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Why Surface Headphones may be Microsoft's most important accessory yet

Surface Headphones
Surface Headphones

Microsoft's first-party portfolio of accessories includes mice, the Surface Pen, and Dial, the Xbox Adaptive Controller, keyboards and more. Though Xbox head Phil Spencer hinted that the adaptive Controller has potential beyond gaming most of Microsoft's accessories are, as is the nature of accessories, fairly limited in how, when and with what devices they are used.

For instance, Surface Pen would not be used with the iPad. And the Surface Dial wouldn't be paired with the Mac. Surface Mouse likely wouldn't be used all day at work, on the train ride home and then during one's evening leisure time on the coach. These accessories don't belong to a category that is sufficiently "independent" from a particular device or usage scenario to allow broad cross-platform usage and work and life relevance. Surface Headphones are a Cortana-powered smart wearable that does.

Microsoft is positioning Surface Headphones for work and play. As headphones, they are inherently part of a category that has broad cultural and market appeal. Though, the $350 cost is prohibitive compared to what OEM partners may eventually offer. Their Bluetooth compatibility with Windows, iOS or Android makes them easily a cross-platform device that can be used all day between work and home. Though Surface Headphones are positioned to complete the Surface experience, their cross-platform and work and life relevance complement Microsoft's strategy to support our digital experiences across devices and personal and professional life.

Remaining immersed while switching devices

Microsoft Corporate Vice President, Modern Life & Devices, Yusef Mehdi wrote:

While Surface Headphones are optimized for Surface devices, they will pair with any Bluetooth enabled device so when you're switching between PC and phone, you can stay connected to your music, meeting or call seamlessly.

Microsoft's goal is to provide a cloud-based platform that efficiently conveys users' digital experiences between PCs and phones. Microsoft Graph ties iOS and Android devices to Windows 10 PCs. Cortana is a device-agnostic assistant that knows users across devices. Your Phone and TimeLine continue user experiences between PCs and smartphones. Text messages can be received and interacted with from Windows PCs. And Project Rome is continuing app experiences across devices.

Microsoft's positioning Surface Headphones to keep users immersed in their digital experiences even as they transition across devices and platforms and between work and play. Microsoft is reaching beyond providing a comprehensive Surface experience toward positioning a cross-platform hardware accessory that supports its cross-platform software strategy.

Those who balk at the intimidating $350 price must remember the Surface brand is aspirational. Microsoft likely wants partners to build more affordable Cortana-powered headphones modeled after Surface Headphones.

Cortana-powered wearable

Microsoft's sluggish evolution of Cortana's abilities, limited availability beyond the U.S. and repositioning as a business-focused "assistive" agent suggests Microsoft has little ambition for Cortana in the consumer space. Given this reality a consumer-focused smart wearable featuring an always-on Cortana heralded by Microsoft's esteemed Surface brand seems ironic. Microsoft doesn't entrust Surface branding to products unless it has faith in them.

Microsoft's three-year Surface Headphone investment suggests it took its time to get the noise canceling features, ergonomic design, eight microphones, stereo speakers and Cortana integration just right for an optimal experience. Sure, Cortana is reviled by frustrated techies, but she's unknown to most consumers despite her Windows 10 presence. Consistent with her assistive assistant repositioning her presence on Surface Headphones and potential on OEM smart headphones that may follow could help to introduce her to a different audience.

Two years ago Microsoft promised Cortana was coming to a range of devices but never delivered. Despite Cortana's U.S.-centric nature and limited capabilities, Microsoft's launch of a first-party Cortana-powered wearable with Surface branding suggests Microsoft may be serious about Cortana in the consumer space after all. Or perhaps Cortana's integration is targeted more toward Surface Headphone's professional positioning and any consumer impact is merely a fortunate byproduct.

Cortana goes from assistant to "assistive"

Becoming Apple?

In 2014 Apple bought Beats Electronics and Beats Music and inherited the popular Beats-branded headphones. Beat's headphones like Sony's and Bose's high-end noise-canceling headphones are comparable in price to Surface Headphones' $350 cost. This is no accident. For years Microsoft's brand was inextricably linked to cheap partner hardware. Conversely, Apple's hardware enjoyed luxury branding and pricing.

Microsoft's Surface brand solves this by pushing partners to build higher quality devices that optimize Windows 10. It also positions first-party hardware that rivals Apple's.

