Hardware

Review: Parrot Zik headphones

Read time 6min 20sec
The headphones offer decent sound out the box, with truly good quality obtainable with some fine-tuning.
The headphones offer decent sound out the box, with truly good quality obtainable with some fine-tuning.

As a showcase of what can be done with modern technology in designing and implementing intuitive controls and delivering a high-quality end product, the Parrot Zik headphones are worth their weight (not insignificant, as they're rather hefty) in gold. However, cool points aside, they are less impressive when considered without focusing on their exciting, but ultimately gratuitous, Bluetooth- and touch-controlled functionality.

Philippe Starck, famous French designer and long-time d'ecor guru, had a hand in their creation. While writing of their 'augmented role' and how it inspired design decisions, the headphones are touted as a "...'fused looking' object. A sensitive object, full of sensors... The Zik is revealing your emotions. The Zik merges with the body, like a technological extension of you to listen to music."

With useful-sounding features like active noise cancellation, as well as 'automated pausing' (more of a hassle than a help, ultimately), the Zik was designed for easy pairing with modern mobile devices. However, my experiences with these features were not easy. The first issue I had with the headphones was their integration with an app, required to manipulate the equaliser, noise cancellation and 'audio environment' emulation settings.

I was using them with a cable to start with, only testing out the wireless later. As a result of not using them in conjunction with a mobile phone, but rather a laptop, I was subjected to a gimmicky 'environment' setting and fairly flat default EQ settings, both resulting in severely compromised sound. I was only able to disable the environmental settings later on, when pairing the headphones with a friend's iPhone 4S, meaning I was subjected to an annoying level of reverb for my opening hours with the device, which didn't do wonders for my feelings about the headphones.

Look and feel

The headphones feel well put together; well-cushioned earpieces and a sturdy frame give the impression of comfort (although, after extended use, I found them to be far from anything resembling comfort). They provide a tight fit with ease, and they block out an impressive level of outside noise, allowing you to enjoy your sound without abusing the volume controls too much, sparing your ears from the temptation of potentially damaging amplitudes.

The headphones are also visually appealing, with well-glossed blacks and metallic silvers contrasting to create a pretty pair. The 'invisible' controls are interesting and responsive, and manage to make users look cool rather than weird, despite requiring them to fondle their ears for seemingly no reason.

However, while the earpieces are well cushioned, the frame itself is not, and weighs a bit heavily on the skull. After a few hours' use, I experienced headaches, as it wasn't just too weighty, but also a bit too snug in its fit. Unfortunately, no amount of adjusting or angling would change this, meaning they'd be ultimately unsuitable for me.

Features

With automated near-field communication (NFC) pairing, a simple 'bump' should be all that's required to link these headphones with your device (assuming you have NFC functionality). I opted for a manually initiated Bluetooth connection, along with a manually downloaded iOS app intended to be used in conjunction with the device. I've already written how the pair I was given for testing had some strange 'environmental effects'; luckily these were easily culled with the app - and I managed to get some fairly impressive performance by fine-tuning the equaliser settings.

The shining feature that really stands out for the Parrot Zik is its active noise cancellation, also controlled by an app. Sporting four microphones, it really does a stellar job removing disruptions from your listening. When you take this into account along with its good insulation, you can bet on never having to turn the volume up to full capacity on this headset.

In addition to all these microphones, there is one more for you to use when answering calls or otherwise transmitting or recording your voice; all offer impressive quality, ensuring you sound clear in your phone calls - just make sure you're not shouting - the insulation on the headset really is that impressive.

Sound

The quality of Parrot's hardware is undeniable, and definitely lives up to the standards of craftsmanship designer Starck established during his coloured career, with an end result he can unabashedly attach his name to.

The technically minded among you will know that, having an impedance (resistance) of 32?, the Parrot Zik is on level ground with other portable/wireless headphones, managing decent volume and signal output without sacrificing battery life in the process.

In summary

Pros: Lots of customisation; effective DSP settings; app's EQ settings make a big difference; nice battery life
Cons: Costly; some may find them uncomfortable; wireless functionality weakens device by forcing reliance on app
Rating: 6/10
Price: R4 299

However, if you are using the device plugged in, without 'turning it on' properly on something like a laptop, or a low-end soundcard (or worst yet, an onboard sound port on a normal motherboard), then you will experience a soulless and almost 'tinny' sound that results in you wondering what the price tag is for.

The Parrot Zik does pack a hefty 800mAh lithium battery (that you can replace/swap out), so it is understandable it would under-perform when not using it, but this reliance on its own power source, requiring fine-tuning through an app, without which you are locked out of several key features of your purchase, and its design around Bluetooth in general make me want to take this parrot back to the pet store.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the Parrot Zik is about form over function. Despite being priced to pique the interest of true audio aficionados, I don't see them really impressing anyone with anything but their attempt to implement 'intuitive wireless' and gesture controls, unfortunately leaving their audio more likely to be singled out for criticism than praise.

Overall, I found myself constantly fine-tuning the over-powering bass, and trying to resurrect the low-mids from the ocean of highs that the Zik delighted in squawking. Once I had it set to suit my music genre of choice, I had to use it without the battery's assistance, resulting in a whole new (and unsatisfying) sound.

Despite the high-quality material, impressive specifications and carefully balanced DSPs, the headphones don't seem 'designed' to sound good out of the box. They seem to be created with the potential in mind, leaving the critical tuning and adjusting to you. For some, this is what they'd have spent their time doing anyway (indeed, I'd hope that most who are prepared to spend this much on headphones would put the time in for it to be 'worth it'), but for the user who expects performance without the hassle, the Parrot Zik will not impress.

Unfortunately, and most condemningly of all, the headphones fit the needs of the stereotypical bass-head perfectly: loud volume, loud bass and minimal clipping - which leave the rest of us pining for the fjords.

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