Microsoft recently announced a couple of new audio solutions including the Surface Headphones 2 and Surface Earbuds. The company is not traditionally known for its audio devices but after a couple of successive generations of Surface Headphones and a new Surface Earbuds announcement the company's commitment to wearable audio solutions is very apparent. While Microsoft doesn’t break out just how many devices it ships to consumers versus businesses, but I think we’d all be surprised how successful Surface Headphones are in the workplace.
There is plenty of competition in this space from other large players like Apple, Samsung, Sony, Bose, and Google but the Microsoft Surface team has a track record of launching premium products and competing well in many different segments. I covered the full lineup of Surface additions in an article which you can access here. Microsoft’s approach to audio devices is focused on comfort, quality, and ease of use. These devices are going to look and feel different then what you would expect in a pair of earbuds or headphones. This is not a surprise coming from the Surface team. They have always taken a different approach to build things. I am going to be spending some time reviewing both the Microsoft Surface Headphones 2 and Surface Earbuds below.
The design of the Surface Earbuds is one that is going to turn some heads. Some say the design closely resembles that of ear lobe gauges. I don’t rely solely on my earbuds to relay a fashion statement, so I won’t knock the outward appearance too much. The charging case includes a subtle Microsoft logo on the lid while the earbuds themselves do not possess are unbranded. The build quality on the Surface Earbuds feels premium. Each of the earbuds has a large touchpad on the outside which you can use to control PowerPoint presentations, phone calls, access Outlook, or control music from Apple Music or Spotify. The rubber tips of the earbuds curve and rest on the inner part of the ear and are extremely comfortable. I found myself forgetting that I had the Surface earbuds in after using them on several consecutive calls. I will note that this design lets in small amounts of external noise and does not form a noise-canceling seal around your inner ear like many other wireless earbuds I have used. This didn’t end up being a big deal for me because I would opt for over the ear headphones for serious noise cancellation capabilities. The charging case for the Surface Earbuds is compact at 3 inches long and 1 inch tall and it easily fits within my pocket. The case supports USB-C charging but does not have support for wireless charging like many other earbuds on the market do. This isn’t a deal breaker for me, but I will leave that up for the customer to decide how valuable wireless charging is. Overall, the build quality and functionality of the Surface Earbuds are great. The earbuds are priced like many other wireless earbuds at $199.99. I assume the style of the earbuds will be hit or miss with most consumers, but I remember a time when the Apple AirPod design was thought of as undesirable.
The design of the Surface Headphones 2 looks remarkably like the light gray first-generation apart from the addition of the matte black color option. This generation of headphones also upgrades to Bluetooth 5.0 connectivity. The headband and earcups were very sleek and felt comfortable enough to wear on my head for long periods. The 180-degree rotation on each earphone was a nice design improvement compared to the first generation that lacked rotation. This allows the individual earphones to rotate and sit more comfortably around your neck. The on-ear dials on each earphone are designed to rotate for volume control and noise cancellation. The left dial controls 13 levels of ambient noise cancellation while the right dial controls the volume of the headphones. The right earphone has a 3.5mm audio jack, a built-in microphone that you can mute and unmute, and a USB-C charging port. The touchpads on each of the earphones are responsive and can be used for skipping tracks, pausing/playing music, or accessing a digital assistant. These headphones are also outfitted with Office 365 integration and offer the ability to scroll through PowerPoint slides or control Outlook. I found myself pausing music while adjusting noise cancellation and volume during the first few times of use, but this speaks to the responsiveness of the touchpads. I will also mention that the carrying case for the Surface Headphones 2 is great for storing charging cables and is sleek enough to easily stow away within a backpack. These headphones are aggressively priced at $250, which is $100 less than the first-generation Surface Headphones. The overall design of the Surface Headphones 2 knocks it out of the park in terms of comfort and ease of use.
