Parrot Zik by Starck review: Is $400 worth it for the fanciest, techiest headphones around?

You do know that Parrot makes more than just the AR.Drone, right? It was at CES earlier this year that we first caught a glimpse of -- and subsequently began geeking out about -- the Parrot Zik by Starck. For those unfamiliar, these headphones are jam-packed with enough technologies to make even the geekiest audio lovers smitten. Priced at about $400, they feature Near Field Communication (NFC), Bluetooth connectivity, on-board capacitive touch-control, active noise cancellation, head detection, a jawbone sensor for speech and Parrot's audio-enhancing DSP app for iOS and Android -- not to mention a striking design by the renowned Philippe Starck.

This isn't the first time Parrot and Mr. Starck have worked together, but this does mark their debut in the portable audio market (as opposed to home-based speaker systems). In the case of this review, not one, but two Engadget editors spent some time testing the product. So, do they impress? More importantly, are they worth the $400 asking price? You know the drill: meet us after the break where we'll lay it all out.

Hardware and embedded tech

DNP Parrot Zik by Starck review the fanciest, techiest headphones you'll wrap around your ears for $400

Despite all the high-tech features crammed inside the Zik, it appears more dapper than geeky from the outside. Up top, there's a flexible headband made of synthetic leather embossed with the Parrot logo. Continuing down the sides, the band connects to curvaceous, skeletal-like metal headrails that meet at swiveling joints with the half-wishbone yokes. Aside from being eye-catching, these earpieces can swivel just over 90 degrees to fold flat for storage in the included travel pouch. Look closely and you'll see the inner portions are scooped out to reveal the cabling leading down to the cups. The clicky headrails drop down from the headband, but retract if you're adjusting the headset for a smaller skull. Aside from the metal's semigloss finish, you'll notice subtle orange accenting -- a Starck trademark -- underneath where the inner edges of the headband meet the rails. Additionally, there's laser-etching to mark the right and left sides, adjustment points and a tasteful "By Starck" logo on the headband.

Despite all the high-tech features crammed inside the Zik, it appears more dapper than geeky from the outside.

That brings us to the earcups -- where all the magic happens. While the Zik generally looks bony, the ear cups are dense and plush -- disproportionately so in relation to the rest of the headset, but attractive nonetheless. The outer edges are mostly finished in a soft-touch matte plastic, and we're very happy about that decision. Why, you ask? The outside of the right ear cup contains a capacitive touch-panel for controlling music playback and taking calls, while there's an NFC sensor embedded within the left ear cup. Even after swiping the headset hundreds of times per day, we only noticed the slightest trace of oil and fingerprints.

Swiping vertically controls volume, while swiping horizontally lets you change tracks. Beyond that, tapping the panel controls playback, and allows you to start and end calls. Unless you're changing the volume, your various swipes will produce a clicking sound in the earpieces, some audio feedback letting you know the tap was registered. Aside from a hint of lag, it's generally an intuitive way of inputting commands. Annoyingly, though, the current firmware doesn't support long taps to enable voice control on smartphones -- a common feature on Apple- and Android-compatible inline remotes.

On the outer edge of the earcups, you'll notice two chrome vents. Aside from adding some visual spice, they serve as bass vents for the headphones. It's visually clear they each have a different shape, with the chrome leading into the bottom edge of the right earcup. Here you'll find a micro-USB port, a 3.5mm headphone jack, a single microphone and a backlit power button. We're happy to report that both ports coupled extremely tightly with the included cables (each of which feature a thick, braided shielding, by the way). Of course, that wired option is mainly there in case the battery dies, or if you want to conserve power by not using Bluetooth. As a final note, the audio cable features a thick right-angled tip, which you might appreciate when you have a mobile device sitting in your pocket.

