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The headphone wars have begun

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Microsoft’s Surface Headphones are the first shot

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Microsoft Surface headphones.
Photo by Tom Warren / The Verge

The tech industry defines itself by answering the question of what’s next. Over the course of this year, I’ve grown increasingly convinced that the most immediate next wave of technological change won’t be the electric autonomous car or the full-frame mirrorless camera, but something a lot more quotidian. Our headphones are about to change dramatically, and Microsoft just put an accelerant into the furnace of change with its new Surface Headphones.

What I’m talking about isn’t an alteration in physical design, and the Surface headphones certainly don’t look very different from existing over-ear headphone models. Functionally, the Surface cans don’t stand out much, either: they’re wireless via Bluetooth 4.2, offer noise canceling, charge via USB-C (as they should), and last for up to 15 hours. Microsoft puts its Windows logo on them, and it adds the novelty of 13 different levels of noise canceling (adjustable by rotating a ring around the left ear cup), but the Surface headphones are not breaking new ground in technical terms, either. But they do have Cortana.

Photo by Tom Warren / The Verge

Microsoft’s voice assistant will play a major role in the upcoming confrontation between America’s tech giants. Apple’s Siri and Google’s Assistant already have headphone homes in the form of the AirPods and Pixel Buds, respectively, and Apple has been rumored to be building high-end over-ear headphones exactly of the sort Microsoft just announced. Outside of their own branded hardware, Google has previously worked with companies on “Made for Google” headphones, and both Siri and Google Assistant have been all over the most recent wave of wireless headphone upgrades. Chip companies like Qualcomm and Cypress have made it trivially easy to integrate voice assistant support, and headphone makers have responded enthusiastically. There are a few third-party headphones with Cortana support, too — such as Jabra’s range — but they’ve been the exception so far.

Everyone appears to now recognize that headphones are our second most essential gadget after our smartphones. It stands to reason, doesn’t it? Phones have subsumed city workers’ papers and organizers, tourists’ maps and cameras, and students’ books and notepads, but they haven’t and never will replace the discrete functionality of a pair of headphones. Good headphones help to both quiet the outside world and liven up our internal milieu with music. And now that wireless radios and battery endurance are approaching maturity, headphones are becoming the new hotly contested battleground for the companies that like to dominate the rest of our digital lives.

Pixel buds
Pixel Buds.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Google showed off one of the first steps on the path to smartening up headphones with the Pixel Buds’ real-time translation last year. It was limited, working only with Google’s Pixel phones, and clunky, requiring the use of the Google Translate app on the phone. But that idea will find itself refined into a user experience that’s tailor-made for headphones quickly because the technology is just about good enough, and the appeal for companies like Google is obvious. The easier it is for consumers to access the Google Assistant, the more likely they are to use it. Microsoft’s Panos Panay thinks of the Surface Headphones as a similar effort of “completing the experience on Surface.” And Apple has always been the ultimate proponent of a holistic user experience, which is why we can expect it to keep improving its Siri capabilities on headphones.

Outside of the big US trio that’s led the way and dominated personal computing over the past couple of decades, examples of advanced smart headphones systems are already in evidence. Audeze recently released the Mobius, a pair of wireless gaming cans that manage to pin sources of sound in the physical space around you so that they remain stationary even as you move around. France’s Debussy Audio is working on releasing a pair of headphones that come with 4G, Wi-Fi, and basic smartphone functionality built right into them. The idea of headphones that can play music without needing help from smartphones or other controlling devices is no longer a fantasy, which, again, makes it essential for the Apples and Googles of this world to lead the way.

Photo by Tom Warren / The Verge

For Microsoft, the Surface Headphones represent a chance to reclaim some of its lost preeminence in consumer tech. With smart Skype and Cortana integration, these headphones can act as a natural extension of the Windows 10 experience, and thus it can build at least a little bit of a moat around Microsoft’s products. It’s hard to miss the similarity between Microsoft’s present approach to its Surface hardware and Apple’s established practices, and both look set to continue building experiences that will be best enjoyed when combining hardware and software from the same provider.

As my colleague Nilay Patel has argued, the future of headphones might end up being one of walled gardens replacing the open and cross-compatible present. But at least we can be assured that the walls these companies erect will be made up of cool new functionality that we don’t yet have.