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How to connect Headphones to TV

Headphones allow you to listen to your TV without disturbing other people. Headphones come in wired versions and wireless versions. But the headphones must connect to your TV in some fashion.

Digital TV flat panels often have limited audio outputs. Some have the old style analog RCA stereo (white and red), some have the 3.5mm analog stereo output while others will only have the digital optical audio out.

Headphones are analog stereo. If your TV has analog stereo audio outputs, either the two RCA white and red ports or the 3.5mm single audio out port, consider yourself lucky because plenty of HDTVs have only the digital optical audio output which requires an optical audio cable and for headphones, a converter (DAC or digital to analog converter) from digital PCM audio to analog stereo.

The digital optical audio output on the TV should be able to output Dolby Digital 5.1 to a surround sound system, home theater, or Dolby Digital audio/video receiver for multi-channel sound. However, most HDTVs have the ability to change over to PCM. The TV menu typically has an audio output option where you can switch back and forth between PCM and Dolby Digital. The Dolby Digital option may not be available until you connect to a surround sound setup.

What is PCM?
PCM is the same digital audio format as on a compact disc CD, two channel uncompressed stereo.

What is Dolby Digital?
Dolby Digital 5.1 is compressed 6 channel audio. This audio needs to be decoded, uncompressed by a device such as an audio/video receiver or DAC and converted to analog audio before you can hear it.


The Audio Out section shows three options, analog RCA, analog 3.5mm and digital optical.

Internet TV

Headphone listening is easy if you have a ROKU 3, as it comes with a remote control which has a 3.5mm headphone jack. Just plug in your headphones to the remote and you get wireless private listening. The TV sound is cut off when you plug in the headphones.

Cable Box

If you use a cable box for TV programs, the cable TV box should have the white and red audio output ports on the rear of the box. Plug in RCA adapter cable with the two RCA plugs on one end and a 3.5mm female jack on the other end and then your headphones to the female jack. Then just mute the TV sound. An audio extension cord can be used to extend the distance from cable box to headphones position. You could also use the cable box RCA audio output to connect to a stereo amplifier for loudspeaker or headphone listening.


For wired headphones or earbuds, you can connect directly to the TV audio output if your TV has these analog ports. For more distance from the TV, an audio extension cord can be used. Headphones and earbuds usually have the 3.5mm stereo plug. So if your TV has the 3.5mm audio out, just connect directly or use a 3.5mm audio extension cord.

If your TV has the analog RCA stereo (white/red) audio outputs, use an audio adapter cable which has the two RCA male plugs and a female 3.5mm on the other end to connect your headphones. Mute the volume on the TV for private listening.

Audio adapter cable RCA to 3.5mm

Some TVs have a preset volume level for their audio output ports and the TV volume control will not amplify the sound. In this case you can connect to a stereo receiver or amplifier and control the volume using the amplifier.

Another option is to use a pair of desktop computer speakers with a built-in amplifier and headphone jack. Plug the speakers into the TV and the headphones into the speakers. Then you can control the volume using the amplified speakers. You could also buy headphones with volume control or just buy a simple 3.5mm in-line volume control cord to limit sound that is too loud.

If your TV only has the digital optical audio output, there are a few considerations which complicate a headphone connection but it will still work for most TVs. The digital audio output (OPTICAL) is present on most HDTVs. This audio output should be able to send digital PCM stereo or Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound (when available).

For a headphone connection, you need an audio converter which can accept the optical cable connection from the TV and the analog stereo connection to the headphones. The audio converter will be of two kinds. One kind of converter can only convert PCM stereo. The other kind of converter can convert PCM stereo and decode and convert Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound.

Although expensive, there are wireless headphones with the capability to connect to the TV using a direct optical cable connection. The converter is built-in to the base unit. This setup is easy because you just plug an optical cable into the TV's optical audio out and into the optical audio input on the wireless headphone base unit. The Sennheiser RS-175 is one example of this type of headphone to TV hookup.

