Q: How do you make a fairly decent pair of wireless noise-cancelling over-ear headphones much, much more appealing in a market that’s already crowded with attractive alternatives?
A: Make them sound a little better, make them much more affordable, and make them available in a colour other than Death Grey. Here, then, are the Microsoft Surface Headphones 2.
Slightly better sounding than before, much less expensive than before, and now also available in black. Win/win/win.
Design and build: Same as it ever was
Anyone familiar with 2018’s original Microsoft Surface Headphones (or virtually any other pair of wireless on-ear headphones, for that matter) isn’t going to find anything too startling here.
That said, the Surface Headphones 2 are among the more discreet and coherent lookers around, especially in the new and very welcome matte-black finish. The circular earcups now swivel through a full 180 degrees to help them fold completely flat, and the memory foam padding on the earcups and the inside of the headband keep them comfortable for hours on end. Branding is restricted to a minimal ‘Microsoft’ logo at the bottom of each arm.
Despite a not-too-taxing 290g weight, the SH2 feel robust, sturdy and ready to endure even quite careless handling. Of course, in order to help you protect your investment Microsoft provides a fairly significantly sized hard case - this is also where Microsoft stashes the USB-A - USB-C charging cable and 3.5mm - 3.5mm analogue cable for use should your headphones run out of charge.
Features: Considerable Surface area
At the front end, the SH2 use 40mm free-edge dynamic drivers to deliver sound - these are, to all intents and purposes, the same drive units as fitted to the original Surface Headphones.
As far as supplying music to the headphones in the first place, they’re compatible with Windows (natch), Android (4.4 or later) or iOS (9 or later). Bluetooth 4.2 doesn’t look like the most cutting-edge of codecs to be using, but it’s optimised for aptX - so high-resolution audio files (like Tidal Masters, for instance) can be streamed without alarms.
As with the first Surface Headphones, there are 13 stages of noise-cancellation available here. The system runs from amplifying external sound (it’s so vigorous you can basically hear car doors being closed in the next street) at one end of the scale to shutting out ambient noise so completely that trains seem to pull into the station in something approaching silence. And as you’d expect from a Microsoft product, the Surface Headphones 2 have very thorough Surface compatibility. Swift Pair 3 means they’ll pair with your Surface laptop or tablet with one button press, and from there they have skills with Microsoft 365, Word, PowerPoint, Outlook...
Interface: Twisting and turning
One of the most agreeable things about the first Surface Headphones was the control dial around the edge of each earcup - so it’s a pleasure to report they’re both back and they’re as agreeable as ever. The left-ear dial governs that noise-cancellation, while on the right it’s responsible for volume control. They are both beautifully weighted and both work satisfyingly.
Tactility is in short supply in products like this, so it genuinely counts as a point of difference. Each earcup also features a touch-control area for play/pause, skip forwards/backwards and ‘summon voice assistant’ - even Siri. Surface Headphones 2 is also ‘blessed’ with extremely responsive accelerometers, which are ready to pause your music the instant you take them off your head. You can also answer/end/reject calls here - and a couple of mics per earcup deal with telephony. Around the edge of the right-hand earcup there’s a rash of physical controls.
There’s a USB-C input for charging the battery (Microsoft reckons 20 hours from a single charge is available, when streaming via Bluetooth with ANC engaged - this is a worthwhile improvement on the outgoing Surface Headphones’ stamina) a ‘power on/off/pairing’ button, Swift Pair control and a 3.5mm analogue socket. It’s also possible to interact with the Surface Headphones 2 via Microsoft’s Surface Audio app. In truth it’s a good-looking but pretty restricted application - but there is a very useful five-band EQ with memory for your custom presets. Which is helpful.
Performance: Easy listening
The Surface Headphones 2 pair swiftly (and are quick to confirm the fact using voice notification), and from there prove tenacious in the extreme when it comes to maintaining a link to your source player. And they’re as effective as the headphones they replace when it comes to cancelling noise.
The original Surface Headphones were among the best pure noise-cancellers around - but at £330 a pair, that wasn’t really a big enough sell. Surface Headphones 2 are every bit as talented when it comes to isolating you from the world outside - and given that they’re so much more affordable, it makes them seem even more adept in this respect. If you’re a frequent flier or regular commuter, these headphones could do wonders for your journeys.
To be honest, the reduction in asking price would be enough on its own to make the Surface Headphones 2 a more compelling proposition than the originals - even if they sounded identical. But happily, Microsoft seems to have taken some of the criticisms of the sound of the Surface Headphones on board, and as a result the Surface Headphones 2 are better balanced and more listenable as a result.
Once through The Vanishing American Family by ScubaZ is enough to make the changes obvious. The original Surface Headphones’ rather spongy bass response is gone, replaced by an altogether more solid and rigorous low frequency delivery. There’s proper substance to the bottom end here and, while it’s not as deft or dextrous and some of the very best alternatives, it solidly underpins the tune without dragging at the tempo or impacting on the midrange information above it.
That midrange reproduction, in fact, is the Surface Headphones 2’s really party-piece. Detail levels are lavish, so there’s an absolute stack of character and purpose revealed in the vocal of Loyle Carner’s Ain’t Nothing Changed. The Microsofts communicate freely, and the whole midrange area is spacious, loaded with information and capable of revealing nuance in a recording you simply weren’t aware of before. They’re not quite as accomplished at the top end, which is rolled off somewhat. This is presumably in the name of good taste, but really it serves to neuter some of the drive and attack that would otherwise be present in recordings.
The relative lack of rattle’n’shine at the top end of Comet Gain’s Raspberries makes the recording sound a bit more polite and a bit less purposeful than it ideally would. The soundstage is big and well-defined, though, and there’s sufficient dynamism on tap to make a band’s urgency as they charge into the final chorus plain. As an entire sonic entity, the Surface Headphones 2 are a confident and (broadly speaking) accomplished listen.
Microsoft Surface 2 headphones verdict
Cheaper, better sounding and not automatically dismal in colour. If it wasn’t for the fact there are literally dozens of alternatives at this sort of money, it’d be “job done” for the Microsoft Surface Headphones 2.
As it stands, though, they’re a much more realistic proposition than the headphones they replace. The audio balance is pleasant and the price is realistic. If you’re deep in the Microsoft ecosystem, or if you just want to investigate alternatives to the “same here!” market leaders, you could do far worse than these headphones. Especially in black.