09
Jul
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Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And when it comes to copying, I have no doubt that the Parrot Ziks will be imitated, reimagined, and otherwise "inspire" a new generation of Bluetooth headphones in the coming years. Yes, they're that different. The Ziks are also, to be blunt, an experimental product. They don't sit on your head very well, and they don't sound fantastic. Even their game-changing features, like the touchpad controls on the right ear housing, aren't quite fully baked yet.

It doesn't matter. The moment I started using the Ziks, and every moment thereafter, I simply thought: "this is the future of wireless headphones." I think this is particularly telling, as I do not actually like wireless headphones. They compromise audio quality to make room (both physically and financially) for electronics, and are basically a ripoff for anyone who actually demands a strong dollars:sound ratio. Your typical $100-200 wireless headphones, like the early Tiptronic automatic transmissions, provide all the functionality of a wired headphone (and more!), but none of the soul.

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I am sad to say the Parrot Ziks still don't have that "soul" I speak of; the sound just isn't there - not for $400. Not even close, frankly. The kind of wired headphone $400 - or significantly less than that - can buy you (Sennheiser HD600, Grado SR325i, HiFiMAN HE-400) will make the Ziks sound like crap, if I'm honest.

But the Ziks really aren't about hi-fi, they're about technology. They're about making the act of using headphones easier, more streamlined, and not to put too fine a point on it, better. I think the Ziks achieve this goal admirably - more so than any other headphone on the market. Let me explain.

The tech: your headphones should be this smart.

Alright, what's so special about the Ziks? Well, it's not really any one thing. It's the combination of those things - Parrot set out to make the "world's smartest" headphone, and so while few of the technologies in the Zik are new in and of themselves, putting them all in the same product easily makes the Ziks the brainiest headphones you can buy right now. Here's a brief rundown of those features.

  • Mobile app (Android and iOS) that shows battery life, can adjust active noise cancellation, EQ settings, Parrot's virtual surround settings, and a couple other tweaks.
  • The headphones know when you put them on / take them off with a pressure sensor on the right ear cup, and will pause / play your music accordingly. If you don't give them a power off timeout, they can sit at low-power idle for hours and will turn back on as soon you put them on again.
  • Active noise cancellation turns on automatically regardless of whether there's an active BT connection (if the setting has been enabled in the app).
  • Volume, play/pause, and track forward/back are controlled via a touchpad on the right ear cup. Just swipe or tap - no feeling out buttons.
  • NFC Bluetooth pairing. Enough said.
  • Settings are stored on the headphones, not in the companion software - no tweaking everything every time you switch devices.
  • microUSB charging with a very easily replaced 800mAh lithium-ion battery. Spares are $30.

As you can now tell, the Ziks really are designed with intelligence in mind. These headphones want to make every aspect of using them simpler, smarter, and faster.

But, as with any very smart, groundbreaking product, there are bound to be some hiccups.

For example, the touchpad on the right earcup will respond to basically anything that touches it. That means if you're on an airplane and you accidentally rub it up against your headrest or pillow, you might pause your music. Or skip a track. Or lower the volume. It really depends on the angle. This could, and does, get annoying, even if you're not using the headphones for music. Every registered "tap" on the touchpad causes the Zik to make a small chirping noise to tell you the tap was acknowledged. As far as I am aware, this feature cannot be disabled.

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The touchpad controls themselves work reliably, though. Tap to pause, and slide a finger up or down the cup to adjust volume. Once you get used to it, it's hard to believe you lived without this kind of functionality. It is fantastic.

Going back to the shortfalls, though: the pressure sensor that allows the Ziks to determine if you've taken them off doesn't exactly work if you put them around your neck (unless you swivel the right ear out so the pad isn't touching you), as you'll likely still put enough pressure on it for the headphones to think they're still on your ears. (However, if you just, say, put them down, it works flawlessly.) The other problem is more basic: while the feature works great with music, it won't cooperate with many video services. The sound stops, but the video keeps playing. I'm not knocking Parrot for it - it's not remotely their fault - so much as pointing out that the feature's usefulness is naturally curbed by the current state of the tech.

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The Zik's pressure sensor (aka button) for determining whether the headphones are actually on your head.

The active noise cancellation is great, in my relatively uninformed opinion. I'm not a big ANC headphone nut, so I can't give you any comparisons to other ANC headphones. Google it if you really need that information. I know some people may lament the lack of a hardware ANC switch, so be aware of that.

