Microsoft Surface … headphones? I know!
Microsoft surprised the world with a Steve Jobs-ian “one more thing” moment at the company’s Surface launch event in New York City on Tuesday: Noise-cancelling headphones. And after spending a little time with these cans at the event, it’s clear that the same attention to detail Microsoft lavishes on its laptops was also ladled out on its headphones.
A few quick facts: The company’s new over-the-ear headphones won’t be available until later this year, at a date to be determined (although several people I asked said definitely that they would come out for the holidays). They’ll sell for $349 –exactly the same price as noise-cancelling headphones like the Sony 1000xm3 and Bose Quiet Comfort 35 II. You think Microsoft is aware of that? I do.
The Microsoft Surface Headphones come in silver (sorry, no “back to black” coloring here) and have two big touchpads on the left and right ear for controls. Tap it once, twice, or three times to skip forward, back, and pause tracks. Surrounding each touchpad is a ring; the right ring adjusts volume, while the left ring steps the headphones through 13 different levels of noise cancellation.
I travel frequently with my trusty Bose QC25 headphones, the grandpa of the genre, which have a switch on the right ear to turn noise cancellation on and off. The first time you hit the switch, you’re blown away by the noise that science and the magic of algorithms can damp down. The 100th time, you’re just ready to mute that crying baby. Microsoft turned that up to 11 – or in this case, 13 — with a ring around the left ear cup that lets you manually step the headphones through those different levels of noise cancellation.
Want to mute all that nonsense around you? Turn ‘em all the way up. Want to let some sound seep through so you can hear when the delivery guy is bringing you that kung pao chicken? Dial it back to six. While the switch on the Bose headphones has grown ordinary, this dial brings new delight to an old feature. I was eager to dial the background noise in and out with friends and strangers alike. “Listen to that! Amazing, right?”
The Surface Headphones are among the most comfortable headphones I’ve strapped to my head.
Beyond that, Microsoft has another interesting feature meant to bring its Surface Headphones from “sound delivery thingies” into “productivity tools”: auto pause. Take the headphones off your head and, like Apple’s AirPods, they will automatically pause the music you’re listening to. Put them back on and whatever you had streaming will start right up again. It’s a simple feature, but it’s elegant, and it worked flawlessly.
And finally, they include Cortana baked in, meaning you can ask your virtual assistant to play any track or pause the music … or maybe order you a salami sandwich; and in theory, she’ll be at your beck and call. I’m not super optimistic about this, to be honest. Cortana is neat, but Amazon and Google have dedicated far more energy to the pursuit of voice assistants. Cortana ain’t all that. We’ll see when we get a review unit.
So how do they feel and sound, you ask?
The Microsoft Surface Headphones are among the most comfortable headphones I’ve strapped to my head, although I confess, I haven’t worn the $2,000 Audio Technica ATH-ADX5000 cans, nor the $4,000 Audeze LCD-4z. If those products aren’t more comfortable and better sounding, there’s something wrong in the world.
Still, for the going rate of $350, the Surface Headphones did feel nice. The ear cups are built with memory foam, which instantly felt great on my ears. Having spent 10 or 12 hours on a plane with my Bose QC25 headphones glued to my head in the last week, I can attest to the fact that headphones grow uncomfortable over time.
Microsoft’s design instantly felt different; lighter, more comfortable. And they should. Ralf Groene, head of Industrial Design with the Microsoft Devices group and the man most responsible for the look and feel of the company’s products, told me it took 3 years to finalize the design. Three years spent honing the grease levels in the ball bearings that actuate the dial around the earcup. Three years spent perfecting the memory foam that makes them so comfy. No wonder they feel good.
As for the million-dollar question: I didn’t have the time to do any sort of audio analysis of the headphones, so it’s hard to answer the fundamental question: Did music sound, you know, awesome through these? Sure, it sounded pretty decent. And when I turned noise cancellation up all the way, despite the dozens of tech journalists shouting at my elbow for time with the Microsoft Surface Headphones, I was able to tune them out. I was in the zone. And in the end, isn’t that what it’s all about?