Car Headphones: Bluetooth, IR, RF, and Wired

The different types of headphones for in-car entertainment systems

Child listening to over-ear headphones in the car

Sam Edwards / Getty Images

Headphones that are fit for car head units and infotainment systems include wired headphones, IR (infrared) headphones, RF (radio frequency) headphones, and Bluetooth headphones. We reviewed these four types of headphones so that you can make the best decision when choosing headphones to use in your car.

Overall Findings

  Wired Infrared (IR) Radio Frequency (RF) Bluetooth
Connection Aux Wireless Wireless Wireless
Power Source Signal-driven Battery Battery Battery
Compatibility Requirement Headphone jack Line of sight Specific radio frequency Bluetooth receiver

Many in-car entertainment systems support multiple headphones so that all passengers can enjoy movies, music, or video games. In some cases, each passenger can listen to their media while the driver controls their listening using the head unit.

While you should never listen to headphones while driving, passengers may be at a loss without these personal devices. Whether for music or video, headphones can transport you to another world without disturbing the driver.

There are ups and downs to each. The value of a pair of headphones depends on the situation in which it is being used. To decide which one is right for you, consider the compatibility and usage requirements of each headphone.

Wired Car Headphones Pros and Cons

Advantages
  • Compatible with many systems.

  • Simple, durable, and reliable.

Disadvantages
  • Don't usually support multiple outputs.

The simplest headphones you can use in a car are those that can be used in other listening environments. Wired earbuds, over-ear headphones, and on-ear headphones typically don't require batteries. These types of headphones are compatible with any system that has a standard 3.5mm headphone output (Aux).

The drawback? 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. However, 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, inexpensive wired headphones may work fine.

IR Car Headphones Pros and Cons

Advantages
  • Wireless.

  • Less interference than other wireless standards.

Disadvantages
  • Not as common or as compatible as Bluetooth.

  • Battery-powered.

  • Requires line of sight between the headphones and transmitter.

IR (infrared) headphones are wireless units that receive audio signals via the infrared spectrum. This is similar to the way a television remote or computer infrared networking functions. These headphones are only compatible with systems that broadcast on a specific IR frequency. However, some units can receive signals on two or more channels.

Since IR car headphones are wireless, these devices require batteries to operate. The main drawback is that IR headphones require a good line of sight with the transmitter to operate. Otherwise, the sound quality degrades quickly.

RF Car Headphones Pros and Cons

Advantages
  • Wireless.

  • Allows for multiple listening channels.

  • No line of sight required.

Disadvantages
  • Only compatible with multimedia systems that broadcast on a particular frequency.

  • Battery-powered.

RF (radio frequency) headphones are also wireless, but these devices operate on a radio frequency. These headphones are only compatible with multimedia systems that broadcast on a particular frequency but are often set up to work on several channels. That means one passenger can listen to the radio, for example, while another watches 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 Pros and Cons

Advantages
  • Wireless.

  • Compatible with many systems.

Disadvantages
  • Connections can be finicky.

  • Not as intuitive or straightforward as wired headphones.

  • Battery-powered.

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 mobile device. Some of these units also support hands-free calling in addition to music streaming. Bluetooth is increasingly the standard for most wireless communication between devices.

Final Verdict

Before you buy headphones for your car, find out if your multimedia system supports IR, RF, Bluetooth, or wired outputs. Also, confirm that the individual components are compatible. For example, some factory systems only support IR car headphones, and not all IR headphones will work with an OEM system.

It's important to verify compatibility before making a purchase, either by checking with the dealer, looking up the specifications, or consulting the vehicle manual. The same compatibility issue holds true for RF car headphones, though any Bluetooth headphone will work with any Bluetooth head unit.