You need to look up your TV's audio output capabilities online or in your owner's manual to find out if your TV has the ability to set audio output to PCM. If your TV cannot output PCM audio, you will probably need to buy the more expensive audio decoder/converter which can convert Dolby Digital surround sound to analog stereo for headphones. Another problem is the fixed volume level many TV sets have today on their audio outputs. The fixed volume may be too loud or not loud enough. The headphone amplifier solves this problem. 

Wired Headphones to audio converter using 3.5mm headphone jack 


Use an audio converter. This solution involves an audio converter box which you will need to buy. Cost can be from $20 to $50 or so. These small devices will accept the optical cable connection from your TV and allow the stereo analog RCA output connection to your headphones, amplifier or other device.

There are some considerations here, such as:

Does the converter box actually convert the digital audio to analog or just pass whatever the TV is sending out from the optical output? Some converter boxes actually convert the digital bitstream to analog audio but others will only pass a PCM 2-channel signal to the analog RCA output.

If you see a warning regarding the audio converter box you intend to buy such as the example below, be sure your TV can output 2-channel stereo and not just surround sound 5.1 signals.

IMPORTANT NOTE! This device will NOT decode 5.1-channel signals. It will ONLY convert 2-channel digital stereo (PCM) input signals to analog stereo output. This will not work with TVs that only output 5.1-channel digital signals!

The best converters will convert surround sound to 6 channel analog audio. Look at the audio converter box. Does it have 6 RCA output jacks or just 2 RCA outputs?

The reason this is important is because some TVs do not have the option to output their audio as 2-channel PCM over the optical out, only as Dolby Digital 5.1, which needs to be decoded. Go into your TVs audio menu to check which audio output options are available.

If your TV has the option to output sound as 2-channel PCM or Dolby Digital 5.1, then you can buy a converter box with only 2 RCA outputs (although you may want to buy a box with 6 analog outputs). Set the TV to output PCM audio and connect a standard stereo RCA cable to the converter box RCA outputs and then to your inputs on a stereo receiver or other sound device.

If your TV can only output Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, then you need a converter box which can decode the optical bitstream to 6 channel analog audio.

Audio converter box which takes optical input and outputs 6 channel analog audio.

If you only have a stereo amp, only connect the FL (front left) and the FR (front right) cable connections.

Converter box with only 2 analog audio connections. This box does not convert the optical digital audio so you have to be able to give it PCM 2-channel audio.

There are also soundbars with optical inputs and wireless headphones with optical inputs that may offer a solution. Soundbars for your TV will give you some enhanced sound while headphones will allow private TV listening. You could also buy a home theater in a box system from Samsung, Sony, Onkyo or Panasonic. These have optical inputs and give you richer sound from loudspeakers. Just connect an optical audio cable from the TV to the sound system and start enjoying better sound than your TV speakers can produce.


Wireless headphones use various transmission technologies (Bluetooth, Radio Frequency, Infrared) from the base unit, connected to the TV, to the headphones. Be sure to check the distances you want to be able to use your headphones before buying a setup. Some units can go 300 feet and more. The base unit connects to the audio converter box in the case of TVs with only digital optical audio outputs. The headphones need batteries to work. Some are recharged as they sit upon the base station. Most wireless headphone systems give you some audio adapter cables for RCA and 3.5mm connections. 

Wireless headphones connection

The sound is output from the TV to the base station and the base unit sends the stereo sound out to the headphones which can be hundreds of feet away.

Audio/Video Receiver
Another option to connect headphones is to use an AVR. These can decode Dolby Digital and have optical audio inputs and a headphone jack with volume control. Most have HDMI to connect video to the TV so you can hookup all your source devices such as cable TV box or satellite TV and games, turntable, CD, DVD, iPod and so forth and listen using headphones. This is the way most people listen to their TVs surround sound. Hookup an optical audio cable from the TV's digital optical output to the AVR's optical audio input and you get audio, either from loudspeakers or the headphone jack on the AVR.


Multiple Headphones with Volume Control
Want to have up to 4 people able to listen using headphones and have volume control to silence commercials?

This stereo headphone amplifier powers up to 4 headphones each with volume control.

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