Microsoft introduced several new devices this week including the Surface Pro 9, Surface Laptop 5, and Surface Studio 2 Plus. They’re all fairly iterative updates; you know that’s true when Microsoft’s hype videos emphasize new colors and integrated 5G connectivity (for the Arm-powered Pro 9) as the most exciting “new” features. We finally got a release date for the helpful accessibility kit, at least.
But Microsoft didn’t have anything new to share about its personal audio lineup. It’s been two years since the company announced the Surface Headphones 2. And those arrived around two years after the original pair in 2018. But the October hardware event came and went without any news of Surface Headphones 3. So if two years was the cadence that Microsoft set for its headphone lineup, it missed that target this time around. (A business-only “Plus” edition of the Surface Headphones 2 was released last year but barely counts.) I just hope the company isn’t throwing in the towel completely.
“We have nothing to share about our future roadmap at this time,” Microsoft spokesperson Dan Laycock told The Verge. “We’re excited about the work done with Teams certification and new products like the Microsoft Audio Dock that was announced this week.” That statement doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that new headphones are in the pipeline. The company did at least confirm that the Surface Headphones 2 will remain available into 2023.
Rotating dial controls were a brilliant idea
Microsoft’s Surface Headphones have never stood out for their core sound quality. They’re easily eclipsed in that department by Sony, Bose, Apple, Sennheiser, and, well, many other brands. But the company has found other ways to set itself apart from a huge mix of competition. The rotating dial controls on each side of the headphones are my favorite thing about them.
We described the dial adjustments for volume and noise cancellation as “ingenious” and “a dream to use” in our review of the first-generation Surface Headphones. And that remained true the second time around. Microsoft also extended battery life on the newer model, and I really came to appreciate the Surface Headphones 2 when working from home and juggling Zoom calls and music across different devices. They were comfortable and worked reliably — even if the sound was never anything to write home about.
Some headphone makers like Bang & Olufsen have completely lifted Microsoft’s dial control scheme. And we’ve seen new approaches like Apple porting the digital crown from the Apple Watch to the AirPods Max. Turns out that a physical thing you can rotate works super well for volume adjustments. I’ll take any of these ideas over the boring, imperfect tap and swipe gestures that have become so common across headphones from Sony and other companies. But Microsoft really had something special going. It’s unfortunate that the product seems to have stalled with the second-gen headphones.
The Surface Pro 9 doesn’t have a headphone jack
Microsoft basically set up the opportune moment to introduce its latest wireless headphones. The Surface Pro 9 doesn’t include a 3.5mm headphone jack, and releasing a new pair of the Surface Headphones with features like improved sound or spatial audio might have helped to counter some of the negative response to the jack’s removal. But we got nothing. Just the loss of a connector.
Microsoft is bringing impressive audio features to its Surface devices
Despite not introducing new headphones yesterday, Microsoft called out several audio enhancements coming to the new Surface products. A new Voice Focus feature does an impressive job removing distracting background sound, according to my colleague Tom Warren. I’ve learned that many of you care a lot about call quality from headphones, and this seems like just the sort of thing that could help differentiate a theoretical Surface Headphones 3 from the pack.
Voice Focus is handled by the neural processing unit (NPU) chip on the Surface Pro 9 — and only present on the Arm / SQ3 version — so bringing the same experience to standalone headphones would take some doing. But it doesn’t seem like an insurmountable challenge for a company like Microsoft.
Price is part of the problem
For what they are, the Surface Headphones 2 are overpriced at $250. The excellent dial controls and great multipoint performance don’t make up for average marks in every other category, from sound quality to noise cancellation. Microsoft’s headphones are often on sale for $199, and that feels like the right starting price when lined up against something like Sony’s $400 WH-1000XM5. Microsoft repeated its too expensive pricing mistake with the Surface Earbuds. But those funky-looking buds were a flop for many other reasons. I’ve done my best to forget about them.
There’s no one headphone that’s the best at everything. Microsoft isn’t going to just magically up its game to match Apple’s ecosystem features or the audio fidelity of headphones from Sennheiser or Bowers & Wilkins. But there’s still value in staying in the fold and focusing on what the Surface Headphones have been good at. Just like the rest of this fall’s devices from the company, I’d have taken an iterative refresh over nothing at all.