DRAFT Parrot Zik by Starck review the fanciest, techiest headphones you'll wrap around your ears for $400

We're disappointed that there's nothing in the way of an inline remote on the included cable, meaning that phone calls and playback control are out of the question when the battery dies. The power button has a very slight wiggle, with enough tension for a pleasingly tactile push. A point of contention we have with many Bluetooth headsets are their annoying blinking lights, but these -- these are very soft, and won't illuminate the surfaces around you in a dark situation, like an overnight flight. The button glows white when the headset is on and powered, and red when it's charging, but it can't be turned off like headphones such as the SYNC by 50.

Circling back to the left ear cup, you'll notice two more microphones on its bottom edge. Think three mics would've been enough? Well, Parrot didn't -- there's even two more, one in each ear cup. If you've been counting, yes, that's a total of five microphones. According to Parrot, two of the outer microphones analyze the sound around you for noise cancellation, while the ones planted within each earcup work to find any residual noise that may need to get taken care of as well. That leaves one of the three external microphones on the Zik for handling voice calls.

DRAFT Parrot Zik by Starck review the fanciest, techiest headphones you'll wrap around your ears for $400

Of course, that's only half of how the Zik picks up on voices. Located near the bottom of the left earpad, you'll notice two square sensors, one of which is that jawbone sensor. As Parrot explains it, when the Zik notices that your mouth is moving it tells the microphone to focus on vocals, so that you'll be heard over any background noise. So while its name makes it seem similar to Jawbone's bone conductivity magic, that's about all they have in common.

That leads us to the claimed "motion sensor," one of the most unique features on the Zik. Simply taking it off your noggin or putting it back in place will cause the music to start and stop automatically. It's especially convenient when you need to talk to someone on the fly, and it's certainly more intuitive than fiddling for the play / pause button on an inline remote. That said, it's actually more of a pressure sensor than a motion sensor. It may seem at first blush that the headphone is using some sort of accelerometer to determine when the headphones are coming on and off. But in reality, it's merely activating a button within the right earpad. Thankfully, no matter how much this editor shook his head around, the sensors were intelligent enough to realize that the headphones hadn't, in fact, come off. There were a handful of instances where the music took a second or two to turn off as the pads expanded, however.

DRAFT Parrot Zik by Starck review the fanciest, techiest headphones you'll wrap around your ears for $400

One less obvious feature of the Zik is that the outside of the left ear cup is actually a magnetic cover. There's no indentation for pulling it off, as you might find on a smartphone battery cover, but it's easy enough to remove nonetheless. The magnets keep it from budging unless you actually try to take it off, meaning you won't have to worry about it falling onto the train tracks in the middle of your commute. Pulling the cover back reveals a slot for the proprietary 3.7V, 800mAh lithium-ion battery. Though it's included, it will also be sold separately for $30. Parrot claims you'll get between five and 20 hours of use depending on how many of the Zik's features you use. Specifically, we got between five and six hours of battery life after enabling Bluetooth and all the audio features. If you want the full experience -- and at least a full day's worth of use -- you're going to need at least one spare battery.

You're looking at a paltry five to six hours of battery life if you enable all the Zik's audio features while using Bluetooth.

Unfortunately, despite the head sensor, leaving the headphones on and around your shoulders doesn't put them in any sort of low-power mode. So regardless of whether music is playing or not, battery life remains the same. Thankfully, turning off active noise cancellation should increase runtime, and we can report that the headphones provide enough passive noise isolation that sometimes we didn't need ANC enabled anyway. We should also note that the Zik comes with noise cancellation enabled out of the box. For the moment, the app for controlling its audio features is only available on iOS, but Parrot expects proper Android and iPad versions will be available in the coming weeks.

Here's something frustrating: batteries can't be charged outside of the headphones. So, while it's convenient to charge the headset if you happen to be sitting near a PC with a spare USB port, it's going to be an issue for folks on the go. Parrot says it has no current plans for an external charger, so you'll need to have them fully charged before heading out on a long trip. This is a major sticking point that puts the headphones at a severe disadvantage, especially since headphones by Sony, Bose and Klipsch can last 20-plus hours on AAAs. The Zik's battery life is acceptable considering everything that's going on inside, but we do hope Parrot eventually offers better ways to stay juiced -- or, at least, a spare battery in the box.

