Microsoft's first pair of true wireless earbuds sound good and fit comfortably, but they fail to truly earn their $200 price tag
Microsoft's new Surface Earbuds feature above average sound quality, especially when listening to rock music and songs that don't rely on thick bass. Comfort is exceptional, even after several hours of use, and they come with multiple ear tip sizes to fit a wide range of ears. Battery life is strong at eight hours for a single charge and 24 hours using the case to recharge. Considering their $199.99 price tag, however, the Surface Earbuds don't include all the features that a pair of premium earbuds should.
Table of ContentsThe Surface Earbuds are Microsoft's first entry in the true wireless earbuds space. The company seems to have a good grasp on audio products, as Microsoft has also released two versions of its Surface Headphones, which have been well-regarded overall. Originally announced in 2019, the Surface Earbuds now make their way into a competitive wireless earbuds market that includes Google's Pixel Buds, a complete lineup from Sony, and, of course, Apple's AirPods. Surface Earbuds come in at $199.99, which instantly makes them a premium product. Out of the box, the earbuds are impressively comfortable and sound good enough. But, considering how crowded this market already is, do they really bring anything new, exciting, or worthwhile to this space? With so many headphones already available to choose from, should Microsoft have bothered making wireless earbuds at all? Those are the questions I kept in mind while testing the Surface Earbuds. Design and fit
The first thing you'll notice about the Surface Earbuds is how unusual they look. In that sense, they have a slightly larger and more eye-catching appearance than a lot of other earbuds. This increased size is largely a perception issue, though. Maybe it's because they're a bright gray, rather than black or another darker color, but, in person, they don't feel as big as they look. They don't feel large when handling them either, and they sit comfortably in the ear. In fact, they seem like they'd be a little hard to handle if they were too much smaller. Still, when you look in the mirror or see pictures of people wearing them, they're definitely noticeable, and this distinct style could be either a plus or drawback depending on your tastes. Personally, I don't mind the design, but my wife thinks they look a bit funny. As a whole, the comfortable fit of the Surface Earbuds really is one of their best features. They're reminiscent of the first AirPods, which fit loosely and don't force a tight seal in your ear. During testing, I've often gone several hours with them in my ears, and even after the music stops, I tend to forget that I'm wearing them. The different sized tips for different ears are also some of the easiest to change out. Because of this, I went back and forth between the large and medium size tips just to confirm I had the best fit. The included charging case serves as a neat complement to the earbuds. The earbuds are held in with a gentle magnetic pull and sit flush inside while charging. They're easy enough to pull out and having a case that can sit upright on a desk is convenient. Though the case is a very pocketable size, it doesn't quite fit in the tiniest pocket on a pair of five-pocket jeans. Also noticeable is how light it is. The lack of weight makes it feel a bit flimsy, especially the lid, but I would take the case as is over anything bigger and unnecessarily heavy. The case's real downsides are its lack of wireless charging support and its limited battery level indicator. Any wireless earbuds priced at $199 or above really should have a case that wirelessly charges. Meanwhile, the only light on the case is inside and it's either white or red. There's no battery percentage given for the case in the app either, even though a battery level is shown for each earbud. The tutorial videos only explain that once the indicator light turns red, it's time to charge the case — and this isn't very helpful. Specifications
Earbud dimensions: 0.98" (25 mm) x 0.98" (25 mm) x 0.78" (19.9 mm) Charging case dimensions: 2.96" (75 mm) x 1.31" (33.2 mm) x 0.98" (25 mm) Earbud weight: 0.26 ounces (7.2 grams) with ear tip Charging case weight: 1.41 ounces (40 grams) without earbuds Speakers: 13.6 mm driver Audio codecs: SBC and aptX Waterproof rating: IPX4 Bluetooth: 4.1 / 4.2 Battery life: Up to 24 hours of battery life with included charging case, and eight hours continuous listening time on a single charge
Setup and app
The Surface Earbuds makes use of the Surface Audio app for Android, iOS, and Windows 10. For the purposes of this review, I used the iOS version. The earbuds typically connect right away to my phone, but not always. When they don't connect, I have to open the case or put them back in and take them out again. I notice this the most when I take out the left earbud before the right one, which may have something to do with how the wireless connection is managed through the right earbud. This is also something that could potentially get updated in future firmware. Either way, this isn't a major concern as I've experienced these types of random connection issues over the years from other wireless earbuds. Unfortunately, the Surface Audio app itself is passable at best, and annoying and frustrating at worst. Every time