Parrot Zik 2.0 Bluetooth Over-Ear Headphones Listening Tests
Listening – Passive Wired
While I performed the initial full charge, I decided to plug in the headphone cable and give them a listen. Honestly, I was underwhelmed. The sound was lifeless. Vocals came across boxy sounding, and the overall impression was of a cheap plastic boom box. The low-end extension was still more than capable of pressurizing my ear canals, so I could tell that there was quality to be uncovered. I expected that once they were charged and the DSP could be enabled, they would spring to life. And they did indeed. I’ll get to that a bit later, though.
I wish Parrot had devoted more attention to the analog performance of the Zik 2.0. I never got a chance to test the wired passive performance of the first generation Zik, and I wish I had. I sent an email to Parrot asking for the reasons behind the lack of tuning for passive mode in the 2.0, but unfortunately have not received an answer as of the publish date of this review. All I can guess is that since so much attention was paid to the electronics, passive performance was not considered important.
Hardware and software
Be advised that the Parrot Zik 2.0 app is only available through the Google Play Store and the iTunes App Store. If you have a Windows Mobile phone or Surface tablet, you won’t be able to manage your headphones with those devices. If you have an Android device that does not include Google Play (such as an Amazon Fire phone or a Black Friday special off-brand tablet), the same caveat applies.
The app’s capabilities are well-documented in the user guide. Navigating the app is a bit counterintuitive at first, but it’s an easy learning curve to overcome. The overall feel of the app is that it’s user friendly to a fault. If you like to tweak but don’t really know what you’re doing, you’ll feel right at home, getting noticeable results at the flick of a finger. On the other hand, manually modifying the parametric EQ requires you to have a media file playing before the EQ is accessible – even if your intention is to create a global custom preset.
Although the Concert Hall feature is interesting and cleverly implemented, I regard it as more a novelty than anything. It’s fun to simulate different room sizes and speaker placements as an occasional diversion. For more practical listening, I prefer leaving the Concert Hall effect turned off, favoring the mix the recording engineers chose in the studio.
The hardware features are pretty slick. Efficient battery usage; 8 mics for external noise management and phone conversations; auto pause/resume on removal and refit; all these features are already exhaustively documented in Parrot’s product literature and a dozen other reviews easily discovered through searching the web. I have nothing new to add. As this is a community of audiophiles, let’s skip the gluttonous features and get to audio quality.
Listening – Active Bluetooth with DSP
Activating the DSP made an absolute night and day difference from passive wired mode. This is explained more thoroughly in the Measurements section, but powering on the headphones rescues the lamentable performance from its stagnation. Further improvements to the sound are achieved through the various gadgets and gizmos within the Android and iOS apps.
The circular Equalizer feature provides a user-friendly interface for neophytes, but all the EQ it applies leaves an audible dip in the octave around 1 kHz. Concert Hall activates various permutations of channel intermixing and cowling of the highs, which tends to distract from the purity of the source material. Therefore, the impressions I chronicle here were all gathered with my preferred user preset active (also described in Measurements), with Concert Hall and other enhancements all disabled.
Bob Curnow’s L.A. Big Band: The Music of Pat Metheny & Lyle Mays
This album provides ample opportunity for the Zik 2.0 to showcase its many talents. The nice thing about using a show band album to demo audio gear is that nearly every track features instruments with distinctive colors, and every register is well represented. “If I Could” features an alto sax solo for the duration of the chart, and is a difficult track to reproduce clearly. The Zik 2.0 excels, though, transparently revealing every subtlety from the soggy reed down to the last embouchure adjustment. “Letter From Home” demonstrates representative voicing in all registers. The timbre of the bass is well preserved, as is that of the piano. The flugelhorn retains its mellow quality. The woodwinds’ flute choir maintains solid fundamentals correctly proportioned to their overtones. “Minuano (Six-Eight),” my favorite track, evokes just as much excitement as when played through my home theater system.
