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 Surface Headphones 2 which is a pair of over-ear cans that offers noise cancelling and some really clever features. So should you get a pair?
Editor’s note: this Microsoft Surface Headphones 2 review was updated on July 9, 2021, to discuss microphone poll responses, update pricing, and add a paragraph about the Surface Headphones 2+.
Who should get the Microsoft Surface Headphones 2?
- People who want multipoint connectivity and need to switch devices often will appreciate the seamless connectivity switching here.
- Commuters and cafe patrons who want noise cancelling will appreciate the light, but noticeable active noise cancelling (ANC) performance.
- Anyone on a slightly thinner budget than the Bose or Sony’s allow can save at least $50 by grabbing the Surface Headphones 2.
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 rotate 180° 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 the Surface Headphones 2 apart from the first-gen model. You get the 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.
But it’s not just the looks that make the design of the Surface Headphones 2 good, this headset is really comfortable. I wore it all day and never felt like my ears needed a break. Just remember that the ear cups don’t breathe well at all, something to consider if you live in a humid area.
My one gripe with the Surface Headphones 2 is the material on the bottom of the headband. I don’t understand why Microsoft didn’t just use the same memory foam that’s on the ear cups. Instead, the headband has a rubberized cushion that 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.
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 or play music by tapping on either ear cup once, while a double or triple tap on the ear cup will skip between songs. Tapping and holding your finger to the ear cup will access the voice assistant on your device. To adjust the volume, you need to rotate the ring on the right ear cup while the left ear cup controls the strength of the noise cancelling.
these have 13 different levels of noise cancelling which ranges from maximum cancelling to an ambient mode
The touchpads are pretty sensitive so I often paused playback unintentionally. This is an issue that isn’t exclusive to the touchpads 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 amplify what’s going on around you, so you don’t have to remove the headset.
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, which walks you through the pairing process step by step and gives you some extra features.
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 has been upgraded in both respects. Now it has 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 this has some of the best multipoint tech I’ve ever used. While connected to my laptop and my phone, the Headphones 2 switches 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.
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 we managed to get 17 hours, 47 minutes hours which isn’t up to par with the claimed 20 hours but still not bad. At least you can charge it via USB-C.
Does 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 has 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 hiccups with my voice at all which was nice. The reason you should get this headset for conference calls isn’t necessarily the raw microphone quality, but the integrated mic mute switch on the right headphone.
Microsoft Surface Headphones 2 microphone demo:
As of July 9, 2021, a whopping 95% of our respondents rated the microphone quality as either “Okay,” “Good,” or “Perfect.” Chances are you won’t get any major complaints if you decide to use these headphones for your conference calls.
How strong is the active noise cancelling?
You can slide between 13 different levels of ANC, though we conducted our testing with the maximum intensity. If you look at the graph you can see that there is a difference between the regular passive isolation which only affects sounds higher than 1kHz, and ANC on its highest setting. The constant hum of an air conditioner falls below 1kHz, and these ANC headphones do a fine job of rendering those sounds up to half as loud as they’d otherwise sound. While these aren’t going to take the crown away from the Sony WH-1000XM4 or the Shure AONIC 50, they’re still effective.
How does 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 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.
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.
Microsoft Surface Headphones 2 vs. Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700
Bose and Microsoft made sure that these headsets looked like premium noise cancelling headphones, but took slightly different approaches: the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 forgoes all edges in favor of a smooth, modern design, while Microsoft attracts the eye with the Surface Headphones 2 clean, crisp lines.
Both headsets support Bluetooth multipoint, yet Microsoft’s headphones perform playback switching faster than Bose’s. Both headsets have limited Bluetooth codec support. The Bose Headphones 700 supports just AAC for high-quality streaming, while the Surface Headphones 2 supports aptX for high-quality playback. If you have an iOS device, you’ll benefit more from the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, while we Android users are better off with Microsoft’s headset. Otherwise, Android users may not experience consistent streaming rates with the SBC and AAC-only Bose Headphones. iPhone users are booted down to SBC with the Microsoft Surface Headphones 2.
Now, Bose is the clear-cut winner when it comes to a few categories: noise cancelling, sound quality, and battery life. ANC performance is more consistent and effective across the board, which is key for frequent flyers and commuters. Sound quality is more accurately reproduced with the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, which makes it easier to EQ the sound to your liking.
If you have deep pockets, the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 is a better buy, but Microsoft’s headphones are no slouch.
Should you buy the Microsoft Surface Headphones 2?
One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is the price. The Microsoft Headphones 2 comes in at $230 which is much cheaper than Sony and Bose’s flagships; it’s also more affordable 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 this to the Sony WH-1000XM4, I’d say this holds its own thanks to good enough sound quality, noise cancelling, and superb multipoint connectivity that’s still slightly better than Sony’s. If you want the best codec support and the absolute best noise cancelling then no, these aren’t for you.
What about the Microsoft Surface Headphones 2+?
In 2021, Microsoft announced a new version of the Surface Headphones 2 dubbed the Surface Headphones 2+. This new version is targeted at business professionals, with an included Surface USB Link connecting the Surface Headphones 2+ to a computer for a super reliable connection. The Surface Headphones 2+ is also certified for Microsoft Teams, with a dedicated button to launch the Microsoft Teams app on the side of the ear cup and a call status light on the USB Link. Outside of the office, the Surface Headphones 2+ functions the exact same as the regular Surface Headphones 2.
Go portable with the Microsoft Surface Earbuds
If you want to stay within the Microsoft family but don’t feel ready to commit to a set of full-fledged headphones, consider the Microsoft Surface Earbuds instead. These open-type earbuds let you hear your surroundings much like the AirPods, but these stay in place because of the silicone wing tips. The earbuds merit an IPX4 rating, so you can exercise with them.
There are a few quirks to this headset, which you can read about in our full Microsoft Surface Earbuds review, but if you’re a sucker for a unique design, these buds are a fine choice.
What about the Phiaton 900 Legacy headphones?
Another option that’s worth considering if you’re looking for alternatives is the Phiaton 900 Legacy headphones. These over-ears offer plenty of great features that go toe-to-toe with the Microsoft Surface Headphones 2. You’ll get solid noise cancelling, good sound quality, Bluetooth 5.1, the aptX HD codec, Bluetooth multipoint, and great battery life. These aren’t as sleek looking as the Microsoft Surface Headphones 2 and they also don’t have as nice of a build quality, but there’s still a great pair of cans worth considering in this price range.