Also, an easily removable and replaceable battery? With microUSB charging? Outstanding. I'll be the first to say removable batteries on smartphones are overrated and generally not that big of a deal for most people, but on something you may be charging / using more rarely, being able to toss a spare battery in your bag is awesome. Just pull off the magnetic cover on the left ear, and you can easily swap in a new 800mAh cell. The Ziks also have the ability to be used unpowered with an included 3.5mm stereo cable, but the sound sucks so bad this way that you won't actually want to use it (more on that later).

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NFC pairing for Bluetooth is one of the best simple ideas ever. Bluetooth pairing is such an annoyance, and being able to just tap your phone against the Ziks to pair is definitely a noteworthy convenience.

The app: it's good, though a little rough around the edges.

The Parrot.AS (AudioSuite) app is very functional, reliable, and does what it was designed to do well. I've never had any communication issues with the headphones, probably because the app reestablishes its link with them every time you launch it. As I stated in the bullets in the previous section, the app does a few things, and all of them seem to work flawlessly.

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The ANC switch responds quickly, as do the Parrot Concert Hall and EQ switches. Parrot Concert Hall, as you're obviously wondering at this point, is a bit of proprietary DSP tweaking. Think of it like the various settings on your A/V receiver at home, but with some "virtual surround" goodies especially for headphones. You can choose 4 settings - silent room, living room, jazz club, or concert hall. You can then adjust the simulated separation of the speaker sources from 180 degrees down to 30 degrees. The one application I found use for PCH was video, and mostly as a way to balance out the terribly headphone-unfriendly mixing some films use. I guess it might make crappy YouTube music rips sound a little more lively? For actual music listening, I found it made my tunes worse, not better.

The 7-band equalizer comes with a rather annoyingly small group of presets - you get 6, plus one custom preset. Adjusting the included presets simply switches you back to the custom "user" preset. I realize storing presets on the headphones themselves limits storage capacity, but this feature set definitely needs to be expanded a bit.

Other settings include the ability to name your headphones, enable or disable ANC during calls, and toggle the auto-connect behavior of the headphones. You can also set a auto-power off timeout (it's disabled by default), which is probably advisable. The headphone firmware can be updated through the app, as well.

The app does feel a bit laggy at times, and the UI could use a refresh. But unlike so many accessory companion apps, I've never actually had a real problem with Parrot.AS. That alone is worthy of high praise.

The hardware: beautiful, but not a great fit.

I really wanted to like wearing the Ziks. They're comfortable enough, definitely, and the earpads don't feel like they're actively attempting to crush your skull. Unfortunately, the headphone band just isn't tight enough, and the driver housings are too heavy to make do with such a loose fit. No matter how much I adjusted the band size, whenever I moved it constantly felt like the Ziks would fall off unless I kept pushing them back up, and that is a very annoying problem for a headphone to have. Granted, ANC headphones are often used when sitting or walking leisurely, and aren't going to get much time with the jogging crowd. Basically, the Ziks are not meant to be worn in very active scenarios. They will fall off. In less active ones, you're probably going to fiddle with them because you think they're going to fall off.

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The rest of the hardware is pretty good. The headband adjustment action is way too tight, though, and I constantly end up pulling out like 3 notches instead of one on the band because I have to pull so damn hard on it. Luckily, the Ziks have numbered marker lines along the inner tube that comes out of each side of the band, so you can note just what your ideal setup is. Very clever.

Overall, these feel like very sturdy, premium headphones. I am quite confident just tossing them in my bag and going - they just don't seem like they'd break very easily. And as someone who finds most modern wireless headphones to either be revoltingly garish or plasticky and cheap-looking, the Ziks are a breath of fresh air - they are absolutely stunning. I'm not Philippe Starck's biggest fan, but the Ziks walk the line between taste and modernity with aplomb, at least to my eyes. This is a "designer headphone" (quite literally) I'd be perfectly happy wearing in public.

The sound: solid as long as you ignore the MSRP.

The Ziks sound pretty good for Bluetooth headphones. As good or better than most I have tried. However, the Ziks also have an MSRP and street price, currently, of $400. That's a lot of money. A lot of money that could buy you some wired headphones which sound amazing, as opposed to "pretty good." I'd say the Ziks basically go toe-to-toe overall compared to the Harman Kardon BT's I reviewed back in May.

