Overall, the Microsoft Surface Headphones are a great pair of everyday-carry headphones that rival the most popular cans on the market—with a price point to match. The design is sleek, the control functions kind of brilliant, and, as far as sound performance goes, you won't be disappointed. There are some features that come up a little bit short (battery life, for example, is just OK) but, mostly, they are a solid pick if you're looking for a high-end pair of noise-canceling headphones.
Right out of the box, it's obvious the Surface Headphones are a premium product. The light gray exterior, which falls somewhere between minimalist and futuristic, is very sleek. In hand—and on head—the headphones feel about as good as they look. The body is strong and sturdy, if somewhat rigid, and the finish is really nice.
I thought the fit was firmly in the good-to-great range. The foam pad ear cups are some of the most comfortable I've ever worn, and I liked how securely they stayed in place. Full disclosure: I do have kind of a weird-shaped head and my ears are on the smallish side, so my experience might be different than yours. Regardless, I spent several days with the Surface Headphones strapped to my noggin—often, for up to 5-plus hours at a time—and I rarely experienced any discomfort. One thing I did notice is the headband does kind of push down on the top of your head—something I didn't realize until I wore them over my baseball cap. But after repositioning them a bit, it was back to comfortable listening.
Look and feel aside, the design feature I really loved were the rotating dials on the outside of each ear cup. The dial on the right side controls the volume, while the dial on the left adjusts the noise-cancellation levels. I really can't overstate how convenient, natural, and just plain fun it is to use the dials, but other companies should take heed: rotating dials are the future!
The ear cups also feature tap controls to adjust playback, take calls, or summon your digital assistant. I love the idea of tap controls, though performance was sometimes spotty. Every now and then I'd get a phantom input, or a tap wouldn't register. Still, I'd take mostly accurate tap controls over boring ol' button presses any day of the week.
As far as sound quality goes, the Surface Headphones land squarely in the good column. I'd put them somewhere close to my Bose® QuietComfort™ 35 headphones and the Beats Studio3, which is to say—consistently solid. What I did love about the sound quality was the bass. It's big, almost too big, and kind of obscene, and made listening to bass-heavy tracks so much fun. I spent a lot of time with SZA's Ctrl and, not only was it a total blast, it was somewhat of a different listening experience because of the bass emphasis. I did notice a little bit of sound leakage when I had the headphones cranked up—something the bass boost is just begging you to do—so keep that in mind when you're rocking out around office neighbors or fellow commuters.
The Surface Headphones' active noise-cancellation system is excellent. First, the controls, which as I mentioned earlier, are fantastic. Use the dial on the left ear cup to adjust the degree of cancellation on the fly. Turn it all the way up to shut ambient noise out or dial it back if you need to let some sound in. It's a brilliant, intuitive system that works very well in the real world. Second, the quality of the noise cancellation is superb. I cranked it all the way up on a busy subway platform and it was like walking through a dream. There are some headsets that do a slightly better job at noise cancellation, but the Surface Headphones are up near the top of the list.
Battery Life, Connectivity, Etc.
The Surface Headphones aren't going to win any awards for long battery life. Microsoft claims the headphones get up to 15 hours of use with Bluetooth and Active Noise Cancellation, but in my experience is it's a lot closer to 12. That amount of time doesn't compare very well to some of the Surface's competitors, but I found myself struggling to care that much. Rarely—as in never—was I in a situation where I needed 20 (or even 15) hours of uninterrupted use. I'm not saying it isn't a consideration for some, but for me, it's just not that big a factor. Typically, I listen for several hours at a time, then I take the headphones off, charge them up via USB-C, and it's back to the music. Going from zero juice to full takes about 2 hours, but again, I only burned them all the way down to test battery performance, so you probably won't need to commit that much time to get them powered-up again.
Connectivity, on the other hand, is a major plus. The Surface Headphones have serious reach and seemed to be impervious to interference. I tested them all throughout my reasonably sized apartment and, even from multiple rooms away, the connection remained solid. You won't get the latest Bluetooth technology with the Surface Headphones—they support version 4.2, not 5—but with wireless performance this reliable, it's hard to quibble.
Cortana & Co.
Not only do the Surface Headphones support Cortana, it's baked directly into the headset. That feature alone makes it innovative, because the Surface cans are the first NC headset to include an integrated voice assistant. Now, how much that benefits you is another story. Cortana hasn't yet risen to the level of more popular digital assistants (Google Assistant, for example), so not everyone is going to get a lot of use out of it. Also, it's reasonable to assume that Cortana constantly listening for your commands causes a significant strain on the battery life, which might explain why I was getting less than the advertised 15 hours of juice.
However, if you don't have Cortana set up on your phone, the Surface Headphones will work with your preferred digital assistant. I have an iPhone X, so I typically use Siri, and the interaction worked perfectly fine. I'll be the first to admit that I don't regularly use digital assistants, but if that's your thing, the Surface Headphones will serve you well.
The Surface Headphones are an objectively great first outing for the Surface brand. Sound quality is good, design is exceptional, and the overall performance left me mostly impressed. Improvements will be made in future iterations—better battery life, for one, and possibly tweaks to connectivity and audio file support—but otherwise this is a win for Microsoft, one upon which the company should continue to build. If you're looking for a great pair of everyday noise-canceling headphones, I would highly recommend them.