Microsoft first announced their true wireless earbuds in 2019, but after some delays, the Surface Earbuds ultimately launched in late spring of 2020. You can order them direct from Microsoft for $199.99 or on Amazon.com for $196.33.
We’ve spent a few weeks with them and have some mixed feelings. While they have all the necessary tropes of true wireless earbuds and Microsoft has gone in its own direction with the design, it’s ultimately hard to stand out in such a packed market.
So how exactly do the Surface Earbuds compare to other true wireless earbuds?
The design stick out
As most true wireless earbuds do, the Surface Earbuds live in a combination carrying and charging case. Microsoft opted for a long oval design, and it’s pretty easy to carry around, either in your pants pocket or tossed into a bag. Heck, you can even fit it in a shirt pocket. The case is made entirely of plastic and has a smooth finish on the outside. This gives the soft platinum color some reflectivity. The case does attract some fuzz and lint if you are storing it in pockets, so word to the wise.
There’s a small circular button at the bottom for manual pairing and a USB-C port on the back for charging. That’s the only way to charge the Surface Earbuds — the case doesn’t support wireless charging of any kind. We wish it did, especially at a $200 price point — it just doesn’t make sense that that wasn’t included.
As for the Surface Earbuds themselves, they look like discs, akin to mini CDs or records. The side of each disc that faces the outside world is touch-sensitive and can be used for controls. We’ll get into more detail on this later, but the controls for the Surface Earbuds are really nice.
On the flip side, it’s a classic earbud design: You can just pop these in your ears. There are no extra attachments or ear fins; these will just sit in your ears and are pretty comfortable, even for extended listening. Microsoft includes three ear tip sizes: small, medium and large. There’s no ear tip fit test here like on the AirPods Pro. You’ll need to find the best fit for you — and don’t be surprised if one ear is a different size from the other.
The physical ear tip material is soft rubber, and it feels really comfortable. The Surface Earbuds don’t make a full seal, so these don’t create added pressure in the ear. Unlike Galaxy Buds+, Pixel Buds and even AirPods Pro, these don’t go fully into the ear canal, but rather sit right outside it. These also won’t weigh down your ears, as each bud weighs in at about a quarter ounce. You can easily forget that these are in your ears.
They stick out a bit, and certainly aren’t flush like the stealthy Pixel Buds. You might attract some eyes given the unique circular design. But we didn’t find these falling out or feeling too loose in a variety of activities: working at a desk, walking around town, walking around a makeshift office (aka the house), even during a light run.
Solid sound across genres
Arguably the most important part of an earbud is how the music sounds, and Surface Earbuds fall pretty much in the upper-middle ranks. They sound good, but not so good that we’d put these at the top of our true wireless earbuds list.
Take Bruce Springsteen’s “Death to My Hometown,” which starts with a strong drumbeat and adds in a plethora of backing vocals and other instruments. It can be a lot for an earbud to handle and process, but Surface Earbuds deliver a clear mix that has certain robustness to it. With some of the drumbeats, we noticed them feeling a little less full than when we listened to the track on AirPods Pro or Powerbeats Pro. This is likely due to the fact that the Surface Earbuds don’t create a tight seal in the ear.
Let’s take a pop track: “Sucker” by the Jonas Brothers comes through clearly with a slight twisty reverb added to the opening electronic beats and tones. That being said, it’s a clear mix with strong bass, smooth vocals and a melody that makes you want to tap your feet. Similarly, with “Paper Rings” by Taylor Swift, it’s an enjoyable mix that lets you hear all aspects of the song but leaves you feeling like it was slightly less full than with some other buds. Drumbeats lack a certain pizazz, for instance.
Surface Earbuds ultimately deliver a pretty wide soundstage that doesn’t get muddy. You’ll get clear tones across low, mid and highs. At times, and depending on the track, some beats can feel a little less than full. For a strong bass experience, we’d recommend looking elsewhere.
You can remedy this a bit via the companion Surface Audio app for Android and iOS. There’s an equalizer built in with five presets (flat, classical, jazz, pop and rock) and the ability to make your own mix.
In terms of controls, Microsoft knocked it out of the park. The circular design really shines through the user interface controls. A double tap on the left or right results in play or pause. A swipe up or down can raise or lower the volume. And a swipe forward or backward will let you go to the next track or return to the previous one. It’s quite simple and works well.
One last note on volume. Since these don’t create a tight seal, you do still hear background noise, even at higher volumes. At close to 100%, we could still clearly hear the click-clack from a keyboard, the closing of the carrying case and general background noise. It gives you some calming sense, as you can hear the environment, but also makes it a little hard to get in the zone. There’s also no active noise cancellation or even ambient sound features on these.
Connectivity and battery life
Pairing Surface Earbuds with an Android or iOS device was easy enough. Interestingly, on Android you get a fast pairing experience equivalent to Pixel Buds. As soon as you open the lid to the Surface Earbuds, it will start casting a connection and you’ll see it appear in the Notification Bar on Android. It will prompt you to connect and download the companion Surface Audio app.
On iOS, you’ll need to open Bluetooth and connect to the Surface Earbuds manually. It’s not the end of the world, but it feels a bit ancient in comparison to AirPods and AirPods Pro fast pairing. You can then open the companion app and connect to download software updates and customize the experience to a degree. Software updates take a long time as well. You’ll first need to download the update and then have it installed. On our first three tries, the installation aspect failed, so leave some time for this.
Connectivity as a whole was pretty good and worked as expected. We noticed a bit of latency when first connecting and starting a song, but this quickly stopped after a subsequent update. Just make sure you’re up to date and you should be set.
In terms of battery life, Microsoft says the case itself provides an additional 24 hours of life, and we found this to be accurate in our testing. On their own, the earbuds lasted for around eight hours with moderate to high volumes. We noticed the left earbud dies about 30 to 60 seconds sooner than the right. With our testing, we ran out the battery with listening from several devices: iPhone SE, iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro Max, Galaxy S20 Ultra, Galaxy S10e, Pixel 4, Pixel 3a, Surface Book 3 and Surface Go2.
Each Surface Earbud has two microphones built in. Notably, when paired with Microsoft 365, there are a few neat features. Specifically, Live Caption allows the earbuds to dictate out what you’re saying and produce captions in real time for a PowerPoint. It can also read aloud emails from Outlook. It’s neat, but the market and use cases for these seem a bit slim. Microsoft power users will likely get a lot of use out of this. That being said, the dictation accuracy and microphone quality are quite high here. On VoIP calls, our voices came through crisply and clearly to people on the other end. Dictating or using speech to text was highly accurate as well.
Surface Earbuds are a solid pair of true wireless earbuds, but they’re missing some core features we expect, as well as any true wow factor. Sound quality is smooth and works for a variety of genres. Microphone quality is high along with an eight-hour battery life. The design is a bold move, and it puts comfort at the forefront.
The price seems a bit high at $199.99, considering no active noise canceling or wireless charging. For most people, we’d still recommend AirPods Pro, Powerbeats Pro or even Galaxy Buds+. But if you weight comfort or compatibility with Microsoft higher, give these a look.
Note: The prices above reflect the retailer’s listed price at the time of publication.