Compared to the BTs, the Ziks have strong bass with much less reverb (the BT's amplify this by sitting very tight over your ears) and more fairly represented mids, but don't have quite have the fine detail, crisp highs, or overall fidelity of those headphones. The character of the Ziks is quite balanced, however, and soundstage separation is better than I expected. This is probably in part because they sit relatively loosely on the ears.

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ANC plays into the audio quality of any headphone with this feature, though, and the case is no different with the Ziks. Some people, like me, find the sound of ANC headphones to be tinny and mechanical, as a result of noise cancellation processing. This is still very noticeable for me on the Ziks, and the result is a sound signature I just don't like for dedicated music listening outside of an airplane.

With ANC turned off, the sound actually becomes worse. Because the Ziks were not designed to provide much of any passive noise isolation, or apparently tuned for use without ANC, music sounds empty and weak when played without it. Dynamic range seems to evaporate, and bass goes out the window with it. Instead of the good-but-slightly-tinny sound I hear with ANC on, I get what sounds like a set of Bluetooth headphones costing a quarter what the Ziks do.

But what about using them with a wired cable? That has to be better, right? If only. Using the Ziks unpowered is just not worth your time. They sound truly awful. Like a notch above Apple earbuds. Yes, really.

If I were buying the Ziks on the sound they provided alone (and knowing they were wireless), anything over $200 would be too high in my book.

Conclusion: an amazing headphone that isn't always amazing.

The Ziks are unlike any other headphone I've used before. From a technological perspective, this is what wireless headphones should be like. They should use that wireless capability in every possible way to enhance the user experience, and mitigate the drawbacks (like batteries). This was clearly Parrot's goal when they set out designing the Ziks: making the "ultimate" wireless headphone. And in that respect, they've succeeded. You cannot find a pair of headphones as tech-obsessed. They just don't exist.

But they will. Every single Bluetooth headphone OEM is looking at these ideas (some of which they came up with long before Parrot, yes), and figuring out how best to package them, and improve upon them. That makes me excited. It may be a year or two, but I think we'll start seeing the first wave of truly "smart headphones" soon enough. As an audiophile, Bluetooth audio transmission has never been something I've loved, but as a consumer? The convenience is impossible to deny. At some point, you have to admit that in some situations, fidelity simply isn't the #1 concern in a headphone, and the Ziks proved that to me. Convenience, features, and simple operation are going to be the bywords of this new generation of wireless cans.

So, is living in the [near] future worth $400? Well, that's really up to you. The Ziks are not without significant drawbacks, but they're also incredibly cool, and no other product on the market can claim to be their functional equivalent. They really do stand alone.

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David Ruddock
David's phone is whatever is currently sitting on his desk. He is an avid writer, and enjoys playing devil's advocate in editorials, and reviewing the latest phones and gadgets. He also doesn't usually write such boring sentences.

  • Eric Vaughan

    $400? Yea, not happening. Even at $200, without good sound, there isn't much reason to choose this over a vastly superior wired option.

    • mesmorino

      For real, I could get a car for that kind of money. Admittedly not a particularly awesome car, but even the most busted jalopy that was little more than four wheels and an engine would still be a much better buy

  • mesmorino

    Wait wait wait "... removable batteries on smartphones are overrated and generally not that big of a deal for most people..."

    hahahahahah! Also, HAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!

    Overrated? Really? The single advantage of a removable battery over the nonremovable ones IS THAT IT IS REMOVABLE. This fact cannot be overstated, nor is it overrated! That is the entire point- You can remove it and a) put another one in or b)put a larger capacity one in. If you think this feature, however small, is not that big of a deal for "most people", I suggest you ask iPhone users if they'd like to be able to swap batteries

    • NoUsernamesFree

      If being able to swap batteries was such a huge deal to "most people" then surely the number of iPhones that have been sold would be much, much lower?

      • mesmorino

        No, all it means is that those people value convenience, dumbed down interfaces and simplicity of use over actual practical considerations like the phone being able to last more than two days. on a single charge. Android users are skewed towards the other end of the spectrum, where they would prefer the device to have as many modifiable options as possible even if they would never use those options- Like unlocked bootloaders and such

        • NoUsernamesFree

          I'm very content with my Nexus 4 and Anker Astro 3E combo. It means I don't have to try and buy an additional battery every time I change my device. I don't own a iPhone and I'm not in the camp where a battery is a big deal. Do you solid statistical evidence that says that a removable battery is a big deal to most people?