you open it, it's like the app forgets who you are or what's going on until you tap "I've already done this." It's also worth noting that the earbuds require a firmware update via the app right out of the box, and this process takes about an hour. Inside the app, you can see battery levels for each earbud, change the EQ among a few different presets, and perform some miscellaneous items, like changing the name and updating the firmware. As it stands, the current iOS app simply isn't that great. This software can be updated at any point, though, so hopefully improvements will be made. I'd especially like to see a battery level indicator for the case get added to the app. Performance and features In general, the sound quality on the Surface Earbuds is very sufficient. The open-air, less tightly sealed nature of the earbuds' design favors genres like rock and those less reliant on bass and low-end frequencies. On that note, acoustic guitars and vocals tend to be especially clear and crisp, but other music styles sound good as well. Bass performance is often a big concern for tiny earbuds like these. Though the Surface Earbuds can't equal the engulfing nature of Sony's WF-SP800N, low-end playback is still adequate. With that said, it's clear that the earbuds' bass would be more impressive if they were capable of creating a tighter seal to better capture the fullness of music tracks. As it stands, you can hear what's leaking by pinching your ear to seal them off. I listened to a variety of musical styles during my testing, including D'Angelo's funky R&B track "Ain't That Easy," Childish Gambino's "Summertime Magic," and the pop rock track "Dangerous" by Anchor & Braille. "Palm Springs" from Luna Shadows has a particularly impressive sound through the Surface Earbuds, with vocals that cut through sharply, while the kick drum provides a deep beat throughout.
In a quiet area, volume at around 50% is more than adequate to get a nice level of sound detail. When outside or in noisier areas, however, I find that the volume does need to be raised above 75% to hear music well. Functionally, the earbuds' touch controls are OK. They generally work as advertised by allowing you to swipe up, down, left, and right. The target area is also large enough to mostly avoid mistaken inputs. The touch controls do lack customization, though, so they can't yet be changed from their default states. This is a minor detail, but the limitation is an annoyance for premium-level earbuds. While the fit is great for office life, these don't seem meant for workouts and running. I took them on a three-mile run and the left earbud fell out in the first quarter mile. I was then able to get it to stay put, but towards the end of my run, with sweat flowing, the right earbud came loose. In my experience, they're fine for casual walks and slow activity — I use them often to work in the yard or go grocery shopping — but I wouldn't recommend these if you plan on moderate to heavy exercise. Thankfully, battery life is as expected, with around eight hours on a single charge. The charging case is able to provide around 24 hours of total power. One of the earbuds' standout features is supposed to be the ability to listen to emails in the iOS Outlook app, but that feature actually works with any Bluetooth earbuds. The Surface Earbuds do allow you to swipe their touch controls to advance slides in PowerPoint, but this feature is a hard pass from me. Overall, these productivity capabilities are just too niche to be much of a selling point, especially considering the earbuds' $199 asking price. Though the Surface Earbuds don't include any kind of noise cancellation feature, the earbuds do feature two integrated microphones for dictation and phone calls. Call quality is clear and doesn't sound overly compressed or muffled in any way. I wouldn't have any concerns using these during work for video or phone calls throughout the day. The bottom line
Microsoft's first true wireless earbuds are solid performers. Their unique style offers a nice break from the stale look of some other earbuds, and though bass isn't particularly impactful, the earbuds' overall sound quality is good. On the downside, they don't really do anything better than Google's Pixel Buds ($179.99) for Android users, and don't perform better than AirPods ($159) for iPhone users. This leaves me to question who the earbuds are really made for. Are Windows computer users the key demographic for these? The simple integration with Office 365 apps could be an appealing perk for some, but the lack of some key features typically found on other earbuds in this price range is disappointing. Despite having a good fit and above average sound quality, the Surface Earbuds are ultimately hard to justify at a premium price of $199.99. At this price, they really need to include a wireless charging case, ear detection support, and better control customization. Without those features, they need to be about $50 cheaper in order to be a truly compelling purchase. Pros: Comfortable fit, long battery life, above average sound quality Cons: Expensive, annoying app experience, no wireless charging case, no ear detection, no noise cancellation Join the conversation about this story »
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Google's new $180 Pixel Buds sound better than Apple's AirPods, but they're ultimately too expensive for what you get
