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Test drive: Parrot Zik


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For the past few days, I’ve been test driving the Parrot Zik. These high end bluetooth headphones are made made by Parrot, the french company most famous for it’s car kits and the AR Drone, and designed by the acclaimed french designer of just about everything: Philippe Starck.

Let me start of by saying that it is really hard to compare this headset to any other one out there, simply because it is so packed with new tech that no other product (to my knowledge) combines. Here’s a little rundown:

– Noise cancellation, EQ and “Concert Hall” feature that are all controlled from Parrot’s Audio Suite App.

– “Jawbone” sensor that directs focus to your speech when taking calls and automatically pauses whatever you’re listening to when you take the headphones of.

– NFC connectivity for easy pairing. I have read your mileage may vary on this since it doesn’t work with every NFC enabled device. Having an iPhone 4S, I really don’t have any use for this myself.

– Touchpad to control volume, track skipping and pausing by swiping on the right panel.

Sound quality

When it comes to audio quality, the Zik does not disappoint. However, these headphones have so much digital trickery that they are made to be used with EQ and “Concert Hall” settings in the Audio Suite App (available for iOS and Android). When using a flat EQ and no “Concert Hall” setting, you might be a bit underwhelmed. But once you starting playing with these settings and start to learn what settings fit what genre (which can differ greatly from one listener to another’s taste), the Zik provides a diverse and accurate listening experience. John Lee Hooker sounds great with the “Jazz Club” setting with a 90° speaker angle while The Who’s Baba O’Riley sounded like I was standing in an actual arena in the “Concert Hall” setting with a 60° listening angle. I prefer the “Punchy” EQ setting which raises high and low ranges while most mid tones remain unchanged. Other EQ’s are “Vocal”, “Club”, “Deep”, “Crystal” and “User” which you can fine tune to your personal preference. I should point out that the quality of your file is a very important factor. I had very different results between lossless or higher bit-rate AAC compared to some files on Spotify or “normal” quality MP3 files.

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Noise Cancellation

I don’t have loads of experience with noise cancelling headphones but the Zik isn’t far from my experience with the Bose QuietComfort line. There’s a total of 4 microphones both externally and inside the cups to take out any annoying continuous droning sounds like airplane engines, traffic, etc without completely cutting you of from the outside world. It just takes out enough to provide an accurate and even reproduction of whatever you’re listening to.

Zik comes with an easily removable battery by lifting a magnetic lid of the left cup. It provides up to 6 hours of battery life when using all the bells and whistles (Bluetooth, Noise Cancellation, EQ, Concert Hall) and up to 18 hours with Noise Cancellation turned off. You can also connect a 3,5mm jack to the right cup. This doesn’t change much in terms of audio quality but gives you a little more battery life. Downside to this is that all settings are controlled from your phone using the Audio Suite App. Also, music will mute (not pause, because the wired connection doesn’t support audio controls) whenever something happens on your phone. In wired mode, I recommend disconnecting bluetooth once you’ve set the headphone to the desired settings so the music doesn’t cut every time you unlock your phone. Taking off the headphones will also just mute sound while songs continue to play in iTunes or Spotify on your computer. The battery is charged using the provided micro USB cable that has a textile finish and the same orange accents as the headset, which is a nice detail.

Tech

Like I said before, the Zik comes jam packed with all sorts of cool sensors. I do have a few remarks: the “Jawbone” sensor doesn’t mean that this headphone does bone conduction. It’s really a sensor that looks for tiny vibrations emitted by your  skin. As a result, just putting your finger on it triggers the music to start playing again. The auto-pause feature works flawlessly most of the time but I’ve also had a few instances where the Zik started playing again because my neck touched the sensor. The touch controls work fine but take a little adjusting. When I first tried changing the volume I caught myself skipping to the next track instead. Once you get the hang of where to touch for which function, though, it’s a really intuitive set of controls.

Design and final thoughts

These cans just feel solid. The synthetic leather and metal construction of the headband feels sturdy and comfortable. Some reviewers noticed a little discomfort on the top of their head but I personally (maybe because I have long hair) didn’t feel any of that. The memory foam pads are super comfortable and don’t give any discomfort, even on longer listening sessions. Adjusting the size of the headband requires a little force but as a result of that the headband feels very sturdy and the cups don’t “dangle” like on some other headphones.

