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Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff
Feel and comfort
Voice control and productivity
Lack of ambient noise reduction
For $199, these are comfortable earbuds with excellent battery life and great sound. On the other hand, they lack any kind of noise cancellation.The bigger question is, “Can you live with the design?”
Remember when folks thought Apple AirPods looked ridiculous? Not me. I always liked them, but I had friends tell me they wouldn’t be caught dead wearing them. Now, they have a meltdown if they can’t find their AirPods.
Perhaps Microsoft’s Surface Earbuds will follow a similar trajectory.
With large touch-friendly discs that sit outside your ears, Surface Earbuds can make you look, well, I’ll let my wife describe the look: “You look a little like Frankenstein.”
Now purists will argue she got it wrong: There’s Dr. Frankenstein, who looks like a man, and there’s Frankenstein’s monster, who has bolts sticking out of his neck. She was referring to the latter look.
Before we dive too deep into the inch-in diameter touch disc, it’s only fair to take in Surface Earbuds design as a whole, from the vitamin tablet-shaped charge case to the incredibly comfortable in-ear fit.
What sits inside your ear is mostly comprised of a soft rubber covering, one you can swap out for one of three fits. For the review unit Microsoft sent me, I chose large. Even though each Surface Earbud weighs, at 7.2 grams, almost double that of an Apple AirPod (4 grams), I didn't feel the weight difference in my ears.
While these are not noise suppressing or cancelling earphones (a deliberate and, in my opinion, unfortunate omission), the seal is good enough to at least cut out some of the ambient sounds. They do not, however, do much to keep the music from leaking out to those around me. I sat down a few feet from my son and six feet from my daughter. Both said they could clearly hear my music, though neither properly identified the tune, probably because it was old people music.
Surface Earbuds start their lives inside the slightly over-sized case; its design seems to have been dictated by the space necessary to hold 2-inches of touch discs. There’s a Bluetooth pairing button on the bottom and a USB-C charge port on the back.
Opening the case near my Surface Pro Windows 10 system, the computer immediately recognized the earbuds and paired them. I also had no trouble (though it was not as automatic) pairing the earbuds with an iPad and iPhone.
Things got a little dicey, though, when I introduced Microsoft’s cross-platform Surface Audio app. The app gives you detailed control of the buds, including equalizer adjustments, access to updates, the ability to shut off touch controls, and readouts for each bud’s battery life. Unfortunately, the app couldn’t tell on either iOS or Android that the Earbuds were already paired with the system and forced me to unpair and repair them. After that, however, it was easy to repair with any of my previously paired devices.
As for wearing the buds, I popped them out of the case slightly magnetized case and placed one in one ear (they’re clearly marked with “L” and “R” for left and right) and one in the other, and twisted each disc (one clockwise the other counter clockwise) to seat them snugly in my ears.
Music and video sound excellent through the buds. It’s crisp, bright, sharp, head-filling sound that can manage decent but not head-thumping bass. I’ve heard better through, for instance, Apple’s more tightly sealed (and ambient noise-cancelling) sealed AirPods Pros, but this is honestly better than average. I listened to all of Fiona Apple’s new album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, and was impressed with how the Surface Earbuds maintained the homemade ambiance of the music.
Sam Smith’s Latch sounded also sounded exquisite and the guitar on David Bowie’s Quicksand was clear and bright.
Movies sound appropriately cinematic.
Actual telephone calls are a little more important now than they were, say, three months ago and, as a calling device, the Surface Earbuds do a decent job. I could hear my caller perfectly, but they reported me sounding fine but a little far away.
Virtually all in-ear headphones I’ve tested in the last few years have some form of touch or gesture sensitivity, but Surface Earbuds takes it to the next level. Those giant discs invite big sweeping gestures: Up to raise volume, down to lower it. Swipe forward to skip to the next song and back to, obviously, play the previous one.
You can double tap to play and pause or tap and hold to access the voice assistant Cortana. The buds are also capable of controlling other voice assistants. While paired with an Android phone, I held one finger on the left disc, heard a low beep and said, “Open YouTube” and the phone dutifully opened the YouTube App. I was also able to tap the left earbud three times and start playing Spotify, but only if I had the app open. On the iPhone, the Buds defaulted to controlling Siri.
Microsoft also conscripts its earbuds into productivity duty. I used the earbuds to read Outlook for iOS email messages to me and was able to apply some simple voice commands, including reply and delete. Cortana even warned me when an email was “a long one.”
In Word on a Windows Desktop, I clicked the Dictate button and started talking. The earbuds transcribed my words with startling precision (I did need to say, “period,” and “comma,” to see include punctuation). A PowerPoint update will add the ability to control presentations with gestures. Now I can’t get the image of someone furiously sweeping at their ear during a keynote out of my head.
Surface Earbuds are rated for 8 hours of music playback per charge. Yes, that’s more than you can expect from AirPods, Amazon Echo Buds and Samsung Galaxy Buds+ (which also have excellent battery life). It’s not surprising when you look at the size of that disc. Behind it is, among other things, a substantial battery. With the case’s two full charges, you get approximately 24 hours of battery life.
I got all-day playback on a charge and, when the earbuds ran low (Surface Earbud will announce in your ear low battery before you completely run out of juice) I popped them back in the case, but only for five minutes. Microsoft promises that with a 10-minute charge you can get an hour of playback. In my tests, I got about 45 minutes of power with half that time.
For $199.99, these are comfortable (I wore them for hours without any discomfort), splash-resistant earbuds, offer great sound and excellent battery life. On the other hand, they lack any kind of noise cancellation. I don’t think you’ll miss that feature too terribly (there is some value in being able to hear the world around you while you enjoy the latest WTF podcast). The bigger question is, “Can you live with the design?” If you’re someone who once thought about wearing gauges in your earlobes, perhaps. Otherwise, those big discs will be an acquired taste.