How Apple TV and AirPods Max fixed my TV headset issues

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What started with an old pair of Bluetooth headphones for watching late night TV movies became an all-consuming quest to get great wireless sound and a reliable connection from my TV. It really shouldn’t have been complicated, but it turned out to be much more difficult than I could have ever imagined. And I spent months and months – and a lot of money – fixing the problem.

That’s how I did.

How it all began

Towards the end of 2021, I started watching late-night TV, and I didn’t want to be “that neighbor” while doing so. So I took a pair of Bluetooth headphones and connected them to my TV. I didn’t think much about it at the time. It’s a modestly sized piece, so I didn’t expect range to be an issue. It’s a modern TV and the headphones sound great connected to my phone. I thought the problem was solved on the spot.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

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. Pairing went well for a short while, but then some issues started to set in. Bluetooth range wasn’t great, and it was often confusing if I went into the next room. Although the connection is stable, it would suffer from latency issues and also take around 60 seconds to stop stuttering after starting a program.

Much worse was the audio performance. It was muddy and lacked definition, volume and body, robbing the films of presence and excitement. It was a subpar experience compared to a regular soundbar. On Black Friday (never a good time to “fix” problems) I ordered a pair of Sony CH-710 Bluetooth headphones as an experiment, and although the latency and stuttering issues were gone, the sound was equally disappointing.

Both headphones sounded much better playing music when connected to my iPhone 13 Pro. Undeterred, I threw a little more money at the problem by choosing Sony’s WH-1000MX4 headphones. Comfort has improved immensely, latency was not an issue, and noise cancellation is also excellent. But at the same time, the performance was still uninspiring, but they sound stellarly connected to my phone.

It was starting to get boring, but I was in no mood to declare defeat. I then went in a different direction, trying out the Master & Dynamic MG20 gaming headphones. These use a dongle to connect to the TV rather than Bluetooth, which reduces latency and also provides a 7.1 audio connection. They sound great with my PlayStation 4, and of course they also sound good with the TV. However, since the volume control on the TV remote no longer works, you have to use the headphone one, and it doesn’t have the same tightness of control. It’s either a little too loud or a little too quiet. Also, there is no noise cancellation and I found them not to be as comfortable as the Sony headphones.

TV stays

I hate not solving a problem, and it was now becoming Very frustrating. I had four headsets at this point, and while wireless audio listening was fine, it still wasn’t as good as it should be, and it all felt like a compromise. The WH-1000XM4 came closest to what I wanted, but the sound wasn’t always as full as the MG20s, which were in turn let down by having no noise cancellation and being less comfortable.

Master & Dynamic MG20 shell and logo.
Master & Dynamic MG20 helmet. Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Was that really it? Was I destined to be perpetually disappointed with my TV’s wireless audio, despite the brilliant sound of the WH-1000XM4 hooked up to my phone, and the Master & Dynamic MG20s working great with my PlayStation?

I did what most others would do and searched the internet for a solution. I found many listings telling me to get a wide variety of different headphones, all of which were apparently “best for TV”. Some have suggested I should use a pair that comes with a separate RF or IR transmitter, but battery life was generally much shorter than a Bluetooth set, none had noise cancellation, and they were only intended for television rather than also being able to connect to my phone or tablet if I wanted the option.

The internet really got me to where I was back then. The Sony WH-1000XM4 topped several lists, and while I agree they’re good, I refused to believe what I was experiencing with my TV was the best. Did that mean my problem was TV related? Splurging on a pair of headphones every few months was already frivolous, but not as financially overwhelming as buying a new TV, especially since there’s nothing else wrong with it. the one I have. What if it made no difference, or if it was even worse? Where would it end? A house full of TVs and headphones? Who am I, Caleb Denison?

I mention the Digital Trends audio and TV expert for a reason, because it was one of his articles that set me on the path to wireless audio success.

Not a new TV, a new Apple TV

In his article on why he got the Apple TV wrong, at one point he wrote, “You can easily use AirPods with the Apple TV for private listening.” He says he’s Captain Obvious, but for me it wasn’t. I hadn’t really thought of that 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 substance, I ordered one from the refurbished Apple store to save some money, as another expensive problem was looming.

AirPods Max and Apple TV 4K with remote on a table.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The only Apple headphones I own are AirPods Pro. They’re great and I use them often, but wearing in-ear headphones for hours every day will damage my ears. I needed over-ear headphones, and that only meant one thing if I wanted to take advantage of Apple’s Bluetooth connection technology, called Spatial Audio, and seamless pairing: Apple AirPods Max incredibly expensive. I hated myself for it (and still really do), but I took the plunge and waited for Apple TV and AirPods Max to ship.

That was about a month ago, and I can now report that all of these “best” lists are bogus. The best wireless headphone experience you can get with a TV is using an Apple TV 4K and AirPods Max. It’s at all levels. The connection is instantaneous, there are no latency issues. The range is better than any other headset I’ve tried. The AirPods Max switch between my phone, my iPad, and my TV with the press of a button, and best of all, the package looks amazing.

An almost perfect solution

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 has a lot to do with the TV and its Bluetooth connection. After taking them both out of the equation and putting wireless activity in the safe hands of Apple’s H1 chip and Bluetooth 5.0, everything I watch sounds full and rich with masses of volume, of definition and excitement.

Spatial Audio and Dolby Atmos are part of the package, noise cancellation is superb and comfort – while taking a bit of getting used to, and still not quite on par with the WH-1000XM4 – is quite good for hours of listening. The Apple TV 4K is a joy too. Fast and responsive, all the services I use regularly are available as apps. It was also so simple to set up, and I only have to take the AirPods Max out of the case and they instantly connect to it. Apple TV even allows two people to connect headphones to it, if you want to watch with someone else.

It’s almost perfect. Yes, almost. The only problem is that you can’t listen to broadcast TV, because that (in my case) is handled by the TV and not by Apple TV. This means you need to connect your headphones to the TV’s Bluetooth to listen wirelessly. This isn’t a huge issue for me personally, but it may be for some, and I also expect it to affect set-top boxes and other independent devices equally.

Time, money and effort

Like me, not everyone will own the latest TV, and many will keep the one they have for several years before thinking about upgrading. It wasn’t until recently that I found myself wanting wireless sound, and most 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 this could all be down to your TV.

The Apple TV and AirPods Max combo bundle is pricey, but it’s still cheaper than most brand-new high-end TVs. If you watch a lot of streaming services or buy movies and shows through iTunes, this will deliver far superior performance and a more consistent wireless listening experience than hoping a pair of Bluetooth headphones plugged into your TV will do the job. I have certainly found that this results even from some of the The best headphones you can buy vary wildly.

I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all solution for brilliant wireless sound from a TV, but for me Apple TV and AirPods Max are the best 95% of the time. I wish I had known that the day after trying the Marshall Monitor 2 all those months ago, because it would have saved me quite a bit of time, money and effort.

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