Do your headphones talk to you? Mine do. Every time I turn them on, a friendly, if a little robotic, voice greets me, tells me how much battery life I have left in actual useful terms, and then informs to which device the headphones are currently connected. It’s altogether a more pleasant experience than the usual guesswork.
The headphones in question are the Microsoft Surface headphones. Audio may not be something you immediately connect with the tech giant, but like many things Microsoft has surprised us with, the Surface headphones are unexpectedly good.
They tick all the right boxes: they sound good, they’re comfortable with plenty of padding, and they have touch controls so you don’t have to mess around with your devices. Microsoft has made them noise cancelling and wireless, so you can use them on your commute to listen to music, catch up with podcasts or just dull the travel noise.
My usual choice for travelling are the noise-cancelling Sony MDR1000X headphones. They have survived several long-haul trips, a daily commute and numerous tech events, and when it comes to blocking out the surrounding world, they are hard to beat. It’s a high standard.
Do the Surface headphones beat them? Not quite, but they still do a good job.
If you prefer your headphones a little more personalised, then the Surface headphones may not be for you. You can have any colour as long as it’s platinum (silver-grey to the rest of us).
The Surface headphones have touch panels on the ear cups, and dial controls for volume and noise cancelling. You can adjust the noise cancelling depending on your environment, which is a handy feature, simply by rotating the dial. It’s a handy feature that gives you more control, and if you need a bit of ambient noise, it’s easily sorted. There is no quick way to disable the noise cancelling though, which is a point against these headphones.
There is a button to disable the microphone though, which is useful.
The built-in voice feedback can work both ways. If you are in a region that supports Cortana, you can set up the headphones to work with voice commands so you can control music, volume, send texts and even search for information, just through a few commands with supported devices. Tap the ear cup, speak and wait for Cortana to do your bidding.
Those touch controls are handy for stopping music and rejecting or accepting calls, but it also means you have to be careful when removing them too. It’s easy to accidentally activate the controls, so you can skip ahead on your music or podcasts without intending to.
You don’t need a Windows device to use these headphones, but it certainly helps. There are apps to help you set things up – adjust the equaliser settings for example – or set up Cortana – then you will need two separate apps to do it. It seems like overkill, and they are Windows 10 apps too so if you don’t have a compatible laptop, you’re out of luck.
That doesn’t mean the headphones won’t work with Android or iOS devices; they do, and quite well too. It’s just Siri and Google Assistant in place of Cortana.
Musically, the Surface Headphones won’t challenge the higher-end audio products, but they do a good job of most audio. There was some detail in familiar music tracks that I hadn’t noticed before; podcasts sounded great.
Perhaps one of the most puzzling things is that Microsoft didn’t include AptX in the Surface Headphones. It’s become almost a given that bluetooth headphones over a certain price will include it. What’s the benefit of having it? Audio over bluetooth is compressed; AptX will still give you compressed audio, but better audio quality.
The sound quality is great for the most part. The lack of AptX isn’t immediately obvious, but may well become so over time.
Battery life is adequate, but not stellar, although the USB C connection charges the headphones quite quickly so you’ll never be stuck for too long. Plus there is the 3.5mm jack to fall back on.
The not so good:
At the price you are paying for the Surface headphones, you would expect to get AptX or AAC. The headphones include neither.
Some of the customisation – equaliser settings, changing the name of the headphones – need to be accessed via a Windows 10 app. If you are a Mac user, or solely working with mobile, you don’t have the option.
The robotic voice telling you what devices you are connected to can sometimes get things hilariously wrong. It mangled the pronunciation of Huawei, for example. You can connect to two at once with these headphones, which caused some confusion at first.
The Surface headphones are good, but missing a couple of things that would make them great.