Review: Parrot Zik 2.0

Headphones already are smart. Among models designed for mobile use, things like in-line remotes, Bluetooth connectivity, and active noise canceling are common. But such modern accoutrements are stodgy and stale for Parrot’s Zik 2.0 over-ear headphones ($400). These cans re-imagine their role, turning something you connect to a high-tech gadget into something that exists as a high-tech gadget all by itself.

Central to the Zik’s design is a bevy of sensors and microphones that drive some truly innovative features, including the ability to control your music and calls by swiping your fingers across the earcup.

The Zik 2.0s are an update to Parrot’s original Zik from 2012. Like the originals, the curves were drawn by the hand of the famous designer Phillipe Starck. But the update improves the hardware, making the headphones lighter and hiding the microphones. The redesign also has rendered them small enough to be even more portable. The custom controller app, which you use to tune the headphones’ sound profile, has been updated too. The result is a pair of versatile, great-sounding wireless cans suited to air travel, the daily commute, or at-home listening.

There’s only one button on the Zik 2.0s, the power button. Below that, on the right earcup, are a MicroUSB charging port and a 3.5mm port. All other controls are invisible. The soft faux-leather surface of the right earpiece is touch-sensitive, allowing you to pause, play, skip tracks, and adjust the volume. Inside the same earcup is a sensor that detects when you’ve put the headphones on. It pauses the music when you put them around your neck and resumes it when they’re back on your ears. All of the sensors work well. It takes a few tries to get the hang of the gesture controls on the earpiece—it’s a blank, soft touchpad without visual or textural cues—and I accidentally paused or skipped a track a few times while simply adjusting the headphones for comfort. I loved the auto-pause when you take them off your ears. It really comes in handy when you’re listening to music in public and suddenly interrupted by the real world. You don’t fumble for a button, you just slip them down around your neck.

The Zik 2.0s’ active noise cancellation does an incredible job, in part because it’s driven by six microphones. To test it, I cranked the volume on my TV and put some music on the Ziks at medium volume. My songs played clearly without any external sound creeping in, with the app showing a real-time readout of my surroundings’ decibel levels. Those microphones also let you pull off the reverse trick: adding ambient noise from your surroundings. Put the Ziks in “Street Mode,” and they simulate the sound of open-backed headphones, without any sound leak. It’s a nice option for listening at home while keeping an ear out for the doorbell, or riding the subway while listening for unintelligible PA announcements.

Most of the Zik 2.0’s standout features are provided by its free Android and iOS sidecar app. You use another app as a music source while using the Zik 2.0 app—I used Spotify during my tests—and tune the sound with the Zik app. When you first connect the headphones via Bluetooth, you see the remaining time on the Zik 2.0’s battery. Swiping once to the left shows a “Noise Control” interface, where you can adjust the strength of the noise-cancellation feature or set it to Street Mode. Another swipe left brings you to a simple preset equalizer, which lets you try presets such as Pop, Deep, Punchy, and Club.

Beyond those screens, things get more sophisticated. Another swipe left gives you control over the headphones’ soundstage: Four profiles ranging from Silent Room (tight, in-your-head sound) to the more-expansive and slightly echoey Concert Hall. Pressing pause in Concert Hall mode even produces a little reverb after the music stops. Using the app, you can adjust the directional qualities of what you’re hearing to, moving the soundstage from behind you, to immediately on your ears, to somewhere in front of your nose. Combined with the Street Mode setting, flipping the soundstage to Concert Hall with the sound coming at you from the front actually makes it sound like you’re listening to speakers rather than headphones. (With earmuffs on, but still.)

That’s already a lot of things you can do with the app, but wait, there’s more. The app has a five-band equalizer that lets you shape your own presets, then have them automatically kick in once a certain song or artist plays. You can share these sound profiles with other Zik 2.0 users, and the app offers several musician- and producer-created presets—DJ Jazzy Jeff, Muse, Coldplay, and Richard Dorfmeister, among others—that you may download and apply to your tunes.

While that level of tweakability helps set these headphones apart, there are a few usability nitpicks. For one, you need to download each of those presets to hear them; there’s no preview to sample how they sound first. And when it comes to applying your own presets, it can be a bit too granular. I struggled to find a way to create catch-all “Rock,” “Rap,” “Acoustic,” and “Flute Rock” profiles of my own rather than applying those profiles to individual songs and artists. It may be possible, but the app doesn’t make it intuitive.

Another bummer is that you can’t use all the cool sensor-based or deep-tuning features when the Zik 2.0s are connected with the included 3.5mm cable. They need Bluetooth connectivity for swipe-control, auto-pause/play, and app-adjustability to work, so it’s best to keep them charged up. You can use active noise cancellation with them jacked in, though: There’s an Airplane mode that drowns out sound while giving you up to 18 hours of battery life. Compare that to the full-monty mode with all the sensors turned on, and you get 9 to 10 hours of charged, mixed-use listening. To ease pairing, there’s an NFC chip, which automatically formed a Bluetooth connection with my Android device the first time I synced them.

In terms of real-world comfort and attainable sound quality, the Zik 2.0’s are solid, but there are caveats in both areas. The earcups are pillowy, hug your ears nicely, and do a good job of keeping noise out even when noise-cancellation is turned off. But after hours of wearing them, my ears started feeling the pressure. They are mostly aluminum, but not ultra-light. And the earcups swivel to hug the curves of your head, but the cups are pretty big and there’s still a fair amount of clamp to them. You will need to give your skull a rest every once in a while.

Before you start tweaking the audio, sound quality is rich and fairly well-balanced, but not all that bright. With the default sound profile, the high-end sounds foggy, but bass sounds plenty tight and punchy. When paired via Bluetooth, you can rejigger that sound to your liking, but if you’re get-gadget in and trying to save battery life, you’re stuck with less-impressive sound quality.

You’re probably not going to buy these $400 cans to use primarily as a phone headset, but you can if you want. Parrot touts that the Zik 2.0’s bone-conduction sensor (sewn into the leather of one of the pads, to align with your jaw) enables better voice quality for phone calls. But to my ears and the ears of the person I called, a $20 pair of get-gadget-in earbuds performed better. You can also use the headphones’ touchpad to answer, place, and reject calls, but that requires even more of a learning curve than the gesture controls you use when listening to music.

All in all, the headphones are pretty great. The audio quality (at least with the Bluetooth turned on and the app tweaks enabled), the noise-cancellation performance, the build quality, and the fancy sensor-driven extras add up to a product for which $400 is a fair price. It’s a price level lousy with high-quality headphones to choose from. But the Parrots are the only ones in their class that let you go about your business without ever fumbling around for buttons or, heaven forbid, taking your phone out of your pocket.

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