Microsoft surprised everyone last weekend by revealing its Surface Headphone at a New York event.
Designed and developed over three years, Microsoft’s Surface noise-cancelling headphones will be available to buy in time for Christmas and feedback, so far, has been largely positive. The most impressive feature, easily, is the active noise-cancelling technology. Rotate a ring over the left cup, and users can either dial-up or dial-down noise cancellation depending on the environment they’re in. You can set your own sound barrier from zero up to thirty decibels. These could be THE headphones for anyone whose noise-cancellation needs go beyond an ON/OFF switch or the assumption of a built-in microphone. We love how versatile that makes these cans. By allowing users to be in control of which sounds to include and which to exclude, these headphones are useful in a number of environments including on aeroplanes, on public transport, in the home, in the office or at the gym.
And headphones should be versatile. If you’re paying £250+ on a premium brand, then you want to wear something that’s able to cope with the demands of your lifestyle.
Under Armor’s collaboration on the ProjectRock Gym Headphone with ex-wrestler The Rock, is an example of what can happen when headphones are made with a single goal in mind. The Rock designed and helped to develop an impressive gym headphone but it was always going to struggle outside the workout environment as it doesn’t offer noise-cancellation, it had decent - but not remarkable - sound quality, and it lacked comfort. The ProjectRock Gym Headphone will fall short of most people's expectations. Again, if you're paying £250+ on headphones, then they should earn their keep in other environments, too.
And there’s no doubt that the Surface headphone has adaptability.
We can see these easily become a part of your day-to-day, but remember that, like most premium branded headphones, they’re not suitable for the gym unless you pair them up with Ear Hugz. EarHugz are sweat-proof covers that slip over the cushions of the Surface headphone to prevent moisture damage, and they come in a range of awesome designs.
But aside from the noise-cancellation, what else is good about the Surface Headphones?
The auto-pause function is useful: take off your headphones and whatever you’re listening to will pause, restarting again when you put the cups back over your ears. This is always useful in a gym or social environment where someone may want your attention. Auto-pause is especially valuable if you’re listening to podcasts in the gym or if enjoy working out to an audiobook as it’ll save you from missing out or having to scramble for the pause button. This is a feature we’ve seen on a number of headphones, most notably on the Bowers Wilkins PXs we mentioned as one of our top gym headphones for 2018, but it’s good to see Microsoft including it, here, too.
Touch controls on the cups are standard across a number of premium branded headphones now, including the Sennheiser Momentum 2.0, but it’s an undeniably useful feature offering volume control, forward and backtrack skipping and, of course, noise-cancellation on the outside dial.
Reviewers have been impressed with how comfortable the Surface headphones are. The large cups are covered by thick memory foam padding which could put it ahead of the Bose QuietComfort II headphones for user comfort. One of the criticisms of Bose’s flagship cans has been that they feel harder on the ear the longer that they’re worn. This could be worth investing in if you regularly find yourself on long-haul flights or working out hard during long-ass gym sessions.
The headband received positive feedback from a number of journalists, too, with many preferring the manual adjustment as it was more fitted and more comfortable.
Its 4 beam-forming microphones should enhance the clarity of voice commands and phone conversations. Users will also be able to communicate clearly with Cortana - Microsoft’s virtual assistant - as well as taking advantage of built-in Skype, too.
Whilst the Surface Headphones were designed for use with Microsoft’s Surface range of tablets and computers, it’s also fully compatible with both Android and iOS devices via Bluetooth.
The Surface is not without its limitations
Firstly, the 15-hour battery life isn’t particularly impressive and certainly not when compared to Apple Beats headphones which offer 30 hours playback. Microsoft can’t compete with Apple’s W1 chip. A 5-minute charge for an hour of playback is useful, sure, but again, Apple beats it by an impressive margin. Beats headphones give 3-hours from a 10-minute charge.
You’ll only be able to get the Surface in light grey right now, and we’d have preferred to see it in a matte black colour. It looks fine, but it’s not as slick or smooth as Bose or Sennheiser. This is hardly a dealbreaker but a sharp design aesthetic can help a model stand out above the competition.
The price tag of $350 or £270 puts it in the same price bracket as some of the heavy-hitters. It’s tough to break up brand loyalty at this end of the market and this price-point won’t make it easier for fans to ditch rival products in favour of the Surface.
Cortana is the least impressive of the virtual assistants: she’s just not as efficient as Alexa or Siri and hardly the big selling point that Microsoft is making her integration out to be. She’s also one of the reasons that the battery life is relatively limited.
Whilst initial feedback has been mostly positive, no one yet has had the chance to REALLY roadtest the headphones. At the New York event where they were unveiled, journalists only had a limited amount of time to try them out. So, it’ll be interesting to see the reviews when they drop sometime before Christmas.
The headphones aren’t sweat-proof, unfortunately, which means they’re not suitable for the gym UNLESS you pair them up with EarHugz. Given that Microsoft has gone for a grey aesthetic, we think they’d look amazing with a pair of Peachy EarHugz or if you’re feeling a little patriotic then add a Brexit pair of Ear Hugs.
Ultimately, the Microsoft Surface headphone does have a number of impressive features: the noise-cancellation above all else. It’s a brave entry into a market of heavy hitters but credit to the designers and developers in the company - they’ve created a good-looking, workable headphone that’s adaptable and with good sound quality (or at least that’s what reviewers are saying based on their limited time with the Surface). It’ll be interesting to see what the company’s next step is from here.
There’s no official release date yet, but Microsoft has said it will be before Christmas.