Laptop Mag Verdict
The Microsoft Surface Headphones 2 brings better noise cancellation and audio quality with longer battery life and some cool productivity features.
Warm, rich audio
Office 365 compatible
Good active noise cancelling
Audio lacks clarity at times
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This feels like a case of deja vu. The Microsoft Surface Headphones 2 are here to correct the mistakes of the OG Surface Headphones and, for the most part, the newcomers are successful. The $249 Surface Headphones 2 offer longer battery life, better noise cancelling and improved audio performance. Plus, you get Office 365 functionality, which is a cool add for Microsoft fans. Although this is a great second act for Microsoft, is it enough to get the Surface Headphones 2 on the main stage with the likes of Bose and Sony? Let me break it all down.
Microsoft Surface Headphones 2 design
“Functional, not flashy.” That seems to be the motto when it comes to Microsoft and its audio hardware. The company didn’t make any changes to the original Surface Headphones except giving consumers the choice between Matte Black or Light Gray color schemes. Other than that, it’s business as usual.
The headphones are made up of a mix of aluminum and plastic. The extenders and yoke are made of metal while the rest is plastic with the earcups being made of black leatherette and memory foam. If you look on either side of the bottom portion of the headband you’ll see an embedded glossy Microsoft logo.
You’ll find all your buttons along the right earcup, including power and mute. You also have the USB Type-C port and the audio input on that side. The other controls are cleverly embedded in the earcups (more on that later).
The Microsoft Surface Headphones 2 weighs 10.2 ounces and measures 8 x 7.7 x 1.9 inches. It’s a little heavier than the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 (9 ounces, 8 x 6.5 x 2 inches).
Microsoft Surface Headphones 2 comfort
The Surface Headphones 2 were a little stiff when I first slipped the over-ear cans on, so there was a bit of pressure around my ears, caused by the ovular earcups. But after about 20 minutes or so, the headphones loosened up a bit and it was smooth sailing.
I was pleasantly surprised that I didn’t feel any pressure from the arms of my glasses. They’re not as light as the Bose, but I wore the Surface Headphones for four hours without any discomfort except for the initial 20 minutes.
Microsoft Surface Headphones 2 setup
The first time you power on the Surface Headphones, they’re ready to pair as the nice female voice informs you. After you go to the Bluetooth menu on your device and hit pair, that sweet lilting voice transforms into a cold robot voice. In my case, I was informed that the cans were now connected to my Samsung Galaxy Note 8. It’s a little Skynetty, but whatever.
Microsoft Surface Headphones 2 controls
Just like the original Surface Headphones, the new ones have touch controls built into both earcups; A quick tap in the center of either earcap will play or pause whatever you’re watching or listening to. The cans also have an auto-pause feature that will stop the music as soon as you remove the headphones. A double tap will skip forward on a track or answer a phone call while a triple press will skip backward on a track or end a call. If you want to decline a call, press and hold the earcup. This is also used to summon your digital assistant.
Speaking of digital assistants, unlike its predecessor, the Surface Headphones 2 isn’t reliant on Cortana. Now, when you summon your digital assistant, it will be your usual program. So on the iPhone XS Max I used it was Siri and the Note 8 it called up Google Assistant
But the controls don’t stop there. Each earcup also has a twistable dial. The right side controls volume while the left cycles you through the headphones’ 13 levels of active noise cancelling.
Microsoft Surface Headphones 2 app
What’s a pair of premium headphones without a companion app? For the Surface Headphone 2, you get the free (Android, iOS) Surface Audio app. Once paired with the cans, the app shows a couple of tutorial videos that give you a quick walkthrough of the controls and basic functionality. But outside of that, the app is pretty sparse of features and functionality.
You might think the Personalization controls sections will give you the opportunity to tweak a few settings, but you’d be wrong. I was disappointed to discover that you can only change the name of the headphones and default language in that section. The Device controls section has a bit more functionality than what you get for the Surface Earbuds; You can enable/disable voice prompts and aptX audio in addition to the touch controls.
However, the equalizer still only gives you five presets (Flat, Classical, Jazz, Pop and Rock), and you can’t create any custom settings.
Microsoft Surface Headphones 2 features
I haven’t been an Office 365 user for quite a few years, but the Surface Headphones 2 make me want to reconsider that decision. Similar to the Surface Earbuds, the Surface Headphone 2 lets you do some cool stuff with certain Office 365 programs. For example, the cans can dictate in Microsoft Word in real time with pretty good accuracy. Of course, there were a few errors, but that’s to be expected with most dictation software. The feature even worked when I turned up the volume on my LG TV.
And since I couldn’t get enough of the sound of my own voice, I tried out the Live Captions feature in PowerPoint for a spin. As the name intimates, the feature uses the Earbuds’ dictation feature to create captions in real time, allowing the people in the back of the room, who can’t hear you, read and follow along. Just like the dictation feature in Word, Live Captions transcripted my words almost as fast as I said them. And if I was presenting to a crowd that spoke another language, Live Caption can do real-time translation in over 60 languages, similar to Google Translate.
And lastly, for you Outlook users, the Surface Earbuds can read your emails to you if you have the iOS app with the Read My Email feature.
