(Pocket-lint) – With its first ever headphones released back in 2018 Microsoft impressed with its considered functionality and decent sound quality. The sequel – the orginally titled Microsoft Surface Headphones 2 – brings all that was good about the original cans, but boosts the battery, introduces a new black finish, and even manages to lower the asking price.
Are such tweaks quite enough to make the Surface Headphones 2 the active noise-cancelling (ANC) headphones to buy? After all, there’s a sea of strong competition around in this category – from Bose to Sony and beyond. Still, there’s a lot of positives to be had from Microsoft’s over-ears, from the optimum comfort to the rotational earcup controls.
Design & Comfort
- Integrated rotational dials controls on earcups
- Finishes: Light Grey, Matte Black
- Glossed Windows logo per side
- Auto music stop/start feature
- 3.5mm & USB cables
- Zippable carry case
Our Surface Headphones 2 review sample is finished in black, perfectly matching the Surface Laptop 3 which also arrived in the black colourway. Very fetching. There’s still the original Platinum colour available too, although it’s rather more grey than silver – as we said in our original review. Oh, and there’s still the Windows logo on the stem above each earcup on both sides.
One of the biggest positives about the Surface Headphones is just how comfortable the wearing experience is. You can more-or-less live with these over-ears on all day without qualms. The earcups are coated in soft cushioning – so we’ve been wearing them for hours at a time and haven’t found them to be tiresome to the head or sweaty around the ears.
The other standout feature about the Surface Headphones is the way in which the earcups house the controls in rotational dials. Using these silky smooth rotation controls feels great; the left earcup’s dial handles active noise-cancelling (ANC) control, while the right deals with volume.
We’ve also seen touch-gesture headphones before – something that these cans offer with single-tap, double-tap, and long-press for respective play/pause, next/previous and decline call features – but the integration of that, plus those rotational dials, makes for a really subtle approach. There are no excess outlandish buttons or text/symbols scrawled on the headphones – just the power/pairing and assistant buttons next to the USB-C opening on the right ‘cup.
When you place the Surface Headphones over your ears and hit that power button a female voice says “hello” and then tells you how long the battery will last – for some reason this review pair has been set in French by default. There’s also a great auto start/stop feature when you remove/replace these headphones from your head – and it works really well.
Noise-Cancelling (ANC) & Sound Quality
- 40mm ‘Free Edge’ drivers, 20Hz – 20kHz frequency response
- Active noise-cancelling with 13 levels of control
- Bluetooth wireless and passive wired listening
- Up to 20 hours battery life per charge
- USB-C with fast-charge in 2 hours
Active noise-cancelling ANC technology is an important feature for many when choosing headphones. If you’re a traveller and want that ‘hiss’ on a train or plane cut out of your listening experience then it’s a must-have feature.
Microsoft’s approach to ANC is a little different to some other makers. The Surface Headphones offer a 13 levels, adjusted by rotating that left earcup dial – there’s a beep when it’s activated and a different beep when it’s maxed out.
Which is all well and good, but there’s no discernible way of differentiating between these 13 levels – we really think these cans should have, say, four different and more distinctive ANC modes and be done with it. Or, like Bose – which offers levels 0-10 instead, across three presets only – offer the ability to pre-programme your default choices via an associated app.
Furthermore, while the ANC is certainly effective – it’ll reduce that hiss of air noise to some degree, as we’ve said – it’s not nearly as powerful as some solutions on the market. The Bose QC 700 Headphones, for example, offer the go-to traveller’s considerable ANC, which is perfect for really eradicting background noise.
As we said in our original Surface Headphones review: “Microsoft is clearly onto something with how minutely adjustable the Surface Headphones ANC can be. But we think there’s room for more extreme cancelling, more distinctive modes, and greater clarity when selecting between them.” The same still stands here.
When it comes to sound quality there’s no discernable difference between the original Surface Headphones and the Surface Headphones 2 follow-up. That’s to say: those 40mm drivers do a grand job of covering from low-end bass to sparkling top-end fizzle. It’s not overpowering and perhaps not as powerful and engaging as, say, the Bose QC 700, but it’s still a solid soundscape.
Because the Microsoft cans are large, cover the ears entirely, and the drivers are positioned to push sound directly into your lugholes, that soundscape delivers wide. Treble dances around while bass stays firm in the middle – assuming you’ve got the wearing position down perfectly. The important sound delivery elements are present and correct, that’s for sure.
We think Microsoft could again offer greater options to control the sound profile though. An app, say, with different genre and equalisation (EQ) options could make the Surface Headphones 2’s sound profile better fitting for an even wider audience.
In terms of longevity per charge these headphones can achieve up to 20 hours of listening time – which is quite a jump over the 15 hours of the original model. Charging is via USB-C, with fast-charging offering a full recharge within two hours. And should the battery deplete entirely you can use the Surface Headphones in passive mode using the 3.5mm cable input – there’s one included in the carry case, along with the charging cable (but no mains plug).
For its second-generation Surface Headphones, Microsoft has kept all that was great and good about the original model – the rotational earcup controls, the tap-to-control surfaces, the decent sound quality and active noise-cancelling (ANC).
But the company has gone one step further for round two, boosting battery for the better, lowering the price to extend the appeal, and even offering a dressed-in-black finish – which we think looks super.
With its adjusted lower price point the Surface Headphones 2 offer a spectacularly comfortable and capable over-ear headphones experience. The problem? Nothing of its own doing really – just that the competition is considerable.
Bose NC 700 Headphones
Bolder bass and more extreme active noise-cancelling options make the Bose the best over-ears we can name – if you can justify paying a little extra for them, anyway. There’s no fancy rotational earcup controls here though.
Writing by Mike Lowe.