Surface Headphones 2 Review: Thoughtful refinement

The new Surface Headphones are a welcome improvement, but may not convince non-believers

The Pros

  • Excellent design and dials return
  • Improved sound
  • New Matte Black colour

The Cons

  • No compact storage
  • Longer battery, but still not the best
  • Doesn’t do enough to differentiate from original Headphones

Technology products typically don’t age well, but Microsoft’s Surface Headphones have fared better than most. However, the Redmond, Washington-based company’s newest version of the Surface Headphones, simply called the Headphones 2, continue to refine the audio experience.

For the most part, the changes and improvements Microsoft added to the Surface Headphones 2 are excellent. But nothing here reinvents the wheel and much of what’s new simply fixes what didn’t quite work on the original Headphones.

However, when coupled with a $100 CAD price drop in Canada, Microsoft’s Surface Headphones are a lot more appealing for someone who wants to upgrade their over-ear music experience without breaking the bank.

A fresh coat of paint

It seems Microsoft’s mantra with the Surface Headphones — and with most of the company’s Surface products, for that matter — is ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’

The original Surface Headphones sported a nice design but with a few flaws, and Microsoft fixed most of them. For one, the Surface Headphones 2 sport more rotation in the cups — up to 180 degrees, to be exact. It makes the headphones a bit more flexible and comfortable but doesn’t really change how they feel on your ear or how you’ll use them from day-to-day.

I would have preferred if Microsoft added a better way to store the Headphones 2 instead. As is, the headphones don’t fold up like other over-ear headphones on the market. It gives them a sturdier feel but means that the Headphones 2 and the carrying case they come with take up far more space in my bag.

Other parts of the Surface Headphones’ design remains. For example, the control dials on the earcups for adjusting volume and noise cancellation are back and just as good as before. To me, the Headphones 2 dials felt stiffer than those on the original Headphones, but that could be an aspect of the original Headphones being old and well-used now.

The big, comfy earcups also make a return and are slightly comfier than before thanks to a softer material used in the padding. Microsoft adjusted the power and mute buttons on the right earcup as well. The buttons are raised now instead of sitting almost flush with the earcup body, making it easier to find and press the buttons. It was a change I didn’t know I needed but was very much welcome.

Finally, probably the most significant tweak is a fresh coat of paint thanks to the new ‘Matte Black’ colour. It looks stunning and if you’re going to pick up a pair of Headphones 2, I fully recommend getting the Matte Black over the boring ‘Light Grey.’

As far as design goes, the Surface Headphones 2 are the original Surface Headphones with a new colour option and some quality-of-life tweaks. If you didn’t like the original Headphones, you won’t like the new ones. Unfortunately, the changes here also don’t do enough to justify upgrading if you already have a pair of Surface Headphones.

Better sound than before

One of the main complaints leveraged against the Surface Headphones was the subpar sound quality. Compared to other over-ear headphones on the market, the original Headphones just didn’t stack up.

Unfortunately, my ability to compare the Headphones 2 to other wireless headphones is limited by the COVID-19 pandemic and physical distancing guidelines. However, I was able to compare to the original Surface Headphones as well as a pair of wired over-ears I’ve used frequently for years.

I would say that the Headphones 2 sound better than the originals, but the gap in sound quality between the Headphones and the Headphones 2 is less than I expected.

A Microsoft representative told me that sound improvements in the Headphones 2 primarily come from software changes, not hardware. At the same time, the Surface Audio app that launched ahead of the arrival of the Headphones 2 and the Surface Earbuds also included support for the original Surface Headphones.

Software balances the scales

When I first set up the Audio app with the original Headphones, it notified me of a software update. Once installed, I found the Surface Headphones offered better sound quality than before and, in my experience, put them much closer to the Headphones 2.

On the one hand, improvements to the original Surface Headphones’ sound quality is welcome, but it feels as if Microsoft undercut one of the other main reasons for Headphones owners to upgrade to the newer model.

In other words, if you’ve got the original Surface Headphones, use the Surface Audio app to install any available updates. It’ll be easier and cheaper than upgrading to the Headphones 2 for a mostly similar experience.

I also compared the Headphones 2 against a pair of wired Audio-Technica ATH-M50 headphones I’ve had for years. I’ve always found the M50s offered a balanced and clean sound that served as an excellent base for comparing other audio experiences.

Ultimately, I found the Headphones 2 to be acceptable, if not as good as the M50s. The most significant difference to my ears was the clarity of audio, but I mostly attribute that to the connection type (wired versus wireless). My ears may not be the most adept when it comes to music, but to me, the Headphones 2 offered a pleasant listening experience. For the convenience of wireless, I’m willing to take a hit to overall sound quality.

Noise cancellation is still good

The Surface Headphones 2 also provide 13 levels of adjustable noise cancellation. In my experience, it wasn’t significantly different than the original Headphones, which were already excellent in this area.

Since I’ve been working from home throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve found I haven’t needed noise cancellation to the same degree as I did when working in the often noisy MobileSyrup office.

I don’t have kids, which is a major part of why working remotely is much quieter than the office. The other factor is, despite other members of my family also working remotely, we have all laid claim to different areas of the house. The result is we often don’t interact much during the workday and seldom hear each other.

While my situation is undoubtedly unique, the noise cancellation will be doubly useful for any professionals who find themselves working in a much rowdier environment. Whether that’s because of rambunctious kids, noisy pets or family members spending their days in Zoom meetings, the Surface Headphones 2 should help cut down on distractions.

Longer lasting, but not long enough

Finally, Microsoft increased the battery life in the Surface Headphones 2 to up to 20 hours of music playback over Bluetooth with active noise cancellation.

It’s a big jump from the 15 hours promised by the original Surface Headphones, but still a far cry from what others are offering. Sony’s WH-1000XM3 wireless headphones — arguably the current champs of the segment — offer up to 30 hours.

That said, 20 hours is nothing to sneeze at. For me, I found it consistently got me through two work-days with some juice leftover. Granted, I’m not commuting, so I only use them while I work. Adding the commute in may make it difficult to get two full workdays out of the Headphones 2, but until we’re able to leave our homes again, I can’t say for sure.

Necessary refinement, but not worth an upgrade

All things considered, the Headphones 2 are the original Headphones with a fresh coat of paint and subtle refinements. Microsoft hasn’t done anything radical here and I don’t think it needed to. It improved the Headphones 2 in the ways that matter and, even if I would have liked to see some other improvements, I think Microsoft got it right this time around.

Plus, with the Headphones 2 now retailing for a much more reasonable $349.99 instead of the $450 the original Headphones cost at launch, they’re much easier to recommend.

If you don’t have a pair of wireless over-ear headphones with noise cancellation, $350 isn’t a bad price to spend to pick up a pair. While the Surface Headphones 2 may not blow you away with stunning audio quality, they look great, sound decent and offer an excellent experience.

Of course, if you already own a pair of Surface Headphones, it’s hard to recommend making the jump to the new ones. Having used the original Headphones extensively, there was no single feature of the new Headphones 2 that made them worth upgrading from the original Headphones. If money is no object, go for the upgrade (but at that point, why not splurge a little more and get a more expensive pair of headphones with better sound).

But all that said, the Surface Headphones 2 are dependable, excellent headphones and, if the original Headphones are anything to go by, I’d expect the Headphones 2 to improve in time.

The Surface Headphones 2 are available now in Canada for $349.99.

The Surface Headphones 2 are dependable, excellent headphones.