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Unlike most other tech companies lately, Microsoft did a pretty good job of keeping leaks to a minimum for their October surface event, cause I was genuinely surprised when Microsoft announced their new Surface Headphones. And even though it was a very good first try, the Surface Headphones still have a lot of growing up to do in this increasingly competitive ANC Headphone market.
The Surface Headphones are Microsoft's first in-house designed active noise cancelling headphones and retail for $350. making them premium ANC headphones that compete directly with the Sony 1000XM3... Which for transparency are still my favorite and most recommend ANC headphones. If you want to pick either of these headphones up I'll have links in the description below, and if you use the links it really helps out the channel. I suggest you check them out cause you never know when these headphones might go on sale.
Since the Surface Headphones are a pair of lay flat headphones, this is why they come included with a pretty large hardshell carrying case. So keep that in mind if you plan on traveling with these headphones on a regular basis. These headphones also come included with a 3.5 to 3.5 millimeter audio cable albeit, I do feel this audio cable is pretty cheap for a pair of $350 cans. But for those wondering, these guys can be used passively... Which is good. And finally, these headphones also come included with a USB A to USB C charging cable. Which is also good to see cause we're kind of in this middle ground where some companies are starting to fully embrace USB C and some other companies are sticking to micro USB as a cost savings measure.
Now, I really do have to give credit where credit is due... The hardware here is amazing. Even though they're not using premium materials like real leather, fabrics, or a high amount of metal... These headphones just feel very premium. These headphones have a slate mate finish to them all around. The underside of the headband is silicon. And The headband also has a very sturdy and satisfying click to it when ever you adjust it. Moving down to the ear cups, the Volume and ANC dials rotate very smoothly in either direction, and the padding on these ear cups is not too soft but not firm. The only criticisms I have about the build quality of these headphones is that when you tap on the touch pads you can hear a lot of springing, I also hate how flush the power button is on these headphones and I would have preferred if the headband it self had a little more padding. But over all, the build quality of these headphones is great, and I'm a really be fan of these headphone’s over all design.
But when it comes to fit and comfort, there are a few things I need to point out. When I first saw the Surface headphones I was worried that due to their circular ear cups, they were going to rest on your ear lobes, cause thats what happens with most other cans that have circular ear cups and this is why I always prefer oval ear cups. But thankfully, the circular ear cups here are just for aesthetics, these ear cups still have an oval cut out. If you have medium flush ears the Surface headphones should fit you just fine, but they’re not as spacious as the Sony 1000XM3 and definitely not as spacious as the Bose QC35’s. But they are more specious than the Sony 1000XM2. But when it comes to their clamping force, the surface headphones do have a very snug fit. Even after a good break in period the Surface headphones still have a more snug fit than I would like and I do get wearing fatigue after about an hour. So for those reasons, these headphones are not big head approved.
When it comes to tech specs these headphones have an advertised battery life of 15 hours with ANC turned on. And unfortunately, 15 hours of battery life is below average this days. If Microsoft wants to be competitive we need to see something around the 25 hours mark. These headphones also have fast charging, but again… it's below average. Microsoft claims a 5 minute charge gets you about an hour of playback but the Sony’s get you 5 hours from a 10 minute charge and Bose gets you 2 and half hours from a 15 minute charge. And over all, the surface headphones barely managed to last me a week from a full charge.
But the surface headphones can be connected to more than one device at a time which is great for power users and its one of my biggest gripes with Sony’s headphones in general. And if you’re an iPhone user, these headphones also have very little latency making them good for watching videos on your phone. Which again, is one of the M3’s weak points.
And when it comes to active noise cancelation on the Surface Headphones, its actually pretty decent. They don’t block out as much noise as last year’s Sony 1000XM2 or this years Sony 1000XM3… but they do block out as much noise as the Bose QC 35’s. And they do so with much less cabin pressure than the Bose. But definitely, the Surface Headphones have an easier time blocking out constant low frequency sounds like road noise and does struggle a bit when it comes to random higher frequency sounds like chatter.
So yeah like I said, ANC on the Surface Headphones is descent, there's no hissing and its a very good first try. The Surface Headphones do have a little bit more cabin pressure than both of Sony’s premium ANC Headphones, but it's definitely more manageable than Bose’s cabin pressure. The Surface Headphones also do a very good job of preventing wind noise when using ANC out doors. And thats cause their ANC mics are slightly recessed into the body similar to what Sony has going on on their headphones.
Now like I mentioned earlier, these headphones have rotating dials on both of its ear cups… the left on controls ANC and the right one controls Volume. Personally I really like these dials cause you can manually and quickly switch from ANC high, to enhanced mode which pumps in all of the ambient sound around you to give you an Open back headphone effect which is useful if you’re walking around in the city.
