Microsoft's over-ear noise-canceling Surface Headphones 2 were released earlier in 2020, and the biggest change from their predecessor is the price: The original Surface Headphones launched at $350, while the Headphones 2 cost $250 (£240, AU$400). Like the original, there's a lot to like about this second-gen model. While they've lost their hands-free Cortana voice control feature (a change no one will lament), the combination of some small design tweaks, better battery life, upgraded Bluetooth and the new lower price help bump their rating up and make them more recommendable.
The Surface Headphones 2, which come in black as well as the original light gray color, haven't changed much in terms of design. But their ear cups now rotate 180 degrees for "greater comfort when wearing them around your neck," Microsoft says. They retain the previous model's touch controls and ring control on the ear cup, which allows you to cycle through 13 levels of ambient noise control. That includes an amplified transparency mode that lets ambient sound into the headphones, allowing you to, say, talk to a flight attendant on a plane without taking your headphones off. The noise canceling is effective. It's close to the same level as that of Bose and Sony -- although Microsoft's headphone is more tuned to blocking out voices in an open office environment.
The control scheme is one of the headphones' strengths along with their comfort level and multipoint Bluetooth pairing -- their ability to pair with two devices simultaneously, such as a phone and a PC. It's also worth mentioning that when you take the headphones off, your music automatically pauses and resumes playing when you put them back on.
The headphones are designed to easily connect to Windows computers (they now feature Bluetooth 5.0 instead of Bluetooth 4.2), which can be notoriously finicky when pairing to Bluetooth headphones. With multipoint support, you can easily switch between a phone and your computer -- yes, they also work with Macs -- which a lot of people currently working from home will appreciate.
These are among the better headphones for working from home -- certainly for Windows users. Not only are they comfortable, but they also work well for making voice calls. There's an adjustable sidetone feature that allows you to hear your voice in the headphones -- whether it's through your computer or your cell phone. There's also a button on the right ear cup for muting calls and they're designed to play well with Microsoft's Office 365, supporting dictation in Office apps, live captions and subtitles (with translation) in PowerPoint, and the Play My Emails feature in the iOS Outlook mobile app.
Microsoft indicated that the Surface Headphones 2 would have improved sound, but I can't say I noticed a significant difference (they do now support AptX streaming for compatible devices, which include Samsung's Galaxy phones). The original Surface Headphones sounded good, but fell short in the sound quality department compared to other noise-canceling headphones in the $350 price range such as the Sony WH-1000XM3 or Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700.
There's a presence boost in the treble along with a bass boost to create that punchy, exciting sound that's typical of many of today's headphones. The midrange is a tad restrained (lacking definition and being slightly recessed) and the headphones aren't quite as open as one might hope. They just lack the wow factor in the sound department, even after I tweaked the sound in the Surface Audio app (yes, there is an equalizer). That said, like the original model, I found these headphones pleasant to listen to. So, while I didn't suddenly want to cue up all my favorite tracks in my music library to hear what they sounded like through the headphones -- an urge you get when trying out certain cans -- at $100 less than the originals, they do compare favorably to models in the $200 to $250 price range.
These Microsoft headphones are now rated at 20 hours battery life (instead of the predecessor's 15) with Bluetooth and noise-canceling on. Charging the headphones for 5 minutes (via USB-C) will give you an hour's worth of juice. That 20 hours still isn't as impressive as what you get from competing models like the Sony, but it's respectable. If you turn Bluetooth off and plug in the included cable, you can get up to 50 hours of music playback. However, I suspect that people will mainly reserve wired mode for plugging into a plane's in-flight entertainment system. (The headphones do sound clearer in wired mode, for what it's worth.)
In the end, the Surface Headphones 2 may not be a major upgrade, but they do offer some legitimate improvements and cost $100 less than the original model. They're certainly a better value and well worth considering, particularly for Windows users working from home. Perhaps with the next version we'll see a level up in sound quality.