I’m not a complete gadget freak, but sometimes a widget draws me in and pushes that gadget-lust button. Such was the case last year when Philippe Starck and the French bluetooth device maker Parrot announced a collaboration to make what are probably the coolest designer headphones anywhere:
I never thought I would own a pair, at $400, but my darling, awesome, rock star wife Denise bought me some for Christmas. I thought I should do some kind of objective review now that I have had them for a month, but I am so in love with these that that’s clearly impossible. So, instead, here’s my completely biased review/tour of Le Zik. I’m posting it here just because I hope my SQL peeps are also travellers and also love tech like this.
This is the kit I travel with:
I have a Lenovo Thinkpad x220 tablet with Windows 8, top. It has a touch screen that you can twist and fold to use the device as a tablet. Size-wise it’s smaller than a laptop and bigger than a tablet. On a plane it is a thing of beauty – fully functional computer for work, tablet for reading, movies or music without carrying an extra device. Across the middle is what you get in the box with Parrot Zik. At the bottom is my no-frills, cheap Android phone.
Zik looks like this:
The headphones feel very solidly constructed but not heavy. The headband is connected to the ear pieces with gorgeous sculpted aluminum “arms,” with orange accents at the point where they disappear into the top band. The aluminum pieces are articulated so that the unit folds flat to store or carry, and for automatic fit when they are on. I am a bit on the small side, but they fit very comfortably for several hours at a time. The only adjustment is that those arms extend out farther from the headband for bigger heads.
The controls, ports and the mics for noise cancellation are in a coordinating aluminum inset on the bottom of the ear pieces:
Headphones are generally mundane, occasionally interesting from a design point of view, but Starck really manages to elevate them – these are really nice, well put together, comfortable – the whole thing works well, and is easy on the eyes while remaining simple and understated. All industrial design should be so good!
What’s the Big Deal?
Here are the features packed into these little guys:
- Active noise cancellation
- Bluetooth for wireless audio, software controls, and headset mic function
- Wired function as a backup, or for older audio devices
- World-class audio quality
- Touch controls (!) right in the surface of the right earpiece that control volume, start, stop of media
Essentially, these have the software and hardware to integrate with any bluetooth device you use for audio. Watch a movie wirelessly from my laptop? Done. Listen to music wirelessly from my phone? Done. I came from using basic wired ear buds (like I said, perhaps this isn’t exactly an objective review) so this feature set blew me away. There might be other headsets with the same software integration.
When I got these, and figured out how to install the battery, which is a clever puzzle, I took them for an audio spin first. I installed the app on my phone, charged them over USB, and then did a tour of many types of music. I have strange taste in music, probably, so please be gentle:
- Clapton, Joe Bonamassa and Jeff Beck gave me some sense of the guitar/rock/blues side
- Some Swedish House Mafia for the “Oonse Oonse Oonse”-ability and bass extension
- Jackson Browne’s two Solo Acoustic albums for intimate folk/vocals
- Brandi Carlile Live at Benaroya Hall
- Macklemore, which is about as close to Hip Hop as I get :-)
- Yes, if you are into old-school virtuoso rock
- Various Wynton Marsalis Jazz tunes
Spotify, Pandora, iTunes and my phone’s music player all worked seamlessly. The app installed and worked without any drama – and for my laptop, no software was required at all. It paired with the headphones and they just worked. Everything sounded amazing.
The touch controls work well and are intuitive – you swipe a finger up, down, or across the black surface of the right earphone to change volume, skip ahead, skip back or pause.
The only strange thing was getting used to turning them off when I put them down, so the battery would not run while I didn’t have them on. I have since developed that habit. The on/off button is in a very convenient place and has white (on) and red (charging) backlight LEDs, and a tactile bump so you can hit it without looking. Great details.
What about that Problem Using the Cable?
I had read, before we bought these, that some people complained about poor audio quality when using them in wired mode instead of over bluetooth, and that, at $400, was a worry. Here’s the thing I think may have happened with those folks – though I am speculating: when I first plugged in the audio cable, at the headphones end, it was really stiff. I thought I had seated the jack all the way in, but I listened, and sure enough, a thin, tinny sound and practically nothing from one earphone. However, I took them off and gave that jack a good shove, and, click, there was one more notch. After that it sounded perfect.
Here’s one thing about the wired-or-not setup:
The headphones have audio enhancement software built in, like a digital equalizer and a “concert” mode that enhances the stereo. These features are controlled from the phone app, but reside in the headphones. However, those features, from what I can tell, work on the bluetooth stream and not over the wire. So, while the wired sound is excellent, you can hear a difference. You have to apply those effects, if you want them, using the source system or software (your music player or stereo). Example: if you use the EQ in the software, I believe it only affects the signal over bluetooth. If you want an EQ over the wire, then the audio source software or device has to have one, and you’d use that.
To me this is no problem at all.
Just to be sure, I did this test:
On Brandi Carlile’s Live at Benaroya Hall, track Turpentine is one I know really well, because I was there at Benaroya Hall when it was recorded. Amazing show. If you listen really carefully you can hear me singing in the audience on the recording (ok, actually not). Anyway, I tried switching back and forth between bluetooth and wired connections during that track to see what the differences were, and if the wired connection was worse in any way, and I’m here to say the wire sounds just fine. If that’s holding you back from a Zik purchase, go for it. Non-issue.
Made for Planes
I was itching to try these on an airplane, and this week a work trip granted me my wish. While they are good at home, they are amazing in an airplane. The noise cancellation cut all the plane noise down to a faint hiss, while other people’s voices in the cabin still came through. For my flights I rented two movies to watch through iTunes going and coming back. I tried for something with musical interest, but that I hadn’t seen:
Going: Pitch Perfect
Coming back: Searching for Sugar Man
Pitch Perfect was a little light, but entertaining, and it has a fun sound track. I really liked the lead character Beca (Anna Kendrick), who is super cute.
Searching for Sugar Man was just amazing – great film.
The Zik was (were?) incredible on the trip. Comfortable, great sound quality. I charged them before each of the flights, and a four-hour flight used about 40% of their battery.
Overall I am really happy with these. They could use a hard case, and that thing with the effort required to plug things in when the unit was new is a quibble. Overall, though, Le Zik is just full to overflowing with L’Awesome.