Review: Parrot Zik 2.0 wireless headphones
4.6Overall Score
Price (RRP): $499 Manufacturer: Parrot

Parrot’s wireless headphones return, proudly proclaimed as “the world’s most advanced headphones” and packing so much of a walloping, it’s hard not to be impressed by what’s on offer.

Features

The French gadget makers and famed designed Philippe Starck are back with another pair of headphones that could change the way headphones are made, taking the idea of a wireless headphone and making it more interesting than just cutting the cords.

The new pair isn’t just an update on the first Zik headphones from 2012, though, with some different innards, more control for the user, and an app that has been designed to work with both Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android.

Parrot’s Zik 2.0 are smaller, that said, put on a diet from the original cans and reduced in weight around 17 percent, yet including a slightly thicker headband and a new cushion design for ears.

Wireless is handled by way of Bluetooth 3.0, pairing with Bluetooth or Near-Field Communication, depending on what your phone or tablet has. Technologies such as High-Resolution Audio (HRA) and the Advanced Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP) are both supported by the Zik headphones, the former of which includes a 192/24 digital audio converter.

Noise cancellation is also built into the headset, a feature which can be switched on and off via the aforementioned app, and which takes advantage of several microphones places around the headset. We’re told there are eight of these, six of which are engaged for active noise cancellation.

Making the wireless work is a rechargeable battery that can be replaced if needed, charged over microUSB and providing as much as 18 hours of use according to Parrot, with standby up to eight days. The battery is rated at 830mAh and takes a little over two hours to charge.

The battery also powers the controls, which in this pair of headphones are built into a touchpad found on the right earpad. There are no marking to suggest that is what the ear pad does, however, so you’ll have to know.

One physical button is included, however, with the power button on the bottom of the right ear pad.

A cord can still be used if needed, with the 3.5mm headphone jack located on the right side, different from most other headphones out there. No power is needed if the cord is attached.

The Parrot Zik 2.0 headphones are available in six colours, up from one in the original Zik (1.0) headphones.

Performance

It takes a lot to say you have the world’s most advanced headphones, but that’s exactly what Parrot is claiming with the Zik 2.0, a pair of cans that packs in some software and hardware guts to make one of the more interesting types of headphones you’ll ever cast your eyes on.

Take them out of the box — hell, look at them in the box through its transparent packaging — and you can see these aren’t your usual pair of plastic cans. Even if you’re used to seeing headphones from the likes of Beats or Bose, there’s something different about the style Philippe Starck and Parrot have infused into the design of the Zik 2.0.

They’re simple and sleek, with a metal frame that hugs the ear pieces in a way few devices do, making it almost resemble a shape that was drawn in one swift motion.

It’s curvy and soft, and there’s a feeling of simplicity here that is too hard to ignore.

Grab them and you’ll find a weight that isn’t overly light, and yet also isn’t particularly heavy. Sitting at 270 grams, these aren’t overly weighty, though some may notice the metal structure and largish ear pads, quickly. Putting them on, we didn’t feel like they were weighing our head down, though every head is different.

From here, you just need to switch on the power, because without it, you won’t be getting much of the headphones to work. The Parrot Zik 2.0 will operate without power, that said, but only in a minimal capacity, with no controls or noise cancellation, with this feature only existing for when you run out of battery power.

That said, you’ll want the battery charged, because that’ll let you get the most out of these cans, with an app that will let you manipulate how they sound in a jiffy, change the soundstage, and even tell you how much battery you have left.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, so let’s start with the basics.

Switching the pair on is easy: press the one obvious button found on the headset, and if you’re wearing the headphones, will make a little drum noise and start to sound like it’s cancelling out a bit of the world (it is).

From there, pair using either Bluetooth on your phone, or if you have NFC equipped, rub the phone on one of the ear pads, kickstarting the Bluetooth handshake for you.

Controlling the headphones is pretty easy, too, with swiping up and down on the right ear pad — which is also a touchpad — controlling the volume level, while swiping left and right will go forward and backward on a track. Touching the ear pad will pause and play a song. It’s an easy system to get your head across.

Once you’re all familiar and you’re good to go, time to run the headphones with the app.

Parrot’s headphones work closely with the Parrot Zik app, a piece of software which will tell you the battery life of your headphones upon load, and then let you turn off the various noise cancellation, equaliser, or concert hall spatial simulation settings with one touch.