Most consumers may not opt for Surface Headphones when comparably priced Beats headphones are available. Microsoft knows this, which is one reason Surface Headphones are so heavily positioned to complement the Surface experience. If Surface Headphones mindshare grows, Microsoft would likely see value in more aggressively promoting their cross-platform benefits.

More than what it sounds like

Surface Headphones

Surface Headphones

Microsoft's Surface Headphones extends Microsoft's brand into an accessory category that has mainstream appeal beyond the PC. It also introduces a "transient" hardware component that moves with users across platforms and between work and play as Microsoft's cloud carries users' digital experiences across the same. They are also a Surface-branded Cortana-powered wearable that can be emulated by OEMs.

Finally, Surface Headphones are a great pair of quality noise-canceling headphones that compete with Beats, Bose, Sony and other high-end brands. With eight microphones Microsoft claims their great for calls and further claimed the noise canceling feature shuts out the outside world allowing users to focus for productivity or play.

Microsoft is positioning an intelligent wearable that helps facilitate its cross-platform work and play strategy with top of the line headphones that it hopes will appeal to audiophiles. As an aspirational device, this may also be Microsoft's first step into a smart wearable category that introduces Cortana to iPhone and Android users in a useful way. Only time will tell.

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Jason L Ward is a columnist at Windows Central. He provides unique big picture analysis of the complex world of Microsoft. Jason takes the small clues and gives you an insightful big picture perspective through storytelling that you won't find *anywhere* else. Seriously, this dude thinks outside the box. Follow him on Twitter at @JLTechWord. He's doing the "write" thing!

45 Comments
  • Much like the Band, Invoke and Glas, I expect these headphones to be yet another proof of concept products that in no way demonstrates Microsoft's commitment to that market.
  • “…may be Microsoft's most important accessory yet” Come on Microsoft! Accessory to what? Daniel already said that these were supposed to be an accessory to Andromeda. Microsoft still hasn’t publicly committed to even Andromeda.
  • Comparing Headphones with tech toys and gadgets?
    A Band might need to relay on other devices (and vise versa) but a headphone... can connect to pretty much anything, even an old school CD player. Cortana is prob the only feature that need support.
  • The comparison is valid. I'm pretty sure Microsoft isn't releasing these just so they can sell you a pair of headphones to connect to a cd player. Micosoft may be piss poor at execution but they usually have a plan or strategy with the products they release. This would have been a great companion piece to the band. Microsoft doesn't seem to get the whole synergy concept. I can imagine a world where I have my surface phone, linked to my headphones and my Band all seamlessly working together to make my life easier. I could see myself dictating messages to cortana from my Band and then hearing incoming message in my headphones them making a skype video call on my phone while using my bank to read an incoming text and having my Band auto reply "I'll get back to you" because it knows I'm on a call.
  • I'm sure people will doubt their commitment in this space but I think it's a good sign that the Surface brand is attached. That should lead to a longer life cycle and updated versions.
  • I agree the Surface branding lends some credence to the effort. It's a strong brand for Microsoft and the company doesn't want to tarnish that image it promotes. I think we'll see some effort to support, promote and to grow this category.
  • I see value in them showing how Cortana can be integrated in products however, the lack of devices Cortana can manage without a 3rd party hub is not going to move manufacturers to jump on this I don't believe. Not that I don't want it to but it really has become a two-horse race at the moment. They really need a disruptive product where the last few have been conceptual iterations.
  • I have no idea how headphones could ever be of any benefit to Microsoft. I for one have no intention to buy them for any reason at all.
  • I read this article somewhere that talked about some of the potential benefits. It provides a truly cross-platform device. It has the chance to introduce Cortana to a whole new range of customers, since Cortana has never really been promoted to, well, anyone. It gives their customers a chance to purchase Microsoft Surface branded premium headphones, and let's face it, lots of people purchase premium headphones so why not get a piece of the pie. Those are just a few of the reasons... Here's a link to the article in case you want to read it: https://www.windowscentral.com/surface-headphones-may-be-microsofts-most...
  • It's certainly your prerogative to not buy these headphones and also to not want to buy these headphones. If you really have no idea how they could benefit Microsoft though, you're either not very smart, very lazy or being deliberately obtuse, or possibly all three. Plenty of people have expressed an interest in these headphones, myself included, and you are commenting on an article that literally answers the question you claim to have no idea of the answer to.. If you disagree with the points raised, let's hear your argument. I'd say that you probably don't actually have one and simply have an axe to grind. What you like and want is not necessarily what everyone likes and wants and if you are incapable of considering what others might like and want then you can't really contribute meaningfully to a conversation like this.
  • The problem with that price is Cortana. It is now lacking behind Alexa and Google so much, it's comical. If it came with ability to integrate with Google, price would be just about right. But with Cortana, this needs to be $200 at most.
  • Why? It has only been a recent phenomena that wireless noise cancelling headphones have had some assistant access. The basic functionality of these is A) Wireless, B) Noise cancelling. Offerings from Beats, Bose and Sony are priced in this range. While some provide some dedicated assistant access, that is fairly optional. A decent pair of wireless noise cancelling headphones would support a $350 price tag if it offered no AI access. Shouldn't be less because it does come with Cortana. The gimmick on these is really the variable noise cancelling operated by a dial on one earpiece. That's a neat feature. Sony offers the ability to shut off noise cancelling and hear the flight attendant ask about drinks by cupping a hand over one earpiece. Bose allows adjustment in a couple of steps with a button. The biggest issue I see, is the inability to fold them down for travel. Haven't seen anything like this demo'd or pictured. That would be a con for me.
  • Well, you can invoke Alexa from Cortana - its pretty kludgy, but its there...
  • What does Cortana lack behind Alexa and Google? 9,000 trivia and games skills?
  • Most of my experience with Cortana is "I don't know the answer, but I'm learning" or "I can't get to the internet now." It really upsets me that she does not work better.
  • The biggest business impact: imagine executives in company pacing around getting work done through IT department customized Cortana commands. The Surface headphone fills the corporate gaps that are not addressed by Alexa and Google voice assistant. Why? I leave the users here to feedback.
  • In other words, the headphone will be attractive to both home office as well as noisy environment such as open office or construction sites. A unique niche not addtessible by competitors.
  • There are so many Bluetooth headphones available that also have noise cancelling and many great choices are available for less than $100. The only unique part of these headphones is the Cortana integration and Cortana is basically dead.
  • There are many smart users here! Why buy Surface 2in1 when one can get so many cheaper OEM 2in1? Focus on business impact in holistic ways when the synergy is more than the sum of just 30$ headphone and a Cortana driven devices e.g. Surface Hub 2X. :-)
  • There are so many very good bluetooth headsets on the market now that I fail to see why anyone would fork over $350 for the likes of these or Bose or Beats for that matter. You're paying for the status and really nothing more. JMO.
  • Same reason there are $30K and $60K automobiles. Reputation, material, construction, warranty, performance, service after the sale, and of course some prestige.
  • Actually ... they may possibly offer one thing that neither the Sony's nor the Bose offer (I owned both of them!) - a good phone call experience. Phone calls on both the WH-1000XM3 and on the Bose 35 QC II really stinks. *IF* they deliver on the high quality of phone calls that their marketing materials promises, then I would *LOVE* to own these headphones. I could not care less about Cortana. I guess it might come in handy. But I expect it will not be a very useful or endearing feature.
  • But can they work with an Xbox?
