Review: Parrot Zik Noise Cancelling Headphones

I'm skeptical of any audio product with a fancy design. In my experience, the more trendy or attractive a product is, the worse the performance. Maybe this prejudice comes from a place of subconscious competition, given that I'm so trendy and attractive.

So I approached the Parrot Zik with caution, not least because I found out that "Design by Starck" was not a misspelling and had nothing to do with Ned or even Robb (What about Tony? - Ed.).

But turns out, zee Ziks are zuper.

I can't think of another pair of headphones that look this good. Even the best headphones still look like, well, headphones. But the Ziks look more like swanky black earmuffs. They're able to look high-tech, without looking like technology. It's quite the trick, that - and the company's style-savvy enough not just to get Phillipe Starck to design their headphones, but to get Carla Bruni to endorse them.

The Ziks, however, are very much technology. At the basic end, there's Bluetooth and noise cancelling. Then there's the capacitive touchpad built into the right earcup. Inside, there's a sensor to detect when the headphones are on your head, so it can automatically go into standby when they're not. Then there are the EQ and selectable Concert Hall Effects, accessed via a free app.

Available for Apple and Android, the Audio Suite app informs you of battery life, and controls the noise cancelling and aforementioned EQ and Concert Hall settings. More on all this later. The outside of the right earcup is touch-sensitive, swipe up and down to increase/decrease volume, tap to pause, swipe forward to change tracks. It seems like a gimmick, but it actually works as advertised, and in a way, is more natural than fumbling with in-line remote controls on a headphone cable (especially how with Bluetooth there's no cable).

As solid as the Ziks look, they're actually quite light. They're also really comfortable, putting very little pressure on your noggin yet maintaining an excellent seal. I'd rate them among the most comfortable headphones I've reviewed.

I had co-Tech2er Brent and voice actress/regular headphone opinionifier Lauren Dragan check out the Ziks. Brent found the soft earpads as comfortable as I did, and figured he could wear them for long periods with no issue. Lauren thought they were a little unusual, but futuristic and interesting looking, and quite comfortable.

I started my listening tests with "All the Roadrunning," from the Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris album of the same title. Their voices and acoustic guitars filled out a wide soundstage. The treble, even at high volumes, remained smooth and pleasing. Knopfler's voice was gravelly, without being bloated-sounding. The track didn't quite have the openness I've heard on some other headphones, but it didn't sound dull. The snare drum hits, for example, didn't have quite the crack they can elsewhere. Being a little more open sounding would be a plus, but this lack is slight enough not to be a dealbreaker.

I figured this was as good a song as any to try out the Concert Hall Effect. I have a knee-jerk reaction against spatializer effects, preferring my music unmolested. However, the Parrot's CHE is actually rather impressive, seemingly more than just excessive reverb. There are four settings: Concert Hall, Jazz Club, Living Room, and Silent Room. The sense of space changed convincingly with each level. Silent Room, for example, is very intimate, with Emmylou right in the middle of your head. Switch to Concert Hall, and she recedes a bit, seemingly in a much larger space. Even cooler, you can slide the virtual speakers, and it really does sound like you're moving speakers in a room. Not sure I'd use it, but it's a really neat trick.

Unlike the Bose QC15s and many other noise-cancelling headphones, the Ziks work with the power off. The sound changes a bit, though, with a little less bass and vocals getting a little midrange push when in passive mode. The sound is fuller when the Ziks are switched on, and fuller still when you activate the NC. Given how much I like the sound in powered mode, it's probably a little heavier in the bass than is strictly neutral. It's not Beats-level bass heaviness though, which is good by me. The low end is warm, but never boomy or mushy. It's like you turned up the volume on a really good subwoofer by 2 or 3 dB.

"Ordinary," from Lucky Boys Confusion's Commitment album, was a good example of this. With the Ziks powered off the guitars and vocals are a little forward and very slightly shouty, while the electric bass is tight but very slightly subdued. With the Ziks on, the soundstage gets wider (even with the Concert Hall Effect off), the bass gets a fuller, and the vocal range becomes more neutral. With the NC active, the bass expands even more though the rest of the sound stays the same. The bass is probably a little bit much with the NC on. However, Parrot makes it easy to fix. Using the User setting of the built-in equalizer, I dropped 150 Hz by an indicated 1 dB, and that was perfect. Easy fine tuning is always nice.

In powered mode with the noise cancelling off, Lauren found the Ziks to be a little bass heavy for her tastes. However, she liked the size of the soundstage (again, the CHE was off), and found them able to create a great sense of space. On the high-end, she found acoustic instruments to be crisp without being harsh.  Brent found them to be nicely punchy, with great dynamics, at least when they were powered (he found the bass rather lacking in wired, passive mode), and he felt the noise cancelling performance was above average.