Setup, Bluetooth and NFC connectivity

For the most part, the days of frustrating Bluetooth pairing are over, and the Zik is no exception. Whether we connected an iPhone 3GS, Galaxy Nexus, Samsung Galaxy S III, iPad 2, Nokia Lumia 900, ASUS PadFone, HTC One X or a MacBook, we never had to go into a specific pairing mode or enter any codes. It's as simple as selecting "connect to device" from the device. This convenience does come at a cost, however -- the headset can't pair with multiple gizmos at once. This is burdensome if you tend to juggle gadgets, as you'll need to manually disconnect before attempting to pair with another device. Then again, we don't expect this to be a problem for most shoppers.

Making Skype calls with the Zik on a computer is simply out of the question, unfortunately.

As we mentioned, the Zik is equipped with an NFC sensor on its left earcup for Bluetooth pairing. While there aren't too many NFC-enabled devices available here in the US, four of the devices we listed do have it built in, which allowed us to test this feature extensively. On the Nexus, simply tapping the handset to the left earcup completed the pairing, while a second tap disconnected it. However, anytime we tried to carry out the same process with the GS III and One X we were met by an error message. It's likely that this is an OS-based problem, and we're waiting on more clarification from Parrot. Aside from that hiccup, the feature works great and it's nice to see this technology in something other than Nokia's Play 360 speakers.

Update: Parrot got back to confirm that the NFC pairing only works with Android Jelly Bean.

Getting more specific about that Broadcom Bluetooth chipset, the Zik merely sports Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR with A2DP -- there's no current support for codecs like aptX. This may be an issue if you're looking for more advanced Bluetooth audio, but as we'll explain soon, the headphones do sound pretty good usually. Discerning listeners might notice a humming noise from the right side, where the radio is located; it's only apparent when audio isn't playing through headphones, but may be an issue if you're solely planning to use the noise cancellation functionality.

Before we sign off on the subject, we'd be remiss not to mention a few Bluetooth issues that came up on both of our Zik test units. With a laptop, the connection proved to be a hit-or-miss affair. The headphones worked reliably with incoming audio, but as soon as we tried to enable the mic, our signal transfer would cease in both directions. At that point we had to completely kill our connection and restart it to at least get incoming audio again. Making Skype calls with the Zik on a computer is simply out of the question, unfortunately.

Aside from occasional drops in audio, we did notice that planting a phone inside a pocket often causes brief drops in the signal as well. Depending on our location, our range varied from about 33 feet, as promised, down to just a few steps away. Suffice it to say, the Bluetooth implementation here would benefit from some fine-tuning.

Fit and comfort

DNP Parrot Zik by Starck review the fanciest, techiest headphones you'll wrap around your ears for $400

If you've been following our coverage of the Zik, you know we found it plenty comfortable during early hands-on opportunities. Still, if you're concerned that all the tech inside may make for a heavy fit, we're happy to report the Zik is supremely comfy. The headphones feature a pleasing circumaural design. Unlike the Astro A50 gaming headset, though, it won't leave your ears floating inside of the earcups. The memory foam within the earpads is super supple, and there's even more padding inside of the earcups in front of the drivers. If you were to press your finger against the part of the earcups where the microphones live, you could easily feel them, but you shouldn't notice them when you're actually wearing the headset.

To explain further, the shape of the headrails help balance out the fit, keeping it firmly affixed to your noggin. If anything, some users might find that the headband could use a bit more padding. Our main concern is whether the earpads will stay this supple after months of use, as they're not replaceable. However, the clamping force of the headphones is comfortable, and just enough to keep 'em planted on your head without crushing your ears enough to cause cartilage cramps. Naturally, the synthetic leather pads don't exactly play nice in hot weather, though -- things will get sweaty, but it didn't seem to erode the build quality in any way.

