Surface Headphones: Almost Perfect

Surface Headphones: Almost Perfect

I've only owned one other pair of headphones, the Sennheiser HD 598. I have almost no complaints about it. The one thing that I find annoying is that the standard audio cable that comes with the headphones is a 6.35 mm jack with a 3.5 mm adapter. I almost never used my headphones with my phone because of this. However, the audio cable on the headphones is detachable so it would have been easy to replace it, I just never bothered. Now that I've moved to a new iPhone the audio jack is even more of a pain to use. I'm untrusting of Bluetooth, probably because of bad drivers and poor devices from a few years back but I was willing to invest in a pair of Bluetooth headphones. Coincidentally, Microsoft put out its own pair of Bluetooth headphones just two months after the launch of the iPhone XS. They came out on November 19th, 2018 so I've had them for just over 3 weeks now and in those 3 weeks I've used them pretty much every single day.

The Surface Headphones are pretty great when it's playing to its strengths, connected to your phone, listening to music. However, when I tried pushing them past that they weren't as great and sometimes frustrating. The basics are that the Surface Headphones are a pair of Bluetooth, closed back, noise cancelling headphones that sell for $350. They can connect to a bunch of devices but can only "quickly" switch between two at any given time. You can play and pause music, answer phone calls, and use Cortana with the touch pads on either side of the headphones. Both ears also have dial controls, the left ear controls the level of noise cancellation, going from blocking out outside noise to amplifying the noises around you. The right ear controls the volume on your active device.

Setup was easy, turn them on using the power button on the right ear, press and hold the same button for 5 seconds to turn on pairing mode, then pair to your device. After you connect to a device, the device name will be read out to you, in a weird robotic voice. When you turn the headphones on, Cortana greets you, says how many hours of battery you have left, and then lets her robot tell you what devices you're connected to. Here's a recording.

The first thing I tried was playing music. My ears haven't been abused by loud concerts too much but I cannot really tell the difference between different headphones. I prefer in-ear earbuds over regular earbuds because they block out more outside noise which lets me play audio quieter but besides that audio sounds largely the same to me. Remember that the 598s are my only other pair of headphones. The Surface Headphones sound as good as my 598s, I don't have any complaints in audio quality.

The Surface Headphones have active noise cancellation. Dialing the left ear all the way forward tells you maximum noise cancellation is active. Since I haven't owned or tried any other active noise cancelling headphones I cannot say how the Surface Headphones compare but it does work well. After using them for a few days it's weird to notice all the vents humming in my office. Having a dial to control noise cancellation seems cool because you can control the level of noise cancellation, all the way, none at all, or somewhere in between. However, in the 3 weeks I've had them I've never used somewhere in between, either I want noise cancellation all the way up or I want no noise cancellation. One thing I did not know was that some people get slight discomfort with active noise cancellation. The first day I turned active noise cancellation all the way down after a few hours because it was uncomfortable. The second day I got a little jaw pain on the right side of my face. It took a few more days for all discomfort to go away. I'm pretty sure it wasn't anything to do with the headphones being too tight, just that active noise cancellation takes a little getting used. Now I have no discomfort.

The coolest sounding feature about the Surface Headphones is the amplification of outside sounds when turning the dial back all the way. In practice though it's of limited use. The intention seems to be for listening to someone else when they ask you a question in the office with your headphones on. I personally always take my headphones off when somebody asks me a question though, it feels rude not to. When I did try it a few times it was quicker to take my headphones off. When not in an office setting it's easy to notice how the amplification amplifies EVERYTHING around you. You can't listen in to a random conversation outside because planes, cars, and the wind are loud. If somebody is speaking at you, it's acceptable. Though, it is cool to feel like you have super human hearing.

Here's a recording of the noise cancellation lines.

Taking the headphones off to let someone ask you a question is the easier alternative because the headphones automatically pause the music you were playing when you take them off. The headphone cups are touch sensitive, when you put them back on your music resumes playback. I still instinctively tap an ear before taking them off but either method is quick and easy. There are downsides to the touch sensitive cups though. If for some reason the headphones don't detect that they're on your head, the noise cancellation feature won't work at all and the touch pads don't work either. A few times a week this happens and I'll need to turn my headphones off and on again to fix it. This seems to only happen when they aren't on my head for a while though. Once, both these features worked against me. I was walking somewhere and my headphones thought I had taken them off, which paused my music, adjusting them slightly caused it to detect my head again. This happened 3 or 4 times in a row in about a 5 minute period before I turned them off and on again and the issue seemed to go away. This only happened once since I've owned them though.

The headphones can "quickly" switch between two active devices. You don't need to turn off Bluetooth on one device to connect to the other. The intention is that you can just start playing audio on the other device. Most of the time I have to give the headphones a little hint that I want to switch devices by either pausing and playing my audio on the other device a few times or by activating the microphone my other device. It's faster than going into Bluetooth setting and turning Bluetooth off and on but I wish the switching feature was even less of a hassle. Spotify seemed to aggravate this a bit. When switching from my phone playing Spotify to my laptop, also connected to my headphones, playing Spotify, it would either take a little longer to switch devices or the headphones would get confused and switch back to my phone. I also noticed slight stutters when Spotify knew I was listening to music on another device with my headphones. When I closed Spotify on my previous device the stuttering would go away. I did not notice any audio issues with any other playback methods such as music through my browser or with Netflix.

