Microsoft stunned us all at its October 2019 event keynote with the unveiling of the Surface Earbuds, the follow-up to the Surface Headphones and its answer to Apple's market dominating AirPods.
The Windows company's attempt on true wireless earbuds is far more robust and feature-filled than Apple's, but that also makes them costlier and slightly less portable.
Nonetheless, we're incredibly impressed by the Surface Earbuds in just about every regard, from audio performance to additional features. Both Google and Apple have a not-so-little something to worry about, too, as Surface Earbuds will work on both those platforms.
- Read our hands-on Microsoft Surface Pro 7 review
- Read our hands-on Microsoft Surface Pro X review
- Read our hands-on Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 review
- Here's everything Microsoft launched at its Surface event
Price and availability
When the Surface Earbuds hit the market before the end of the year, they'll go for $249 (about £199, AU$360).
That price includes, of course, two Surface Earbuds along with a pretty substantial charging case and three different sizes of silicone ear tips.
If you're keeping track, that price is 25% higher than Apple's AirPods with a wireless charging case, and more than 36% more expensive than Apple's set with a normal charging case. So, do they live up to this marked price difference?
Design and feel
As devoted AirPod users, we'll state that while Microsoft's true wireless earbuds aren't nearly as turnkey as we find Apple's to be, they're surely more robust in what they can do and how they're fitted.
To begin with, Surface Earbuds aren't purely a "one size fits all" product, rather every box comes with 'small', 'medium' and 'large' ear tips, so that you can get that much closer to a comfortably snug fit for your unique ears. In this regard, there's far more customization to Surface Earbuds than AirPods – even if you can't engrave the Surface Earbuds case for free, like Apple's ... yet.
Still, while we find the fit to be extremely comfortable and snug, the Earbuds' design is somewhat ... out there. Sure, we've gotten used to the AirPods aesthetic, and we know how widely it's hated, but these things are just really big.
They almost look like gauge earrings that you see peppered throughout the crowds when Warped Tour comes through town. (Imagine wearing gauges and these earbuds?)
Small side note here: we also find the charging case to be fairly large, so much so that it looks like it would be hard to fit in your pocket. Unlike an AirPods case, these will most likely live in a bag when not in use, whereas Apple's case fits in almost any normal pocket without problems.
Keeping that size in mind, the Surface Earbuds do weigh a little more heavily in your ears than AirPods, but that is a bit offset by the customizable fit. The Earbuds don't fit too far into your ear so as to be uncomfortable or create too strong of a seal in your ear canal.
In fact, Microsoft meant for the Surface Earbuds to leak in a bit of ambient sound, so as to be more conducive to office environments and outdoor use. We had an entire conversation with two Microsoft employees giving us a tour of the Earbuds with them still in our ears – we’re pretty sure we couldn’t do that with AirPods in our ears.
Microsoft hopes to make up for this allowance of ambient sound with clever audio engineering.
We're told that Microsoft has "the quietest room in the world" on its Redmond campus, where the Surface Earbuds were developed and engineered. It's here that Microsoft crafted its "Surface Omnisonic Sound" profile for the Surface Earbuds, which utilizes custom audio drivers designed to emulate the sounds of both live music and studio equipment.
Yet, that phrase also relates to the voice response in the Earbuds employing two microphones in each earbud. These help to cancel out background noise during phone calls or talking to your digital assistant of choice.
Microsoft has also tuned the Earbuds to not rise above 108 decibels at the highest volume setting, so as to shield users' ears from permanent damage. Trust us, you don't even need all of those decibels to drown out the din of a keynote showroom flooded with a raucous DJ performance with Pearl Jam's "Jeremy".
But, that's just the start of what these earbuds are capable of. The caps on these headphones are capacitive touch surfaces (teehee) which respond to swipes and taps for different functions.
Swiping up and down raises or lowers the volume by about seven points per swipe, we've found. Also, swipes forward or backward skip ahead or replay/skip back tracks, respectively. Double tapping triggers audio to play or pause, and lastly, holding a finger to either Earbud summons the digital assistant of your choice.
We say this since Surface Earbuds support Windows 10 (natch), Android devices as far back as version 4.4, Apple devices running iOS 9 or later and Bluetooth 4.1 or 4.2 protocols. We're also told particularly that using this long-press function on iPhone or Android will conjure up Siri or Google Assistant, respectively. This will be managed by a Surface Earbuds app which will launch for all of these operating systems.
The gestures work quite fine in our experience, and are fairly intuitive. Even if you weren't handed a manual, we imagine you'd figure out how to use each of these swipes and taps within just a few minutes.
What certainly has mind-blowing potential, though, is live translation through subtitles. While the Microsoft event space Wi-Fi was a bit too spotty to directly translate, we spat out a few phrases to see them appear as subtitles underneath a PowerPoint slide almost instantly. With a solid internet connection, this could be a game changer in a similar vein to Google's Translate function on its Pixel Buds.
Finally, the Surface Buds provide up to 24 hours of battery life, though in eight-hour increments at a time with two additional charges in the included case. That's more than enough to get through a work day and the commute.
In comparison, Apple's AirPods are much more limited in their gesture control, down to only taps. And, while they provide the same 24 hours of battery, the AirPods can only last up to five hours at a time.
Charging the Surface Buds for 10 minutes gets you another hour of play time, while charging the AirPods for 15 minutes buys you a longer three hours of play time.
All told, the Microsoft Surface Earbuds have quite a bit going for them, and they're markedly different from the elephant in the room. They're bigger, longer lasting and have far more robust features than Apple's AirPods. They can also be used to nearly their full effect on a number of devices.
However, they're also somewhat more unwieldy in terms of weight, and they stick out like a sore thumb than even AirPods do, as so many claim. (Though, we don't really understand that.) They're also considerably more expensive and less portable than the industry leader.
The Microsoft Surface Earbuds in turn deliver excellent audio at first listen, and are more conducive to office and outdoor environments, like city streets. We can't wait to try the Surface Buds out at length to see whether they're worth the extra scratch.