It seems that every major company is trying to get their foot in the game with one of two products: true wireless earbuds or noise cancelling headphones. When you’re as big as Microsoft however, you can do both. We’re taking a look at the newest Surface Headphones 2 which are a pair of over-ear cans that offer noise cancelling and some really clever features. So should you get a pair?
Editor’s note: This review was updated on September 9, 2020 to reflect changes in pricing, to include comparisons to the Sony WH-1000XM4, and to add a poll in the microphone section.
Who’s it for?
- People who want multipoint connectivity. If you tend to switch devices often these have some great multipoint functionality and are able to seamlessly switch audio between my computer and iPhone without needing to go digging through settings.
- People who want noise cancelling for commutes or the cafe. While these aren’t as strong as some other top options when it comes to active noise cancelling they still get the job done.
- Anyone on a slightly thinner budget than the Bose or Sony’s allow for. While the Sony WH-1000XM4 and Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 are great options, they’re also expensive. At about $50 cheaper than either of them the Surface Headphones 2 look like a steal.
What’s it like to use the Microsoft Surface Headphones 2?
I don’t normally talk about the carrying case that a pair of headphones come in, but I will here: I was really impressed with the hardshell case that came with the Surface Headphones 2. What I like most about it is the slim profile—I was able to just slip the case in and out of my bag with no problems. The headphones themselves are also slim and the ear cups can now rotate 180 degrees so you can lie them flat inside the case, or wear them flat around your neck when not in use. Unfortunately, they don’t have any folding hinges though so if you’re really cramped for space then these are going to be hard to stuff in your bag.
Besides that one improvement, you’d have a hard time telling these apart from the first-gen model. They have basically the exact same minimal design that is just as appealing here as it was on the first model. As much as I enjoyed the new sleek style of something like the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, the Microsoft Surface headphones look like my ideal gadget of the future. Blank sides, a monochrome design (they come in all-black or all-gray now), and minimal branding is how I want everything I own to look.
But it’s not just the looks that makes the design of the Surface Headphones 2 good, these are also really comfortable. I wore these all day and never felt like my ears needed a break. Of course, it’s worth mentioning that our review period with these headphones was during the summer, and the ear cups don’t breathe well at all but I’d rather suffer a little sweat than a little pain. While there are more comfortable headphones around (see Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro) I would say that these are my favorite pair of noise cancelling headphones when it comes to ear fatigue, at least when compared with the Bose headphones I mentioned earlier and even the Sony WH-1000XM3.
My one gripe with the Surface Headphones 2 is the material on the bottom of the headband. I don’t understand why they didn’t just use the same memory foam that’s on the ear cups. Instead, it uses a soft rubber that occasionally pulls my hair when the headphones move a little. It’s more of an annoyance than a pain point, but it’s one that could’ve been avoided, and is the main reason why I would still say that the Sony WH-1000XM4 get the edge in comfort.
Both ear cups on the Surface Headphones 2 are touch-sensitive and have rotating rings around the edges that allow for complete control over everything from playback to noise cancelling. You can pause of play music by tapping on either earcup once, while a double or triple tap on the earcup will skip between songs. Tapping and holding your finger to the earcup will access the voice assistant on your device. To adjust volume you need to rotate the ring on the right earcup while the left earcup controls the strength of the noise cancelling.
these have 13 different levels of noise cancelling which ranges from maximum cancelling to an ambient mode
I did have multiple instances where I would accidentally pause or resume music just because of how sensitive the touch-pads are. This is an issue that isn’t exclusive to the touch-pads on these headphones but it’s still annoying to deal with. Just like the original Surface Headphones these have 13 different levels of noise cancelling which ranges from maximum cancelling to an ambient mode that uses the built-in microphones to let you hear what’s going on around you even better without taking off the headphones.
How to pair to the Microsoft Surface Headphones 2
Pairing to the Surface Headphones 2 can be done with or without the Surface Audio app, but I’d recommend downloading the app first as it walks you through the pairing process step by step and also gives you some extra features afterwards.
If you don’t feel like downloading the app, you can always just pair the good old fashioned way by long-pressing the power button for five seconds until you hear a little voice prompt saying that you’re ready to pair. From there, just locate the headphones in your Bluetooth settings like any other pair of Bluetooth headphones. If you don’t feel like dealing with any of that you can always just plug in a trusty audio cable to connect.
What does the Surface Audio app do?
Besides walking you through the pairing process the Surface Audio app also has a few extra customization options you can make to the headphones. For example, you can rename the headphones, check for firmware updates to make sure you’re up to date, adjust the strength of the noise cancelling, and even choose between a few different EQ presets if you want (or make a new one yourself). None of these are necessarily essential to using the headphones but being able to EQ the headphones to your liking is always worth playing around with anyway.
How to factory reset the Microsoft Surface Headphones 2
If you’ve encountered problems with your Surface Headphones 2 or just want to factory reset them so you can hand them off to someone else then there are two ways to do it. The first is simply by holding down the power button for 20 seconds. A voice prompt will let you know that the headphones have been reset to default settings.
The second method is via the Surface Audio app. With the headphones connected to your source device open the Surface Audio app and click on the gear icon next to the Surface Headphones 2 picture. This will bring you to device settings and all the way at the bottom you’ll see an option to factory reset the cans.
How’s the connection strength of the Surface Headphones 2?
