Tuesday 19 March 2019

Tech review: Microsoft Surface Headphones


Microsoft Surface Headphones
Microsoft Surface Headphones

Microsoft is getting weirdly good at making high quality, desirable hardware.

The latest iteration of this is an unlikely one: decent noise-cancelling headphones. The Surface Headphones have what amounts to about the best audio quality on the market, although not quite the quietest noise-cancelling performance.

I've been using them for about a week and I'm genuinely taken aback by the attention to detail given to these cans. It's not just the smooth, well-adjusted sound. Slightly superior connection technology, together with cool little controls around the ear cups, make it hard to beat for someone who's looking for everyday headphones to cut out the cacophony around them (especially when trying to work).

Other than the audio quality, my favourite feature is its ability to connect to several devices at once and then seamlessly transition between them. The most common benefit for this is when you're watching something on a laptop or tablet and a call comes in - you can take the call on your headphones without skipping a beat, then return to your original content on the first device.

In this way, the Surface Headphones are particularly suited to people who now use headphones as an everyday prop or accessory. (Like this reviewer.)

They're priced around the level of most premium consumer overhead wireless headphones - €379. That means their main rivals are cans like Bose Quietcomfort and Sony 1000XM3. I'm very familiar with the Sony headphones and have mostly recommended them when asked what noise-cancelling headphones to get. But I'd have to say that the Surface Headphones now give them a run for their money, albeit with two important caveats.

The Surface headphones' trump card is probably the audio quality, which is just about the best that this reviewer has ever experienced in this price range. That means it's slightly warmer and clearer (to my ears) than either Bose Quietcomfort or Sennheiser Momentum OverEar. Crucially, it's also on par (or just slightly better) than Sony's 1000XM3 headphones.

It's possible that this is related to slightly more physical space within the earcup for one's physical ear. The cups on the Surface headphones are about 50pc wider than those on the Sony 1000Mk2 headphones. I have relatively large ears. So the slightly narrower cavity on the Sonys (and the Bose and Sennheisers) could possibly limit the overall fidelity that I experience. Then again, this may vary from ear to ear.

In any case, if I wanted to listen to something and get the best possible definition, I'd choose the Surface Headphones between all of the headphones named above.

But they're not perfect. There are two areas where Surface Headphones lag at least one main competitor.

The most important one, in my view, is ergonomics. While the band between the two earcups is padded, but it felt tight on my head. After a while, that translated into mild discomfort. Sennheiser has this problem with its Momentum Overear headphones, but that's mainly because it's a steel band lightly covered with unpadded leather. The Surface Headphones have the padding, I could still feel it weighing on my crown after 30 or 40 minutes.

Whatever the reason for this, it's an important consideration. This review, like these headphones, is skewed toward those who are looking for something to wear for potentially long periods of time during the day, in the office, on public transport, on a plane or walking around.

To be fair, this may not affect everyone, especially those with thick hair (mine is pretty thin). But it's small drawback for me.

And it's significant given that there's no such tightness with Sony's 1000XM3 headphones.

The second thing to mention is the noise-cancellation. In general, this is excellent. Microsoft gives you easy-to-use controls for it, too, allowing you to let in more ambient sound in situations where you need to be more aware of what's going on, like walking on a path. But while it's very good, it's not quite as silent as Sony's 1000XM3. The difference isn't huge, but it might make a difference in a very noisy situation, like a plane.

That the earcups stick out a bit more than some rival headphones doesn't really bother me, although it's not a benefit.

Overall, though, this is a really superb product from Microsoft. The Surface line keeps getting more and more interesting.

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