Parrot Zik 2.0 Headphones Review

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Where’s the Green?

A few years back I stumbled, exhausted, into the Parrot booth at CEDIA. “Not another pair of headphones…” I heard myself saying aloud. But they were missing a wire, and were Bluetooth paired to a player, so I thought I’d give them a try, then rip them off my head in disgust.

But I didn’t do any ripping. Not at all. In fact, I ended up ordering a pair, and loved many things about them. And hated a few things too. But they’ve left the building with my newly married son, so I’m Zikless once more.

Until a week ago, when I splurged just a tiny and ordered myself a new pair of Zik 2.0 cans from Parrot. Now, while I felt I should probably put on a Hawaiian shirt and play some Jimmy Buffet, I resisted (it didn’t take a whole lot), and ran them through my usual demo playlist.

So, they’ve done a few things since the 1.0. The design is very similar, the touch pad on the right ear is still cool, they come with a very audiophile-esqe set of USB and audio cables, woven cloth covered, with nice chrome connectors. The cloth bag is still too cheap to be of much use as a carrying device. The battery life is supposed to be better, not clue on that yet. And they’ve added colors.  Lots of them, 5 more besides the original black: white, blue, yellow, tan, and orange.  Didn’t see your favorite there?  Me neither, and I couldn’t see myself wearing chroma-key blue headphones anywhere in public, much less orange or any of the others, so I ordered black again.  Since then, I’ve spotted a blue pair in the wild, and they did in fact look ridiculous on the guy, who looked at mine with a bit of regret (we were in an airport).

And you’d expect there to be some sonic improvements as well. But, well, kinda.

Here’s the thing. The Zik 1.0 were darn good, a bit bass heavy, and only slightly colored. But there were too many settings, including noise cancellation on/off which changes the sound quality quite a bit, and all that room-sim processing, which is best just left off. The old app was a bit clunky too, and they’ve retained that feature this time as well. The new app is a lot different, and full of odd little quirks and bugs. The most annoying of which is that you can’t actually save any settings without an “account”, and a hot internet connection. So, if you want to tweak them for listening on an aircraft (did it), and you don’t feel like paying for the most expensive Internet access on earth or slightly above it, your settings will not only not be saved, but may not even “stick” while you’re using the headphones. Hey, Parrot…get real! Save the settings in the app, or better yet in the cans themselves, without the Internet being connected. Some of use use devices without data service.  Having the settings in the headphones would make them portable to all devices, app or not.  You do know we use these things with our laptops which are app-less, right?

The sound? Yeah, still pretty good, but different. In fact, the wonderful Audyssey Amp tuning for the 1.0 headphones is completely wrong for these. And they don’t have these profiled yet. So, they’re colored, and I really wanted to fix them. There’s quite a nice little equalizer in the app, it’s a limited parametric, just 4 bands. You can do a lot with it, if you can get it to behave. Making adjustments is a pain at best. And you can’t just edit a saved setting and tweak it, you basically start over each time. Who want’s that? I spent 15 minutes on a “tuning”, then had to start over for a minor tweak.  Dumb.

The app also locks up a lot, causing a forced-shut down, and restart of the app. The headphones pair well and easily, and the sound quality over Bluetooth is quite good (better with the cord of course). And, like the older model, passive mode is not sterling. Improved over the 1.0, but still not great.

The noise cancellation is excellent, though. It killed airplane noise just fine, and was so good at killing a hotel air-conditioner noise that I thought the thing had shut off. But that brings me to one of my bigger issues. No noise-canceling when using the headphones to make a phone call! Huh? That’s a time when noise cancellation is needed most! And it’s not available. Sheesh.  I understand the problem, you need what Telco calls “side tone”, a but of your own voice mixed into your ears for comfort, and the mic is picking up all that noise around you.  Noise cancellation inside the headphones is fairly easy, but it’s an entirely different problem to make a good noise-cancelling microphone.  But that’s what these things need.  Placing or taking a call makes all the ambient noise pop on which is jarring.  Overall the phone-call quality is just ok.

Back to audio, I’m still trying to tune them with the app and the parametric EQ, getting closer. It’s an iterative process because I have to keep a record of my settings so I know where to start from next time I adjust, and the touch-sliders don’t move well, so lacking any means to type in parameters, it’s a bit of a video-game to adjust the EQ. However, I’m liking what I hear.

Are they better than the 1.0? I think the noise cancellation is improved. I think the sound different, not worse or better, but different, and need EQ to make them neutral, just like the 1.0 did. But without Audyssey to do the dirty work, it’s all up to me now.  And, funny, the EQ changes when you turn noise cancellation on and off, which means you need to retune for both conditions.  That’s not a huge problem, but is an operational glitch than many won’t understand how to respond to.

Overall, I guess I’m a Parrot head still. That would be a card-carrying, Hawaiian shirt-wearing, guitar pickin’, Zik 2.0 on my head, Parrot head. They are not cheap headphones, until your realize what’s going on in them…then they’re the best deal on your head. Yes, I like them, and will probably love them. I’m keeping them too. Got them from Amazon at less than my wholesale source last time (which tells you why I’m not a Parrot dealer!).

