Microsoft Surface Headphones review: Microsoft Surface Headphones are almost great

In their carrying case.

David Carnoy/CNET

This is one of the headphone's distinguishing features and from my initial tests with a beta version of Cortana 3.0 for iOS (there's also an Android app and Cortana is built into Windows devices), it's kind of cool but can be hit or miss and underwhelming.

First, you have to the Cortana app running in background. Sometimes it seems like it's running but it isn't. You then say, "Hey, Cortana," wait a beat for a beep, then issue your voice command. It worked fine in a lot of instances -- I asked it what the weather was in various cities, for the latest news (I received an NPR podcast) and the daily schedules for the NBA and NHL. I also composed some text messages (you have to touch your screen to actually send the text) and made some calls (you have to touch your screen to dial the number). But sometimes Cortana didn't respond. It's also worth mentioning that there's no Spotify support yet (it's coming soon), so you can't control music playback with your voice if you use Spotify.

As you'd expect, the Microsoft Surface Headphones are designed to work with Surface computers, but they also work just fine with other mobile Bluetooth devices, including the aforementioned iOS and Android phones as well as Apple Macs (however, there's no Cortana for 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 one hour of music playback from a 5-minute charge.

I thought the headphones sounded quite good, but not as good as the Sony WH-1000XM3, the current top-rated product in this category, and they didn't beat the Bose QuietComfort 35 II either. According to Microsoft, they've got 40 millimeter low-distortion Free Edge drivers. 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 as open as one might hope.

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

David Carnoy/CNET

Overall, I found the headphones pleasant to listen to -- as I said, they sound quite good -- but they're lacking wow factor in the sound department. 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, which is an urge you get with certain cans.

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.

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Ultimately these are comfortable headphones with some compelling features, including effective noise canceling, those dials for easily controlling the levels of noise noise-canceling and volume, USB-C charging and that always-on Cortana feature that should get better with time. I also thought it performed well as a headset for making calls.

The one knock against it is that it doesn't really distinguish itself from a sound standpoint. There are several noise-canceling headphones that sound as good or better at this price (or less), including the aforementioned models from Bose and Sony, as well as the Beats Studio3 Wireless, AKG N700NC and Sennheiser HD 4.50.

I could say something trite like, "This is a good first effort for Microsoft," but the Surface Headphones are more than that. They are a contender, but they just need to cost a little less to make them easier to recommend buying over a superior headphone like the Sony WH-1000XM3.

Microsoft Surface Headphones specs:

  • 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 ($148 at Amazon), 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 ear cup 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 two 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 (£330)