If that’s not enough, you can swipe left to right from this screen and control the each of these settings with more granularity, and if you want to go further than that, Parrot even lets you control the audio dynamics on a track by track basis.

For now, we’ll test with most of the effects off, save for noise cancellation, which will utilise several of the included microphones to sample the outside world and then cancel it out by way of double up.

And as usual, we’re starting this off with electronic with Mooro’s “M66R6” and here the synth is solid at both the top and bottom ends of the track, with a solid thud to the sound and a fair amount of room to move as far as volume goes. The Glitch Mob’s “Skullclub” brings a little more in the way of mids, with a more thorough and deeper sound, which really kicks in the bass as the song gets started, the Zik headphones never really losing step and pumping out the sound here.

Even when the bass is hard and heavy, the mids and highs are still just as pronounced, though it is clear the bass is a little more prominent, but otherwise it’s quite balanced.

Next up is rock, and while we’re planning on making the GadgetGuy Sound Test a little more varied in 2015, for now we start with the 2014 test and “Radioactive” by the Imagine Dragons. Like the electronic tests, the bass is quite pronounced, but in this track, the mixing leans harder on the highs, and the headphone is doing a pretty solid job of recreating both, with excellent balance on each, the guitar and synth working together beneath the vocals.

Muse’s “Supremacy” is next, and a little softer on volume but still balanced through the instruments, with strong highs and mids, and clear drums with punch, which is much the same as we hear on Closure In Moscow’s “A Night At The Spleen” with crystal percussion and vocal overlay, with excellent guitars at the high end of the sound spectrum.

Even The Rolling Stones sound pretty solid here, with “Gimme Shelter”’s use of percussion in the background clear just behind the guitars, with the vocal echoing in front. Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “Voodoo Child” is soft on the guitar with a solid tap of the drums, the Zik headphones creating a sound that makes it feel like you’re listening in a small room, and Stevie was playing just for you.

Over to popular music, and the classic music testing piece “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson shows just how strong the bass recreation on these cans is, with balance in the bottom end as the music tackles the middle and MJ’s voice handles the high. The distinction is clear, obvious, and the amount of balance found here — even with Jackson’s clicks heard through it all — make us want this sort of sound for every song. This track on these headphones is masterful, it really is.

Modern music is a little emptier, evident in Jessie J’s “Bang Bang”, which retains balance, but lets you hear just how synthetic the sounds are in the original track, with oomph and yet no real depth to the sounds. That’s not the fault of the headphones; rather, these cans are just pointing out how much sampling is actually going on.

Hip-hop handles better thanks to the complexity of the track overlaying, and the balance is noticeable in the sound of “Can’t Hold Us” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, which has verses spoken in the highs, the mids handled by samples, and a big punch of bass in the back end that is so good, it can’t be ignored.

You can usually tell how good a headphone is with how it handles jazz, and in Dave Brubeck’s “Maria”, you’ll hear clear distinction between sax, piano, drums, and bass, with the headphones not really leaning to one side; it’s all as balanced as it should be, with the sax taking centre stage mostly when it’s on, and then the piano, with subtlety of the high hat from the drums still heard beneath it alongside the rounding of the bass and a too-strong pluck from time to time.

Brass bands sounds great, too, with New Orleanian Kermit Ruffins blasting our ear drums in “Treme Second Line” as each horn is picked up in the mids and horns clearly, none of it gelling together, the vocals on top and not taking over, the bass and drums sitting underneath and not lost. Awesome.

One of our favourites sounds just as solid, too, with Coltrane’s “Blue Train” rich as the saxophone screams, and a level of clarity in the mids to the back that lets you hear the softer notes of a bassist working with the other musicians.

Finally, there’s classical, and with jazz working so well on these headphones, we have high expectations for the sort of sound we’ll have here, starting with Yo-Yo Ma and Claude rolling on the jazz-fused “Baroque in Rhythm” which only consists of a few musicians — piano, cello, drums, and bass — but yet offers a richness to all of them, though the volume is much lower here. The sharp attack of the cello can almost be felt here giving way to the piano, while the pitter patter of the drums on the snare is still clear and evident, with the bass never lost in the back end, all of the musicians playing along harmoniously.

Recreating a piano playing Chopin is also a success here, with high mids and highs on Freddy Kempf’s “Fantasie Impromptu in C”, while Nigel Kennedy’s take on Satie’s “Gymonopédies” is soft yet rich, the orchestra soft underneath it.