Overall, 1-10, Sound is a 7, might EQ to a 8.5. Comfort is an 8 (they’re heavy-ish, and might warm up if you’re not in a freezing aircraft or hotel room). The App is a 3, needs a lot of work, especially in the EQ control action, and the need to save settings without an Internet connection. Build quality is excellent. Noise cancellation is a 9, excellent. Phone call quality is a 6, could be better, and could use a dose of that noise cancellation.

So, I’m good with them for now. And, yes, I did play the “Dead Parrot” Monty Python sketch on them, just to be a jerk.  Unfortunately, this time only, I was a jerk in private.

Update (08/01/2016)

Less than a year after purchasing the Parrot Zik 2.0 headphones, I’ve had a silly little problem with them: the earpads are coming unseamed.   A call to Parrot’s support line, and a brief chat to request new earpads, and I discover that they are not user replaceable.  However, I’m still in the warranty period, so the Zik 2.0 headphones are being exchanged.  There are no more 2.0 units available in black (I think the rep said they only have yellow!) so they’re sending out a pair of Zik 3.0.  Well, ok, cool, I guess another review is in order.

Finally getting ears on the Pono

First, let me welcome the dozens of new subsribers to this blog.  Dozens, within the last week.  And all of you have oddly similar, and oddly bogus looking email addresses.  And none of you are in the USA!  Wow! So I’m not sure what you hope to get from me, but here’s what I have for you.

Today I got my first chance to get hands and ears on a Pono High-res digital audio player, Neil Young’s little science project.  Sure, I know it’s been out a while.  Hey, I’m a busy guy, not much time to play.  Today I found myself with a bit of forced free time, so I visited a local audio shop and spotted the Pono, and got a test drive.

The caution-yellow prism-shaped device (you can get one in black too, but both look like they should be hanging on a tool belt) has an oddly solid feel, and the GUI isn’t half bad.  The shop plugged in a pair of Sennheiser Momentum headphones, and I started scrolling through the song list looking for a nice fresh high-res bit of audio to listen to.  I found a ton of Youngian masterpieces, all from the 1970s, so no joy there. “But wait”, you say, “That’s all analog!  That’s high-res stuff!”  Sorry, no. Having actually lived through that period, and worked in pro audio then, I can tell you, analog anything isn’t high-res.  There are basically only two requirements for high resolution: Better performance than 16 bit linear PCM samples, and higher performance than 48KHz sampling rate, or the equivalent in analog performance.  Analog tape of the 1970s and even up until now doesn’t hit either of those basic requirements.  So, while the files may have been 192KHz, 24 bit, the original audio wasn’t even close.

The search for a demo piece continued.  I scrolled through the song list, checking each one, until finally…wham!  I hit the end of the list.  Huh.  No actual high-res material to demo.  Odd.  So, I reasoned, I’ll just pick something more or less current, at least it won’t be analog.  But the current selections were all in the throws of the Loudness War, crushed to death by loudness audio processing.  No high-res there either.  So, I searched for the best of the best analog track, and landed on Miles Davis, “So What”.  Wow, there it was, in all it’s analog, tape-noisy glory, with Mile’s horn clearly being inter-modulated by the string bass.  Of course, at 192KHz, 24 bits, all of that distortion was clearly and accurately preserved.

The search went on for a little while longer, auditioning tracks that sounded perfectly identical to their original masters, which weren’t high res either. I finally finished listening to a favorite Neil Young track, “A Man Needs A Maid”.  Yes, analog, tape hiss at the orchestra cues, and all.  Listening to it at length I gradually experienced the full weight of Young’s song-craftsmanship, and the rather unusual production of the piece, and loved it…just about as much as I ever have.  No more, no less.

Perhaps it was the headphones.  Sennheiser Momentums, at $350, should be no slouch.  Of course, they are not uncolored either. There’s that midrange peak, and bass that’s there but a little sloppy.  Still, nothing I couldn’t hear high-res through, right?

I like the styling of the Pono far better than I thought I would.  I hate the color, they should have at least come up with a few options, or stayed with something neutral.  I love the fact that you can shove in an SD card and expand storage! If only Apple…yeah, never mind.

The real issue is one of “Why?”  What do you get for your money, less in terms of the hardware, which seems fully capable, more in terms of the entire concept of High-res audio.  Is it really high-res?  What benefit is there to a high-res copy of an old analog master?  Just this: if something was  done between the analog master and a CD or vinyl that was either not done in the transfer to High-res, or done better, then I can imagine an advantage to those files.  But not because they are high-res, rather because they were created more carefully.

High-res audio must have a traceable heritage, what Mark Waldrep rightly calls “provenance”, all the way back to the original recording method. Up-sampling doesn’t “create” high-res out of standard res digital, or anything analog.

So, we’re still at Square One.  We can’t deliver high-res unless the entire chain, mic to our ears, is high-res.  That’s still the challenge, and possibly the undoing of the entire concept.

While I like a lot about the Pono player, I’m sticking with what I have for now while I wait for the source material to catch up.