Microsoft Surface Headphones review: Microsoft Surface Headphones are almost great

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The Good The Microsoft Surface Headphones are comfortable to wear, sound good, have touch controls and on-ear dials that allow you to adjust the level of noise canceling and volume. The always-on Cortana feature allows you to use voice commands without pressing a button first. They worked well for making calls, noise canceling is effective and there's USB-C charging.

The Bad Sound could be better for the price, and battery life doesn't measure up to that of competing models. Cortana isn't as good as Alexa and Google Assistant.

The Bottom Line The Surface Headphones don't quite match Bose and Sony noise-canceling headphones, but they're a strong freshman effort with some compelling feature and design elements.

7.9 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 9
  • Sound 7
  • Value 7

When Microsoft introduced its new $350 (£330) Surface Headphones alongside its fall 2018 Surface PCs, people were a little surprised. 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?

Before the Surface Headphones were officially launched, I got a sneak peek at them out at Microsoft's product development labs in Redmond, Washington, and was mostly impressed. 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.

There's some debate over how attractive the Microsoft Surface Headphones are, with some people liking their look and others not being so fond of it (I fall somewhere in the middle). However, for the most part, they 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.

Dialed in

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 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). I found the touch controls worked well and were responsive while not being too sensitive. 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 -- close to the same level as Bose's and Sony's.

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.