But my problem with Microsoft’s enhanced mode is that its filtering and letting in the wrong sounds. Enhanced mode on these headphones pumps in noise pollution like the rumbling of an Air conditioning unit or road noise if you’re in a car not people’s voice’s. So when ever someone talks their voice sounds incredibly muffled through enhanced mode. And for comparison, Sony has their Ambient Sound control. They let you control how much ambient noise you want to let in and they also do a much better job of still blocking out the noise pollution you don’t want, but lets in peoples voices.
So like I said, I feel enhanced mode on the Surface Headphones is working in reverse… and its not just the simulation, I was having the same issues when I was out in public with these headphones. But now let's focus on the right dial, this dial controls your phones volume and can still locally adjust the volume if the headphones are used with a wired connection while powered on. Both the left and right ear cups have touch pads that respond to the same gestures and they respond very well. Tap once to play or pause, tap twice to skip a track, and tap thrice to go back track. Personally I just use the right touch pad cause I'm a righty… But as of right now you cant dedicate media controls to one ear cup and have reassigned hot keys to the other ear cup. And theres no word if these touch pads can respond to swipes like the M3’s can. But I really do hope Microsoft pushes out some software updates giving you more control over these touch pads cause theres a lot of potential here for PC and Android users. Just imagine being able to assign double tapping on the left ear cup to open a program or a game on your PC.
Now when it comes to sound quality... The surface headphones are very average. Instrument separation in the mids is very weak and the sound stage is very narrow. So everything just tends to blend together. Right out of the box these headphones have a flat sound signature, but through the Cortana app you can go and adjust the EQ which is something I always like to see. But my biggest issue with these $350 headphones is that their bass does tend to sputter pretty often. Sputtering isn't an issue if you listen to these headphones at 50 percent volume but if you listen to them at 80 percent or higher then sputtering is going to be more common. The surface headphones also sound very different with ANC turned on or in enhanced mode. And this is very common for ANC headphones. In enhanced mode the soundstage on these headphones opens up a little bit and sputtering becomes less frequent... But it still happens. Now for the most part if you want to get the best sound quality out of your ANC headphones you should listen to them with active noise cancellation turned off, but unfortunately I haven't been able to figure out how to turn the ANC or enhanced mode off on these headphones.
Another feature I haven't figured out how to turn off is these headphone’s auto pause and auto play feature. When you take these Headphones off they'll automatically pause your music and automatically start playing again when you put them on. Now this feature works very well and it doesn't randomly start playing and pausing your music when you're walking around like the Bowers and Wilkins PX which also have this feature. But personally I would prefer to have this feature turned off.
But another thing Microsoft is really pushing on these headphones is Cortana integration, and a lot of ANC headphones these days have some sort of voice assistant integration. Sony is team Google and Bose plays nice with both Google and Alexa. In order to summon Cortana you can either press and hold on the touch pad or you can say "Hey Cortana" which is actually the faster of the two methods.
And Cortana can be pretty useful. She greets you and tell you how much battery life you have when you power on the headphones... She tells you when you have notifications, and you can ask her to do a lot of things you would normally ask Google assistant. But the thing I don't like about Cortana is that when you summon her with the hot word, you have to pause for a second... And then talk. And this is pretty jarring cause we've gotten so used to Alexa and Google Assistant where you don't have to pause... You just say the hot word and keep talking.
So this pause makes Cortana feel a little dated compared to other voice assistants. And like I said earlier, using the hot word to summon Cortana is faster than pressing and holding on the track pad. Where as for comparison, both of Sony's and Boses Headphones have a dedicated physical button that you can assign to your voice assistant. So as soon as you press and hold this button you can just start talking.
And having a dedicated physical button to summon your voice assistants on your headphones is by far the fastest, most efficient, and most accurate way to interact with your voice assistant. Using your voice with the surface headphones is cool, but I think Microsoft would have been much better off just using a physical button. Or they need to update Cortana to get rid of that pause.
But another thing I want to point out about these headphones is that there’s no voice mapping during the set up process. So anyone can just run up to you and say hey Cortana and just mess with you. Now yeah you can always just mute the microphone... But it can still happen.
So like I said at the beginning of this video, I feel that Microsoft’s New Surface Headphones are a really good first try. Even though I really do like the hardware theres still room for improvement when it comes to sound quality, enhanced mode, the way you interact with your voice assistant, and battery life. And like I mentioned earlier, I see a lot of potential here for PC power users if Microsoft gives you more control over those two touch pads. But I’m not going to sit here and tell you that the Surface Headphones are vastly inferior to the Sony 1000XM3’s cause it literally took Sony 3 tries to get their ANC headphones right. And still there are a few things I would like to see improved on the 1000XM3 and the Surface Headphones does a few things better than the 1000XM3. But if you’re in the market for a pair of premium ANC headphones I still think you’re better off with the Sony 1000XM3’s, but I’m still pretty excited to see where Microsoft goes with the Surface Headphones 2.