For anyone who grew up with Microsoft as the stodgy PC monopoly that wouldn’t know “cool” if it was out on a wintry walk in northern Sweden, the past few years have required something of an adjustment. It’s no exaggeration to say that Microsoft is today one of the most bold and exciting hardware design companies in the tech world. The Surface Pro has defined its own category of versatile hybrid device, the Surface Studio rivals Apple’s iMacs for sheer desirability, and the Surface Laptop would be amazing if it had a more sensible set of ports.
Into this context of design leadership comes Microsoft’s first pair of headphones from the Surface team, simply titled Surface Headphones. They are gray, as you might expect from the old Microsoft. But they’re also permeated with all the neat little design touches that distinguish the new Microsoft. Before I even laid my hands on a pair, I wanted them.
Among other things, the Surface Headphones can be said to be the first headphones designed specifically as a carrier for a digital voice assistant. Microsoft really wants you to use Cortana with these, though they’re equally comfortable conversing with Google’s Assistant or Apple’s Siri. The Surface Headphones are also engineered for modern lifestyles, which means they include noise canceling (NC), deft switching between multiple paired devices, and, of course, USB-C.
Priced at $350, the wireless Surface Headphones are squaring off against Apple’s enduringly popular Beats Studio 3 and Sony’s superb 1000X M3s. That means they need to have something special to make them stand out, and they do.
The thing that’s impressed me the most about the Surface Headphones is something you won’t see and might not even notice for days. Their wireless performance is exceptional. The Surface cans keep a stable connection to the iMac at my living room desk no matter where I am in my apartment, whereas literally every other pair of wireless headphones would suffer interference from all the metal appliances in the kitchen. With the Surface Headphones, I can do the dishes while listening to a YouTube video that’s playing on my desktop on the other side of the apartment.
Microsoft isn’t offering any advanced wireless protocols here — the Surface Headphones don’t even have AptX or AAC, and they support Bluetooth 4.2 rather than the latest version 5 — however, the reliability and range of its connection are so good that they ameliorate those omissions. Pairing the Surface cans to any device is utterly painless: I got them up and running on a Windows laptop, an Android phone, and a couple of Macs with ease. Plus, Microsoft’s handoff from one sound source to another is seamless and automatic. I can listen to music on my PC, interrupt that to take a call on my phone, and then return to the PC, all without having to mess with settings or disconnect and reconnect.
The design of the Surface Headphones reminds me of Bang & Olufsen’s, both in look and feel. That means a stylish, minimalist exterior, featuring aluminum yokes, a steel headband, and a lot of high-quality plastic. The finish of these headphones is really pleasant to the touch, and that’s complemented by soft memory foam pads that seem to melt around the ear. It would have been nice for Microsoft’s design to collapse down — the way that the Bose QC35s, the Beats Studio 3, and the Sony 1000X do — but even with a more rigid shape, the Surface Headphones feel robust and fit into a compact, color-matched case.
I’m not entirely in love with the fit and comfort of these headphones. Their clamping force is quite strong, which keeps them securely on my head, but it doesn’t make me feel enveloped in the soft, tactile loveliness like the Sony 1000X M3s do. Though light and equipped with a padded headband, the Surface Headphones always put pressure on the top of my head. If I don’t have them seated perfectly, that can grow to be painful. With good positioning, I would say they rise to be considered fine, no more than that.
My absolute favorite feature of the Surface Headphones is the way you control the volume and active noise canceling. The perimeter of each ear cup is a rotating dial, with the right one handling volume (in increments of 7 percent on Windows) and the left one stepping through the 13 different levels of NC. The rotation has a satisfying friction to it that makes me want to fiddle with each dial just because it’s fun. It’s no overstatement to say that I think this control scheme is the best, most natural, and least frustrating one that any pair of wireless headphones has yet offered.
The flat surface on each ear cup is a giant touch panel, and you can tap to pause and resume music, double tap to accept calls, or hold for a couple of seconds to activate either Cortana or your device’s native voice assistant, which would be Siri on an iPhone or Google Assistant on an Android device. I’ve never been a fan of touch controls on headphone cups, and this doesn’t change with the Surface cans. My taps are well recognized when I intend to make them, but the problem is false positives. Any time I have the headphones off my head and still in my hand, I’ll trigger a half-dozen taps accidentally.
Just to score some extra techie points, Microsoft has implemented an automatic pause and resume function for when the headphones are taken off the listener’s head. If you’re on a call, they’ll mute and unmute automatically. These auto-off functions have always been hit or miss on over-ear headphones (they’re much better with true wireless buds like the AirPods), and Microsoft doesn’t improve much on the competition. The company tells me its detection system is capacitive — there are sensors inside the ear cups — but the system can be fooled if, for example, you just leave the headphones hanging around your neck.