While these look very similar to the original Surface Headphones on the outside, the inside has been completely revamped to be more competitive with the rest of the headphones on the market. Whereas the originals had no support for high quality Bluetooth codecs and only had Bluetooth 4.2, the new Surface Headphones 2 have been upgraded in both respects. Now they have Bluetooth 5.0 as well as aptX support.
This means that more information can travel from your source device to the headphones which should result in slightly better quality, though it doesn’t really matter if you’re using these connected to an iOS device as iPhones are only compatible with the AAC codec. If your source device doesn’t have any codec support don’t worry, the headphones will default to SBC which is the Bluetooth codec that all Bluetooth devices share.
Connection strength overall is very solid, and in about a week of more or less constant usage I can’t say I ever had a skip or a stutter at all—which is super impressive. Plus, these have some of the best multipoint tech I’ve ever used. While connected to my laptop and my phone, they’re able to switch between them seamlessly. If I’m listening to music on my laptop, all I have to do is pause the music and press play on my phone and the headphones will switch to the phone without a problem. The coolest bit though is that they can even tell which device you’re using.
As a quick example of this, I was writing this review while listening to music through Spotify on my computer when I realized that I was running a little low on coffee. So I paused the music, picked up my phone, and walked to the kitchen. On the way, I clicked on a YouTube video that caught my eye and I watched it on my phone without a problem while making my coffee. After I served myself a fresh cup I came back to my desk put down my phone, and resumed the music on Spotify as if nothing happened. This is why multipoint is so important and could be a deciding factor for some.
This is why multipoint is so important and could be a deciding factor for some.
While I’m on the subject though, it’s worth mentioning that you’ll need Windows 10 on your computer to get all the newest functionality according to the Windows website. I haven’t tested these on a Mac or a computer running an older version of Windows, so I’m not entirely sure how these will work with your particular machine—but it’s something worth keeping in mind if you’re like my dad and won’t get rid of Windows 7.
Editor’s note: Keep your OS up to date for security patches at the very least.
What is battery life like?
This is one of the key areas where the new Surface Headphones 2 improve upon the originals, which were touted at just 15 hours. Microsoft claims that this new model will get you 20 hours of constant playback with active noise cancelling turned on. In our testing I managed to get 17 hours and 47 minutes hours which isn’t up to par with the claimed 20 hours but still not bad. At least they charge via USB-C.
Do the Microsoft Surface Headphones 2 have a good microphone?
No one likes being interrupted when they’re listening to music but sometimes it can’t be helped. Thankfully, the Surface Headphones 2 do have a microphone built in so you can answer phone calls and speak on conference calls. I used these on multiple phone calls and I never experienced any dropouts or stutters with my voice at all which was nice.
That said, you shouldn’t expect mind-blowing audio over the mic. Higher-frequency sounds like those necessary for speech intelligibility are emphasized over the fundamental tones of most voices. That’s really okay, as you’re unlikely to notice it all that much, but if you need to record yourself for any reason, you’re better off with a mic that’s made for that purpose.
Surface Headphones 2 microphone demo:
How strong is the active noise cancelling?
When it comes to noise cancelling these offer 13 different levels of ANC which is cool if you want to adjust them, but I did my testing at max noise cancelling here. If you look at the two graphs you can see that there is a significant difference between the regular passive isolation which blocks out basically nothing under 1kHz, and the graph with ANC turned on which shows a nice bump up meaning that those particular frequencies are not as loud. The constant hum of an air conditioner or the noise you hear in the air cabin of a plane lands below 1kHz, and these do a great job at cancelling them out. While these aren’t going to take the crown away from the Sony WH-1000XM4 or the AKG N700 NC, they’re still really impressive.
How do the Surface Headphones 2 sound?
So these are a pair of headphones so let’s talk sound. While you can change up the EQ by using the Surface Audio app if you would like, I kept mine on the default flat one which adds no emphasis to the headphones. Still, that doesn’t mean these are perfectly flat. As you can see from the graph the frequency response of these headphones is what I would call very consumer-friendly, meaning that there’s a nice bump in the lows to make the bass notes more easier to hear in your favorite songs while lowering the volume of certain frequencies that can cause harshness in the highs. The result being that most people will love how these sound.
In my usage I found that there was a little more volume to the lows than I would normally like. In the song Home Again by Michael Kiwanuka at around 0:29 you can hear his voice getting masked somewhat by the bass notes he’s plucking. Mids and highs on the other hand were my favorite part of these headphones.
The vocals in Fall Creek Boys Choir by James Blake just float over the mid-tone heavy synths throughout the song and never became hard to hear even through the cooing of Bon Iver in the background.
Should you buy the Microsoft Surface Headphones 2?
One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is the price. The Microsoft Headphones 2 come in at $250 which isn’t only $100 less than the competition from Sony and Bose, but it’s also less than the previous Surface Headphones. So you get a slightly better battery life than the originals, and better Bluetooth codec support for less money. There’s really no reason to get those if you want a pair of Surface headphones.
Even if you compare these to the Sony WH-1000XM4, I’d say these hold their own thanks to good enough sound quality, noise cancelling, and superb multipoint connectivity that’s still slightly better than the Sony’s. If you want the best codec support and the absolute best noise cancelling then no, these aren’t for you. But if you want to save some money and get a pair of headphones that can still go toe-to-toe with the competition and come out on top in a few key areas, then I have no problem recommending the Surface Headphones 2.