Silent Cinema Headphones

Silent cinema headphones are an essential piece of AV kit for film organisers who want to deliver multiple audio tracks to their audiences, whether this takes place inside a cinema or at an outdoor venue. This style of movie-going uses simple-to-setup transmitters and wireless headphones to deliver immersive audio to each member of the audience.

As an event organiser you’ll want your screening to be impactful, engaging and delivered free of distractions and silent cinema headphones have been used by both large outdoor screenings, which number their audiences in the hundreds, to boutique venues showcasing their cutting-edge features.

An image of an audience at a cinema screening

With their ability to receive up to three broadcast audio channels, silent cinema headphones, coupled with the correct audio configuration can deliver languages, audio descriptions and commentaries simultaneously at each performance.

How Does a Silent Cinema Work?

Silent cinema headphones can be hired from a variety of suppliers, including ourselves at Place Over Ears. Our light-to-wear but high quality wireless event headphones receive up to 3 audio tracks played simultaneously. For every audio channel you wish to broadcast to your audience you’ll need a headphone transmitter.

To illustrate, if you are simultaneously broadcasting;

  1. The movie soundtrack
  2. A commentary track
  3. Audio description

You will need three transmitters. If you are just broadcasting one cinema soundtrack, one transmitter will do the job. Each transmitter can broadcast to an infinite number of headphones tuned to it.

Back in the auditorium, using the headphones’ channel selection and volume controls the wearer can switch between the desired audio and can comfortably adjust the output. To help the auditorium navigate the available audio channels, movie organisers often print guidance on tickets and place signage around the venue.

Silent cinema headphones can receive up to three channels of performance audio

Silent cinema headphones can receive up to three channels of performance audio

Popular silent cinema transmitters broadcast to their compatible headphones using UHF, FM signals. FM transmitters are a favoured option as they are easy to setup, they offer a crisp audio response and they are extremely simple to manage during the performance. Transmitters are available to hire that run on mains power – these tend to be higher-powered units with a broadcast range of up to 500 metres in optimal conditions – and rechargeable, portable transmitters are available for outdoor cinema screenings and as you would expect, these have a finite operation time (10 hours on a single charge) and a lower broadcast range of 200 metres in optimal conditions, but given their on-the-move capability, these transmitters are incredibly versatile.

Our rented headphone transmitters output their respective channels on 863, 864, and 865 MHz.

In the UK and Europe these channels are free for public-use and do not require a license. However, such ease does come with a small compromise. There are no public restrictions on broadcasting in that 863 to 865 MHz frequency range, so it’s not a secure method of broadcast and there is a very slim possibility of channel crossover (interference) in urban areas or at busy events. However, interference is rare and as an added precaution, prior to the big night cinema teams often use a hired RF spectrum analyser such as RF Explorer to evaluate the signal usage in their locale. To broadcast your movie soundtrack on a licensed frequency range requires a more bespoke wireless headphone solution which an AV professional can advise upon.

Silent cinema headphones will arrive pre-tuned to each transmitter channel. At your screening simply hand out the headsets, demonstrate how to power them up and flick the channels and your film fans are good to go.

It’s worth bearing in mind that some headphones require batteries, so having plenty of batteries for these headphones at your screening is a must.

Your transmitters are the beating heart of your silent cinema soundtrack and if you rent them from a reputable AV hire company, they will arrive with a variety of connectors such as – RCA phono to RCA phono leads or 3.5mm headphone outlet to RCA input adaptors so that you can connect them to your mixing desk, or playback devices. How you decide to rip / split the movie audio soundtrack into its component channels for simultaneous playback is best navigated by you and your event AV team.

A silent cinema uses headphones to deliver audio to a movie audience

Wireless headphones offer cinemas new ways in which to deliver multiple audio channels to their audiences. Photo by Myke Simon on Unsplash

Headphone Screenings

If you’re planning to run your own silent cinema event, here’s a few final things to consider;

  • For some of your audience, a silent cinema may be a novel viewing and listening experience. At your screening, simple instructions on printed tickets, in the foyer or reception area will go a long way in making your headphone event run smoothly
  • When renting UHF headphones there are two styles of earphone; event headphones or silent disco headphones. Both styles of earphones will work with your transmitter, but silent disco headphones usually feature big LED illuminations designed for the dancefloor. In the darkness of an auditorium or an evening outdoor venue, punchy LEDs could distract the audience. Our advice is to opt for event headphones that have discrete LED channel indicators.
  • A very small percentage of audiences think that cinema headphones would make a great addition to their home hi-fi collection (which without a transmitter, they won’t). If you are hiring headphones for your event, it’s likely you’ll be on the hook for the headphones’ safe return. If you are running an cinema how will you safely collect the headphones once the show is over? This can be particularly tricky if your cinema is outdoors without a defined perimeter and entry / exit points. Can you incorporate a return deposit for the headphones in the cost of admission?
  • Headphones and children. Cinema headphones are designed with adults and older children in mind. As earphone misuse can cause hearing loss, you shouldn’t plan silent cinemas for very young children.
  • Promote, promote, promote! Headphone screenings work best when there is a packed house, use the novelty angle of the headphone audio in publicity, flyers and advertising in the months and weeks prior to your event to gain maximum exposure.
  • Rain stops play. There’s a good reason why outdoor cinemas tend to run in the summertime. In the main, the wireless event headphones available to rent are not splash or water proof, so silent cinema events can’t run safely in damp conditions.