Parrot Zik review

Pros

  • Solid audio performance
  • No distortion with bass at top volumes
  • Active noise cancellation
  • Innovative touch sensitive panel and NFC

Cons

  • Headband is slightly uncomfortable
  • Expensive

The Parrot Zik seems to do everything. Wireless Bluetooth audio? Check. Active noise cancellation? Yep. Integrated NFC and touch sensitive controls that auto-pause your music when you remove the headphones? Of course. There's even a free app from Parrot that's extremely useful. However, one reason it's useful is that it's the only way to balance out the Zik's highly sculpted frequency response.

With so many bells and whistles, the Zik, designed by Philippe Starck, risks being a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. It's not the best sounding, nor the best noise cancelling pair out there, but at £285, it's priced like it is. So many products would be a jumbled mess with such an array of features, however, and the Zik manages its arsenal gracefully. Above all else, it's a beautifully, thoughtfully designed set of headphones.

Design

First things first: These headphones are pretty stunning, with a luxurious combination of black leather, chrome, and a nice matte black surface. The ear pads are very plush, and for the first thirty seconds, they're the most comfortable headphones you've ever worn. Eventually, the underside of the headband, which can be precision adjusted and then locked in place, gets a little uncomfortable, putting some less-than-cushiony pressure on the scalp, regardless of adjustments. The awesome ear pads more than cancel out the headband's less-than-comfortable design, however.

Aside from a power button on the right ear, there are no buttons, but there are plenty of invisible controls. Once you've paired your device via Bluetooth – a process that can be done swiftly via NFC on compatible devices, and fairly quickly using the standard pairing method, as well – you can control volume by swiping your finger up or down the right ear's outer panel. Swipe forward or backward, and you’ll skip a song or rewind. Tap once, and you pause or answer a call. It's all quite intuitive, and completely hidden from sight.

Then there's the sensor on the surface of the ear pads that detects when you're wearing the headphones. The aforementioned app lets you set the Zik up so the active noise cancellation switches on the moment the sensor detects they're on – a process that takes a split second. Your music also auto-pauses every time you remove the headphones, and starts up when you put them back on. Simply put, these are very impressive design functions – the kind that initially wow you a bit with their simplicity and originality.

Occasionally, the sensor falters – after all, it's a filter that detects pressure from your skin, but not specifically your cheek. If you rest your headphones around your neck or place your fingers in the wrong spot while holding them, you might hear your music start up unexpectedly. This is easy to fix, however – and you just have to move the ear pads away from your skin.

I'd argue the convenient auto-pause feature is more than just a novelty, and worth having despite this minor side issue, though I do wish the app allowed you to shut the feature off if you so desired. You can override playback by using the controls on your source device. You can also fine tune volume settings and navigate playback on the source device, without issue, for those who don't want to use the blind controls on the right ear's surface.

The headphones also include a built-in mic for taking calls, and additional mics for the noise cancellation. A 3.5mm audio cable is also included for wired playback, along with a USB cable for charging and updates, though you can also wirelessly receive updates to the headphones' firmware through the app (via Bluetooth).

Even the battery compartment is well designed. The outside panel of the left ear cup pops off easily, then you can insert the included rechargeable battery, and a light magnetic force snaps it consistently back into place. I'd estimate that I could remove and replace the lid without much effort in less than two seconds on every try. Parrot rates the battery life at roughly 6 hours when you are using all the features, 18 hours when you use just the noise cancellation (it can be turned off in the app), and 24 hours worth of standby.

Performance

It's kind of hard to pinpoint what the Zik actually sounds like, since it's very tweakable thanks to the customisable equaliser. To be blunt, without the EQ, the Zik does not sound very good, to me at least. It is far too bass heavy, with weird spikes around the high-mid region that have an unpleasant effect on vocals and the attack of stringed instruments and some percussion. However, there is never any distortion at top volumes, even on deep bass tracks, and you can fine-tune the EQ so much as to almost completely eliminate the harshness of the sound signature.

Furthermore, while you can use the Zik in passive mode (without being powered up), it might as well be a different pair of headphones. No power gives you a more or less bass-free, treble-heavy frequency response, while powering up makes things overly-bass-heavy. Obviously, you can only use the headphones passively when the included 3.5mm cable is connected to your sound source. (By the way, in wired mode, the Zik will mute your music, but not pause it. At least this was the case with an older MacBook – with the headphones off, the sound disappeared, but the song continued to play).

Being able to use the headphones wired, and even passively, albeit with diminishing returns, is a plus. But the bottom line here is that the Zik has an identity crisis, sonically speaking.

With no EQ adjustment, and powered up, the Zik manages a dubious feat: It is simultaneously muddy (lacking definition in the low-mid range) and tinny (overly tweaked and harsh in the high-mid range). That’s not exactly £300 worth of sound. But a visit to the free app, and some tweaking (I lowered the deep bass, boosted the mid-bass frequencies, cut the high-mids, and boosted the highs – in each case, not by much) makes the Zik's capable drivers deliver a nice sound.

I could go through my usual descriptions of how classical, pop, rock, hip hop, and folk music sound through the Zik, but it seems pointless. Trust me: If you care about sound quality, you'll be adjusting the Zik from its default setting immediately. If adjustment were impossible, I’d have rated the Zik at 6 out of 10 – with it being saved from a worse score by its excellent, ground-breaking design.

However, since the default setting can be so easily tweaked and tuned, and even turned into a frequency response that borders on flat (or booming, if you wish), it's pointless to rate and review this headphone pair in a vacuum. Basically, if you lack an iOS or Android device, don't bother with the Zik, because the app is the single-most important piece of the puzzle when it comes to its audio performance.

But let's not forget about noise cancellation. When you first place the Zik on your head, the world appears to go on mute. Is the noise cancellation as stark (no pun intended) as, say, the Bose QuietComfort 15? No – but it's still quite effective, and while there is some noticeable hiss added to the equation, it's not nearly as noticeable as it is on pairs with less effective noise cancellation circuitry. The circuitry here is above average – it isn’t the best, but in headphones that also happen to be wireless and full of secret magic tricks, it’s certainly more than acceptable.

Verdict

So who is the Zik for? Travellers, I'd guess – those with Bluetooth mobile devices, a desire for active noise cancellation, and let's face it, those who want a very stylish and feature-loaded product. The Zik won't disappoint this crowd.

However, at just under the £300 mark these aren’t cheap headphones, and if you're more of a sound snob than a feature-fiend, there are other headphones in this sort of price range to consider.

If noise cancellation is the most important thing to you, the aforementioned Bose QuietComfort 15 is superior (and a fair bit cheaper, too). If you're looking for great noise cancellation as well as excellent audio performance, the AKG K 490 is a borderline masterpiece – and again cheaper (they can be had for £200, in fact). And if you couldn't care less about noise cancellation but would love a wireless headphone pair that sounds great, consider the Logitech UE 9000 which we recently reviewed.

If all of this sounds very nice, but what you really want is a wireless option for a lot less money, consider the simple but effective Sennheiser MM 100 – there's no noise cancellation, but at moderate levels it offers solid wireless audio at nearly a third of the price of the Zik.

For those of you who love the sleek design and clever features that Apple has built into its products over the years, the Parrot Zik offers that level of appeal, catering for needs you didn't think you had, and doing so automatically. I wish it sounded better out of the box, but kudos to Philippe Starck – the Zik is a magnum opus of design.

Specifications

Manufacturer and Model

Parrot Zik

Wireless

Yes

Connection

Stereo 3.5mm

Removable Cable

Yes

Phone Controls

Yes

Active Noise Cancellation

Yes

Type

Circumaural (over-ear)