Hands-on with the $350 Surface Headphones: Why is Microsoft making them, and are they any good?

Though the surprise announcement of Microsoft’s new wireless headphones seemingly came out of nowhere, the final product was the culmination of three years of work and dozens of different versions.

The Surface Headphones represent new ground for Microsoft, as the company had never made a premium audio product like this before, so there’s reason to be skeptical. However, by leveraging several areas of the company that were steeped in audio technology, such as Xbox and Skype, Microsoft has produced a device that makes it seem like the company has been in the headphone business for years.

At a cost of $350, the Surface Headphones aren’t cheap, but there are plenty of pricier options out there that don’t match the capabilities of Microsoft’s headphones.

That’s my big takeaway after a few days of testing the headphones. GeekWire got a chance to use the headphones and learn about their history from some of the people responsible for building them.

Watch our video review above, and continue reading for more details.

A smooth look

(GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

Surface Headphones are available for order starting today, and they ship Nov. 19. Like most Surface devices, the headphones feature a stylish design. The all-gray motif isn’t flashy, but the minimalist design, contrasted with the high quality materials, make for a smooth look. When I walked into work with the headphones on, everyone said I was the coolest person at the office. So there’s that!

The idea for headphones started with Cortana. At the time, smart speakers weren’t nearly as popular as they are today, and headphones seemed like a natural way for users to bring Cortana everywhere.

“We thought headsets and headphones would be a more natural extension of devices when outside the home or office or in cafes,” said Juha Kuosmanen, senior director of program management for Experiences and Devices at Microsoft. “The idea of having your assistant with you when you have your headphones was important.”

Robin Seiler, general manager of Microsoft devices, and Juha Kuosmanen, senior director of program management for Experiences and Devices. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

While Cortana is still an important part of the experience, the idea evolved to focus on building something that fits the different ways people use their devices. Headphones are the most common and important computer/phone accessory these days, said Robin Seiler, general manager of Microsoft devices, as everyone shifts back and forth between working at home, the office and many other places.

Microsoft envisioned the headphones working in a variety of environments, and as a result, noise cancellation is an important part of the experience. A dial on the left earcup lets you either block out ambient noise or amplify it. When fully amplified the headphones add more volume to someone’s voice and even make it possible to clearly hear people speaking quietly on the other side of the room. The right earcup contains a dial to adjust volume quickly.

Each earcup functions as a touch pad with the ability to pause the music, skip back and forth between songs or take/reject phone calls. When you take off the headphones, the music automatically pauses, and if you put them back on quickly, it resumes.

Voice activation of Cortana is built into the Surface Headphones and the device integrates with the Cortana app to play songs, set reminders, make calls and more.

Setup and configuration

Microsoft’s Surface headphones and their carrying case. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

Setup was a breeze. The hardest part was getting the plastic wrap off the box. The headphones come in a gray fabric case that also includes an audio cable for a wired experience, as well as a USB-C charging cord, but no wall outlet.

Microsoft has a website for setting up and configuring the headphones, however I was able to get them working out of the box. All it took was turning on the headphones and bluetooth functions on my various devices and they connected right away.

Though the headphones are marketed as a Surface accessory, they work without any connection to Microsoft. I have a Samsung Galaxy phone, and my computer is a MacBook, and I was easily able to connect both.

Kuosmanen said the company made an intentional choice not to put anything proprietary into the headphones that made them work better on one type of device over another. Microsoft has a big emphasis right now on building products and services that are device agnostic, meaning they work just as well on a Windows device as they do a MacBook.

The pads themselves are quite comfortable, and they are made of a synthetic material that feels a lot like leather with memory foam on the inside. The earcups and the yoke, a little aluminum piece linking the earcups to the headband that often broke during testing, were two areas the team spent a ton of time on.

Taking the time to get things right was more important for the team than shipping the devices a few months earlier. In a previous iteration of the device, the miniature Microsoft logo made up of four mirrors was a bit out of alignment, so the team made a whole new version with the logo straightened out.

Comfort and size

Microsoft also conducted tests on many different head sizes to make sure the headphones didn’t press too hard. That is often an issue for me and my big head and causes me to get headaches from most over-the-ear headphones. But I was able to wear the Surface Headphones for several hours straight without a problem.

At 10.2 ounces, the headphones are light enough that they didn’t weigh me down. The 15-hour battery life guarantees that the headphones will hold up through a work day or a long international flight.

The target customers for these headphones appear to be heavy users who are on the go a lot and spend time on long calls or traveling. While the Microsoft leaders wouldn’t say how many folks worked on Surface Headphones, Microsoft pulled people and knowledge from its mobile, Xbox, Skype and other divisions.

“People sit on a headset for 14 hours and game,” Seiler said. “Sweating and clamp force and pressure on the head are all stuff you don’t even think about until you’ve been wearing a headset for hours.”

Kuosmanen came over from Microsoft’s mobile team after joining via the acquisition of Nokia. A marathon runner, Kuosmanen warned against trying anything beyond a light jog while wearing the headphones. This was a disappointing revelation for me as I like to use headphones pretty extensively when working out, running or playing basketball. The idea of paying $350 for a set of headphones that can’t perform all the tasks I want to is a bit of a downer.

Overall, the Surface Headphones are an excellent entry into this realm for Microsoft. From the comfort, to ease of setup and use, to the little things, it appears the extra time and patience the company put into the headphones has paid off.

Video production and editing by Starla Sampaco.

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