Microsoft achieved something very impressive with the original Surface Headphones: the company was able to leapfrog veterans of the noise-canceling headphone market (like Bose and Sony) with an ingenious method for controlling them. With a twist of the smooth-turning dial on either ear cup, you could adjust volume and the level of active noise cancellation. It felt instantly intuitive and so satisfying — one of those things that left you wondering how no one else had seized on the idea sooner. But the Surface Headphones fell short when it came to battery life and sound quality. And Microsoft tried to sell them for the same price as the top models from Bose and Sony, which was unwise for a brand-new product that hadn’t garnered the reputation of its competitors.
Now, Microsoft is back with the Surface Headphones 2. Except for a new matte black color option and buttons that are (thankfully) now more raised and easier to find with your thumb, they look identical to the originals. But they last longer and are priced far more sensibly at $250. That’s more like it.
The Surface Headphones 2 retain the understated design of their predecessors. Except for a glossy Windows logo on each side of the headband, there’s no branding to be found. The matte black model is very classy — albeit less recognizable than the light gray color, which remains available — and I’m pleased to report that it avoids collecting fingerprints unless you’re handling the headphones with greasy fingers.
Microsoft made one welcome change to the ear cups: they now rotate 180 degrees, so the Surface Headphones 2 can rest comfortably against your body when wrapped around your neck. The headphones don’t fold, unfortunately, and the carrying case eats up a good amount of room in a backpack.
Everything else feels very familiar. Except for the dials along the perimeter, the entire surface area of either ear cup can be tapped to pause or play music, skip tracks, and answer calls. In leaving volume and noise cancellation to the dials and separating them from the touch controls, Microsoft makes everything feel more focused and easy to remember. The only physical buttons on the headphones are for power — you hold this down to pair new devices — and a mute button. The latter is rare for headphones nowadays, but I’ve come to appreciate it in this new reality of constant video calls. There’s also a 3.5mm jack at the bottom of the right ear cup if you want to plug in. (The dial controls will still work over a wired connection as long as there’s remaining juice in the battery, but the tap gestures and mute button are disabled.)
On your head, the Surface Headphones 2 are pleasantly cozy, thanks to their spongy, big ear pads. The one area where I think Microsoft still needs improvement is the headband. My ears never felt fatigued from wearing the Surface Headphone 2 for extended periods, though they can get sweaty if I’m outside. The only discomfort came at the top of my head after an hour or two of wearing them, so the headband could use some more cushioning. For now, Microsoft still trails Bose and Sony in overall comfort, but not to a dire extent.
Microsoft’s noise canceling isn’t quite as effective as what Bose or Sony can achieve, but the Surface Headphones 2 are perfectly capable of quieting the types of ambient noise and constant hums that can grow irksome when you’re trying to focus. I do struggle to understand why anyone would need 13 levels of noise cancellation to switch between, though. Surely something like five would have sufficed. But if you’re super particular about balancing your music with the outside world, there’s no getting more granular than this. And the transition from full-power noise cancellation to off mode (where outside sound actually gets amplified) only takes a single turn of the dial, so it all feels very efficient.
Another welcome change is, after awkwardly trying to integrate Cortana as part of the original Surface Headphones, Microsoft’s assistant has been given the boot this time around. You can still access Google Assistant or Siri by tapping and holding on either of the ear cup touchpads. The built-in mics pick up your voice well whether you’re on a call or telling your phone’s digital helper to play a certain song.
While they don’t include any hands-free voice controls, the Surface Headphones 2 still excel at software in one sense: they continue to offer terrific multipoint Bluetooth support, meaning you can pair them with more than one device at the same time, like a PC and a phone, without having to do the Bluetooth hopping dance in settings. Handoff between devices is seamless and works just like you’d expect. As long as you’re not trying to listen to audio on two paired devices at the same time, the Surface Headphones can effortlessly juggle content and switch from one to the other and back again. This is a great convenience, and it’s something that Sony’s 1000XM3 headphones can’t do. The only downside I’ve encountered is that sometimes you might notice slight audio sync issues while watching a video only when you’re paired to two devices simultaneously. If you disconnect one of them, this goes away.
Microsoft has boosted battery life to 20 hours with noise cancellation enabled. That’s at par with the Bose Noise Canceling Headphones 700 but well under Sony’s 30 hours. Still, 20 hours means you’ll likely only have to charge these once — maybe twice if you’re using them constantly — each week with the included USB-C cable. When you power the headphones on, a voice tells you how many hours of battery life are remaining, which is more helpful than hearing a random battery percentage.
And as for sound, the Surface Headphones 2 strike a balance that I’d classify as “good enough.” They lack the expressiveness and clarity of the 1000XM3s but still offer a well-rounded sound signature that can move across genres sufficiently. The overall mix is less dynamic than I’d like, with instruments and vocals smushed together a bit. And the low end can have a muddy quality on some tracks. These aren’t immersive audiophile headphones, but if you’re after maximum detail, using them wired can help. Microsoft supports aptX and SBC codecs, though not the AAC favored by Apple devices. So you’ll only get bare-bones Bluetooth audio on an iPhone. And honestly, that still sounds fine. I tried the Surface Headphones 2 with the Galaxy S20 and LG V60 to sample aptX, which transmits data more efficiently, but it’s hard to tell any difference by ear. (aptX HD is the codec that’s more focused on improved sound quality.)
As you may have realized by now, the Surface Headphones 2 don’t best Sony and Bose in every category. But since Microsoft decided on a much smarter, more affordable price this time around, they don’t necessarily have to. If these cost the same $350 as the original Surface Headphones, I’d expect something more than respectable sound quality. And I’d be more irked by a headband that can make your cranium ache after a couple of hours — if it’s as large as mine, anyway.
But for $250, which still isn’t cheap by any measure, the Surface Headphones 2 are a terrific all-around value. They’ve still got the best control scheme of any headphones on the market, their noise cancellation does the job, and the multipoint pairing is something you won’t want to give up once you’ve had it. If you don’t demand the utmost superlative sound, you won’t find much to be disappointed with.
Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge