⚡ Mashable Score
“Are you kiddin’ me?!”
That’s the slightly New York-accented question I repeatedly asked while attempting to pair, connect, listen to music, and really just do anything with Microsoft’s new .
For $200, I bought into the promise of a large, wireless touch panel surface (pun intended) for my ears that would let me easily take calls, control music, adjust volume, and even dictate notes. What I got instead was the equivalent of . Sure, it looks perfectly formed on the outside — daring form factor and all! — but these Buds definitely needed some more time in the oven.
I reached out to Microsoft to find out if these were known, widespread issues, and, to my surprise, it seems I was the recipient of a faulty retail batch.
Allow me to underscore that for you: I bought my original pair, they weren’t review units vetted by the company. I’d been anticipating their release despite their and a compelling rival from Google. They are, after all, being marketed as the working professional’s earbuds.
To Microsoft’s credit, the company, along with the help of its product and engineering teams, attempted to help troubleshoot my Surface Duds, but that was to no avail. Instead, I had to wait out the long Memorial Day weekend to receive a new, Microsoft-approved pair for testing.
Spoiler alert: They worked fine… mostly.
But, let me pause momentarily to catch you up to speed on the wireless earbuds wars.
You see, in the race for earbud dominance, is handily destroying , , and even . And so far nothing’s managed to unseat the market and mind share that currently enjoy.
For one, that’s a testament to Apple’s brand equity, its closed ecosystem, and the aggressively normal design of its AirPods. They still look like earphones, just without the dangling wires. And that design is a lot easier for consumers to accept considering these are meant to be sticking out of either side of your head.
So where Apple zigged, Microsoft zagged. Remember the iPod? Well, these Buds are Microsoft’s Zune.
Which is to say, there are some great concepts at play here. It’s just the real-world execution that’s lacking and, frankly, kind of baffling for the end user.
Maybe it’s all part of the minimalist Microsoft aesthetic, but when I plunk down a couple of Benjamins on fancy, new tech, I expect the packaging to get me equally excited. That’s not the case here.
Shouldn’t Surface branding stand for something?
Even the actual Buds, which feature 13.6 mm drivers and two mics each, are unimpressive in person, which threw me for a loop because I’d been all in on the “lewk” from press shots. If I had to choose one word for the design of these Surface Buds, it’d be “utilitarian.” It’s a real extreme example of function over form.
The charging case, too, is uninspired. Where others have crafted soft, rounded cases for their buds that fit comfortably in hand, Microsoft chose to marry roundness with hard edges. There isn’t even a visible LED on the outside of the case. Yes, you read that correctly. In order to gauge the charge level, you’ll need to flip open that lid. It’s a slight oversight that really dings the overall ease of use. Oh, and the pairing button is on the bottom of the case. Yeah. I don’t get it, either.
Now, for my favorite (just kidding!) part: getting the Buds out of the case. You’d think that with flat earbuds Microsoft would’ve added a slight depression on the charging sockets to remove them. Nope. You have to tip the case and wedge a fingernail under each to pry them out from their magnetized sockets. Again, it’s those little, overlooked details that really could’ve elevated the user experience.
My gripes with something as seemingly dismissible as packaging and design aside, initial setup for the Buds was fairly straightforward. You simply download Microsoft’s companion Surface Audio app for your operating system of choice (it’s available for Android, iOS, and Windows 10) and begin the pairing process. The first time you open the case, the Buds are supposed to go into pairing mode automatically — and they did. But then I had to put them back in the case to allow for a lengthy update to download and install. In all, that process took about five or so minutes to complete.
The Surface Audio app is a clean, barebones affair. You won’t find any additional control settings here or experimental features to toggle on or off. All that’s presented on-screen are some tutorial videos, battery levels for each Bud, volume level, and the ability to disable the touch panels.
Once that setup was done, I thought it would be relatively smooth sailing. I was wrong.
Right from the start, my retail Surface Buds failed to play audio from my . So, I did the expected thing: I disabled and then re-enabled Bluetooth, re-paired the Buds, and tried again. Little did I know at the time that this connection “hiccup” would become routine whenever I used the Buds on any of my other devices, be it a brand-new, custom-built, high-end gaming Windows 10 PC or a 2015 MacBook Pro. For what it’s worth, this issue was, for the most part, alleviated with the review pair I received. Although, I did still encounter several instances where BT connectivity required a connect/disconnect loop.
Bluetooth connection issues are par for the course when it comes to wireless earbuds. And I’m confident Microsoft can work out any lingering kinks with future firmware updates. (As of this writing, the Buds are now on firmware version 18.104.22.168, which lists “Audio quality and stability improvements” along with “Pairing and connection improvements.”)
But we’re only just starting to scratch the surface (yup, I did it again!) of these retail Buds’ shortcomings. They also feature much-touted touch panel controls. Much-touted by people who’ve never used them, I presume.
