I've never had so many people ask me about headphones when I was wearing the Surface Headphones, but I just can't recommend them

Antonio Villas-Boas/Business Insider
  • Microsoft’s$US350 Surface Headphones are the company’s first-ever headphones.
  • They look beautiful and are very comfortable.
  • But the sound quality fall short, especially compared to the competition.

I get it, the Microsoft Surface Headphones are new, flashy, and perhaps something that can compete with the top choice in audio and noise cancelling quality – Bose’s QuietComfort 35 II headphones.

As a result, I’ve had several people come up and ask me if I was, indeed, wearing the Surface Headphones. There’s a buzz surrounding these things.

A TSA agent at JFK airport recently asked me if I’d recommend them, and as I walked through the metal detector, I told him I’d get the Bose QC35 II instead if he was looking to spend $US350. It was a pure, off-the-cuff recommendation made from my gut and instinct, as part of my brain was also wondering whether I’d forgotten any metal bits in my pockets.

Now, with the benefit of having sat down, thought about it, and listened to music and audio in general with the Surface Headphones, I’d recommend the same thing to you.

Check out why the Surface Headphones didn’t quite make the cut:

If you want your headphones to look good, Microsoft’s Surface Headphones will absolutely do the trick.

Antonio Villas-Boas/Business Insider

The Surface Headphones are classy and beautifully designed. They look and feel more premium than Bose’s QC35 II headphones, which have a somewhat dated design and plasticky feel to them. Top marks for design on the Surface Headphones.

As for comfort, they’re also one of the most comfortable pair of headphones I’ve tried. I never felt any pain on my ears. I did feel some discomfort from the headband at the top of my head, but a simple adjustment of the headband fixed that easily.

With all this said, I’d still say the Bose QC35 II headphones are even more comfortable.

The noise cancellation is very good.

Antonio Villas-Boas/Business Insider

The Surface Headphones canceled out surrounding noise from a flight and my usual commute on trains and subways very well. They’re almost as good as the Bose QuietComfort 35 II, if not extremely similar.

The controls and overall features in general are great.

Antonio Villas-Boas/Business Insider

I love the big, easy rotating wheels around each headphone cup to control volume and noise cancellation level.

Music controls are also well thought out. I can tap any ear cup to play, pause, select the next track, go back a track, and answer calls. It does take a little bit of learning and practise to figure out how many taps perform which function, but once you got it, you got it.

Speaking of calls, the Surface Headphones do superbly with phone calls. No one I spoke to on the phone noticed I was using a headset, which isn’t something that a lot of headphones can boast.

As for battery life, they last a solid 15 hours or so and charge with USB-C. They also come with a 3.5mm headphone cable just in case.

Importantly, the Surface Headphones can pair to multiple devices at the same time, so you don’t need to disconnect them from one device only to connect to another.

And now for the one thing that disappointed me. They sound only OK. Not great, even.

Antonio Villas-Boas/Business Insider

Out of the box, I wasn’t impressed with the Surface Headphones. They lacked clarity and brightness, and it sounded like I was listening to music through a thick velvet blanket. Even tweaking the equaliser settings in Spotify didn’t really help very much.

That changed a little after downloading the Cortana app on a smartphone, which is available for both Android and iOS. There, I could tweak the equaliser settings through the Cortana app and get closer to the brighter and clearer sound I was looking for. And the equaliser settings you set on the Cortana app apply to other devices you connect to, as well.

Still, the Surface Headphones produce a warm sound, if that makes sense. It means there’s little brightness and clarity to them even after tweaking them with the Cortana app. And that warmth somewhat diminishes pretty much every type of music, in my opinion.

A warm sound signature might seem like a good thing with music like Jazz, but it feels like the Surface Headphones cut short some of the instrument sounds, especially higher pitched sounds like cymbals. Despite the tweaking in the Cortana app, that velvet blanket was still there, muffling some of the sound I’m used to hearing.

And the warmth cuts away the excitement of more up-beat music, too. I simply didn’t appreciate my usual playlists as much while using the Surface Headphones.

They won’t satisfy bass enthusiasts, either, and I feel myself wanting slightly better sound quality overall.

The Surface Headphones work with Microsoft’s Cortana, Google Assistant, and even Apple’s Siri voice assistants, and it’s all pointless.

Antonio Villas-Boas/Business Insider

I find voice assistants on headphones utterly pointless. You’ll never catch me issuing voice commands to my headphones out on the street, or at home where I already have smart speakers that do the same thing. If you don’t have smart speakers at home, then maybe you can find value in having voice assistants in the Surface Headphones. But then again, you’d have to put the Surface Headphone on to use the voice assistant of your choice.

Voice assistant integration is not a good feature to consider on these – or any – headphones, in my opinion. Thankfully, it doesn’t take away from the headphones. You can just ignore voice assistant integration altogether.

It’s a shame, because I really, really like the Surface Headphone’s design, comfort, controls, and noise cancellation. But it’s only Microsoft’s first try at headphones, and I’m looking forward to checking out future models.

Antonio Villas-Boas/Business Insider

For $US350, the same price tag as Bose’s QC35 II, I’d tell pretty much everyone to buy the Bose for their comfort, audio quality, and noise cancellation. It’s a shame, because I love it when I get to recommend the underdog, even if the underdog is made by a massive corporation.

I haven’t tried the Sony 1000X series of headphones, so I can’t comment on whether the Surface Headphones or the Bose QC35II are a better buy than the Sonys, specifically. Watch out for my email, Sony.

I think it’s important to keep in mind that this is Microsoft’s first shot at making headphones. It’s a first-gen product from a company that specialises in software more than it does hardware. If Microsoft was a person, I’d tell them “Well done, solid first try, you’re just not quite there yet with the most important part. Now take the feedback and what you’ve learned, and wow me next time.”

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