Microsoft is back with an updated set of noise cancelling Surface Headphones that improve on nearly everything from the first set.
The £239.99 Surface Headphones 2 are available in black or light grey, but otherwise look very similar to the originals from 2018.
That’s fine by me. They look different to most rivals but without being flashy, boxy or massive on your head. The headband across the top is fairly slim, but padded and comfortable. The circular ear cups are large and plush, with an oval opening for your ears, touch panels and turning dials for controls.
The headphones grip your head securely, but I never felt squeezed. The weight balance centred around the cups is very stable; the headphones don’t slide forwards or backwards as you move around. The earcups rotate through a full 180 degrees, meaning they will sit flat in either orientation, which is useful for storage or just hanging them around your neck when not wearing them.
Overall the Surface Headphones rival some of their most comfortable competitors, such as Bose’s QC35, for extended listening sessions.
Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.0, SBC, aptX
Battery life: 20 hours listening
Weight: 290.3 grams
Dimensions: 204 x 195 x 48mm
Driver size: 40mm
Controls and connectivity
The flat disc of each earcup is a touch-sensitive panel. Tap it once to play or pause, twice and thrice to skip forward or back, tap and hold to activate your voice assistant. They work well. Take the headphones off and the music pauses, resuming when put back on your head. The ring around the touch panel turns. Rotate the left one to adjust noise cancelling and the right one to adjust volume. There’s something very pleasing and tactile about turning dials for these sorts of controls.
The right earcup also has the power button that triggers pairing when held, a microphone mute button, the USB-C charging port and a standard 3.5mm headphones socket for using them wired rather than wireless.
The Surface Headphones 2 support Bluetooth 5 and can connect to two devices at once (a phone and a PC for example). They support the basic SBC and higher quality aptX audio standards, which is great for Android and Windows devices but disappointingly they lack support for AAC, which is the higher quality audio standard used by Apple devices.
Like the new Surface Earbuds, the headphones support Microsoft’s Swift Pair for Windows 10 and Google’s Fast Pair for Android for one-tap pairing that works brilliantly. Pairing them to an iPhone or iPad requires the traditional manual process using the Settings app. The Surface Audio app on Android, iOS and Windows takes care of settings, a full equaliser, updates and customisation options for the controls.
Connectivity to a variety of Windows laptops, a OnePlus Nord, OnePlus 8 Pro and an iPad Pro was rock solid. Call quality was also good, with both ends of the call coming through loud and clear, even with background noise.
Noise cancelling and sound
The Surface Headphones 2 have improved active noise cancelling compared to the first iteration. They handle monotonous drones very well, such as the sound of a lawn mower, and deal with voices and the sounds of the commute much better than version one. They still let in a bit more of the sudden sounds, such as door knocks or desk taps, and struggled with tool noise such as a neighbour using an angle grinder, but they are now not too far away from the best from Bose, Sony and B&W.
The headphones have 13 different levels of noise cancellation, from maximum all the way to the inverse ambient mode, which amplifies sounds from around you and plays them through the headphones for maximum awareness. The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 do a similar thing. Although you can talk to people face-to-face easily with the headphones set to ambient mode, most find it rude.
The Surface Headphones 2 sound good. They have a similar sound profile to the previous versions, with a warm, relaxed sound, excellent for easy everyday listening with most music genres. They produce sound with good separation of tones and a wide soundscape, but can be a little dominated by the full and rounded bass losing a bit of crispness in the highs. There’s a full equaliser for adjustments, with presets that actually sounded fairly good.
Overall, the Surface Headphones 2 are an improvement over the first generation, but don’t sound as good as rivals from Sony and B&W.
Battery life is much improved, lasting a good 20 hours over Bluetooth with noise cancelling active in my testing, which matches rivals from Bose, but falls short of the best in the business that can last in excess of 30 hours.
They take about two hours to fully charge via USB-C while a five-minute quick charge provides up to an hour of playback. While the headphones do not support audio over the USB-C connect, unlike B&W’s PX7, they can be used while being charged.
Microsoft does not provide an estimate for the expected number of full charge cycles from the Surface Headphone’s batteries, which is typically 500 while maintaining at least 80% capacity. The batteries are not user replaceable. Repairs must be performed by authorised service providers. The out-of-warranty service fee, regardless of what is wrong, is for the Surface Headphones 2 from Microsoft is £159.00.
Microsoft did not comment on whether the headphones contain recycled materials, but the company operates trade-in and recycling schemes for old products.
When used with Microsoft Office, you can dictate text and put subtitles on your PowerPoint presentations using the headphones.
They do not fold in half for travel, but come with a hard case.
A voice tells you battery life in hours when you first power them on then says bye when you turn them off.
The Surface Headphones 2 come in black or light grey costing £239.99.
For comparison, Marshall’s Monitor II ANC cost £300, Bose Noise-Cancelling Headphones 700 cost £350, Bowers & Wilkins PX7 cost £350, Beats Studio 3 Wireless cost £300 and Beats Solo Pro cost £269.95.
The Surface Headphones 2 improve on the first generation Microsoft headphones in every way.
They’re more comfortable, last longer on a charge, have improved noise cancelling and sound better. They still have the excellent turn-dial and touch controls, and the addition of fast pairing and aptX is most welcome for Windows and Android users. They’re also £90 cheaper, which doesn’t hurt.
The lack of AAC support is disappointing though, and while they sound good they don’t quite reach the sonic highs of the very best from B&W and Sony, the latter of which can be had for similar money.
But for those looking for an alternative to the traditional kings of wireless noise-cancelling headphones, at £240 Microsoft’s Surface Headphones 2 are definitely worth a look.
Pros: comfortable, well made, great controls, aptX, solid Bluetooth connectivity, USB-C, 3.5mm socket, adjustable noise cancelling/ambient sound, good sound, good battery life, fast pair.
Cons: no AAC support, only fold flat, noise cancelling and sound not quite as good as rivals.
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