Overall this is a great set of headphones that comes packed with some ingenious features even though they don’t always work as intended (triggering play with your neck, etc). Noise cancellation might not be the best out there, but is more than adequate. The Zik really shines when it comes to audio quality and adjusting it to your preference. For the full experience, you really need the app. So if you don’t have an iOS or Android device I don’t think these are the headphones for you. Although I do hope that at one point Parrot will release a desktop version of the Audio Suite App. I was able to borrow this set from one of my colleagues and will probably be buying my own pair in the very near future. At 349 euro, it’s a bit steep. But if you shop around a bit you might be able to pick it up a little cheaper. The flexibility in sound experience you can create using the app does make it worth the premium price for me.

Pros

– Flexibility in sound and overall sound quality
– High tech and innovative features
– High quality design and finish

Cons

– Pricey
– Form factor might not be everyone’s cup of tea
– No way of controlling the sound without an iOS or Android device
– Ridiculously cheap feeling travel bag (shame on you, Parrot!)

Easy Rider

© Gil Plaquet

An image that didn’t make it to print. This was one of those moments where I realize I really love being a freelance photographer: making money doing what I love, at a place I would be passing by anyway (a local record fair). #awesome, right?

Living in the cloud

This past monday, Apple gave quite a long keynote at The Moscone Center during WWDC ’11. Some desperately needed iOS features, lots of OS X lion and, last but not least, moving to the cloud. It looks like it are going to be exciting times to be an Apple user.


iOS as it should be

iOS 5 is going to be the most important update of Apple’s mobile platform to date. It might just be that my fanboyism isn’t what it used to be but some of the announced features are so blatantly obvious I don’t think they need a big applause during a keynote. Things like the new notifications with the “slide down from the top” feature. Granted, it looks great and will be super efficient, but can we all admit that it’s almost exactly the same as what Android has had since it launched? Taking a picture with the volume up button? I’m sorry, but my Sony Ericsson did that back in 2004. Don’t get me wrong, they’re all great features, but they don’t really induce a big “keynote” applause in my case.

Another long awaited feature is task management. If it works as good as it looks and integrates as seamlessly with iCal as they claim, it looks like I can say goodbye to the 25 euro I spent on Things for Mac and iPhone. I’m especially looking forward to the location aware notifications (eg: “Don’t forget the milk” pops up when you’re about to pass your local super market). I know, Android fanboys, hold your horses. I know this sounds an awful lot like Locale.

A rundown of some other goodies you can expect:

  • iMessage: what appears to be iOS-only WhatsApp like messaging integrated right into the OS.
  • PC free: autonomous iOS devices: no more need for a computer to set up your device.
  • Twitter integration: one time login in system preferences to rule them all + integration throughout the entire OS.
  • Safari: tabbed browsing, reader (Focus on the text, remove all clutter. Already a feature in Safari for Mac).
  • Wireless sync: more on that further down this article.

King of the OS world

The next version of your Mac’s OS has been talking to it’s iOS nephews. Lion will incorporate even more touch gestures for your built-in or external “magic” trackpad.Combine that with the new Mission Control that gives you a complete view of everything that’s happening on our and you’ve got yourself Exposé on steroids. More system apps (and I presume API will also provide it for third party apps) will have a full screen mode, keeping you focussed on the job at hand,. Be it writing a text in Pages, obtaining inbox zero in Mail or taking silly pictures of yourself in Photobooth.

A combination of a new feature called Launchpad and the Mac App Store you might already be using today is going to give your Mac even more of the iOS look’n’feel. Buying applications and browsing through them will feel just like you’re on the iPad. For me personally, it makes the OS feel a bit, well, childish I guess. I know the way forward is simplifying interfaces to be more efficient and accessible, but I’ll need to get used to it.

My favorite new features are Resume and Version. Whether you’re writing a text or editing a photo, Lion will allow apps to constantly save every move you make and provides the ability to browse through past versions of your document. Kinda like Time Machine but throughout the entire OS. After you’ve restarted the app takes you right back where you left off. Students are obviously going to have one less excuse to not get their papers done in time. Finally, I’d like to mention Airdrop, a nifty new feature that’s integrated into the Finder and allows you to transfer files to any Mac in your vicinity. You don’t even need to be on the same WiFi network. I’m interested to find out if they use WiFi or Bluetooth to airdrop (hence the name) an important business document securely into your collegae’s Download folder. Sharing files never was this exciting.

