Microsoft’s hardware division have expanded their Surface product portfolio with the headphones. What makes them particularly Surface, well they’re matte grey, that’s about it. Regardless of the justified (or not) use of the Surface brand, they are a hardware product from Microsoft, so they’re important to consider.
The Surface devices are most well known for their form factor, the adjustable stand and removable keyboard enabling multiple uses cases that started a trend in the industry. With the Surface Headphones, Microsoft have created a unique feature that enables the flexibility to control the level of noise cancelling available.
After having used them as my daily headphones, it’s time to break down what’s great and what’s not.
The design of the Surface Headphones is incredibly simple, which is an attribute I appreciate. While many audio designers often include a crazy combination of coloured materials, these are more restrained, using a universal grey colour scheme. There are subtle variants in the shades of grey, but that’s mostly related to the grey extending across plastic, aluminum.
Adjustability and comfort are important attributes when designing a set of headphones that appeal to a mass audience. The top band of the Surface Headphones use a simple, single band over the top of your head. This head band extends on both sides and is flexible to enable the use with different head sizes. While this isn’t new in the audio industry, a pair of headphones rocking the Microsoft logo is.
Emblazoned on each side of the headband is a mirror finish Microsoft logo (the 4 squares). This easily identifies them as Surface Headphones to casual observers, if it wasn’t obvious from the all-grey design. It’s interesting the top band is unbranded, as this is typically the location branding is positioned. This would have taken some restraint, so I appreciate the subtlety in just using the Microsoft logo, without obvious Microsoft or Surface labels plastered over it.
What’s on offer?
In terms of features, the feature list on the Surface Headphones is fairly healthy, given the price tag, I’d definitely expect it to be.
Adjustable noise cancelation
The biggest trick available here is the ability to adjust the level of noise cancellation. While plenty of headphones have active noise cancelling, only the Surface Headphones use a dial to control and adjust the level of noise from the outside world. To tune out the outside world (like an open plan office or on a train), then turn the dial on the left ear and almost all outside noises are repelled, enabling you to focus on the music, podcast or audiobook you’re listening to.
Should someone walk up to you and want to chat, you don’t have to rip the headphones from your head, instead you can turn the dial and reduce the active noise cancellation. What’s interesting is the ability to turn the dial to the point where noise cancelling is disabled, then keep turning and have the noise of the outside world actually amplified using the microphone, pumped directly into your ears. This is weird at first but it does work so you can hear the world around you and converse with that family member, friend of colleague who wants to talk to you.
While I do love the idea of this adjustability, I do find the old habit of taking off the headphones and placing them around your neck to be fairly hard to break. Even after a couple of weeks I still tended to do that rather than remember to twist the dial on the left-ear.
Another relatively unique choice is to have both left and right earmuffs touch enables. A single touch will toggle the pause and playback of media, while a double tap will skip forward and a triple tap will rewind. It may not sound like much, but having the flexibility to use either your left or right hand to control the playback of music and podcasts is actually really handy. Often you’ll find yourself carrying something else and not having to transfer your bag, keys, basketball, or whatever it is, to your other hand before altering your playback is a really freeing experience.
One of these best features in headphones is the sensor that detects if they’re currently being worn. Not only can this sense help inform the battery management system that they have been off your head for a period of time and to power off and save battery, but they can also auto-pause and auto-play. This works by detecting the headphones have been removed from your head and automatically triggering the pause command to your connected device. When you place them back on your head, the audio resumes automatically. This feature is almost a must have in headphones in 2019 as it dramatically changes your relationship to headphones. Taking them on and off is much less of a burden when you know the playback resumes without further interactions with your device.
The Surface Headphones enable you to control your bluetooth connected device using your built-in voice assistant. The microphone is essentially always open for this command, so just ask Cortana, Google Assistant, or Siri to direct your phone to play your favorite music, set a reminder, make a call, get answers to questions, and more. Pair your Surface Headphones to a Windows 10 PC and commanding Cortana also works which is actually really convenient when wearing the headphones while working.
You can expect around 13-15 hours from the lithium-ion battery with the wireless Surface Headphones. This depends on how much active-noise cancelling and bluetooth you’re using). Something I appreciate is a quick battery status update from everytime you turn on the headphones. This lets you know if you’ll need to recharge today, tomorrow or next week, depending on your use.
