Car Headphones: Bluetooth, IR, RF and Wired

Young girl listening to over-ear headphones in the car
Car headphones are possibly the best answer out there to "are we there yet?". Sam Edwards / Caiaimage / Getty

Car headphones aren't always the best idea. For instance, it's typically illegal to wear headphones when you're driving. But for passengers, car headphones have a multitude of uses, from personal multimedia devices like iPods and tablets, to actually tying into a vehicle's multimedia system.

In fact, a lot of modern car multimedia systems support some type of headphones, which can allow passengers to fully enjoy their movie, music, or video game without disturbing the driver. In some cases, it’s even possible for each passenger to listen to their own thing while the driver enjoys the radio, CD player, or another audio source via the car speakers.

However, car headphones are far from a one-size-fits-all type situation. There are a handful of different competing technologies that don't work together, so you're likely to find that your own head unit or multimedia system works with only one specific type of car headphones.

The main types of car headphones include:

  • Wired headphones
  • IR headphones
  • RF headphones
  • Bluetooth headphones

Wired Car Headphones

The simplest headphones that you can use in your car are identical to the wired sets that are used with other devices. These can be earbuds, over-ear, or on-ear headphones, they use 3.5mm plugs, and they typically don’t require batteries. That’s the main benefit of wired car headphones since many people already own one or more pairs.

However, most automotive multimedia systems don’t support multiple sets of wired headphones. Some head units include one or more 3.5mm output jacks, and some vehicles provide multiple audio jacks for the passengers, though that is more of an exception than a rule.

Wired headphones are also compatible with some displays and DVD players. If your multimedia system includes multiple DVD players and displays, then inexpensive wired headphones may work just fine.

IR Car Headphones

IR headphones are wireless units that receive audio signals via the infrared spectrum, which is similar to the way your television remote or computer infrared networking functions. These headphones are only compatible with systems that broadcast on a specific IR frequency, though some of these units are capable of receiving signals on two or more channels.

Since IR car headphones are wireless, they require batteries to operate. The main drawback of IR headphones is that they require a good line of sight with the transmitter to operate, and sound quality can degrade very quickly otherwise.

RF Car Headphones

RF headphones are also wireless, but they operate on a radio frequency. These headphones are also only compatible with multimedia systems that broadcast on a particular frequency, though they are often set up to work on several different channels. That can allow one passenger to listen to the radio, for instance, while another is watching a DVD.

Like IR headphones, RF headphones also require batteries to work. Unlike IR headphones, however, they don’t require a line of sight to operate.

Bluetooth Headphones

Bluetooth headphones also work on a radio frequency, but the technology is different from regular RF car headphones. These headphones can be paired with a Bluetooth head unit through the same process that’s used to connect a cellular phone. Some of these units also support hands-free calling in addition to music streaming.

Finding the Right Car Headphones

Before you buy headphones for your car, it’s important to find out whether your multimedia system supports IR, RF, Bluetooth, or just has physical output jacks. After that, you’ll need to verify that the individual components are compatible. Some factory systems support IR car headphones, for instance, and aftermarket units are typically much cheaper than buying OEM.

However, any old IR headphones won’t necessarily be compatible with your OEM system. It’s important to verify compatibility before making a purchase, either by checking with the dealer, looking up the specifications, or even asking other people who own the same type of vehicle. The same compatibility issue holds true for RF car headphones, though any Bluetooth headphones will work with any Bluetooth head unit so long as the headphones support the music streaming Bluetooth profile.