Microsoft Surface Headphones hands-on

Microsoft's Surface Headphones take a serious stab at Sony and Bose

Microsoft lavished attention on the details -- and it shows.
Microsoft lavished attention on the details -- and it shows.
Microsoft lavished attention on the details -- and it shows.

Highs

  • Incredibly comfortable
  • Noise-cancellation dial is a brilliant feature
  • Auto-pausing music? Yes please
  • Two words: memory foam

Lows

  • Cortana less capable than other assistants

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?

Microsoft Surface Headphones Hands-on
Jeremy Kaplan/Digital Trends

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?

Home Theater

Leave the charger behind: Wireless headphones will get epic battery life in 2019

From wireless in-ears to noise-canceling over-ears, virtually every headphone manufacturer has seriously improved wireless headphone battery capacity, making fears about charging up for long listening sessions a thing of the past.
Home Theater

Wireless headphones are finally awesome, and these are our favorites

With sleek form factors, prime audio quality, and the freedom of untethered listening, there has never been a better time to pick up a pair of wireless headphones. These are the best ones currently available.
Home Theater

Throw away those EarPods -- we dug up the best headphones in every style

Trolling the internet for hours to find headphones is no way to live. Instead, leverage our expertise and experience to find the best headphones for you. Here are our 10 favorites.
Home Theater

Beyerdynamic’s Lagoon ANC cans combine customization, noise cancellation

No two people hear sound the same way. This may explain why a growing trend at CES is sound-customization software. Beyerdynamic introduced it in 2017 and now it's back with a noise-cancelling version in its slick new Lagoon headphones.
Home Theater

QLED and OLED may have similar names, but they're totally different technologies

The names may look almost identical, but OLED and QLED are two entirely different beasts. In our QLED vs. OLED battle, we dissect the differences between these dueling TV technologies, and help determine which might be best for you.
Home Theater

Amazon’s updated base model Fire TV stick now comes with an Alexa remote

If you're looking to take your older TV into the streaming era, Amazon's most basic Fire TV Stick model just got more compelling than ever: Buyers can now get a free Alexa voice remote with their Fire TV Stick purchase.
Emerging Tech

CES 2019 recap: All the trends, products, and gadgets you missed

CES 2019 didn’t just give us a taste of the future, it offered a five-course meal. From 8K and Micro LED televisions to smart toilets, the show delivered with all the amazing gadgetry you could ask for. Here’s a look at all the big…
Home Theater

Banish the bunny ears (and monthly bills) with these excellent HD antennas

When transitioning away from cable and satellite, finding the best HDTV antenna for your area can be touch. To help, we've compiled our picks of the best indoor HDTV antennas you can buy.
Home Theater

Still listening on tinny TV speakers? Try one of our favorite soundbars

You no longer have to sacrifice sound for size when selecting home audio equipment. Check out our picks for the best soundbars, whether you're looking for budget options, pure power, smarts, or tons of features.
Computing

Don't spend hundreds on Pro Tools or Logic. Try one of these free alternatives

Believe it or not, Pro Tools isn't the only digital audio workstation worth your time. Check out our picks for the best free recording software, whether you're looking for a lightweight app or a full-blown audio workstation.
Home Theater

Roku adds automatic sign-out mode, for those with regular houseguests

Being able to use a Roku device while staying at a hotel or Airbnb is awesome. What is less awesome is leaving yourself signed in after you leave. With a new automatic sign-out feature, Roku is making it easier to relax.
Home Theater

These awesome A/V receivers will swarm you with surround sound at any budget

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to shopping for a receiver, so we assembled our favorites for 2018, at multiple price points and all loaded with features, from Dolby Atmos to 4K HDR, and much more.
Apple

Apple may be developing a new iPod Touch to woo younger users

Apple may be developing its first new iPod touch model since 2015 as it aims to capture younger users who are not yet ready for their own smartphone, and expand its overall listening base in the future.
Home Theater

Cord-cutting has grown by 48 percent in 8 years, according to Nielsen

People are continuing to ditch cable but not all cord-cutters are the same. In fact, there are two distinct groups within the cord-cutting universe, with a very small, yet growing third group that's worth paying attention to.