By Quentin H. / May 31st, 2019
At GDC this year, I won a pair of Microsoft Surface Headphones from a contest at the Microsoft booth. As a result, I have been putting it through its paces over the past several months in many different environments. What I found is a perfectly solid high-mid-tier pair of music headphones that excels at AI Assistant Integration, low-bass noise cancellation, physical appearance and comfort but does lack somewhat in providing a high-end music experience. (As of May 30, 2019).
You can purchase a pair of Surface Headphones from Amazon now, as they are currently on sale for $249.99 USD (as of May 30, 2019).
These headphones, only available in gray (or as Microsoft calls it, ‘platinum), are simply stylish. Only discreetly branded with the windows logo in silver just above each ear cup, these cans are minimalistic in design and shape. This places them at the far end of the spectrum from the Beats series that place branding first-and-foremost up front. I actually liked wearing the Surface Headphones out in public or pulling them out to use in a professional setting, and I did not feel self-conscious about doing so.
“My favorite thing about these headphones physically is the way that volume and noise cancellation works.
“…[T]his is an amazing concept and one that I wish all manufacturers would adopt as the industry standard going forward.”
The cups themselves fit fairly snuggly on my head with minimal discomfort, even over my wire-framed glasses, and I found myself capable of wearing them for lengthy periods of time. For example, I flew in April from Los Angeles to Munich, and I was able to watch several movies with them on without feeling like I needed to remove them. They weigh 10.2 ounces (290 grams), which is more than Sony’s WH-1000XM3 at 8.99 ounces (255 grams) or Bose’s QuietComfort 35 II that clocks in at 8.25 ounces (234 grams), but it really did not impact my long-term wearing. I will say though, that after I took the Surface Headphones off after wearing them for a long period of time, I realized that my ears were warm from the heat that was held in by the earcup padding. That said, I really do wish that they could have folded down into a smaller package (they are completely unyielding), as the headset and its carrying case take up more room than I like in my bag.
The battery life is fifteen hours, again less than Sony’s WH-1000XM3 (30 hours) or Bose’s QuietComfort 35 II (20 hours), but it honestly is long enough to last me for a lengthy trip across the world to pretty much anywhere that isn’t from Newark to Singapore on a 17 1/2 to 18 1/2 hour direct flight. The Surface headphones come with a USB-C connector charge cable that will charge slightly less than an hour’s worth of playtime in a bit more than fifteen minutes, and will fully charge the headphones in right around two hours. It also comes with a 3.5 mm cable that will let you plug it directly into your PC or airplane TV monitor. All of that said, I do wish that it came with both an airline headset adapter for those flights that require the proprietary two-pronged jack and with a wall-plug in, if only so I don’t constantly have to find an available USB slot to charge it in.
My favorite thing about these headphones physically is the way that volume and noise cancellation works. The ear cups both have rotating dials that are both discreetly hidden into the outer edge of the headphones that are extremely intuitive to use. To break it down simply: the left ear cup handles the noise cancellation controls and the right cup handles the volume controls. While I will get into the quality of the sound and noise cancellation features themselves shortly, I will just say this is an amazing concept and one that I wish all manufacturers would adopt as the industry standard going forward.
“The sound quality for the Surface Headphones is great, but not amazing. You can hear the bass and the tremble and you can hear the pitch and tone of songs, but it is all somewhat distorted.”
With Microsoft trying to slice themselves off a piece of the noise cancellation industry’s consumer pie with their first iteration of the Surface Headphones, the question becomes: just how good are they at their designed purpose? On this, I had mixed results.
For noise cancellation, Microsoft advertises that the Surface headphones has up to 30 decibels for active noise cancellation and up to 40 decibels for passive noise cancellation. What this translated to for me was that when the headset noise cancellation was all the way up (by twisting the left dial to its maximum), the deep vibrating sounds of the airplane’s jet engines or that of street construction jackhammers faded away almost completely. Noise cancellation is, in my opinion, meant to take away the worst of the noise pollution we hear in certain environments, and these headphones work beautifully on that front to the point that I would forget just how loud all of that background base noise could be.
The problem with these headphones, however, is that they do not cancel out any of the more higher-pitched noises, even at maximum volume. What that means is that on a flight where a baby is crying two rows back, you’re still gonna hear that child screaming. If there is a conversation occurring at a decent volume in the seats in front of you or an announcement being said over the in-flight intercom, you will still hear it but it will be just garbled enough that you won’t understand it. I was shocked at this clear and consistent disparity in noise cancellation quality when it came to the different types of sounds that I encountered as I used them on multiple plane flights, train trips, subway rides, and bus routes in different locations.
One other neat feature about the noise cancellation is that if you turn it all the way down (you know that the noise cancellation/volume is at its maximum/minimum thanks to a beep and a voice telling you so in the headset), it actually amplifies the surrounding background noise. This is ostensibly so you can hear people talking to you in the background, but I found it was simply easier to just take the headphones off completely if I needed to hold a conversation with someone instead.
“The Surface Headphones are, without a doubt, made as a true partner for the Windows Surface line of computers.”