User Experience & Audio Performance
When I power up the Surface Headphones 2, they instantly connected to my phone and confirmed the sync via audio. One thing I have come to enjoy with the Surface Headphones 2 is the narrator telling me how many hours of battery life are left on the headphones. It’s not inconvenient to check the battery life on the Surface Audio app but hearing it audibly on boot up is a nice touch. The Omnisonic sound in this set of headphones is great and noticeably sharper than the last generation of Surface Headphones. I will note that I experienced a little bit of distortion at volume levels higher than 13 on a scale of 15. Another cool feature is the ability to customize audio profiles within the Surface Audio app. If you click on the Surface Headphones 2 within the app you can select different equalizer presets including flat, classical, jazz, pop, and rock. I took many conference calls with these on and the microphone quality was sharp throughout. The Surface Headphones 2 may be my first pick for serious productivity due to their great noise cancellation capabilities. I was able to stay focused on writing this article while the vacuum was running loudly in the next room. Whenever I took the headphones off they automatically paused whatever audio I was listening to and resumes as soon as I slipped them back on. Overall, I am happy with how these headphones performed and allowed me to stay zoned in during the workday. The comfort of these headphones vs. other over the ear headphones I have worn is unmatched. It was easy to wear these without discomfort for several hours at a time. The better sound quality, longer battery life, and new features all at $100 less than the first-generation Surface Headphones make the Surface Headphones 2 a compelling option for anyone looking for over the ear headphones.
Like the Surface Headphones 2, the Surface Earbuds audibly confirmed the connection between my phone and the earbuds. One thing I cannot get away from is the comfortability of these earbuds. I found myself forgetting to take the earbuds out after conference calls and listening to music. The earbuds were designed to be able to hear external noise and I could hear myself talking while on conference calls and listening to music. The microphone on the Surface Earbuds consistently performed well. The earbuds synced to my phone quickly and deliver consistent clean audio while speaking on conference calls. The sound quality of the Surface earbuds was rich and clean on all volume levels. It would be nice to have a little higher volume ceiling on the earbuds, but the sound quality is nice. It’s worth noting that the signal on the left earbud feeds off the signal of the right earbud. This limits the ability to use the earbuds separately. Overall, I was satisfied with my experience using Surface Earbuds as my primary audio device for everyday productivity.
The Surface Headphones 2 offers up to 20 hours of battery life which is an improvement from the 15 hours of the last generation. 20 hours of battery life still isn’t as competitive when compared to Bose and Sony’s flagship models that are hitting close to 30 hours. But the 20 hours was plenty enough to get me through several days of work without having to charge the headphones. So I really don’t give a lot of value to the competitive added battery life given the Headphone 2 performance. You can also get an additional hour of music with 5 minutes of charging. I expect to see steady battery life gains gen over gen in the Surface Headphone line going forward.
The Surface Earbuds offer up to 8 hours of battery life on a single charge and give the users up to 2 additional charges within the charging case. The 8 hours of battery life on the Surface earbuds lands right in the middle when compared to other popular earbuds like the Samsung Galaxy buds (13 hours) and Apple AirPod Pros (4.5 hours). These offer enough battery life to get through a typical workday on a full charge. Since I don’t spend all day with the earbuds in they typically remain charged.
I am happy to see Microsoft committing and taking its audio solutions seriously. The Surface Headphones 2 is a nice improvement to an already solid pair of headphones and re my go-to headphones for work in noisy areas.
The Surface Earbuds are a great entry into the wireless earbuds market. I see the Surface Earbuds competing well with Apple’s AirPods, Samsung Galaxy Buds, Google Pixel Buds, and other wireless earbuds. I was happy with the ease of use, audio quality, and comfort in both audio devices in the new Surface lineup. I am interested to see how users utilize Microsoft 365 application integration on the audio devices. Both audio solutions are ones that I would continue to use day to day for productivity. Well done Microsoft.
Note: Moor Insights & Strategy writers and editors may have contributed to this article.