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Microsoft Surface Headphones review: All style, little substance

Christopher Minasians
12 Feb 2019
Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
329
inc VAT

Microsoft’s noise-cancelling headphones have a sharp look and a fun sound signature, but audiophiles won’t be bowled over

Pros 
Engaging, punchy sound
Very comfortable
Neat touch controls
Cons 
Noise cancellation is merely all right
Lacklustre mid-range reproduction
Less portable than some rivals
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In October 2018, Microsoft, a brand known for its laptops and desktop PCs, announced the latest addition to its Surface family – new over-ear headphones with active noise cancellation. Catching many by surprise, this was the company’s first stab at a premium audio product.

It’s no simple task for the tech giant. It pits itself against fan favourites Bose, industry-breaking Sony and trendsetting Nuraphone. Can Microsoft successfully dive into the premium headphone market or will it be whitewashed by its rivals?

READ NEXT: Our favourite ANC headphones from £40

Microsoft Surface Headphones review: What you need to know

The Microsoft Surface Headphones are Bluetooth-based wireless headphones that isolate you from the outside world through the magic of active noise-cancelling (ANC) technology. They have intuitive touch controls, and big twisty dials that allow you to adjust the volume and tweak the level of external noise cancellation.

READ NEXT: Sony WH-1000XM3 review: Bose deposed

Microsoft Surface Headphones review: Price and competition

The Surface Headphones aren’t quite as expensive as a Surface tablet or laptop, but at £329 they’re not cheap either. At that price, there are plenty of high-quality alternatives from established names, such as the Bose QuietComfort 35 (Series II), the Sony WH-1000XM3 and the Bowers & Wilkins PX.

For a little more, you’ll find the custom-tuned Nuraphone headphones, and if you’re on a budget you should definitely consider the PSB Speakers M4U 8, which now cost £250.

Buy now from John Lewis

Microsoft Surface Headphones review: Build quality, design and comfort

The Surface Headphones come in a single “platinum” colour scheme. It’s clearly designed to complement the tone of Surface tablets and laptops, and there’s a shiny Microsoft logo embossed on either side of the headband.

The headband also has right and left indicators printed on the inside, size adjusters at each side and padding around the top. With a total weight of 292g these headphones aren’t too heavy, and the ear pads are very soft, so you can wear them for long periods without discomfort – even with glasses. Despite that, there’s a good clamp force, so they won’t fly off your head even if you take them for a light jog. They’re certainly more secure than the Bose QC35.

When not in use, the ear cups can be swivelled around to fit snugly in their hard-shell carrying case – although the Surface Headphones don’t properly fold up, like the Bose QC35 or Sony WH-1000XM3 do.

On either side of the driver cups you’ll find touch-sensitive media controls on either side of the driver cups, and these are impressively versatile. When listening to music you can tap once to play/pause, double-tap to skip or triple-tap to go backwards; when a call comes in you can double-tap to answer it, or decline with a long press. The headphones feature two built-in mics to pick up your voice, so it’s a fully hands-free experience: microphone quality is fine, with better treble and a fuller overall sound than the Bose QC35, but it’ll be a bit tinny compared to your smartphone’s built-in mic.

Outside of calls, you can also trigger your smartphone’s voice assistant with a long press. Unlike the Bose QC35 and Sony WH-1000XM3, the Surface Headphones don’t have their own built-in assistant – at least not in the UK. In the States, they come with Cortana, and Microsoft has said it plans to bring this feature across the pond at some point, but I’m happy sticking with my phone’s Google Assistant anyhow.

Alongside the touch controls, each ear cup also features a large rotary dial. The one on the right controls the volume, while the other allows you to turn the ANC level up and down – the effectiveness of which we’ll discuss below.

Microsoft has also integrated an automatic pause and resume function. Thanks to pressure sensors, the headphones detect when they're off your head. Here, they'll pause music and even a YouTube video. To resume media playback, pop the Surface Headphone back on your head and they'll continue where you left off. Quite simply, brilliant.

