June 1, 2015 at 6:37 p.m. PST
Using headphones with Apple TV isn’t as easy as it should be. This article presents some workarounds for using headphones with Apple TV.
People who live together are often on different schedules. You may work during the day, and your spouse might work the graveyard shift. Maybe one of your kids is a night owl. Whatever the case may be, a loud TV can keep people from getting rest, even if they are in a different room. I once lived in an apartment where the walls were so thin, my neighbor was complaining about the TV, even in the early evening. It wasn’t even very loud. I solved that problem by moving out. That’s not always a possibility.
Roku Supports Headphones
Apple TV is a wonderful device, but it leaves a few things to be desired. One feature is “private listening”. This is built in to the Roku remote. The remote has a headphone jack. Just plug your headphones into the remote and you can listen to Roku’s streaming video player without disturbing anyone.
Feature envy over the Roku’s remote headphone jack isn’t a compelling reason to switch. If you are invested in the Apple ecosystem, Apple TV is, by far, the best choice. AirPlay support outweighs the lack of headphone support. Roku has nothing like the Apple Remote app. If you are willing to try a few things and maybe spend a few bucks, you can enjoy Apple TV without disturbing your family, roommates or others.
Bluetooth and AirPlay Don’t Work with Headphones on 2nd and 3rd Generation Apple TV’s
Bluetooth headphones are very popular, but they don’t work with older Apple TV’s. The second and third generation models only offer Bluetooth support for keyboards. This is disappointing, given the popularity of Bluetooth headphones.
I tried using AirPlay to beam content from my iPhone to my Apple TV. I was hoping that the audio track would be supported on headphones while using AirPlay. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work. AirPlay always diverts the audio track to Apple TV. This happens using standard AirPlay as well as screen mirroring. I haven’t been able to find any AirPlay headphones. It’s also not possible to pair your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch with Apple TV using Bluetooth. Thus, your iOS device can’t serve as an external audio device.
Apple TV 4 Supports MFi Bluetooth Headphones
The newest Apple TV model supports Bluetooth headphones, but not every pair will work. The safest bet is to buy headphones that comply with the Made for iPod, iPhone, iPad (MFi) program. The MFi program provides guidelines for third-party hardware accessories. Accessories with the MFi logo are designed to work with iOS devices, but should also operate with tvOS (Apple TV 4). If you buy MFi Bluetooth headphones, they will probably work with Apple TV. Beats is probably a safe bet, as Apple owns the company. It’s best to keep the receipt just in case.
You can use multiple Bluetooth devices with Apple TV. After all, the Siri Remote uses Bluetooth. There is a limit. You can use up to three Bluetooth devices simultaneously, however, not all combinations will work. You can use one Siri remote and two MFi Bluetooth gaming controllers. It’s also possible to use a Siri Remote, one MFi gaming controller and one Bluetooth audio accessory. Unfortunately, it might not be possible to use two Bluetooth audio accessories at the same time. This means that Bluetooth headphones may only work for one person. According to Apple, you might be able to pair more than three Bluetooth devices. When you reach the limit, you need to unpair Bluetooth devices in order to add new ones.
Turn on Reduce Loud Sounds Instead of Using Headphones
If headphones are intended to keep the peace in your household, it may be possible to use the Reduce Loud Sounds feature on Apple TV. This feature turns down loud sounds, such as explosions and loud music, which are common in movies and TV shows. It will also prevent commercials from blaring. With Reduce Loud Sounds turned on, you can hear dialog at normal levels while loud sounds are mitigated. It’s not as quiet as headphones, but it may be enough for some households. The feature was designed so that people can listen to audio without disturbing others. I always use it for movies and TV shows, but turn it off for music.
You can turn on Reduce Loud Sounds by swiping down on the Siri Remote’s Touchpad while a video is playing. A panel is displayed at the top of your screen. Select Audio and then check Reduce Loud Sounds. Swipe up on the Touchpad to dismiss the panel. You can also turn on Reduce Loud Sounds by going to Settings > Audio and turning the feature on. Siri can turn Reduce Loud Sounds on or off. Simply hold down the Siri button, wait for the prompt and say “Turn on Reduce Loud Sounds” or “Turn off Reduce Loud Sounds”.
Connect Headphones to TV or Stereo
The simplest solution is to listen to headphones through your TV or stereo. Your Apple TV outputs audio to your TV or stereo. Just connect a pair of headphones to the jack on your TV or stereo. Chances are, your TV is too far away. You can extend your headphones with an inexpensive cable or purchase a pair of wireless headphones.
If your TV or stereo doesn’t have a headphone jack, you could possibly use the line out. Keep in mind, however, the line out operates at a much quieter audio output level. Also, a line out does not change levels when you adjust the volume on your TV or stereo. So if you connect headphones to line out, you will need some sort of pre-amp. It’s not worth investing in that. We’ll look at FM audio transmitters later in the article, which are a better solution.
Bluetooth Headphones with TV
Flat screen TVs continue to evolve and add many convenient features. Some newer flat screen TVs feature Bluetooth connectivity. If your TV supports audio over Bluetooth, simply purchase a set of Bluetooth compatible headphones. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for pairing your headphones with your TV.
FM Audio Transmitter
Do you have an old Walkman with a radio receiver? If so, you can purchase an inexpensive FM audio transmitter. I have seen these at the drug store for less than $10. Simply connect the transmitter to the audio output or headphone jack on your TV or stereo. Tune in to the FM radio frequency on your Walkman to listen to your Apple TV. These are commonly used in gyms so that patrons can watch and listen to TV.