Some other stuff to look forward to:

  • Conversations in Mail (Did anyone say Wave?)
  • You’ll be able to receive FaceTime calls,  even if you’re not running the app (Don’t worry, you can turn it off if you want to.)
  • Full screen Screen Sharing

Goodbye MobileMe, hello iCloud

MobileMe has always been one of those service that, if you use it intensively, is immensely useful but, if you don’t, feels like a total waste of money. Soon, everyone will be able to enjoy Exchange for the rest of us without having to pay for it. Mail, calendars, contacts, documents, photo’s, you’ll be able to sync them between you Mac, iPad, iPhone and iPod Tocuh without having to connect one single cable. On top of that, you can see all your past Music, Book or App purchases on all of your devices and download them instantly. Those purchases don’t even use your 5 GB of free cloud space. You can even set things up to automatically download new songs or apps you bought on your Mac to your iOS device(s).

The thing that’s got me excited though, is iTunes Match. For $25/year you sync up to 25.000 songs (even the ones you ripped from CD’s or got through some other sneaky way). Wirelessly over all your devices. You’ll even get Apple’s 256 kbps version of the songs you own. When you get to a charger in a WiFi hotspot, just plug in your device and the Cloud will do the rest. My biggest concern is whether SABAM and the Belgian music labels are going to block this feature just like they did with movies and shows on iTunes, Spotify, Pandora, … you get the picture. Only time will tell …

Getting your music in the zone …

These past few months, I had the chance to test out the latest wireless speaker system by Sonos: the Zoneplayer S5. I’ve know the brand for a while, but never got to checking it out properly before. What Sonos basicly does is allow you to play your entire music collection and almost every online music service in multiple zones spread through your home, wirelessly and with almost no set up required.

So let’s start by taking a look at the device itself: the design looks similar to that of the Bose Sound Dock. It’s sleek, minimalistic and feels sturdy. To keep everything simple the amount of buttons has been reduced to the bare minimum: there’s a volume up and down button and a mute button, thats it. On the back you’ll find an audio in port, headphone port, a simple power chord (no clunky brick!) and an ethernet hub to plug it into your wired internet, where available.

Read More…

How to make silence sound great

I’ve always been a huge fan of headphones. No wimpy earbuds for me, I’ll have some of those hefty ear-warmer looking things, thank you very much. They just feel much sturdier and, in most cases, sound so much better. Bluetooth headphones however, up to now, have been the headphones that wanted to sound good, but couldn’t. You see despite the fact that they had larger speakers with more potential, they have always been crippled by the fact that Bluetooth didn’t have enough bandwidth to stream high quality audio, therefore making them sound like the pair of crappy black, red’n’blue earbuds you get for free on “selected” flights. It looks, or rather sounds, that all of that is changing. The people at Nokia were kind enough to send me a review unit of their latest BH905 bluetooth noise-canceling headphones and, boy, did I like the sound of that.

When you open the, rather large, sort of kidney-shaped carrying bag the headphones come in you’ll find a collection of adapters, extension cables and, of course, a power adapter. The headphones obviously need juice to power the bluetooth connection and noise-canceling, but one thing I found rather annoying is that when the battery’s dead, you can’t even use it  plugged in without noise cancellation. It sounds like your music is coming from the end of a very long hallway. However battery life is pretty darn good so you won’t run out of juice that often. As you expect from Nokia, it also has an excellent built-in microphone to take any calls you might get while rockin’ out to your favourite tunes.

So why would you be in the market for these headphones? Well, if you want quality audio without the hassle of wires, up to 600 hours of stand-by time and the added functionality of being able to answer phone calls with active cancellation and two microphones, this are the headphones for you. They’re comfy, easy to use and setting them up with your phone, iPod Touch or even iPad is a matter of seconds. At €279, it’s more for those passionate about their audio than the occasional user. But then again, this product sounds AND feels just as good as let’s say a Bose set of headphones, which is in the same price class, only they still haven’t come out with a wireless headset you can use with your mobile phone.

More info over @ Nokia’s website.

Some more pictures:

Zodiak Trio

Zodiak Trio-2, originally uploaded by ApplefanBE.

Assignment for KlaraFestival via StampMedia.

Aldo Ciccolini

Aldo Ciccolini, originally uploaded by ApplefanBE.

© StampMedia – Gil Plaquet

Assignment for KlaraFestival thanks to StampMedia.

Read an article I wrote on this concert (in dutch).