Parrot Audio Studio app

DRAFT Parrot Zik by Starck review the fanciest, techiest headphones you'll wrap around your ears for $400
DRAFT Parrot Zik by Starck review the fanciest, techiest headphones you'll wrap around your ears for $400
DRAFT Parrot Zik by Starck review the fanciest, techiest headphones you'll wrap around your ears for $400
DRAFT Parrot Zik by Starck review the fanciest, techiest headphones you'll wrap around your ears for $400

Before we dive into our impressions of the audio quality, we'd like to fill you in on its free companion app: Parrot Audio Studio. We've already mentioned what platforms it's compatible with, so let's take a deeper look using the iOS version as our guide. Clicking into the app gives you three toggle options, along with three utility-based options -- none of which can be adjusted from the Zik itself. Getting the utility options out of the way, you'll find System, Battery and Helpdesk icons. "System" allows you to change the name of your Zik and check for any firmware updates. "Battery" simply displays the current battery level. Unfortunately, there's no estimate for how much runtime you have left, which is a shame since the Zik doesn't warn you when the battery is running low. Also, it's not as convenient as having the meter planted in our phones' taskbars, as is the case with Jawbone's offerings.%Gallery-161176%

Now for the fun stuff. To start, you can select whether you want active noise cancellation on and off. Unlike some ANC cans, the Zik doesn't currently allow users to tweak its settings -- it handles this automatically. Thankfully, as we'll detail, it does a good job of it.

Whether you like gobs of bass, a bit more vocal clarity in your mix or a certain degree of stereo separation, the Zik can handle it.

The last of the three toggles is a seven-band equalizer. There are settings for Punchy, Club, Pop, Vocals, Cristal, Deep and one slot for a user customizable settings (check the gallery for specifics). Parrot favors the club and punchy settings, highlighting a "v-curve" (generally considered the "rock" setting) and we have to agree. By the way, changing any of the settings will automatically program it to the user option.

Between those, there's an option for toggling Concert Hall Effects on and off. Clicking this icon brings you into a menu that allows you to choose from four different room simulations (Concert Hall, Jazz Club, Living Room and Silent Room) and speaker placements from 30 degrees of separation all the way to 180 degrees from left to right. The speakers can only be adjusted in equilateral 30-degree movements, while the silent room setting won't separate past 150 degrees. This feature is an integral part of the experience when using the Zik, because it really lets you personalize the soundstage and stereo image of the headphones. We particularly like using the Living Room and Silent settings with a 120-degree placement for the speakers.

Of course, your preferences are sure to vary, but the point is that this option is here, and it's a key way that the Zik lets you personalize its sound to your own tastes. Whether you like gobs of bass, a bit more vocal clarity or a certain spacing of stereo separation, the Zik can handle it. Thankfully, no matter what device you use, your last settings are automatically saved within the Zik.

All that said, one thing that consistently bugged us during testing was the Zik's tendency to make a pop noise whenever we turned it on, changed an EQ setting or toggled ANC on and off. Keeping that in mind, the same annoyance occurs every time the headphone's head detector goes into action (pausing or starting playback again) when taking it on and off. We're hopeful that a firmware upgrade will eventually allow for a cleaner-sounding bypass action.


DRAFT Parrot Zik by Starck review the fanciest, techiest headphones you'll wrap around your ears for $400

Moving on, let's discuss the natural audio quality of the Zik's 40mm neodymium drivers before any of the DSP and EQing are added on top. Speaking to the sound, using the headphones wirelessly with Bluetooth versus wired with the included audio cable, we'd be hard-pressed to notice any major differences with the headphones powered up. Of course, the main note is that the Bluetooth signal does have the tendency to frequently cut out here and there, and that's something that naturally won't come up when using the audio cable. When using the headphones passively (read: powered off) with the audio cable, the sound is thin and brittle, just like many other headphones we've used that feature the same functionality.