Okay, so here’s how it works: Double-tapping on either Bud will answer/end calls and play/pause music. You can swipe horizontally on the left Bud to skip music tracks forward or back, and swipe vertically on the right Bud to raise or lower the volume. Super useful! Neat, even!
(Insert pause for maniacal laughter.)
Here’s how that actually worked on my retail Buds: Swiping on the right Bud was not an issue at all. Yes, it’s hard to calibrate your light touch on the right Bud to get an exact range of volume raised or lowered, but it worked. The left Bud, however… the left Bud, I’m convinced, was sent from Zune Hell to torture me. It not only reliably failed to work, but repeated swipes eventually disabled all audio output for both Buds.
And guess what? That’s not a feature.
When it did work on my retail Buds, it was inconsistent at best. I’d be able to skip a few tracks until… it just stopped working. Oh, and there’s the added bonus (not really) of accidentally sending the left Bud flying out of my head and onto the floor thanks to repeated swipe gesture attempts.
Remember the iPod? Well, these Buds are Microsoft’s Zune.
Eventually, I just fired up the Surface Audio app and disabled the touch controls on my retail Buds altogether. It just wasn’t worth the hassle.
With my Microsoft-approved pair, however, the situation with the left Bud improved. Yes, triggering a track skip forward or backward is still hit or miss. Much of your success depends on how the Bud is aligned in your ear. But it did work often enough that I didn’t find myself cursing out loud. That said, I’m not a fan of swatting repeatedly at the side of my head, so I’ve completely moved on from using this feature.
Surface Buds also come with other feature perks, like a long press gesture for your digital assistant of choice, a three-tap gesture to automatically open and play Spotify (on phones), and voice dictation for Microsoft Office. As for the latter, it works about as well as you’d expect voice dictation to work — just fine with the occasional missed word or punctuation mark. That said, it’s not something I’d rely on unless I was really in a pinch.
For wireless earbuds positioned towards a more professional user, the Surface Buds fall flat. They don’t exactly make a solid argument for that use case. I can’t imagine using these in an office (remember those?) and having colleagues watch as I swipe in frustration at the left side of my head. And that’s a bummer because if Microsoft could iron out the various kinks, these could be a great office accessory.
Now, for the good stuff. (Yes, there are positives.)
Unlike the Galaxy Buds+ — the only other wireless earbuds I own — the Surface Buds don’t suffocate ambient sounds. Yes, there is no active noise cancelation or even a transparency mode option, but I didn’t mind the omission. For one, it would’ve raised the price. And secondly, this is the first time I’ve been able to hear myself and the outside world without any undesirable muffling while wearing wireless earbuds. In fact, I’d occasionally forget the Buds were even in my ears.
Sound quality is, overall, pretty good. My Galaxy Buds+ are a last resort for phone calls only because I can’t tolerate their uneven sound (even with the ambient sound setting enabled). But I found making calls, as well as listening to TV and music with the Surface Buds to be surprisingly pleasant. I only logged one instance when using the Buds for a phone call where the person on the other end complained about the sound quality. But that could’ve also been a result of my home internet connection as I rely on WiFi calling when I’m in my apartment.
Outside of my apartment, I didn’t encounter any significant issues with maintaining a stable BT connection. But your mileage may vary if you live in a heavily trafficked area like New York with plenty of signal interference.
Bass even has an appreciable depth to it. Though that doesn’t mean I’ll be chucking the aging studio headphones I keep around for late-night quarantine dance sessions to bops like But the Buds won’t terribly disappoint in that area, either.
They also fit pretty well in-ear. Microsoft gives you three wingtip options (i.e., S, M, L) to choose from and the Buds lock in place pretty comfortably once you give them a simple twist. They do, however, require a bit of readjustment from time to time, especially if you’re very active. But you could easily work out (at home) with these things and not necessarily have to worry about them falling out. Just don’t perspire on them too much — they’re only rated for splash-resistance, not sweat-soaking you gross human creature.
As for battery life, Microsoft says its Surface Buds are rated to last eight hours on a single charge, with the USB-C charging case providing an additional two charges for up to 24 hours of juice. In practice, I got just under six hours out of each charging cycle from my retail Buds. With the Buds Microsoft sent over, that number increased to just over seven hours with regular use (i.e., listening to music, taking phone calls, and using the touch panels). That’s not bad, but it definitely made me miss my super long-lasting Galaxy Buds+, which you rarely have to think about charging.
Ultimately, this is yet another missed opportunity for Microsoft, something that’s not entirely surprising given its track record of playing catch-up with Apple (Windows Phone 10, anyone?).
There are a lot of great ideas behind the Surface Buds. If they’d worked as intended — that is to say, flawlessly — they could have become a must-have accessory. But it’s precisely that ambition that’s hampered them. Microsoft desperately needed to differentiate itself from its budding rivals (I can’t help myself!), and, in the rushed race to release these, left the user experience half-baked.
That approach is typical Microsoft, after all: A corporate monolith with Marina Trench-deep pockets that can afford to simply throw money at an eventual version 2.0.
It’s just that, well, first impressions matter.