It’s interesting what you trip over as you walk around CEDIA. I’m not talking about a hump in the carpet with cables under it, though that does happen. I’m talking about the surprising, odd and unique products that you never would have known about otherwise.
Late in the day, nearing exhaustion, we came across a booth with a set of really interesting looking headphones. I noticed right away there was no wire. Expecting the usually wireless headphone concept taken to a stylish extreme, I picked them up to look them over and asked the rep about what made them unique. In a fetching French accent, she described the Parrot Zik headphones as Bluetooth, noise canceling, and with full remote control of your IOS device, including a tap-touch interface on the headpiece. That’s the short list… so I tried them on.
If the French company Parrot sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because you’ve seen their IOS wireless controlled Quad-Rotor helicopter, you know, the one with the video cameras built in. Why, exactly, Parrot chose to enter the mid-range headphone market is a bit of a disconnect, but I assume it was their wireless experience with the Quad-Rotor that pushed it along.
The Parrot Zik concept differs from the mainstream market significantly. It’s not unusual to find bluetooth stereo headphones, but unusual that they are large over-the-ear type phones. Remote control is common, but full tap-touch-swipe? And yes, you can use the mic to make a phone call. Now, all of this would be excellent even if they didn’t sound all that good, but they did the sound design with finesse as well.
I’m a rabid headphone user with 45 years of practice. It all started with my mother, who’s radar-like ears would object to my private music played well below conversation level in my room. Headphones back then, at least the decent ones, were all full-ear, hot and heavy contraptions. Mine were darn uncomfortable, but had little knobs on the earpieces for local volume control. Of course, they became crackly and scratchy fairly early in life. But I used them and listened almost every night. Fast-forward to my professional usage of headphones, my early Walkman and Sony headphones that cost more than the Walkman itself, my brush with Stax electrostatics, my love for Grado SR-80s, my love/hate with Sony MDR-7506, all the stinkin’ ear-buds, sports headsets, over the head, under the chin, ’round the back, fold-up, roll-up, break-apart, etc. Then there’s the headphone amps I’ve built and bought. Yes, I’m in deep. Point is, for me, headphones are a tough sell.
I’ve now had a chance to live with our first “demo” pair of Parrot Zik headphones, and both me and my in-house testing staff (my son) have put them through their paces. Here’s my review:
Sound: There’s nothing more important in a pair of cans. They could actually be uncomfortable, but if they sound good, I’ll use them. Any coloration at all, and I’m marking them down. The Parrot Zik’s sound quality actually surprised me in several ways. First, the overall color is quite neutral, matching what I’m used to expecting from my headphones. But of course, if you don’t like the basic character of you hear, there’s an App that lets you access an equalizer! Go nuts. I made sure the EQ was off for my evaluation, though. The bass is quite extended, actually surprisingly so. Kick drums and bass synths are subwoofer-grade deep and tight. I have no way to measure headphone response, but huge 20Hz pipe organ pedal notes are there in all their glory, so these babies go LOW. And powerfully low, not wimpy, wheezing or that strained stretched bass you get when things are trying a bit too hard. I actually experimented with a tiny bit of bass roll-off in the EQ app, but ultimately left the EQ off. The midrange is smooth, the high end clean. But there’s a caution: Bluetooth stereo…hmm. My first experience with it. It’s really very good, but Bluetooth stereo audio makes use of bit-rate reduction (usually miss-termed “compression”), which in and of itself isn’t bad at all. But, when playing a file that is already bit-rate reduced, such as an .mp3 or AAC file, what’s actually happening is the audio passes through two different CODECs in series, a situation with unpredictable and inconsistent results. Sometimes the high end becomes harsh and brittle, other times it’s nearly transparent. I proved this to myself by playing a series of tracks in uncompressed formats like Apple Lossless and FLAC. Uncompressed files always sound good through Bluetooth, and the greater number of compressed files do to, but theres the occasional clinker. The Parrot Zik headphones have the ability to connect to any source with a cable (supplied) and bypass Bluetooth completely, and that did improve things. But realistically, I’m very picky and your basic quality snob, which means most people won’t hear what I hear, and that’s just bully for them.
There are tons of ugly headphones in the world. Just look at those 1930 crystal-set-ish Grado cans, or pretty much anything by Stax. Again, Parrot doesn’t just bend the rules, the go head and fracture them. Designed by Starck, function is blended with style, as the outer surfaces are actually touch sensitive controls. Swipe up, volume raises, the reverse for a downward swipe. Swipe forward, tap to pause, answer your phone, etc.
Nearly all curcumnaural headphones have issues with heat buildup. A human head radiates quite a bit of warmth, being the area of the body that looses heat the fastest. Cover the hears, and they do get toasty. The Parrots are no exception, and would actually be quite nice on a chilly day. But aside from being a bit warm long term, they are very comfortable. The cushions almost feel fluid filled, reminiscent of the Koss Pro 4A, if you’re old enough to remember them. Yet lighter than the Koss, and with much less head-crushing force too. They also seal quite well, giving above average ambient noise reduction just by being on your head. Then, switch on the active noise cancellation had it gets just plain scary. Noise cancellation has been around for over 10 years now, and works fairly well, but is usually not applied to full-size, over-the-ear headphones, much less Bluetooth phones. It’s a nice touch, and will be very very nice on the next flight. The noise cancellation remains functional even when they are cabled, a nice bit of finesse.
Slightly on the down side, there are a couple of technical glitches. They don’t seem to want to just jump in there and pair up with a device they’ve already met and got to know. If you pair them, then walk far enough away to disconnect them, they probably won’t just re-pair. Sometimes the initial pair-up is sluggish, but nearly always happens eventually. Answering a phone call may not always go silky smooth. But these are all things to deal with in a firmware update. There’s also no using them as passive headphones with just the cable and the power off. You’ll get some sound, but you won’t like it much. You have to use their built-in electronics, so the ‘phone phreaks with phancy amps are wasting their hardware on the Ziks.
These days you can get really good headphones for less than ever. You can also spend thousands on the hgih-end ones. At $399, the Parrot Zik headphones land north of cheap by quite a few miles, but way south of ridiculous. But considering the features, comfort, styling and all the Bluetooth functionality that pairs with your iPhone, plus the free app, they’re actually a hands-down win. If they had the features but not the sound quality, they’d be only fair. If they had the sound quality but none of the features, they’d be expensive. But all together, I think they are actually a really well-priced set.
Buyers should be prepared to fiddle with them a bit until the firmware gets fixed, assuming that’s a possibility.