If you do manage to drain the battery, the Surface Headphones use fast-charging to get a full-charge in less than 2 hours. If you only find our your headphones are flat before running out the door, you can get around an hour of extra batter life with just 5 minutes of charge.
The Surface Headphones are new product and as such uses USB-C for charging. This is great for those of us trying to get USB-C everywhere in our lives. The only other connector is a traditional 3.5mm jack. While the legacy connector is definitely on the way out, it’s nice to see it supported, should you still old an old phone, or device that you would prefer to hard wire.
SOUND AND COMFORT
Does it sound good, feel good ?
The Surface Headphones are over-the-ear headphones. This means they’re designed to envelope your entire ear and while they do that, I’m a bigger guy and they only just fit. While the earcup itself is soft and comfortable, during longer sessions, I found it was the inner hard material, overlayed with mesh fabric that created a little bit of discomfort in the top of the ear. For most people who wear them for a couple hours at time this won’t be an issue, particularly if you have a smaller head and ear. For me personally I’d rank them as a bout a medium compared to other wireless over the ear headsets I’ve reviewed. My Razer Nari headphones has more room inside the earcup, which means yes they are larger in size, but they don’t compress your ear at all, meaning your ear never touches the hard interior of the earmuff.
In terms of rotation, the earmuffs can rotate vertically and horizontally which enables them to fit your head well, creating the important seal between you and the outside world to ensure the noise cancelling works correctly. When you travel the headphones fold flat (one-way) so they’ll slide in next to your laptop pretty easily in a backpack. There’s also plenty of flex available in them, so I wouldn’t be concerned a little bit of pressure on the bag would break the headphones.
In terms of sound quality, the headphones are great, as you’d expect for a premium price like this. I wouldn’t consider myself as an audiofile by any means, but when listening to music through spotify, I always found the sound substantial, representing the lows, middle and high end of the audio spectrum incredibly well. The Surface Headphones never offer a surprising audience experience, like hearing parts of songs you’ve never heard before, but the reproduction of music is solid and makes for a great audio experience. I get the feeling most people will do what I did, which is pair the Surface Headphones with your PC and listen to YouTube, Foxtel Now, Amazon Video while you’re working. Whether it’s online videos, or podcasts, I don’t think you buy these headphones and imagine they’re the ultimate in audio quality. Don’t get me wrong, they’re great, just not exceptional.
When it comes to volume, you can certainly elevate the sound volume (through your device and the headphones) to hurt your ears. Typically your device will warn you it’s an unsafe level, so please pay attention.
Room for improvement
No product is perfect and I have couple of criticisms of the Surface Headphones. The first center around the comfort. It’s a weird self evaluation to make, but I accept, my ears are on the larger side as a 6’3 male. The Surface Headphones come in a single size and after using them, I kind of wish there was a larger model. After extended use, say 3-4 hours of continuous use, I found the top of my ears were hurting. This was due to the cups having a shallow profile, compressing my ear against the hard inside surface. This certainly won’t affect everyone, but it did affect me, so if you’re a larger-eared person, then I’d suggest borrowing a pair to check their comfort first.
The second is the noise cancelling dial. The biggest feature of the Surface Headphones, is the ability to rotate a dial on the left ear to control the amount of noise cancellation. This competes with removing your headset when someone approaches you and wants to engage in conversation. My bugbear here is that while Surface fans will know what a rotate mens, a regular person won’t. This means they often don’t start talking until you give them the universal signal to start talking – that’s removing your headphones. At best the rotation motion looks like you’re turning down the volume, but in most situations, the conversation only started flowing once I removed the headphones.
The Surface Headphones cost a fairly steep A$499.95. While that’s a serious number to drop on a pair of headphones, it’s not unheard of for the premium end of portable audio.
Personally I’d find it hard to justify that price tag, I’d be much more comfortable recommending them at around A$250.00
The Surface Headphones from Microsoft are a product that demonstrates real constraint in design. It’s also a great example of minimalism with just a single light-grey colour and subtle Surface logos.
Despite the couple of issues I explained above, the Surface Headphones offer great sound quality, a good look, decent comfort and a long list of features. If the price tag was lower, it’d be an easy recommendation to make, but as it stands, I’d find that really hard.
If you’re an avid Surface fan (they are out there), you’ve probably got a Surface Book 2, a Surface dial, a Surface keyboard and mouse, all the matte, light -grey colour scheme. If that sounds like you, then naturally you want to complete the line of products and get the headphones to match.