The Zik is at its best with the power on -- and while passive functionality is a nice option to have when the battery dies out, we'd still recommend springing for some batteries so that you don't have to resort to it. The sound gets noticeably fuller with ANC enabled. It's very clear -- not perfect, but still quite good. Now for where the DSP provided by the app comes into play. Enabling active noise cancellation does add meat to the extra-lows in the mix, but some might find it boomy. The Concert Hall effects make for the biggest impact in the overall sound. It doesn't make for the most natural audio, but it does unsurprisingly space out the various sounds in a recording pleasantly. That said, those looking for a more clinically focused voicing might not be so keen on how each setting noticeably changes the timbre of each instrument.

To that effect, wired headphones like the $350 M40, $200 MDR-NC200D and $300 P5 provide a smidgen more clarity and a tighter overall response across the mix in comparison. We're not shocked, considering these units are mostly focused on sound than techy features, but for the money, we'd hoped the Zik would perform slightly better sonically. For what it's worth, the sound didn't fatigue our ears after hours of listening and we never noticed any clipping or very apparent distortion at louder volumes -- the Zik can really handle any EQ setting you throw at it. Overall, the sound is extremely enjoyable, but for the $400 price, we expected a little more.

Now onto outgoing audio -- we've already discussed how the jawbone sensor works, so let's talk about how that plays into the microphone quality for voice calls. Callers sometimes complained that our vocals were cutting out or a bit staticky. The focus on vocals is up to par with what you'll get from, say, a Jawbone Icon, so folks will hear you in louder environments easily, but the overall audio quality isn't as good. Further, because the Zik takes down external noise on the user's end so well, some microphone monitoring would've been appreciated. But don't take our word for it, check out the audio recording above where we A/B the Zik with our Galaxy Nexus' built-in mic and a PlayStation Bluetooth headset in a simulated bar environment.

Noise suppression

So, just how good is the Zik at killing noise, you might be wondering? Fantastic. Great. Can you hear us screaming it from the rooftop of Engadget HQ? You probably aren't using one at the moment then. According to Parrot, the unit can provide up to 25dB of active noise cancellation, eliminating 98 percent of the lower frequencies it focuses on. Translation: that's a hell of a lotta noise-slaughtering. Many ANC headphones will deliver a fair amount of annoying hiss, but that isn't the case here. Even inside of NYC's extremely loud subway cars, the Zik provided us with an aural sanctuary of sorts. Impressively, the Zik features an ample amount of passive noise-isolation as well (for circumaural headphones, anyway) -- in some instances we found it adequate enough to keep ANC disabled.


DRAFT Parrot Zik by Starck review the fanciest, techiest headphones you'll wrap around your ears for $400

More Info

Parrot and Philippe Starck have crafted a truly unique set of headphones with the Zik. There are clearly some kinks that need to be worked out, however -- most of which Parrot can hopefully remedy via firmware updates. As it stands for now, we have seriously enjoyed using the Zik despite the product's various shortcomings. The touch control and head sensor make for a fun, intuitive way to control music and calls on the go, but in some regards, an inline remote is still a more practical design.

The Zik is also massively comfortable, making it great for long periods of wear, but one battery doesn't score you too much runtime -- not to mention that charging it can get tricky. If you're set on silencing the world around you, the 25dB of active noise-cancellation works well in loud environments, and the passive noise isolation isn't shabby, either; if you need a set for flights, look no further. The sound quality is very good, and the headphones won't sound fatiguing during long listening sessions. But even with all the sound shaping options, the headphones fall ever-so short of offering the audio quality of cheaper wired headphones -- and potentially other Bluetooth cans. Perhaps the biggest problem with the Zik is that Bluetooth functionality is limited, and downright frustrating for some usage scenarios -- a shame, given Parrot's know-how in the area.

When it comes down to it, though, every second we've tested these has been a treat -- so much so that at least two Engadget staffers are ponying up for their own pairs. If the Zik lines up well with your priorities, even despite its current shortcomings, it could be a tempting splurge for gadget and audio lovers alike.

Richard Lai contributed to this review.