with rechargeables. Some have unique batteries that can be hard and expensive to replace when they wear out, and they will before the headphones do. But lots operate with AAA-sized rechargeables that are easy and inexpensive to replace and, being a popular size, allow you plug in regular batteries if you’re caught short. Just remember to take them out again before you return the headphones to the charger or you’ll be courting meltdown.

Good wireless headphones start from around $100 for Philips SHC5100/79, RF units with AAA rechargeables, and move on up from there. The best convenience/features/sound quality/value balance we could find was Sennheisers’ RS170s, for around $220 to $250.

Published August 2014


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