Simply put, the Parrot Zik 2.0 headphones pass our headphone test with flying colours, and it’s hard to find a track or a style of music they don’t like, but the feature set isn’t over yet, because these cans do a lot more, and we were testing solely with noise cancelling on and no other EQ settings.

That’s the trick of the Zik 2.0: they come with so much in the way of sound customisation, even if you can find a track the headphones don’t work well with, you’ll still be able to manipulate the sound so that the track does sound amazing.

Parrot makes the music sound that good by way of a dynamic driver, which is basically a piece of software working with some hardware inside the headphones to change the personality of the headphones, as well as the sound stage you’re listening on.

As an example, you can fiddle with the equaliser in an easy to use system that basically has you guide your finger across to different sound qualities on a circle, changing the sound based on where the finger lands.

If you choose punchy, the mids and bass get a little more pronounced and aggressive. Deep is stronger on the bass than anything else, club seems to hollow our the mids bit still keep a solid thumb from the bass in place, and cristal heightens the highs, and so on and so on.

You don’t even have to have the harshest amount of each section, and can drag the circle to between sections, or use less of each section. Basically, this is a user guided simple EQ, but there is a more involved one if you want to play with that.

Parrot’s controlled EQ, found at the bottom of the app when a song is being played back, allows the user to hone and modify the dynamics based on what they hear, with the option to save the preferences and share them with someone else later on. When that song loads next, those dynamics should even load in place, the EQ staying on.

It’s a lot of control for people who love to make their music sound amazing, and while Beats often likes to advertise with the idea of “music the way the artist intended”, Parrot is basically offering music the way you want it. If you know enough about audio engineering, and even if you don’t, this is a fun area to explore or just poke around in.

In fact, it’s an area Parrot sees promise in as the company is working with musicians to release their own presets that will make music sound roughly “the way the artist intended”.

At the time of publishing this review, presets could be found for DJ Jazzy Jeff, La Roux, Richard Dorfmeister, and a whole bunch of other artists we’ve never heard of, though Parrot’s online “tuned by” section for downloading more presets through the app also offered some generic presets for styles of music as well as other Parrot users uploading their own presets in the “connoisseur” section.

We’d like to see more artists overall, but you don’t have to use these, so it’s one of those neat inclusions you’re not required to use.

There’s also more to the sound than the tweaked headphone EQ, with specific sound stages to choose from. You can listen as if you were in a small room with the speakers to your immediate left and right, or you can switch to the living room with the speakers up front. You can even do a jazz club with the speakers behind you or a concert hall with the speakers to the front and side.

Essentially, the “concert hall” menu in the Zik app caters for reverberation and the simulation of being in a different place, and all of this can make the sound different for each song, with speaker position also something under your control. For instance, we preferred the jazz club with speakers slightly to the side for a lot of tracks, though electronic music often sounded better in the silent room or living room with speakers to the side.

Live music takes to the concert hall setting quite well, and the extra reverb thrown in using this settings makes live performances sound even more realistic, like you’re there, with the headphones doing their part to simulate the space for your head.

Interestingly, the whole dynamic driver thing can make reviewing the headphones a little more difficult. After all, every pair of headphones tends to elicit its own personality thanks to the way the driver has been tweaked, and whatever else technology helps control the sound waves before delivering them to your ear drums.

But in the case of the Parrot Zik 2.0 headphones, the original personality — which is flat and fairly balanced as noted in our review — can be bypassed, and the audio controlled for a specific type of sound. You can make your music punch if you want, or focus more on the highs. Music can sound more like you were present at the time of recording, or you can keep it neutral and blast it from each side like it was made for headphones and speakers in the first place.

There is a lot of choice in these headphones, and so much so, that we just don’t want to take them off.

Even the noise cancellation can also be tweaked in this way, with several levels of control that seems fairly adaptive. You can try to block everything, with an animated noise meter showing how loud the area is in the background, and you picking between five levels of cancellation.

Those five levels jump between maximum — where everything is cancelled — to street mode, which doesn’t block anything and feeds the microphones sampling the outside world back to your ear drums, with the numbers on the screen showing you how much sound you’re essentially letting in along the inside, while the outside number is, understandably, the outside level.

There are other things, too, such as a presence sensor that can work out when you’re wearing the headphones and when you’re not to pause the music, which is great if you decide to answer a phone through the phone and not the headphones.

