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Microsoft Surface Headphones: Hands-on with Microsoft's new Bose-buster noise-canceling headphones

Developed in secrecy for three years, the Microsoft Surface Headphones are built to compete with models from Bose and Sony.

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The Microsoft Surface Headphones cost $350 and ship this holiday season.

David Carnoy/CNET

Sure, Microsoft has new Surface PCs. But what the company unveiled alongside those products on Tuesday is a total surprise. It's not a new keyboard or mouse -- but an entry into a totally new product category for the company: a set of premium noise-canceling headphones simply called Surface Headphones, arriving in stores this fall for $350, with a limited release in the US only.

Microsoft doing headphones? It didn't seem as odd as it sounds, because, well, everybody seems to be doing headphones these days. But how good could they be? Or rather: Could they compete with top noise-canceling headphones from Bose and Sony, which also happen to cost around $350?

Last week, I headed out to Redmond, Washington to have a look -- and listen.

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The first thing that became clear, and that Microsoft wanted to make clear to me, was that this wasn't some hastily organized project where Microsoft slapped its brand on headphones it dug up from some partner in China.

The Surface Headphones were designed in-house over three years by a large team of designers and engineers. And in case I wasn't already aware, Microsoft has a world-class industrial design facility and a bunch of labs to test products as it builds and refines them. Some of those facilities you can see in the video we shot (above), others I was able to tour but we weren't allowed to film.

The Microsoft Surface Headphones are what you'd hope for in a premium noise-canceling headphone. For starters, they're very comfortable to wear. The ear pads are plush and the headband is nicely tapered to your head without putting too much pressure on it. They weigh in at 290 grams (10.2 ounces), which doesn't make them as light as the Bose QuietComfort 35 II (234 grams) or the Sony WH-1000XM3 (254 grams), but they didn't feel heavy on my head and seemed sturdily built.

One of the Headphones' key features is an integrated dial in each ear cup. You turn the ring on the right ear cup to adjust volume and the one on the left to adjust the amount of noise canceling you want. The dial turns very smoothly -- a lot of design work went into it -- and there are technically 13 levels or "points" of noise canceling. (Microsoft has some previous experience with dials, having created the Surface Dial for the Surface Studio PC a couple of years ago.)

There are touch controls on the earcups -- the touch area is about the size of a quarter -- that allow you to pause and play your music, answer and end calls with a tap, and skip tracks forward (two taps) and back (three taps). It's also worth mentioning that when you take the headphones off, your music automatically pauses and resumes playing when you put the headphones back on.

The headphone charges via USB-C and has a quick-charge feature.

David Carnoy/CNET

You can max out noise canceling to muffle the outside world or dial it back to the point of letting 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 seemed quite effective, but I wasn't able to compare it to the noise canceling from competing models.

Microsoft says the headphone is equipped with eight microphones, including four beamforming mics (two on each ear cup) that not only help with making your voice sound clear on calls but issuing voice commands using Microsoft's Cortana digital voice assistant. Cortana is always on, so all you have to do is say, "Hey, Cortana" to issue a voice command. Typically you have to push a button to activate the voice assistant on your headphones, whether it's Alexa or Google Assistant. But this hands-free mode is similar to the experience you get with voice-enabled Wi-Fi speakers, such as the Amazon Echo.

As you'd expect, the Microsoft Surface Headphones are designed to work with Surface laptops, but they also work just fine with other mobile Bluetooth devices, including iOS and Android phones and MacOS. The headphone is equipped with Bluetooth 4.2, not the latest Bluetooth 5.0, but you can connect multiple devices to it and swap between them easily. (I didn't try this but I'm taking Microsoft's word that you can.) It also charges via USB-C, which is useful, and has a quick-charge feature that gives you 1 hour of music playback from a 5-minute charge.

In their carrying case.

David Carnoy/CNET

I thought the Headphones sounded quite good in my limited time with them. According to Microsoft, they've got 40mm low-distortion Free Edge drivers. You'll be able to tweak the sound via a companion app, which I only briefly glimpsed. But the default sound signature has a little bit of presence boost in the treble, along with a little bit of bass boost to create that punchy, exciting sound that's typical of many of today's headphones. I thought the midrange sounded clear and natural.

Battery life is rated at 15 hours, which isn't nearly as impressive as the battery life numbers of competing models. If you turn Bluetooth off and plug in the included cable, you can get up to 50 hours of music playback, but I suspect that people will mainly want to go into wired mode on a plane.  

The always-on, hands-free Cortana feature does eat into battery life, Microsoft reps told me, although just how much they didn't say. As of now you can't turn it off, though it appears you'll be able to mute the mics for privacy. Perhaps in the future it will tweak the Cortana hands-free setting, but at launch the company is highlighting hands-free Cortana voice control as a key feature that sets the headphone apart from competing models. 

The Surface Headphones only come in one color for now: platinum.

David Carnoy/CNET

Since I wasn't able to test the Surface Headphones against competing models, I can't yet tell you whether they're better or worse than Bose or Sony's. Ultimately, I do think it'd be better if they cost a little less than their competitors to give them a value edge, but it wouldn't surprise me to see them bundled with Surface computers down the road to bring the price down. 

All that said, Microsoft has created compelling premium noise-canceling headphones that have a couple of distinguishing features that make them a contender. I look forward to getting my hands on a review sample in the coming weeks and posting my full review.

In the meantime, here are the Surface Headphones key specs, according to Microsoft:

  • Weight: 10.2 ounces (290 grams)
  • 40mm Free Edge drivers
  • Easily adjust volume and noise cancellation levels with new, intuitive on-ear dials
  • 13 different ambient sound levels allow you to let in or keep out as much noise as you want
  • Compatibility: Windows 10, iOS, Android and MacOS
  • Head detection automatically pauses the music or mutes calls when you remove them and restarts them again when you're ready
  • Designed with Skype in mind, there are two beamforming microphones on each earcup to focus on the sounds you want to capture for excellent call experiences
  • Connect Surface Headphones to your Windows 10 PC right out of the box by enabling Swift Pair
  • Up to 15 hours with Bluetooth, Active Noise Cancellation and Cortana on
  • Up to 50 hours in wired mode with Bluetooth off and Active Noise Cancellation on
  • USB-C charging
  • Fast-charging feature gives you an hour of music playback with just 5 minutes of charging (fully charges in less than 2 hours)
  • Cortana is ready to assist when you need with hands-free activation. Ask Cortana to play your favorite song, set a reminder, make a call or get answers to questions
  • Carrying case included
  • Price: $350 (at launch, the Surface Headphones will only be available in the US)
  • Shipping: Later in 2018

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