Surface Earbuds are Microsoft’s answer to the Apple AirPods or Galaxy Buds
Microsoft has been steadily building its portfolio of hardware in the eight years since it introduced its first Surface-branded device. After pioneering the part-tablet part-laptop category, creating a traditional laptop, huge all-in-one desktop with a touchscreen that comes a drawing easel and more… Microsoft has now turned its attention to wireless earbuds.
Enter the Surface Earbuds. In contrast to the Surface Pro, where Microsoft lead and Apple and Google were forced to follow, this time the Redmond-based company is undeniably late to the party. And while there is a lot to love about the Surface Earbuds, it’s clear these are a first attempt from the company. When compared to the likes of the Beats Powerbeats Pro, Apple AirPods, and others – there’s definitely some catching up to do.
First up, that design. There’s no mistaking the Surface Earbuds stand-out from the dizzying number of AirPods lookalikes on Amazon. Microsoft has tried something very different and the design fits beautifully alongside the likes of the Surface Laptop 3, Surface Go 2, and the gorgeous Surface Headphones.
On the (ahem) surface, the design of the Earbuds makes a lot of sense. Tapping and swiping the touch controls to play, pause and skip tracks on most other ‘buds is a serious faff because of the minuscule touch-sensitive area in your ear. With the Surface Earbuds, that’s not an issue. Microsoft has super-sized the touch-sensitive on each earbud to a huge circle. This simple tweak means there’s no need to worry about probing your ear repeatedly in order to skip tracks – you’ll never miss with the Surface Earbuds.
However that jumbo touch-sensitive panel has made the design of the Surface Earbuds a little cumbersome. More than a little cumbersome, in fact.
Goofy might be a more apt description.
First up, it means the charging case has to be elongated – resembling something that looks more like it was designed to hold a Cuban cigar, rather than a pair of small wireless earbuds.
There’s a certain satellite dish tinge to the design that isn’t quite to our taste. When Apple first unveiled AirPods back in September 2016, the design was widely-mocked and compared to electric toothbrush heads. Since then, the AirPods design has become commonplace and the same could be true with the Surface Earbuds in the coming months and years. But for the moment, there’s something pretty wacky about the way they look.
By increasing the touch area, Microsoft has made using the ‘buds more reliable – but clunkier
The Surface Earbuds also don’t feel quite right in our ears. They’re incredibly comfy when they’re sitting in our ears, thanks to the three sizes of tips shipped with the earbuds, but they never feel completely secure. It’s likely caused by the extra weight from the touch-sensitive area hanging out your ear.
Wearing the Surface Earbuds while out-and-about walking doesn’t cause any issues – the ‘buds stay firmly put – but exercise is out of the question. Anything with vigorous movement will leave you more concerned about the Surface Earbuds flying out of your lugholes than your total mileage.
If you’re looking at the Surface Earbuds as a potential gym companion, then stop reading and buy yourself a new pair of Powerbeats 4, or Powerbeats Pro instead.
Thankfully, when it comes to sound – there are no complaints.
Microsoft has done a phenomenal job packing bombastic sound into such a small ‘bud. The audio quality is definitely helped by the solid seal the Surface Earbuds create your ear, thanks to the different-sized silicone tips in the box. While the Surface Earbuds can’t quite match wireless ‘buds with active noise-cancellation, like the AirPods Pro and Sony WF-1000XM3, they’re more than a match for second-generation AirPods and Galaxy Buds.
Battery life is solid with the case topping everything up to 24 hours usage
According to the team at Microsoft, the Surface Earbuds boast the company’s “Surface Omnisonic sound profile”, which is created by custom-designed drivers and precision tuning. Vocals are crystal-clear with the Surface Earbuds and while the bass isn’t enough to vibrate your organs… there’s more than enough to enjoy your favourite tracks.
Two microphones inside each earbud make sure that calls made from the Surface Earbuds sound pretty good. As more of us work and study from home, this is a brilliant feature – and should really improve your next Zoom meeting.
So, what about that massive trackpad on the outside of each earbud? This is where the Surface Earbuds really differentiate themselves from an increasingly crowded market.
Surface Earbuds will work with Android and iOS devices
While these buds support all the usual taps and swipes to control media playback, there is a whole lot more packed in here. For example, Spotify users can triple-tap on the side of their buds to immediately launch the world’s most popular music streaming app. That means whenever you hang up a voice call, schedule a calendar appointment using a voice assistant, or whatever else you’ve been doing – a quick triple-tap will immediately get you listening to your favourite tracks again.
Office 365 subscribers can also use the Surface Earbuds for a load of additional functionality too – swiping on the ‘bud can advance slides in a Powerpoint presentation, or the dual-microphones can be used for real-time translation captions.
Some of these features are a little gimmicky, some – like the ability to listen to emails from your inbox and reply with your voice – are only available in the United States for the moment, and some will genuinely enhance some people’s productivity.
But none of these features on their own are a reason to buy the Surface Earbuds over its rivals.
The Surface Earbuds’ charging case looks more like a cigar box, than a cutting-edge gadget
Microsoft Surface Earbuds review: final verdict
Microsoft has finally joined the fray and launched a pair of wireless earbuds, competing with rival products from the likes of Samsung, Apple, Google and innumerable others.
When it comes to sound, Microsoft’s first attempt more than meet the grade. Music sounds great – with just enough oomph and incredibly clear vocal tracks. The dual microphones do a good job of ensuring your voice cuts through loud-and-clear during phone calls and video chats with friends and colleagues.
However, the design is like Marmite. And not to our taste. Not only do the ‘buds look pretty clunky in our ears, especially compared to the barely-there appearance of rivals like the Samsung Galaxy Buds, and the chunky touch surface means they don’t feel quite secure enough to use while jogging.
Battery life is good, the choice of multiple silicone tip sizes is nice, and the USB-C charging means you won’t have to worry about bringing another cable when you travel with these ‘buds.
But unless you’re sure the Office 365 features will seriously boost your productivity, or you’re just looking for earbuds that will look the part next to your Surface Book, there’s nothing here that sets Microsoft’s Surface Earbuds apart from the competition. The competition is really, really fierce. And at the moment, it still has the edge over Microsoft’s first attempt.