The Microsoft Surface Headphones 2 review in a sentence: by retaining the originals’ excellent noise-cancelling, improving the audio quality, reducing the price and offering a black finish as well as grey, Microsoft has produced an authentic alternative to class leaders such as the Sony WH-1000XM4 – narrowly #1 – Bowers & Wilkins PX7 and the even more consumer-friendly Bose NC 700.
The original Surface Headphones were among the best pure noise-cancellers you could buy - but at £329 a pair, that alone wasn’t enough to make them compelling. Their unhappy grey finish didn’t help, either. But now they’re back in black - sounding better, costing less and looking more like headphones than a laptop accessory. And they’re still among the best noise cancelling headphones you can buy.
Microsoft Surface Headphones 2: price and battery life
Microsoft Surface Headphones 2 are on sale now, priced at £239. In the United States you’re looking at $249.
Battery life is one of the areas that has improved over the original Surface Headphones - these headphones are now good for 20 hours with active noise-cancelling engaged. Some rivals will last even longer, it’s true - but 20 hours between charges should be ample for more-or-less any circumstance.
Sony WH-1000XM3: build quality and design
There’s not much new ground a company can break when designing a new pair of over-ear headphones - so it’s safe to say the Microsoft Surface Headphones 2 look very much like most other pairs of wireless, noise-cancelling over-ear headphones.
There are some very commendable touches here, though. The memory foam that forms the ear-pads and lines the inside of the headband is soft, yielding, slow to heat and very comfortable. The earcups themselves swivel through 180deg, so the headphones fold flat enough to be easily (and safely) transported - a weight of 290g doesn’t do any harm on that score, either. And in the new black finish, with minimal ‘Microsoft’ branding just above each earcup, the look is as discreetly sophisticated as the build quality is reassuringly sturdy.
Like many a rival, the Microsofts have a touch-control area where a tap or two can play or pause music, answer or reject a phone call, skip forwards or backwards through a playlist, or summon a voice assistant. But unlike any competitor, the Surface Headphones 2 also have a couple of physical controls that are beautifully integrated and a pleasure to use.
- Shure Aonic 50 review – among the very best noise cancelling headphones
Around the edge of the left earcup is a dial that adjusts noise-cancellation. It’s a 13-step control, running from ‘amplify external noise to make sure I’m safe when crossing the road’ to ‘shut out external noise so completely it’s akin to sensory deprivation’ - and it’s brilliantly effective. Some rival designs introduce a sensation of pressure into the ear when attempting to block external noise, but the Surface Headphones 2 simply allow you to listen in silence. The right earcup, meanwhile, has a similar dial to govern volume.
This kind of well-judged tactility is a rarity in products like this, and it gives owning a pair of Surface Headphones 2 a nice ‘hands-on’ element that a lot of rivals can’t match. Plus, of course, Microsoft's noise-cancelling really is among the most effective around.
Microsoft Surface Headphones 2: sound quality
Microsoft has quite obviously taken the criticisms of the sound of its original Surface Headphones on board, and consequently the Surface Headphones 2 are an altogether better balanced and more adaptable listen.
For starters, they’re much more forgiving of a standard Spotify stream now. Bass frequencies have much more solidity about them, so the bottom end is much punchier, but at the same time it’s better controlled - there’s no more swamping of singers by bass that’s overstayed its welcome.
The headphones’ ability with aptX-quality Bluetooth means they can handle higher resolution stuff than this quite happily - but now it’s not compulsory to stream in some Tidal Masters (or similar) in order to get an enjoyable sound. The free tier of Spotify sounds agreeably open and, yes, hefty when it’s dealt with by the Surface Headphones 2 - and they’re particularly adept with vocalists, digging out plenty of the fine details that serve to give a singer character.
Better still, the Microsofts are pretty agnostic when it comes to the sort of music they can cope with. They shouldn’t be your first choice if you enjoy the most forthright dance music, admittedly - though their bass response is much improved, it’s still not the last word in speed - but pretty much any other style or genre of music is within their comfort zone.
It’s really up in the higher frequencies, where treble sounds live, that the Surface Headphones 2 are anything less than confident. No matter the sort of stuff you listen to, and no matter how you get it into the headphones in the first place, their top-end reproduction is rolled off somewhat. There’s not quite the bite or the shine to treble sounds that there really should be - it’s a quite a safety-first approach, and it saps a little of the drive and animation from recordings. Mind you, it’s a more sensible approach than the hardness and brilliance some alternative designs indulge in.
Sony WH1000XM3 review: verdict
So thoroughly has Microsoft addressed the shortcomings of its original Surface Headphones, it might seem almost churlish to find fault with these replacements. They sound better balanced and organised, they cost quite a lot less money, they’re as well made as ever and they cancel noise as well as, if not better than, any nominal rival. So where’s the downside?
Really, it’s all to do with the strength of the competition. Even at this new and much-improved price, the Surface Headphones 2 are facing off against some very accomplished competitors from the likes of Sony, AKG, Sennheiser, Bowers & Wilkins…
But at least now Microsoft has a genuine contender, and you really should hear the Surface Headphones 2 before you go making any big purchasing decisions.