The sound quality for the Surface Headphones is great, but not amazing. You can hear the bass and the tremble and you can hear the pitch and tone of songs, but it is all somewhat distorted. I am currently listening to Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra through my Surface headphones as I write this review, and I am definitely missing out on a lot of the nuances that instruments provide and that higher-quality headphones would display. The sound quality in these cans are not terrible by any means, but these mid-tier sound-quality headphones will not be replacing your primary high-end listening to headphones.
Finally, another understated feature is that when the headphones come off your head, they can recognize that you just took them off and they will pause the music you have playing and the noise cancellation until you put them back on again. This works well when you have to take the Surface Headphones off to talk to the person next to you for a brief moment or when you need to go to the bathroom or whatever, though I found that it wasn’t perfect as putting the headphones around my neck or with a blanket stuffed between the ear cups would sometimes defeat this feature.
The Surface Headphones are, without a doubt, made as a true partner for the Windows Surface line of computers. I have worked exclusively with a Surface Pro 3 for almost two years now, and I was impressed with how easily it paired with my computer via Swift Pair. The Surface Headphones integrated well with the Surface Pro 3, with one weird exception: if you want to turn the Surface Pro’s volume up or down via the headset dial, it only does it in increments of seven. I have no honest idea why Microsoft picked that specific number (instead of say, ten), and it is an incredibly odd choice.
I also use a decidedly non-Windows device for my phone, an iPhone X, and the Surface Headphones work perfectly with it. First and foremost, I can control the phone’s volume with the headphone’s volume dial with little issue. Both of the Surface Headphone’s flat earcup sides also function as a touchpad that are perfect for a smartphone device. You can accept a phone call or end a phone call by tapping on either side twice, and you can reject a phone call with a long tap. The call quality is quite exceptional, to the point that people could not tell if I was talking to them via handset or by the Surface Headphones while my phone is in the next room. Music is also controlled by a series of taps: one tap to play/pause, two taps to skip to the next song, and three taps to go back to the prior song. These music controls worked extremely well, and were perfectly integrated not just with Apple’s own iMusic app, but also with Amazon’s Music app.
That said, Microsoft made a serious miss with these headphones: they do not natively integrate via Bluetooth with the Xbox One, Xbox One S, and Xbox One X video game consoles. As Microsoft has been pushing for integration among devices with smartphones and any Windows 10 devices, the fact that I cannot just sync my Surface Headphones to my Xbox console of choice is a baffling omission by the company.
As I mentioned earlier, the Surface Headphones are meant to be integrated with the Surface Pro series of computers. This philosophy also extends to your choice of AI assistants. I was able to actively connect both my iPhone X and my Surface Pro 3 to the headset at once, as my headphones would vocally and helpfully remind me of (along with the battery life remaining) when I turned them on. The AI assistant is summoned by simply a long press of either touchpad, much like when declining a phone call. I found myself, for the first time in my life, actively using Cortana via my headphones to do things like call a contact on Skype, tell me the weather, etcetera. As for Siri, I had full function of her as well with my iPhone to place calls, play music, ask research questions, and more.
That said, it is next to impossible to flawlessly switch between the two AI assistants when both the computer and smartphone were actively connected. For example, I found that my Surface Headphones would default to using one AI assistant, even if I issued the proper vocal command to active the other AI assistant instead. For example, it would default to Surface Pro 3’s Cortana when I did a long press, even if I said “Hey Siri” to trigger my iPhone instead, or it would do the obverse instead. I would have to disconnect one of the devices from Bluetooth in order to switch the AI assistant over to the other option before reconnecting that device again. This turned out to be a major annoyance, as I actually grew to really utilize Cortana alongside Siri while using these headphones.
The Bluetooth range is also quite impressive on the Surface Headphones. Despite Microsoft inexplicably adopting a 4.2 standard instead of the cutting-edge 5.0 standard (though Bose’s QuietComfort 35 II also only uses 4.1), I was impressed with how wide of a range there is on these headsets. I live in a 1,405 square foot two-bed and two-bath apartment, and my sound and call quality never would dip, even if my iPhone X or Surface Pro 3 were at opposite sides of the apartment from me with several rooms between us. As someone who has consistently bought cheap Bluetooth headphones multiple times over the years, I was absolutely floored by this revelation and I wound up unsuccessfully trying to find a distance in my home that would stop them from working perfectly.
So what’s the final verdict?
The Surface Headphones are Microsoft’s first attempt at the noise cancellation marketplace, and for the most part, it succeeds. These are gorgeous cans that do their primary job of drowning out airplane, train, and bus noise without an issue over its fifteen-hour battery life. All that said, they currently retail for 350.00 USD (the same price as Sony’s WH-3000 XM3 or Bose’s Quiet Comfort 35 II). If your primary concern is having excellent noise cancellation with an expertly integrated AI assistant feature and chic aesthetic design, then these are worth the price. Otherwise, I would hold off to see what Microsoft creates in their next iteration of the product. All of this means that this is a set of headphones perfectly suited for a four-out-of-five star rating.
If you’re so inclined, you can purchase a pair of them from Amazon, for as of May 30, 2019, they are currently on sale for $249.99 USD.
These headphones were won as part of a contest sponsored by Microsoft.
Have you tried out these headphones yet? What do you look for in a good pair of headphones?
Let us know in the comments below!
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