Zik Headphones are made by Parrot, a French company that makes elaborately designed, expensive stuff that appeals to its founder, Henry Seydoux. Military.com readers may know the firm from the AR.Drone, a smartphone-controlled drone that can send video direct to your device. It's expensive ($300 at Amazon) and amazingly cool. Is it practical? Who's to say what's practical?
Parrot also makes a line of auto control accessories that are popular in Europe and makes a $60 remote watering device for your plants called the Flower Power. That's in addition to its line of audio gear created with the famed French designer Phillipe Starck that includes these headphones and a futuristic looking speaker tower called the Zikmu Solo.
Starck became a superstar designer in the United States when he collaborated on the Paramount and Royalton Hotels in New York City at the end of the '80s. An entire generation of rock musicians partially defined if they'd made it by whether they could afford to stay in his hotels. Starck's designs were everywhere here in the '90s and his star has never dimmed around the world.
So the Ziks are not some utilitarian pair of cans that you buy on a whim. They're an investment with a list price of $400. They're wireless, noise-canceling Bluetooth headphones and that price is competitive with the Beats by Dre Studio Wireless headphones and a step up from the Bose AE2W headphones (which don't feature the Bose Quiet Comfort noise canceling system).
The aim to do a lot of things besides cancel ambient noise. The Ziks come with a removable battery that can be easily replaced when it inevitably wears out. The USB charging cable and optional audio cable are exceptionally sturdy and the overall fit and finish on these things is outstanding.
The battery cover is magnetic. It's not going anywhere under normal use but it's easy to remove and reattach when you do need access to the battery.
What they do well: there's a microphone on each earpiece that's used for the noise cancellation. They work great and the canceling happens almost immediately when you flip it on. They're incredibly comfortable for a long listening sessions, maybe the most comfortable headphones I've used. The Bluetooth connection is outstanding: after initial setup, the Ziks have been easy to reconnect to whatever device I've used. It's not automatic but I've never had to start over from scratch. And they stay connected.
You control the volume by swiping up and down on the right earpiece and can jump tracks by swiping back and forth. If you get a phone call, tap on the same earpiece to answer or hold down to refuse the call. If you want to switch to the phone during a call, take of the headphones and the call is automatically transferred over. It's slick and it works. The most surprising thing is that the headphones automatically pause the music when you take them off your ears and restarts it automatically when you (or someone else) puts them back on.
All that said, these things come from a French company. The French understand that true style requires risk and Parrot has not been afraid to take a few risks here.
You're not really going to have the Zik experience if you don't use them with the free Parrot Audio Suite software (available for iOS, Android and Windows phone). Here's where things are going to get complicated for some audiophiles. There's a lot of processing built into the app and Parrot fully intends for you to enhance your experience with the settings designed by their audio engineers.
The unprocessed Bluetooth signal (and the signal you get with the audio cable attached) sounds really nice. I can imagine there are some people who like the design but don't want the audio features that would choose them with no intention of using the app.
That's not what Parrot wants, though. In addition to the Noise Cancellation, the app offers an array of EQ presets (and one you can adjust to your own taste) and a setting that simulates different listening environments. The designers weren't shy about having those settings really do something. They all bring noticeable and sometimes dramatic changes to the audio and different settings definitely enhance different kinds of music.
The latest addition to the Zik arsenal is the Lou Reed setting and the software is the last project he completed before he died last fall. It's a lot better than the last album Lou released (the notorious Lulu collaboration with Metallica), but it's still offers a really idiosyncratic take. Lou apparently told his friend Henry Seydoux that he liked the headphones but the signal processing wasn't really right for rock and roll. Henry sent some engineers over to Lou's place and they tuned the headphones to his preferences and built a new version of the software than includes the Lou setting. (Lou's last interview was about the Zik project. You can watch the whole thing here.)
The setting adds some boom to the lower-mids and pumps up some frequencies at the high end. On certain mainstream rock songs by bands like R.E.M. and U2, you can really hear what Lou was going for. Ironically, the excellent new remaster of Lou's classic Velvet Underground album White Light/White Heat sounds far better with no processing whatsoever.
There's a couple of lessons there. There's no one-size-fits-all setting here. If you're choosing Zik, you've got to be up for fiddling with the settings. I imagine that's going to be a lot of fun for some people. Also, these things are a phone/tablet accessory and they're designed to be used when you're on traveling or sitting outside in a park. They deliver an excellent experience in those environments. They're not designed to work with your home stereo setup.
I took a 9-hour flight last week and a guy across the aisle was using a pair of these. Out in the wild, they looked sharp. No obnoxious logos, really compelling industrial design and he was happily adjusting the volume and changing tracks without giving it a second thought.
The Ziks come in three other color options besides the black/silver ones we tested: all black. white with gold accents and white with rose gold accents. They come with a soft bag. If you travel a lot, you might want to invest in the hard case for around $40. If you take a lot of long flights, a spare battery ($30) might also be in order.
Can you get quality headphones for a lower price? No question. Would I choose the Ziks for the kind of extreme conditions that some of you experience? No, but they're more than solid enough for everyday use for everyone else.
I'm usually the guy who's going to tell you why you really want your headphones to have a cable to maximize your audio quality. And yet, the Ziks maximize their wireless utility with the easy-to-use gesture controls and the automatic pause when you take them off is a killer feature. I've even grown pretty fond of some of the audio processing settings.
If you're looking for a sensible choice, stay far away. Parrot is definitely a luxury brand and they've created a luxury brand experience. If you're looking for Bluetooth headphones and have the cash, I'd take these over the Bose and the Beats every time.