Google's new Pixel Buds get the basics right for earbuds: they sound good, they look...Google's new Pixel Buds get the basics right for earbuds: they sound good, they look good, they're comfortable, and they're compact. Sadly, however, there's no noise cancellation feature, background static is noticeable when listening to quiet songs, and I continue to find Google Assistant to be an awful mess in earbuds. For $180, you'd be overspending on the Pixel Buds. That's because there are lots of wireless earbuds that sound similar with lower price tags and less issues to deal with. If you're looking for more headphone recommendations, be sure to check out our roundup of the best headphone deals. There are countless wireless earbuds for Android, many of them with Google Assistant functionality and varying degrees of sound quality at different price points. Serving as a true wireless successor to Google's 2017 Pixel Buds, the new Pixel Buds are yet another entry in this crowded field of earbuds. But, in effect, there isn't much about Google's new Pixel Buds that help differentiate them from the competition, save for an easy pairing feature for Android phones that's only really useful once or twice in their lifetime. I honestly can't say that I've tried all wireless earbuds out there, but I've tested a few of the Pixel Buds' major competitors, including the AirPods, Samsung Galaxy Buds, and Sony WF-1000XM3s. Among those, the Pixel Buds sit squarely in Apple's AirPods category — good, but expensive for what you get. Specifications IPX4 sweat resistance 5-hour battery life, 2.5 hours of voice call time 24 hours of battery life in wireless charging case Bluetooth 5.0 connectivity Google Assistant support 12mm drivers Style and fit Style-wise, these are some nice earbuds. They're small and they don't stick out of your ears. They're true "buds" in that they don't have an arm that sticks out, like Apple's AirPods. They're available in different colors, including white, orange, mint, and black. But those options are only for the earbuds themselves — the charging case is white no matter which option you go for. The new Pixel Buds will likely fit and stay in several ear sizes and shapes with their in-ear and rubber tip design. For reference, Apple's AirPods and similar earbuds slide out of my ears no matter what I do. You get three different rubber tip sizes included with the Pixel Buds, so you'll likely find a comfortable fit that also keep the Pixel Buds in your ears, even during workouts. The wireless charging case is small and lightweight — it's like carrying around a small, smooth plastic pebble. The fact that the case can be charged wirelessly means it's comparable to Apple's $200 AirPods with wireless charging case. How do they sound? The Pixel Buds sound good. In fact, they sound better than Apple's AirPods, and even the $250 AirPods Pro, both of which have a somewhat hollow sound compared to the Pixel Buds. More relevant to Android users, the Pixel Buds sound better than Samsung's Galaxy Buds, which are totally devoid of bass. Still, they're not as good as the amazing $230 Sony WF-1000XM3 wireless earbuds, which are frankly incredible. Listening to "Bubbles" by Yosi Horikawa proves that the Pixel Buds have a surprisingly well-balanced sound. The Pixel Buds includes deep lows, decent bass punch, rich mids, and detail-revealing treble. No characteristic overwhelms the other on the Pixel Buds, making them great choices for almost any music genre, except for music that benefits from a lot of bass, like hip-hop, electronic music, and reggae. Bass-heads won't be satisfied here. Pretty much any track by Destructo — where much of the excitement comes from bass — reveals that you don't get the kind of bass that envelops your ears. Small wireless earbuds shouldn't typically be a bass-head's first choice, but the Sony WF-1000XM3 should get a mention, as they are capable of delivering that head-wrapping bass while still delivering on the mids and highs. Otherwise, I enjoy listening to tracks like Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe," John Prine's "Illegal Smile," Doom Flamingo's "Telepathy", Jack Johnson's "Wasting Time," and other non-bass-focused songs on the Pixel Buds as much as I enjoy these tracks on more expensive headphones. Notable things about the Pixel Buds The Pixel Buds pair more easily with Android phones by simply opening the wireless charging case. Within seconds, you'll see a notification on your screen asking if you want to pair the Pixel Buds with your phone. This is nice, and you'll see a lot of hype around this feature, but it's only really useful once. Don't base your buying decision on this feature alone. Switching the connection between devices, like a smartphone and laptop, is fairly easy — you just need to go into the device's Bluetooth settings and click/tap the Pixel Buds to switch the connection. The Pixel Buds don't come with active noise cancellation, but the in-ear rubber tip design acts a little like an ear plug, and some noise is muffled as a result. Still, not as much as with active noise cancellation. Problems with the Pixel Buds Background static noise The Pixel Buds make an audible and unfortunate hissing/static sound that's noticeable if you're listening to quiet music, like soft classical, in a quiet environment, which is distracting. I asked Google about