This is a much cheaper solution than buying Bluetooth or wireless headphones, even if you don’t already own a Walkman. You can buy an inexpensive portable radio with a headphone jack. You can get the portable radio and FM audio transmitter both for less than $20, if you shop around.
Convert Optical Out to Headphone Jack
Some flat screen TVs don’t have a headphone jack. This is rare, but not uncommon with some inexpensive models. The headphone jack may be in an inconvenient location. Mounting your TV on the wall may make the headphone jack inaccessible on some TVs.
Apple TV doesn’t have a headphone jack. It doesn’t even have a standard line out. Audio is transmitted either through HDMI or the digital optical audio out. Fortunately, you can convert the digital audio output to analog, and connect headphones directly to Apple TV. There are a variety of inexpensive digital-to-analog (DAC) converters on the market. Just make sure it has a headphone jack. Unfortunately, no one seems to manufacture digital headphones the connect directly to the Toslink jack on Apple TV.
Your Apple TV is likely stashed in an entertainment center, which could make it hard to use with headphones. Simply connect the DAC to an FM audio transmitter or wireless headphone transmitter. I recommend this solution only if your TV doesn’t have an accessible headphone jack or line out. Apple TV doesn’t have a headphone jack because they assume your TV or stereo will have one.
Use Mac as Airplay Audio Receiver
Apple TV has the capability to beam audio to any AirPlay compatible receiver that is on your WiFi network. This includes a Mac. If you have a MacBook, you can position it nearby and use wired or Bluetooth headphones to listen to Apple TV. You will need to download and install some third-party software to turn your Mac into an AirPlay receiver. iTunes can only transmit AirPlay, not receive it.
There are a variety of Mac OS X applications that can serve as an AirPlay receiver. AirServer is a popular application capable of acting as a AirPlay receiver. AirServer also runs on Microsoft Windows. They offer a 7 day free trial, so there’s nothing to lose.
Once you have AirServer installed and running, you can redirect the audio from Apple TV to the AirServer target. Press and hold the center select button on your Apple TV remote while a video is playing. You will see a menu with options for the video — Subtitles, Audio and Speakers. Press the up button (top button on the ring) until the top row of options is accessible. Next, select Speakers. From here, you can set which targets receive audio. Simply uncheck Apple TV and check AirServer, and the audio will stream to your Mac or PC. Then you can plug headphones into your Mac or PC. You can also adjust speaker settings by navigating to Settings > AirPlay on your Apple TV.
Use AirPlay Speakers or Standalone Receiver
AirPlay is a standard. Contrary to the blogosphere talking points, Apple is not a closed ecosystem. Many different manufacturers offer AirPlay compatible products. In fact, it is built in to several audio systems. There are inexpensive AirPlay receivers that cost about $40. These devices can receive audio from any AirPlay source. Once you have your AirPlay enabled device setup, you can beam audio from Apple TV to your AirPlay receiver. Make sure that you purchase an AirPlay receiver that supports headphones.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any headphones that directly support AirPlay. That would almost be too easy and convenient. I think AirPlay compatible headphones would be a useful and marketable product. I am surprised no one makes these yet.
Jailbreak iPhone and Use As AirPlay Receiver
The App Store does not allow AirPlay receiver apps. A few have been developed, only to be removed from the App Store. My guess is that they use too much battery power. Sometimes Apple is just too heavy-handed. Then again, if an app drains your iPhone battery rapidly, it is a nuisance and some people may blame Apple. They are trying to protect the customer and avoid the next Apple “gate”.
If you are not risk averse, you can download AirFloat from the third-party app store Emu4iOS. I personally wouldn’t recommend this. While this is not jailbreaking, installing an app outside of the App Store could introduce malware. The App Store audits submissions, ensuring that they are secure, efficient and free of malware.
You can also jailbreak your iPhone and install AirPlayServer from the Cydia app store. I don’t recommend jailbreaking, as it can install malware on your device. Jailbreaking can also compromise performance, stability and battery life. It may be a better idea to jailbreak an old iPhone. Keep in mind, if your jailbroken iPhone is running on your WiFi network, it could compromise the security of other devices.
If you decide to install one of these apps, they will work as AirPlay receivers. Once the app is up and running, simply set your Apple TV to beam AirPlay audio to these “speakers”, using the instructions provided above. Plug some headphones into your iPhone and you’re set.
As you can see, using Apple TV with headphones isn’t as convenient as Roku. I have to admit, their remote, which comes with a headphone jack, is a great idea. There are still several options for using headphones with Apple TV. Some of these can be implemented by using what you already have. If not, a modest investment in equipment can get you up and running.
To be fair, most set-top boxes don’t have headphone jacks. I don’t see these on most DVD players, cable boxes, or other video devices. The manufacturers all assume that audio will go into your TV, and from there, you can connect headphones. It’s a safe assumption to make. Apple TV’s lack of headphone support doesn’t diminish its usefulness at all. Apple is not known for fringe features. They try to put in the features most people want. Apple likes to do a few things very well, instead of a lot of things with mediocrity. I think most people are starting to appreciate the Apple way.
UPDATE: The new fourth generation Apple TV supports Bluetooth headphones for private listening. According to reviews, Bluetooth support is substandard. In his review of the new Apple TV, David Gewirtz of ZDNet points out that only 2 out of 5 of his Bluetooth headphones worked. While this might be fixed with a software update, make sure to check compatibility before purchasing Bluetooth headphones for your new Apple TV. Additionally, the fourth generation Apple TV provides no way of adjusting Bluetooth headphone volume. Make sure to purchase Bluetooth headphones with adjustable volume.