Finally, on the right cup, there’s an on/off button, a mute control for the microphone, a 3.5mm jack socket for wired connections and a USB-C charging port. A quick five minutes of fast-charging will give you almost an hour of playback, and on a full battery you’ll get around 15 hours of use, with Bluetooth switched on and ANC dialled up to the max. Not too shabby.

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Microsoft Surface Headphones review: Active noise cancellation and connectivity

The Surface Headphones can remember up to eight separate Bluetooth connections, and during my testing I found they switched seamlessly between my Mac, my Android phone and my Surface Go. Their wireless range is impressive, too – I was able to wander over 15m away from my source with no glitches or dropouts.

There are just two shortcomings, in terms of wireless capabilities. First, they use Bluetooth 4.2 rather than Bluetooth 5, which might have further improved range and battery life. Second, they lack support for codecs such as AAC, aptX, aptX HD or LDAC, which many competing headphones in this price range (such as the Sony WH-1000XM3) use to deliver the best possible sound quality.

The ANC system is unusually customisable, allowing you to step through no fewer than 13 levels of noise cancelling. Thoughtfully, if you dial the ANC all the way down to zero, the sound of the outside world is actually amplified into your ears – handy for ensuring you can hear approaching traffic while crossing the road. However, in regular use, there’s no easy way to tell which level you’re actually on, and frankly, it’s very hard to distinguish between level 13 and level 12.

On top of that, while the Surface Headphones certainly do reduce the volume of external sounds, they’re not great at blocking out high frequencies. Overall the Nuraphones do a better overall job of shutting out the outside world, thanks to their hybrid in-ear design; after that, I’d also place the Sony WH-1000XM3, the Bose QC35 and the Sony WH-1000XM2 ahead of the Surface Headphones.

READ NEXT: Bose QuietComfort 35 II review: Still stupendous, now with added Google Assistant goodness

Microsoft Surface Headphones review: Sound quality

When it comes to sound quality, the Surface Headphones are a mixed bag. If you’re all about that bass, you might well love them: you’ll feel connected with the low-end rumble in “Ride With Me” by T.I, and there’s a real mid-bass punch too that keeps everything alive and kicking.

However, it’s a case of quantity over quality. Compared to the Nuraphones or the PSB M4U 8, the Surface Headphones sound a little uncontrolled, with the mid-bass overwhelming the mids. As a result – for example – those vocals in “The Cure And The Cause” by Fish Go Deep feel like they’re not as forward as they should be. The Bose QC35 feel much more confident in the mid-range; simply put, they’re better at reproducing female vocals.

The highs meanwhile have a decent sparkle to them, but they can’t match the extension of the Nuraphone and PSB M4U 8 headphones, with a noticeable roll-off towards the very top end. Still, the same can be said about the Bose QC35 and Sony WH-1000XM3.

Perhaps the best thing about the Surface Headphones is their excellent instrument separation. Inside those large soft pads there’s a pair of 40mm drivers, which produce a wide, enveloping sound that really makes you feel part of the music. The Bose QC35 sound a little closed by comparison; in this specific regard I’d say the Surface Headphones are among the best headphones around, on par with the Sony WH-1000XM3.

READ NEXT: PSB M4U 8 review: The best noise-cancelling headphones for audiophiles

Microsoft Surface Headphones review: Verdict

For a first go at penetrating a competitive market, the Surface Headphones are a valiant effort. Their sound certainly has its strengths, they’re very comfortable to wear and the design makes them a perfectly styled companion to other Surface products.

Buy now from John Lewis

If you’re paying £329 for a pair of headphones, however, then you expect uncompromising audio quality – and that’s not quite what you get with the Surface Headphones. For the ultimate in noise exclusion, the Nuraphones are a better bet, although their strange in-ear design might not be for everyone. Otherwise, I’d suggest the Sony WH-1000XM3, which deliver more effective isolation and a more refined overall sound.

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