Ah yes, the noise cancelling. The design cleverness of the Ziks is a bit too clever when it comes to noise cancelling. The only way to turn the NC on/off via the smartphone app. This is a terrible idea. The Rube Goldberg series of steps to do something a simple switch (or series of taps) could do better is not user friendly. What if I'm using an iPod? What if I'm on a plane and realize too late I'd turned off my phone forgetting to activate the NC? I'm fine with the concert features, battery levels, and so on being in the app, but this is one step too far.

The noise cancelling performance, however, is good. I have yet to find anything that does a better job than the Bose QC15s in this regard, but the Ziks are better than most. To subjectively test, I played the sounds of a 777 (thanks YouTube!) through my theater's 5.1 system. The Ziks dropped the low rumble of the engines a lot. You could still make them out, but they were greatly reduced and not annoying. This was better performance than most NC headphones I've tried, but not as good as the Bose, which use some sort of exceptional blackmagic. Check out Brent's measurements for a more objective take.

The touch sensitive earcup does take some getting used to. If you usually rest your head on your hand, you could accidently increase volume or change tracks. If you have a smaller head, the head-sensing circuit in the earcup might not register that the Ziks are actually on your head, pausing the music randomly. Lauren got annoyed with how the touch sensitive earcup would interpret normal usage movements (like adjusting hair or headphones for a better fit) for random control inputs, like volume or track changes.

On my sample, the audio cable plug gave a false (or too-early) positive that it was in correctly, causing a bizarre phasing/echoey effect that make me think the headphones were broken. A greater-than-you'd-expect shove of the cable locked it in place. Not a huge deal, but worth noting.

Measurements

To measure the Zik's performance, I used a G.R.A.S.43AG ear/cheek simulator, a Clio FW audio analyzer, a laptop computer running TrueRTA software with an M-Audio MobilePre USB audio interface, a Musical Fidelity V-Can headphone amplifier for measurements in wired mode, and a Sony HWS-BTA2W transmitter for measurements in Bluetooth mode. I experimented with various positions of the Zik's earpads on the ear/cheek simulator and settled on the positions that gave the most representative results.

The Zik's frequency response varies considerably depending on how it's connected. In Bluetooth mode, it has ample deep bass response, a midrange peak at 1.2 kHz, and a steeply rolled off treble response. Wired/NC off mode has a similar response in the mids and treble, but much less bass output. Switching NC mode on raises the upper mid and treble response to levels comparable with most of the better headphones we test, although the bass response rolls off gently below 100 Hz.

(Note that because of the differing latency in the Bluetooth, NC and wired/NC off modes, I had to employ a different time window on each measurement, which could have had some effect on the measured bass response.)

Although impedance is rated at 32 ohms, it ranges from 39 to 118 ohms in wired/NC off mode and runs flat at 620 ohms in wired/NC on mode. Adding 70 ohms output impedance to the V-Can's 5-ohm output impedance to simulate the effects of using a typical low-quality headphone amp has no effect in wired/NC on mode, but tilts the treble down -2 to -3 dB above 2 kHz in wired/NC off mode.

Because of the latency introduced by the Bluetooth connection and the NC mode, I could measure total harmonic distortion (THD) only in wired/NC off mode. The measurement shown was taken at an average level of 100 dBA. Distortion in this mode is very low, only 2% even at 20 Hz, so at least we can tell the driver is capable of high output.

Isolation is pretty much typical for an over-ear design with NC off. Switching NC on improves isolation by -4 to -15 dB from 60 to 600 Hz, which is a few dB better than the NC technology built into most headphones can do.

Average sensitivity with a 1 mW signal at 32 ohms rated impedance with a wired connection from 300 Hz to 10 kHz is 101.5 dB with NC off, 92.7 dB with NC on. From 300 Hz to 6 kHz, it's 102.7 dB with NC off, 93.5 dB with NC on. - Brent Butterworth

Bottom Line

At $400 the Ziks have a lot of strong competition. From a pure noise-cancelling standpoint, they don't hold a candle to the $100 cheaper Bose QC15s. From a sound quality standpoint, the opposite is true. The QC15s sound fine, but given the choice I'd reach for the Ziks every time to do any listening.

Really, then, I think biggest challenge comes from the PSB M4U 2s. Lauren actually bought a pair of the PSBs, and guards them with a zealous ferocity familiar to anyone who has annoyed a feral cat. Her pick was obvious. Brent too would pick the PSBs, because they were more accurate, and their sound signature more consistent between active and passive modes. However, he felt the Zik's warmer sound would be perfect for some people, especially given their cool looks, "whiz-bang tech features" and Bluetooth.

Yes, the PSBs are more accurate than the Ziks, but I like the sound of the Ziks a lot (at least in powered mode). Given the same money, I'd actually lean ever so slightly towards the Ziks. But like I said, I like a touch more bass in my audio than is strictly "accurate." When it comes down to it, I think some people are going to like the PSBs more, and others will like the Ziks more. It's a matter of taste.

I listen to a lot of headphones, and Brent jokes that I hate just about all of them. The Ziks though, are a fantastic blend of comfort, looks, and have a sound quality that is exactly what I look for in a headphone. All that in one package put the Ziks among my favorites. Definitely worth checking out.

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