  • Not wirelessly.
  • This makes no sense. Cortana is dying, thinking that headphone integration is what it needs is laughable. A $25 speaker needs to be first on the list. No one is looking for Cortana without speakers being available and certainly no one is looking for headphones with Cortana integration. Literally the last thing Microsoft should be working on. These were obviously designed to go with Andromeda. They are pointless without it.
  • Patience would help.
  • Most people made the same remark when Surface was first introduced. Time has proven the validity of Surface business use case. The future belongs to a few who see light out of an ocean of me too negative comments....
  • Surface was an innovative new product. This is just another pair of headphones, and not very innovative headphones at that. If they were more modern in design or features like Apple or Google's then you might have an argument. Another pair of 1970 style cans aren't going to transform anything.
  • No one is buying any headphones purely for the assistant integration, whether it's Alexa, Google, or Cortana. It's just a bonus.
  • Given that I strongly question Microsoft's commitment to Cortana in the consumer space (I'm seeing features that I regularly used deprecated left and right), the fact that I've recently and continuously been burned by Microsoft on devices and services (Band, Kinect, Groove, W10M), and that I already have a headphone brand that I enjoy (Sennheiser), I see no reason for me to get these headphones.
  • I used to own Sennheiser headphones. Top notch. But then I bought Sony's Bluetooth noise cancelation headphones at best buy. Did not see the Sennheiser brand at the store. So my Sony's will last a lot longer. No need for me to buy the Surface headphones. If my Sony's get lost, stolen or break, I will consider the Surface headphones. The adjustable noise cancelation level sounds like a good idea. Set it high enough to cancel out all the ambient noise but allow my workmates' voice to pass through.
  • How long till we see a Surface Band? Surface and Xbox collaboration? and Surface and HoloLens team up? I just can't wait.
  • I have a feeling you'll be waiting quite awhile actually.
  • These headphones with Cortana just don't make any sense. Isn't Cortana moving to the office team?
  • Success doesnt have to mean mass consumer production. If OEM's follow suit and if the fanbase embraces it, I think for MS that's a success. We can't compare MS definition with Apple's.
  • I don't get the 'OEMs follow suit." What are OEMs, and what OEMs going to follow? Putting Cortana integration in? A noise cancellation dial? The headphone space doesn't need a reference design. In fact they have one, Bose. The two 'unique' features, Cortana, NC dial, could have been, and could be done by anyone.
  • Unless the idea has been patented by Microsoft. That means that the particular method of dialing down noise cancelation and how Cortana is integrated can't be utilised by anyone without paying Microsoft for the right to use that method. This is where I have a conflict with the Surface brand. Many people call it the aspitrational brand, but in reality, the brand is the patent farm for Microsoft. All that these devices do is create patents for other enterprises to purchase or compete with. The reality is that Surface, despite the consumer-facing position that it appears to have, is actually the most enterprise-focused element of Microsoft.
  • I own two Invoke speakers. One at my home office and one at my office. Cortana works great on the device. Several years ago I bought a Sony noise canceling bluetooth headphones. Why? Sound quality and the fact I wear hearing aides. When flying on a plane, these headphones are the only thing keeping me from going deaf or crazy. For some reason the high frequency noise amplified by the hearing aides makes life a pain. If these Surface headphones have the same level of engineering as the Invoke, then the sound quality should be exceptional. I also have a nephew who does a lot of computer work. He has three screens in front of himself and wears the yellow tinted glasses, which helps his eyes avoid the blue light fatigue. If anything, these devices are geared for the prosumer. I used to travel with a 15.6-inch laptop. I used to use Quickbooks to run my business accounting. I now travel and use a Surface Pro and travel with my Sony headphones and use a cloud-based customer-facing software service. This has dramatically increased my productivity in running my business. When I am at my desk at home or the office, I tell Cortana to play music and the Invoke fills the room with high-quality sound If I had one wish, it would be for the Surface team to pair two Invokes together and deliver exceptional stereo sound. Maybe that will come. I see a role for these headphones. Will I force myself to ask Cortana to be more active in my productive life? for instance, Hey Cortana let's make a to-do list for today. Hey Cortana, let's make a list for Home Depot. Hey Cortana, lets .... Get the picture? Maybe these headphones will allow people in a work environment to avoid the noise from adjacent cubicles from interfering in their work. Surface is about easing the transition from work and play, especially when people like me who run a business and are always available to solve a problem.
  • You can't make it work wirelessly with Xbox throw it away and try again. I'm not buying it too tired of you not making your crossplatform equipment not compatible with your own products. Still yellowing glue on the surface after 4 generations, garbage manufacturing and support for Xbox one elite controller.. **** you Microsoft.
  • Well written article as usual Jason. I just don't see these headphones as something Microsoft needs right now. But I will admit, if I had $350 just to throw at a pair of headphones, I'd try these out, I can't be the only one who feels that way.
  • They look like remedial medical devices, for assisted living. Hey Cortana, wipe my bum please, I'm drooling.
  • I feel like Microsoft has more commitment to Cortana then Apple has to Siri nobody gets mad at Apple for having one homepod and their Beats headphones don't have Siri built in Microsoft seems more dedicated not to mention they're trying to throw Cortana into some of their office apps which personally I would like to see Cortana already ties everything I do together why not tie a few more things together and she's on Halo who could deny Halo sense Cortana is on Halo she must be the best assistant. Their Partners like HP and Dell aren't going to come out anything for Cortana they might as well push their own agenda not to mention Cortana is on more devices than Alexa because of Windows 10.
  • You can use the 'b' button on the left earcup of Beats to talk to Siri. As for commitment Cortana badly lags: https://appleinsider.com/articles/18/07/25/digital-assistant-test-shows-...
  • This is great I have a google home and a Echo 2 and the Invoke and Cortana is so much better I could not stand headphones with google assistant maybe Alexa but now there is a beautiful Cortana option, Cortana even sounds smarter then the rest.
  • they lost the train oh phones, cars, smart tvs, smart wear, smart home/speakers... they should have pushed/bring windows 10 and uwp there