You can do that if you want, but by taking the headphone off, the sensor kicks in and causes the phone to stop the music and let you pick up a call through the handset itself.

An automatic power down can also be engaged from a lack of use, and if you want it, text-to-speed for caller ID, with these things found in the settings screen for the headphones, not to mention an airplane mode.

All of these choices can be a little overwhelming, but you get through it, and you know quickly on that these headphones are made to let you get the most out of your music with your choices, your decisions at the helm.

These headphones are magic for sound, and magic for choice. We’re in love, we really are.

Battery life is a little less impressive, with around two days of regular use, which is likely close to the 18 hour mark Parrot suggests, though we’d air on the side of caution and suggest 15 hours is more likely. Thankfully, charging is easy via the microUSB port which doesn’t take too long for a full charge, with a little over two hours from zero.

Software is also another interesting story, and because you have such a capable app to use with the Zik headphones, you also find that Parrot can fix things like a phone company fixes a phone: with software.

Case in point, one issue that we noted during the review period actually cleared itself up with a firmware update, and that was a very finicky touchpad. When we first exhibited the problem, we found the slightest of finger swipes up and down would dramatically change the volume, but after a month of reviewing, that has gone away.

While we initially started writing this part of the review focused on some of the flaws and issues, the availability of an update for a pair of headphones actually highlights one of the positive features of the Parrot Zik 2.0, and that is an update.

Generally, firmware releases and patches are released when something can be fixed, and in the case of errant finger swipes, that is certainly something Parrot has spent time making better.

So add another positive for the Zik, with easy to install over-the-air firmware updates that make the headphones better.

That said, there are some rather unusual issues with the Zik, though some can even be fixed by the user, while others might even be fixed later on with a patch, just like we noted above.

For instance, if you leave the pressure sensor on for the auto switching of music, we found you couldn’t wear the headphones in reverse, with the control pad on the left side. That might be an issue for lefties, though we’d still suggest to get used to using the right side, as the headphones do fit better worn the way intended.

Another strange one is the 3.5mm jack, which is located in the slightly unorthodox location of the right can, a change from the left which is far more common. If you are using the cord, this means you’ll need the cord to stretch across your body, but we suggest not using the cord altogether.

Testing with the Parrot cable, we weren’t able to get a microphone working this way, and the sound was very, very flat, sounding insanely shallow and generally underwhelming. There’s no power when the cable is used, and it shows, with a sound that is far, fat less impressive than what the headphones can do when you’re running with power.

Overall, we’d keep a charge on the Parrot headphones if we could, because the moment you go for the cable, the sound isn’t likely to impressive.

Not surprising, though, is the price, which is still the same, setting a tag value of $499 RRP in Australia, and making it one of the most expensive pairs of wireless cans you can find out there.

In fairness to Parrot, that price does net you a headphone unlike any other, with adaptive noise cancelling, wireless communication, touch controls, and a driver that is truly dynamic and highly customisable, but not everyone will want to pay $499 for the privilege, so just be forewarned.

Conclusion

Parrot’s latest headphones are a little on the expensive side, but what you get for what you pay is quite staggering.

This isn’t a pair of overpriced celebrity endorsed headphones, and it’s also not so high end that audiophiles are likely to go insane and plug it into their amps.

What the Parrot Zik 2.0 headphones achieve, however, is a pair of wireless headphones that do more than just play your sound without the cable, they play sound both wirelessly and beautifully, with enough control that they will satisfy even the most demanding of customers.

Simply put, these are excellent, and we’re in love. Highly recommended.

Review: Parrot Zik 2.0 wireless headphones
Price (RRP): $499 Manufacturer: Parrot
Quite comfortable to wear; One of the most customisable sounds you'll ever hear from a pair of headphones; Active noise cancellation included, and a modifiable ANC at that; Custom music settings can be enabled on a track by track basis, loading automatically; Custom music settings can be shared with the world; Major international artists can share their music profile tastes, allowing you to listen to music the way certain artists believe it should be heard; Firmware upgradeable headphones can actually clear problems up (as noted during the review period);
Expensive; You have to wear them with right pad on right ear and left pad on left ear otherwise they don't work properly; Corded connection is in an unusual location of the right ear; Touchpad can be a tad finicky; Cable doesn't include microphone or remote and can't be used for Android phones to make calls; Parrot needs more artists to make profiles for its Zik 2.0 headphones;
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4.6Overall Score
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