90% of the time I'm using my headphones they act like headphones, they connect quickly, they sound good, and they let me listen to music. 5% of the time I get a weird issue from above. The other 5% of the time I'm trying to connect to my desktop and everything is bad. This next section is about the hell that is Bluetooth USB adaptors and desktop PCs.

In case you didn't know, Bluetooth USB adaptors suck. When they work they're fine but when they don't work you really want to reconsider all technology. The Surface Headphones have an 3.5 mm audio in port which allow you to connect them using a cable, which is provided with the headphones and that is a great option when Bluetooth decides not to work on my desktop today even though it worked fine yesterday. The headphones have a USB-C port for charging, a USB-C to USB-A cable comes with the headphones. You cannot use the port for audio, only charging. This was upsetting to find out when I tried it, so I opened a gate to hell and bought a Bluetooth USB adaptor for my desktop. I haven't had any blue screens yet but my desktop only likes to properly connect to my headphones when it's in a good mood. Some days I'll get home and it will connect fine, other days it will only connect voice and not music. I'll get to this distinction a little bit later. Other days it won't connect at all and I'll have to un-pair, restart my computer, and then re-pair my headphones. Yes, the restart is necessary. I don't think this is related to the headphones, just to the awfulness of Bluetooth USB adaptors. On Windows there's a distinction between voice and music. Music is the audio device used for playing most audio from your computer. Voice is the audio device used for communication with apps such as Skype or Hangouts. The Surface Headphones use mono for the mic but also use mono for the audio when using the mic. The mono sound quality is absolute garbage. There is very noticeable audio distortion when listening to audio when the headphones are in mono. I've recorded some samples.

World's - stereo

World's - mono

Heavy, California - stereo

Heavy, California - mono

This is why I go through all the steps to make sure my desktop is connected with voice and music when using my headphones. Voice is the mono output, music is the stereo output. I first discovered this distinction when I tried to use my headset with Overwatch. I was confused as to why the in game audio sounded like the audio signal was going through a microwave, it was because the mic gets switched on in game which switches the audio output from stereo to mono. I now have to disable the mic before I start playing Overwatch. The microphone seems to not sound as bad as the mono audio, but there's still some distortion. Here's a sample recording. Typically you only run into the mono madness when answering a phone call or while talking on group voice meeting at work. The audio you hear is acceptable because you can understand the other person talking to you but it sounds like you're talking to someone on a cellphone from the early 2000s.

The battery life is advertised at 15 hours but almost all the time after a full charge my headphones say there's about 14 hours left. This isn't a problem though as I've never had any issues with battery life so far. They are advertised to charge to full in around 2 hours so charging them while out to lunch, if needed, gives them more than enough power for the rest of the day. When I did get low on power one time, the headphones told me I had less than 1 hour of power left. This was after not charging them overnight or at lunch. I only need to charge in the middle of the day if I forgot to charge them the night before. I can see the lower battery life, compared to other wireless headphones, being an issue if you're traveling because moments to charge can be few and far between.

The headphones are almost as comfortable as my 598s. The soft, leather like material on the cups is comfortable when wearing the headphones for long periods of time and provide a good seal over the ears. Though because of this, they can feel a little sticky or sweaty after many hours. The 598s have felt earcups so they felt great forever. The Surface Headphones have cups that rotate so that the headphones lay flat. They only rotate in one direction though so resting the headphones on my neck feels a little weird because the cups face outward if they are turned flat, I would prefer inward.

I think the last thing to mention is Cortana. Because this is a Microsoft product Cortana is the personal assistant of choice. You do need to have the Cortana app installed. When you either long press one of the ears or say "Hey, Cortana", nothing happens. What is supposed to happen is that you ask Cortana something and she responds. This happens maybe 5% of the time I try. It works right after I've opened the Cortana app which ensures I'm connected to the Cortana app but any other time it doesn't work. Also when playing music, at least when playing with Spotify, invoking Cortana will give me a response saying I'm not connected to the Cortana app. If I pause my music Cortana will work. Because Cortana doesn't work most of the time I don't try to use it anymore. I also don't use it because personal assistants are pretty useless except if you want to know what the weather is or you want to set a timer. Cortana on iOS also doesn't support playing music through Spotify yet so Cortana just feels like a disappointment on iOS and on the Surface Headphones.

Like I said at the beginning, Surface Headphones are great when they are playing to their strengths, listening to music over a few hours on a single device. If you already have a pair of quality headphones or a pair of noise cancelling headphones and you're interested in getting these I would highly suggest trying them out at a Microsoft Store in person first. Since I had no prior experience with noise cancelling headphones I found these to be great but maybe other pairs cancel noise better. The various issues that pop up every so often make these headphones a few steps down from absolutely great.