Parrot's Zik headphones are about the fanciest and most high-tech Bluetooth headphones you can buy these days and you'll have to pay a good chunk of change ($400) for the privilege of owning them.
In case you've never heard of Parrot, it's a French company that's been around a while. It's created some sleek Bluetooth speakers, but in the U.S., at least, the company is best known for its remote-controlled AR.Drone that it frequently shows off at tech trade shows.
Now Parrot has collaborated (not for the first time) with famous French designer Philippe Starck to create Zik, a set of headphones with a dual focus on technology and design. The headphones offer a wealth of features, including touch-sensitive controls on the right earpiece, active noise-cancellation, NFC capabilities, a removable and replaceable battery, and an app for iOS and Android smartphones that acts as a virtual control panel for the headphones.
The Ziks certainly look -- and feel -- like expensive headphones, with sculpted metal, swiveling armatures, and luxuriously padded earcups. I found them comfortable, though a tad on the heavy side (they weigh .72 lb.), particularly for mobile use, and they will make your ears steamy in warmer weather. They really do have an eye-catching design and a unique look. Works of art? I don't know if I'd go quite that far, but they're a nice departure from the Beats headphones that have become so popular.
The first thing you have to do after unboxing the headphones is insert the removable battery into its compartment in the left earpiece. That compartment was easier to access than I thought, for the cover to the earpiece adheres magnetically and you simply give a gentle tug and it comes off, exposing the battery compartment.
On the bottom of the right earpiece you'll find the power button, a Micro-USB port for charging the headphones with the included cable, and headphone jack that allows you to use the headphones as wired headphones (more on that in a minute). It's also worth mentioning that there's a jawbone conductor sensor in the padded earcup that detects when you're talking, if you're using the headphones as a headset, and directs the external microphone to focus on your voice. Parrot says the headphones have four microphones on board: two internal, two external. They combine to optimize noise cancellation and filter out background noise while you're talking. A built-in motion sensor also detects when you remove your headphones from your ears and automatically pauses your music when you take them off. Yes, it works.
The power button is the only button on the headset. As for volume, call answer/end, pause/play, and skip track forward/back, that's all done through touch gestures on the outside of the right earcup. You swipe up and down to control volume, and left and right to skip the track forward and back. On a couple of occasions I went to adjust the headphones on my head and, forgetting the earcup was touch-sensitive, accidentally advanced the track or paused my music. It takes a little getting used to at first, but it turns out to be remarkably convenient.
While the headphones get very high marks for design, they do have a couple of small shortcomings. The earcups have a matte finish that feels soft to the touch. That's nice, but the finish does pick up the oil from your hands and it shows scuff marks. I don't know what the headphones will look like after a year of use, but you'll probably have to be pretty careful with them in order to keep them looking pristine.
It would have helped had Parrot included a better carrying case. The included one is a thin, relatively cheap cloth pouch that just doesn't compare to the hard cases included with most headphones that cost more than $300 (Bose, for example, includes a nice carrying case with its noise-canceling headphones). That's too bad.
As I said, the Zik headphones are loaded with cutting-edge features, many of which I've already touched on. Some of those features are more flushed out while others are still works in progress. For instance, Parrot touts the Zik's NFC (Near Field Communications) capabilities, a feature found on only a few smartphones at this time (though it's coming soon to more smartphones). If you have the right model, one that runs the Android 4.1 Jelly Bean OS, you can tap on the headset to pair it and double tap to unpair it. Alas, the only NFC-enabled smartphone I had was the Samsung Galaxy S3 and the Zik's NFC feature didn't work with it.
The other big extra and a key part of the Zik package is the Parrot Audio Suite app. It's a free download for iOS and Android devices and, as I noted, it's really a control panel for the headphones and pretty vital to the Zik experience. From the app, you can turn the noise canceling on or off, tweak the EQ, check whether any firmware updates are available, and see how much battery life you have left.