Microsoft Surface Headphones 2 noise cancellation
The Surface Headphones 2 have 13 levels of active noise cancellation, just like the originals. At its maximum setting, the Surface Headphones 2 did a good job of dampening my television, completely silencing it with the volume at 15. The Bose did a bit better by silencing the TV at 20. I walked past a group of kids during my daily walk around the neighborhood. When I turned on the Surface Headphone 2, the ANC made it so I could barely hear their boisterous conversation even before I started listening to music.
But every now and then, you might want to hear what’s going on in your surroundings like when my boyfriend wanted to tell me stats about the boxer he was watching. For those moments, you turn the ANC all the way down until you hear that cheerful female voice announce that the Ambient Noise Control had kicked in. As the name suggests, Ambient Noise Control allows you to adjust how much ambient noise filters into the soundscape. I chatted with my boyfriend without missing a word of Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic” at about 60% volume.
The Bose has a similar technology called Transparency Mode and, when enabled, I could clearly hear the commentary of the boxing match I was watching while I listened to Chizzy Stephens’ “Catching Villians” at 50% volume.
Microsoft Surface Headphones 2 audio quality
The Microsoft Surface Headphones have 40mm Free Edge drivers, which the company claims deliver Omnisonic sound, a feature designed to deliver an immersive experience. I haven’t ascertained whether omnisonic is a buzz word or not, but what I can tell you is that the headphones deliver rich, balanced audio that, for the most part, doesn’t lean too heavily on the bass.
When I listened to Javier’s “Crazy,” with the equalizer set to flat, the soundstage was a bit cramped. The bass guitar was a tad aggressive, but it wasn’t enough to drown out other components of the track such as the strings, synthy keyboard, cymbals and drum. The low end was a lot more refined on the Bose whose equalizer I also set to flat (0 bass, 0 mids 0 treble). That restraint gave the more delicate instrumentals of the track room to breathe and I had an easier time switching between focusing on the individual portions of the track and the singer’s beautiful tenor.
Next, I played Jay-Z’s “Guns & Roses,” which is built primarily on Lenny Kravitz’s electric guitar, powerful drums and what sounds like a guiro. The Surface Headphones 2 did a great job reproducing Lenny’s licks and his scratchy delivery on the hook, and it clearly conveyed the rapper’s braggadocious flow. The Bose managed to deliver more details, as I could hear more of the frenetic guitar twangs, but it was definitely a more distant performance even though both headphones were set to 50% volume.
The last track I played was Sade’s “Jezebel” in which I enjoyed the artist’s plaintive soprano accompanied by an acoustic guitar, then a mournful saxophone and keyboard. The soundstage is so forward-facing, I felt like I was right in front of the performers. Again, the Bose gave a cleaner, more detailed performance that allowed me to appreciate finer points of the track, but it wasn’t as warm as the Surface Headphones 2.
Microsoft Surface Headphones 2 battery life and Bluetooth
Microsoft has the Surface Headphones rated at an estimated 20 hours of battery life with ANC enabled. This matches the Bose. I used the cans for two days, listening to Tidal, watching The Toe Bro videos and taking calls. When it was all said and done, I still had 10 hours of battery life left. If you need to charge in a pinch, 5 minutes delivers an hour of battery life with a full charge after 2 hours.
The Surface Headphones can connect to a myriad of devices thanks to Bluetooth 5.0, which has a theoretical range of 800 feet. I left my phone in my bedroom with the door closed and could still listen to my music no matter where I was in the house. I even made it into my backyard without issues. The connection did get a bit wonky however, as I entered my apartment building’s hallway to exit to the street.
Microsoft Surface Headphones 2 call quality
Thanks to the integrated microphones, taking and receiving calls on the Surface Headphones 2 is a joy. I made several calls on the cans and no one could tell that I was using a pair of headphones. Each caller described loud, clean audio without any echoing or background noise, unless of course, I was on the street and an ambulance or police car drove by. Whether I was at home in front of the TV or walking down the street, I clearly heard my callers.
It’s almost on a par with the Bose, which allowed me to hear minute details like my Mom’s television playing in the background or my friend’s wife talking in the background.
Now this is a pair of premium headphones! With the Surface Headphones 2, Microsoft hit the lofty goals we expected from the originals without making too many changes. The adjustable ANC and Ambient Noise Control allow you to control how little or how much noise you let into your inner sanctum. The audio is warm and a bit forward at times, but still delivers a great listen. The touch controls are easy to master and you get a host of productivity functionality. Sure, Microsoft didn’t make any drastic changes to the design, but as comfortable as the cans are, I don’t really have any complaints, especially with its competitive $249 price tag.
But if silence is truly golden, and you prefer it delivered in a sleek, stylish package, you’ve got to go with the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. For only $50 more ($299 at the time of writing), you get the gold standard in Noise Cancelling as well as a pair of headphones that are extremely comfortable and deliver a balanced, detailed audio. But for the Microsoft faithful, the Surface Headphones 2 are the cans you’ve been waiting for.
Sherri L. Smith has been cranking out product reviews for Laptopmag.com since 2011. In that time, she's reviewed more than her share of laptops, tablets, smartphones and everything in between. The resident gamer and audio junkie, Sherri was previously a managing editor for Black Web 2.0 and contributed to BET.Com and Popgadget.