Ears-on with the Microsoft Surface Headphones

It’s kind of obvious if you think about it.

Apple as driven a lot of the conversation in the “smart” headphones space in the past couple of years thanks the AirPods. The untethered white earbuds are well on their way to becoming ubiquitous, leading everyone in the headphone space to go smaller, and “true” wireless to catch some of the ripples caused by Apple’s big splash.

But that leaves a gap — at least in attention — on the other side of the spectrum: large-size, over-the-ear headphones with more immersive sound. 

Certainly, that category hasn’t exactly been dormant ever since Beats arrived on the scene almost a decade ago, but there is no go-to smart pair of cans that are anywhere near as iconic as AirPods.

A smart headphone that integrates with a digital assistant, but in an over-the-ear design.

A smart headphone that integrates with a digital assistant, but in an over-the-ear design.

Image: Pete Pachal/Mashable

Microsoft just put in its bid to be that product. The Surface Headphones are, in a nutshell, Microsoft’s answer to Apple AirPods: a smart headphone that integrates with a digital assistant, but in an over-the-ear design that incorporates high-end features like noise cancellation.

I got a chance to try out Microsoft’s Surface Headphones shortly after they were unveiled, and I came away really liking them. They sound great, the controls are intuitive, and they have a nice finish, although the actual color is a little meh.

Let’s start there, shall we? The Surface Headphones are the same color as the recent Surface Pros: silver. Which is fine, but to me it lacks personality. Even Apple’s bright white EarPods and AirPods, as basic as they are, are more distinctive. When I talked to Microsoft Chief Product Officer Panos Panay after the event, he hinted that we might someday see a pair with a matte black finish like the new Surfaces, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Comfort is a big deal for any headphone, and the Surface Headphones scored highly here. The fit wasn’t too snug, but it wasn’t too loose either. I didn’t wear them long enough to get in a space where I forgot I was wearing headphones (the ideal), but I could see me getting there. 

They weren’t quite as comfy as, say, a high-end Bose pair like the QuietComfort 35’s (Bose has been perfecting headphone comfort for decades), but they were pretty close.

Comfort is a big deal for any headphone, and the Surface Headphones scored highly here.

Comfort is a big deal for any headphone, and the Surface Headphones scored highly here.

Image: Pete Pachal/Mashable

There are dials on either earcup for controlling volume (left) and the level of noise cancelation (right). Noise cancellation first: The control works very well. Microsoft says there are 13 levels of noise control, and you need a decent-size dial to give you the fine level of manipulation you need.

When I turned the dial, it was dramatic to go from hearing the loud din of the entire demo room in my ears (clearly, the four dedicated mics were being used to enhance sound on that end of the scale) to whisper-quiet on the other end. If I concentrated, I could still make out most of the conversation the two people right next to me (noise cancellation isn’t full sound cancellation), but I could finally appreciate the music I was streaming from the Surface Pro in front of me.

The sound made an impression. 

The sound made an impression. On the first tune I listened to, Drake’s “In My Feelings,” the bass was strongly present, almost overpowering. I thought maybe the headphones might have been tuned to be a little too bass-heavy (common in over-the-ear headphones, unfortunately), but then I listened to a track by Adele and those fears went away as I was fully captivated by her crystal-clear voice.

A tap on the right earcup calls up Microsoft's digital assistant, or at least it appeared to.

A tap on the right earcup calls up Microsoft’s digital assistant, or at least it appeared to.

Image: Pete Pachal/Mashable

Finally, there’s the smarts, which in Microsoft’s case means Cortana integration. A tap on the right earcup calls up Microsoft’s digital assistant, or at least it appeared to. Cortana’s blue halo appeared on the Surface Pro screen in front of me, complete with the suggestion to call up a timer, but it never responded to any command I uttered after that.

Perhaps the sound preferences were set wrong or there’s a bug to be worked out. It’s also unclear just how effortless the Surface Headphones’ setup process is, or whether they automatically pair across all your Microsoft devices when you activate them for the first time — two big reasons why the AirPods experience is so good.

I look forward to giving the Surface Headphones the full review treatment to answer those questions. Because if all Microsoft has done here is create a nice-sounding pair of premium Bluetooth headphones, it’ll have missed a great opportunity to finally give an answer to AirPods that doesn’t just look like an imitation.

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