Seven months after they were announced, the Microsoft Surface Earbuds are finally here. They’re priced at £199, so are competing at the higher end of the wireless earbud spectrum with the likes of the Google Pixel Buds and Apple’s AirPods Pro.
While they certainly have a much more unique design than the other two, are they any good?
The first thing most people will notice about the new Microsoft Surface Earbuds is the very unique design. They’re completely flat, circular and only come in white. They can make it look a little bit like you’ve just fallen from an 80s sci-fi movie and landed in the year 2020, but that’s kinda cool. The design is definitely striking, and after a while they grew on me. I think some people will love it and some people will hate it. That large flat circle isn’t just for looks though, there is a purpose behind the slightly odd design.
The Surface Earbuds utilise all that flat surface area for gestures you can use to control your music and your phone calls. A double-tap on either earbud will play/pause your music, or answer/hang up a phone call. A tap and hold on either earbud will bring up your A.I. assistant. Swiping up and down on the right earbud raises or lowers the volume of what you’re listening to. And swiping forwards and backwards on the left earbud will skip to the next or the previous song. These gestures mostly worked well for me after a bit of getting used to, but they never felt intuitive. No matter how much I used the Surface Earbuds they never stopped bringing up Siri or Google Assistant when I thought I was double-tapping to pause a song.
I kinda wish I could turn the volume up or down by swiping up or down on both earbuds, not just the right one. Or skip to the next song by swiping on both earbuds, instead of just the left one. My guess to why that might be is because the swiping gestures can be finicky at times. In my early use of the earbuds, I found that what is up or down and what is left or right depends quite a lot on what angle the earbuds are resting in your ear. So that means that sometimes to raise the volume I had to swipe up and a little bit forward, or to skip tracks I had to swipe forward and a little bit down. So if you had both controls on both ears you might be skipping songs or turning up and down the volume when that’s the last thing you want to be doing. After a period of getting used to the gestures though they did get much easier for me. I do wish you could customise what gesture does what in the Surface App though.
The Surface App is a really helpful little tool that I massively appreciated while using the Earbuds. It offers nice, short, video tutorials on how to use the gestures on the buds. It shows you how much of your 8-hour battery is left in each individual earbud, but for some reason doesn’t show how much battery is left in the case, which holds 24 hours of charge. I did find the battery life to be excellent when I was using them, and if you ever do run out a quick 10-minute charge adds 1 hour of listening time. The Surface App also includes a very useful music equaliser, which has a few presets for different genres of music, and the ability to customise the EQ totally yourself. And these are Earbuds after all, so when you do have your music pumping out of them, how do they actually sound?
You’ll be glad to hear that they sound really, really good. They are fitted with a 13.6mm audio driver in each earbud which gives them a really great, clear sound. The instrument separation is very good, and I found them to be more bassy than other wireless earbuds I’ve used in the past. They’re definitely up there with the best sounding wireless earbuds.
The ability to customise that sound from directly inside the app just adds to the music listening experience. Just make sure you’re not listening to them in a very noisy environment. The Surface Earbuds do not have active noise cancellation. And because of the way they sit in your ear and don’t go into your ear canal they don’t really form a seal. The product of this is that you can pretty much hear everything that’s going on around you. Which, for me personally, isn’t something I look for in my earbuds, but I know that some people do want that. One other small thing to note is that they don’t recognise when they’re in your ear like some other earbuds do. This means that when you take them out they don’t automatically pause whatever you’re listening to like some others do.
That leads nicely into me talking about how the Surface Earbuds do actually fit into your ear, as it’s a bit different than normal earbuds. When putting them in you have to place them in your ear with the earbud point facing down, then grab the circles of the earbuds and twist them into position. Here they will supposedly fit comfortably and tightly into your ear. Once you twist them in, the fit is very tight. They will not come out. Whether you’re sitting chilling, going for a walk, or working out, they will not budge. Oh and they are ipx4 water-resistant, so you can work out in them just fine. But unfortunately I did not find the Microsoft Surface Earbuds very comfortable. In fact, I found them to be the exact opposite. What I’m about to say I will preface with this – I think this is a very me problem.
Most reviews and previews I’ve read laud the Microsoft Surface Earbuds with praise about how comfortable they are and how well they fit. But alas, everybody’s ears are different. When you open the box you’re even greeted with a message from Microsoft stating ‘Everyone’s ear is as unique as their fingerprint’. Unfortunately my specific ear fingerprint did not get along with Microsoft’s Surface Earbuds at all. The left earbud was perfectly fine and comfortable, but the right earbud actually caused my outer ear a fair bit of pain while it sat in my ear. No matter which size tips I used (small, medium, and large) it hurt. I tried twisting it about in different ways to see if I could alleviate it a bit, but to no avail. This was a real shame. I was so impressed with the sound quality of the buds, it properly sucked that I couldn’t keep the right one in for more than 15 minutes without it starting to hurt. As I said before though, I very much suspect this is a rare issue.
These days it’s a common sight to see people walking down the street with wireless earbuds taking phone calls, looking like they’re talking to themselves. The Surface Earbuds can, of course, be used for phone calls, and I’m pleased to report that the microphone on them sounds pretty good. It doesn’t pick up too much background noise, and whoever you’re speaking to on the other end will be able to clearly hear what you’re saying. The microphone is by no means the best in any earbuds I’ve ever used, but it is perfectly fine.
So what do I think of the Microsoft Surface Earbuds. I think that for a first attempt at wireless earbuds Microsoft have done a good job. The styling is definitely something people will love or hate, the gestures are tricky at first but you’ll get used to them, and most importantly they sound great. I suspect the discomfort I felt with the right earbud was an issue unique to me, but it is worth thinking about. I’d suggest testing them before buying if that’s possible. There are quite a few features that are missing which I’d expect on a pair of wireless earbuds that cost £199. At that price, I would maybe expect some form of active noise cancellation, and at the very least a case that supports wireless charging. On their first try, I think Microsoft has done an admirable job, but they have left some areas which can be improved upon with the Surface Earbuds 2.
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