7-underscored surface headphones 2 review
CNN  — 

Microsoft’s Surface Headphones 2 are not only economically priced at $250, undercutting the Bose 700 and Sony’s WH-1000XM3, but they pack a punch with quality. The true magic, though, comes in the form of volume control and levels of active noise cancellation, for which you simply twist a dial on the left or right ear cup. And that’s paired with solid audio quality, terrific noise cancellation, a comfortable design and strong battery life.

Let’s dive into the Surface Headphones 2.

Unique controls

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We gave away our favorite feature, so we might as well start with that.

Surface Headphones 2 keeps the now fan-favorite (and editor favorite) dial controls on the ear cups introduced on the previous generation. Volume controls live on the right and noise cancellation is on the left. In fact, there are 13 levels of active noise cancellation on Surface Headphones — a broad range that bests Sony and Bose.

It’s easy to select the proper level for your listening environment. You can also easily turn the dial from wherever you are and it’s unique to the Surface Headphones. No more fumbling with buttons or scrambling to open the companion app for Android or iOS.

We don’t hate button or touch interfaces for controlling these, but the dials come with a minimalist and clean approach. It fits in with the overarching Surface design ethos. It’s kind of a bland design overall, but it’s something that adds to their stealthy look.

We’ve been testing black (they also come in gray), which is a matte finish that doesn’t show fingerprints unless they’re greasy or sweaty. And a simple microfiber cloth can remove any prints that do show up.

The overall build is a mix of plastic and aluminum. The ear cups can swivel 180 degrees, which allow them to lay flat in the carrying case or around your neck. The top band, however, doesn’t fold or swivel, so you can’t condense them. It’s nice that a carrying case is included, but it’s roughly the size of the Headphones 2, so it’s not exactly ultra-portable.

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The ear cups have an ample amount of padding, but they thin out as you get to the top of the headband. We didn’t feel any discomfort in the ears, even with long, 10-hour listening sessions. There’s a certain amount of pressure from the top band, so we wish Microsoft opted for more padding at the top. The included padding is under rubber, and if you press it with your hand, you can tell there isn’t much there.

The right ear cup features a circular power button, an oval microphone mute button (which comes in surprisingly handy for calls), a USB-C port and a headphone jack. You get control over playback (play, pause, skip a trick) and can engage voice assistants via touch sensors on the inner portion of the dial (the part that doesn’t swivel).

Decent sound and noise cancellation

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As a whole, the Surface Headphones 2 sound like $250 headphones.

What do we mean by that, exactly? They don’t give you the greatest sound in the world and the widest soundstage, but these do a solid job presenting music, podcasts and other content. It’s enjoyable and aims for a balanced mix, so they don’t push bass to obscene levels.

With “Love You For A Long Time” by Maggie Rogers, the opening bass feels more subtle than it should at a mid-range volume, and with the volume at max, you can hear it pop more. When more instruments, vocals and guitars are mixed in, you get a better feel for the soundstage, and any aspect of tinning or extra noise creation goes by the wayside. It’s a balanced experience that doesn’t shy away from mid and high vocals.

“Born To Run” by Bruce Springsteen immediately hit us with a wall of sound —- drums, piano and guitars all coming together like a jet engine turning on. While the Sony WH-1000XM3 and Bose 700 provide more detail on each individual sound, the Surface Headphones focus more on the overall mix. Guitar notes, the core drum and vocals shine through clearly. The sound doesn’t become muddied like we’ve seen on some other devices.

You can also adjust the mix of any particular track via the Equalizer in the companion app for Android or iOS. Ultimately it’s a robust audio experience that delivers a nice-sized soundstage. For the price, it’s good audio.

On the noise cancellation side, they are almost up there with Bose’s 700 and Sony’s WX-1000XM3, but still fall short a bit. The noise cancellation at a full 15 will block out most sounds from a TV or sound system, but Bose and Sony do a better job of blocking out the world. Same with the Solo Pro from Beats.

We especially liked the Ambient Sound function, which lets some sound in. This has been great for working from home, so you can tell when the doorbell rings or someone is talking to you, while also not missing out on your tunes or podcast.

Strong microphones and 20-hour battery life

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Like we said in our Surface Earbuds review, Microsoft has proven skills in the audio department — mainly with microphones. That being said, the Surface Headphones 2 don’t disappoint when it comes to microphones.

On both video calls and audio calls, those on the other end reported hearing us crystal clear. And our in-house results with Voice Memos and recording audio via the Headphones 2 also displayed premier quality. These accurately pick up our voice and don’t condense it. They are perfect for video calls and have become a valuable tool for working from home.

Similarly, the Surface Headphones 2 packs a punch with battery life. It doesn’t match the class-leading, close-to-30-hours from the Sony WH-1000XM3, but 20 hours isn’t something to laugh about either. It’s also five more than the original Surface Headphones.

We also like that the USB-C port supports fast charging with an hour of battery life delivered in just five minutes. We easily got 20 hours of battery life on these with noise canceling on, even at max level. And it wasn’t a pain to quickly charge them when needed.

We also like that when you turn on the Headphones 2, you’re greeted by a narrated message letting you know how many listening hours you have left. It’s much more tangible and informative than a battery percentage.

Bottom line

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Microsoft’s Surface Headphones 2 fall firmly in the middle of the over-ear audio space. At $250, they’re much more reasonable than the first generation, and at the end of the day, you’re getting a long-lasting pair that delivers wide audio.

It’s not as crisp or as long-lasting or as good at noise canceling at $350 competitors from Bose or Sony, but for $100 less, these are a commendable pair. The excellent microphones, soft earcups, simple design, and solid audio have sold us.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailer’s listed price at the time of publication.