The best way I can sum up the Surface Headphones’ sound is that it’s tuned like that of car speakers. This realization came to me while I was listening to Urbandawn’s Gothenburg Cluster, which is a fast-paced exhibition of heavy-hitting electronic beats. It comes across as just a deluge of bass through the Surface Headphones. Distorted, bloated, yet beautiful bass. The last time I enjoyed music so unfaithful to the original material was in a rented Nissan Qashqai this summer.
In an ideal world, we’d have headphones that are both technically accomplished and fun to listen to. But if the choice has to be between the two, I’d do what Microsoft has done and lean toward fun. There’s very little high-frequency excitement with these headphones, they have almost no bite, but that lends them an easygoing quality. I especially liked them while listening to The Internet’s Hive Mind and Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun, both records that feature strong bass lines contrasted with sweet female vocals. The bass doesn’t bleed too much into the midrange, and if you stick to modern electric music, you’ll probably find a lot to like about these Surface cans.
I also find the bass of the Sony 1000X M3s bloomy and uncontrolled, and similar accusations can be leveled at Apple’s Beats range. In the context of its over-ear, wireless NC headphone competition, Microsoft’s Surface set lands somewhere in the middle. There still aren’t any truly great-sounding NC headphones, but the trade-off you make is the tranquility of being able to tune the world out. That’s where Microsoft’s cans acquit themselves very well, including the reverse option of amplifying ambient sounds to make you more aware of your surroundings.
As for Cortana, I don’t really have many good things to say about it. Like Bing, it’s a service Microsoft keeps trying to convince people to use, and few end up doing so. You can set up a “Hey Cortana” voice activation on Windows and via the Cortana app for Android or iOS, but that’s typically slow to respond, inconsistent, and then slow to process commands. Those who fully commit and invest themselves in the Microsoft ecosystem — which the strong portfolio of Surface devices certainly encourages — might still find some use for it. But without relying on Microsoft’s calendar, Outlook mail, or other services, I simply don’t have much reason to call on Cortana.
If you don’t bother with setting up Cortana on your phone, a long-press on either of the Surface Headphones’ capacitive ear cups will activate the default assistant of your mobile OS. I tried this with Google Assistant, and it’s exactly how Assistant should work on headphones. It’s ironic and amusing that Microsoft has done a better job with the Google Assistant interaction than its own with Cortana.
Long-pressing the side of the headphones brings up the usual Google Assistant “listening” jingle, I speak my query, and then I promptly get a spoken response. All without taking my phone out of my pocket or needing to unlock it. I can ask for the time of my next appointment, set or cancel alarms, get a weather forecast... basically, it’s the full Google Assistant in my headphones. And it works with great speed and accuracy.
Microsoft has equipped the Surface Headphones with no fewer than eight microphones: each ear cup carries two mics for picking up the user’s voice and another two mics for NC. That sophisticated audio input system helps me be understood both when inputting Google Assistant commands and talking on conference calls. You won’t get anything approaching high-fidelity sound recording from the Surface Headphones, but you will be understood when you speak, and that should be enough.
I wish I could say Microsoft’s loyalty to Cortana was something you could disregard if it’s not a match for your needs, but it actually comes at a cost. Cortana can be activated just by a voice command with the Surface Headphones, and the microphones are constantly listening out for that command, whether you want them to or not. They don’t record anything, there’s no privacy concern here, but the added power consumption seriously hampers the Surface cans’ battery life. Microsoft says you’ll get 15 hours on one charge, and I haven’t gotten more than 10. When you consider that the minimum offered by Microsoft’s competition these days is 20 hours, this is quite a major limitation. At least the Surface Headphones charge via USB-C, so I’m unlikely to ever have them without a compatible charger handy, and they can be topped up to full in two hours.
With its Surface Headphones, Microsoft has laid a foundation it can build on. Given a couple more generations of refinement, the Surface design team should have ironed out any lingering fit and comfort issues while the audio engineers can be expected to ratchet up the quality of the internals. I absolutely believe Microsoft will be one of the important headphone makers of our future. This is far from a one-off experiment.
As to whether you should own a pair for yourself, that depends. I still feel drawn toward these headphones, I enjoy listening to my music with them, and I’m constantly impressed by the speed with which they connect to my devices and the rock-solid stability of their connection. The volume and NC control dials are just a dream to use. But I don’t find them comfortable enough, their sound is a touch too unserious for my tastes, and their battery life is too limiting. Anyone untroubled by those downsides should go right ahead and grab a pair. For the rest of us, the second edition of these Surface Headphones will be one to really look forward to.
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