          I don't think Android users skew towards the other end of the spectrum at all. I think the same considerations that lead people to buy an iPhone are also the same considerations to a very large proportion of Android users; don't forget that CM has 6 million total installs, while 1.5 million Android devices are activated daily. While CM isn't the whole Android enthusiast market (and the enthusiast market is probably one of the biggest that want a removable battery and - more importantly - make that feeling vocal) 99.999% of users of Android are regular people who want something that works for calls, texts and email, is cheap and plays games.

          • mesmorino

            Well, here's a counterpoint: do you have solid statistical evidence that says a removable battery is not a big deal to most people? While you may be happy with your set up, you're one guy, and person is hardly a significant data point.

          • NoUsernamesFree

            No, I can't. However from a quick Google: http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20130706195145AAOs6ci (yes, it's Yahoo! Answers and a small study-size, but it's not mentioned), http://www.slideshare.net/devan_kataria/a-survey-marketing-research-of-what-customers-want-in-a-cell-phone-design (can't find a solid date of release, but mentions to the iPhone and 2007 suggest the last 4 years at a maximum. It does mention battery life as a factor, but not a removable battery as a hard requirement) and http://www.slideshare.net/wdanyang/students-choice-on-smartphones (although they do admit in the presentation that they picked poor questions and there's no feedback on whether participants provided additional answers).

            Can you do the same and provide links to tech-level neutral or, given my previous points, indeed a beginner-level Android site or survey where removable battery has been independently suggested as one of the most killer features that would affect a phone purchase.

          • dmakun

            check this recent survey out: http://www.phonearena.com/news/Poll-results-Replaceable-battery-or-unibody-design---which-one-do-you-prefer_id42117

            I think you both have valid points but you seem to want to discredit his point though.

          • NoUsernamesFree

            I'm very open to being proved wrong. I'd take it as a TIL and move on. I just haven't seen this absolute need for a removable battery from anyone really, outside of the mobile phone tech industry.

            Although, I'm surprised how close that poll is. I would have thought it would be more in favour of the removable crowd, huh.

          • NoUsernamesFree

            I fully accept I am just one guy, however so are you and you were the one that made the original claim that something is a requirement "most people" i.e. the majority while I have not personally seen any evidence in real-life or online to support that. Beyond a number of vocal commentators on what is a fairly enthusiast level of soapbox platform (the comments section of Android-specific blogs).

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/ David Ruddock

      This is a headphone review, but I sure do appreciate you hijacking it via one sentence out of 2000 words!

      • mesmorino

        I aim to please David! :D lol okay I'll stop now. (I've noticed I tend to do that around here, derail threads that is)

  • dobbsy

    I've had a pair of these for 5 months or so. I quite like them. Mind you, I mostly listen to podcasts and audiobooks, but I'm find with the sound. My only complaint is the fit. You pretty much nailed it in that regard. They do feel like they're going to fall off. They never have, though.

    As someone who uses crowded public transit, the wirelessness of them is awesome. Never having to pull out your phone and being able to control everything with a finger swipe or tap is so convenient and the reason I would be disappointed to move back to a wired set. I can't count the number of times another passenger's coat or bag used to get caught on my wired headphones and yank the device or phones.

    I live in Toronto and got mine for $200. There are a few electronics stores here who usually have them on hand for that price, often in damaged boxes. They usually advertise them on Craigslist.

    • Someone_asdf

      Use to have a Plantronics 590 (or was that 950?) that had the same features. I've been looking for bt headsets that have a wired option. The removable batteries is a plus.

      However, even with a dongle (the bt transmitter), the headset was like $120 -- cheaper if you didn't need it if you only used it with devices that supported BT.

  • thomas

    I finally found some good wireless headphones, Sennheiser MM 550-X. Great noise cancelling, great sound, apt-x for loseless audio and more. But when I read this article I just thought how cool would that be to have this pressure sensor or app to control. But hey, if it's all about sound, just go for Sennheiser. I had lots of them on my head and all Nokia, Beats Audio are marketing dummies. AKG can't even come close to Senns. So after all it's sound over features.