this static background noise I was hearing. Here's what the company said: "All Bluetooth earbuds create some amount of noise at certain frequencies when components turn on. In our lab testing we've made sure that any noise on Pixel Buds falls within a normal range for Bluetooth earbuds. A small percentage of users may be able to hear these frequencies, though most cannot. We're continuing to work on software improvements to further reduce these noises for listeners that can perceive this." It's true that Bluetooth headphones can create some background static noise, but I never noticed it as much before. That's to say, it's pretty bad on the Pixel Buds. Hopefully this is something that Google can address with a software update. Google Assistant on the Pixel Buds "Use Google Pixel Buds to receive and respond to incoming messages, emails, and important calendar events on the go," Google says. Indeed, Google Assistant can speak into your ear when you're wearing the Pixel Buds, telling you about all the notifications you're getting on your phone. Let me tell you, there's nothing worse than listening to a song you love and getting rudely interrupted by Google Assistant's voice telling you about a message you just received. It's a wonder how Google ever thought this would be a good idea. You can turn off the voice part, and a "ding" noise will sound off when you get a notification instead. But that's as equally disruptive and annoying as the voice. There are ways to manage notifications, but the settings are clunky, limited, and just hard to use overall. The language translation feature works surprisingly well, but it's hard to imagine anyone actually using it. Getting to the translation feature is a clunky, unintuitive mess, which isn't helpful while you're flustered in a foreign country trying to communicate with someone in different languages. If you plan on using this feature, make sure to practice how to set it up before you travel. While you're at it, you may as well practice how you're going to communicate that you're using your earbuds to translate, and that you're not being rude and listening to music while other people speak. My take? Just disable Google Assistant on the Pixel Buds. Entirely and totally. That way, you won't get the annoying notifications. I only kept Google Assistant enabled for testing purposes, and when I was finally done testing, I disabled Google Assistant with immense frustration-fueled satisfaction. Maybe Google Assistant in headphones or earbuds can be truly useful at some point in the future, but in its current iteration, "this ain't it." Google's alternative to active noise cancellation Instead of noise cancellation, the Pixel Buds have a feature designed to raise the volume when you're in a noisy environment. This seems like a poorly thought-out feature, as higher volumes can be harmful to long-term hearing. Plus, it doesn't work very well. I played audio of the notoriously loud NYC subway system on a 5.1 surround sound home entertainment setup at a very high volume (the best thing I can muster during the pandemic lockdown), and I think the Pixel Buds raised the volume. I'm not entirely sure ... Either way, I couldn't hear the song I was playing any better, and it reflects how poorly the feature actually works. Perhaps it's Google limiting how high it raises the volume to protect your hearing, in which case, this feature shouldn't exist in the first place. Thankfully, it's just an option you can leave disabled and forget about completely. If you want noise cancellation, this isn't a good alternative. You'll have to spend the extra cash and get noise-cancelling headphones. Not the earbuds for phone calls As with most earbuds, you can place phone calls with the Pixel Buds. And, like most earbuds and headphones, they're fine for indoor phone calls, but they're unsuitable for calls outdoors, even in a relatively quiet outdoor setting. I live in the deep, quiet suburbs, and a person I was speaking to on the phone with the Pixel Buds was distracted by the sound of chirping birds above me coming through the earbuds. Should you buy Google's latest 2020 Pixel Buds? Would I buy these? It wouldn't be the worst decision because the Pixel Buds get the core earbud basics right — they sound good, the look good, they're comfortable, and they're small and compact. But, I'd be buying them with the knowledge that I could have gone with something less expensive that offers similar quality. I expect better for $180, just like I'd expect better from Apple's AirPods for their similarly high price tags. Above, I spend more time complaining about the Pixel Buds than praising them, but most of the things I complain about, like Google Assistant, can be totally ignored. However, the especially-noticeable background static noise can be a deal-breaker, alongside the Pixel Buds' high price tag. At $180, the new Pixel Buds are competitively priced against Apple's AirPods, but not against other options. There are plenty of well-reviewed wireless earbuds that cost less, like our favorite pick based on a colleague's review, the $100 Cambridge Audio Melomania, or Anker's Soundcore Liberty 2 Pro wireless earbuds. And, if I'm going to spend as much as $180, I'll fork out the extra $50 to get the Sony WF-1000XM3. Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: How waste is dealt with on the world's largest cruise ship