An unfortunate victim of the loudness wars, this album often succumbs to zealous compression. Nevertheless, the sophistication of the charts and the capable performances make this album one of my favorites for casual listening. “When the Sun Comes Down” provides a worthwhile representation of a male vocal lead with smooth female harmonies. All the voices are clear with no bald spots, as are the horn section countermelodies. Vocals remain airy without harshness in sibilance. “Step Aside” reveals a slight wavering of control when strong bass bumps and thumps beneath the thick accompaniment of horns. The bass line drives more here than in the previously mentioned track, and suffers from the compression inflicted by the studio engineers. “N.O.T.” is quite punchy with a fat groove. “I Remember a Time” starts with a pleasingly full-bodied piano feature and progresses to a wonderful panning tremolo effect on the keyboard. This track also has some reprehensible compression applied, and the thump of the bass drum suffers a bit in the mix. Dynamic compression notwithstanding, this album has more going for it than against. Just beware that the Parrot Zik 2.0 can reveal the flaws in recordings you previously thought flawless.
John Williams: Greatest Hits 1969 – 1999
Returning to well-mastered program material, this collection provides a worthwhile blend of symphonic sophistication with familiarity. John Williams is truly one of the great composers of this age. There’s nothing unexpected to note with the Zik 2.0’s reproduction of this material. Trumpets soar, trombones blat, mallets tinkle, bass violins provide a solid foundation without being overwhelming, and the occasional choral feature sounds better than it ever did in front of the silver screen.
- Ed Sheeran – “Sing”: Completely implausible stereo separation of the rhythm guitar and lead vocal, but by Jiminy it’s a fun track! As long as you can suspend the logical side of your brain and just enjoy the music, you will appreciate how the Zik 2.0 plays this track.
- Percussion is punchy, vocals are pure, and the panning through your brain is a trip.
- Mark Ronson – “Uptown Funk” (feat. Bruno Mars): George Clinton meets Michael Jackson, and they free associate a new language that doesn’t mean anything.
- Still, turn your brain off and savor the thump.
- Stevie Wonder – “I Wish”: Wonderful reproduction! I especially liked the dry studio horns.
- The space between the notes is as important as the notes in this track, and serves as a convincing argument to leave the Concert Hall setting disabled.
- Steely Dan – “Peg”: What in the world was Michael McDonald singing in the background? “Old and greasy”? I don’t care. It sounded lovely.
- The Hawaiian guitar break stays at the front of the sound stage.
- Afro – “Don’t Tell Em”: If your kids listen to this, it’s time for you to take a more active parenting role. Sonic problem: the deep bass makes the vocals sound choppy.
- This track is quite a bit louder than the others I’ve mentioned, so egregious compression is most likely to blame.
Head-Related Transfer Function
For those of you who are used to seeing measurements of cabinet loudspeakers, I should explain a bit about head-related transfer function and the desired frequency response curve of headphones.
Traditionally, one of many indicators of quality in cabinet speakers is a flat frequency response. The flatter the response, the less colored will be the timbre. This is, of course, a gross generalization, as frequency response is only one of many measurements supporting predictions of good sound. But suffice to say, good-sounding loudspeakers are more likely to have a flatter response than poorer sounding speakers.
On the other hand, good-sounding headphones often have a 13-16 dB hill in the upper midrange. This is because there are all sorts of gains and cancellations that occur when fully-formed sound waves interact with your head and torso, outer ear, and ear canal from a distance. Without the boundary gain of your head and the focused funneling of your outer ear, a source which sounds neutral at a distance has a very different response curve when pumped directly into the ear. Without these gains, headphones with a flat response would actually sound pretty bad with a lot of overtones muted.
Of course, since everyone has a head of a different size and shape, the resulting eardrum gains will be different from one person to the next. Therefore, by extension, what one person’s brain is accustomed to interpreting as neutral will be different from that of the next person. Since head-related transfer differs from person to person, all the studies conducted on such matters produce results that vary to some degree. In 2008, a pair of Danish scientists, Dorte Hammershøi and Henrik Møller, proposed a reference curve averaging the response curves suggested by all the studies available at the time. A blogger named Rin Choi explains all this in more detail. Tyll Hertsens of Inner Fidelity further explains the science with a focus on the research conducted at Harman International, led by Dr. Sean Olive.
Hammershøi and Møller’s reference response curve looks pretty much like this:
Approximation of Hammershøi and Møller’s eardrum compensation curve
In general, headphones with a frequency response resembling that curve will sound neutral.
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Overall, the Parrot Zik 2.0 is very much worth an audition for Bluetooth listening from a smartphone or tablet if the app is compatible with your device.
Read: Parrot Zik 2.0 Bluetooth Over-Ear Headphones Review