Zik; speeCup offer very different Bluetooth solutions
By Jim Bray
Bluetooth devices are becoming a dime a dozen thanks to the way it extends your phone or music devices' use wirelessly, to offer hands free phoning in a vehicle or just wireless streaming to a speaker.
Not surprisingly, some devices are excellent and some seem more pretender - or products in search of a market. And that's what we have here, personified by a speaker for the car and a pair of audiophile headphones.
Let's look at the headphones first, because they strike me as the more interesting of the two products.
They're called Zik and they're from Parrot, and they're not only Bluetooth, they also feature built in noise cancelling. And a very cool interface.
The headphones are stuffed with interesting features, too, including touch-sensitive controls (the interface I mentioned) and an app for iOS and Android devices that lets you use it as a kind of "virtual control panel." That's assuming you keep your smart phone nearby, which kind of minimizes the benefit of Bluetooth (you don't have to keep the thing nearby, just in range), but who am I to dump on a product because it offers more features and flexibility?
The phones are very robust and appear to be built very well. They're a tad heavier than I like (I'm gradually weaning myself from over the ear-type of phones to ear buds, as long as their quality is up to snuff), but they sound great. If you pride yourself on the audio quality of your digital music files, you might really enjoy the sound these Zik provide.
And despite their bulk, they're still comfortable on the ears, and you can use them for long periods (until the battery runs out!) without excessive fatigue. Again, they're not nearly as light and airy as buds, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Pairing the Zik to my smart phone was simple, which of course is exactly how it should be.
There are no controls on the Zik other than the power switch, so you operate them by finger touch - sliding a finger either up and down or across the outside of the right hand cup. It's a really nifty system and it works well for the most part, though it took me a while to get onto it. While I was still getting used to the phones, I'd try to raise the volume and it would skip ahead a track instead (for example), which was quite annoying. But that was only at the beginning. And think of what a great talking point this "swipe" methodology is - something you can show off to your friends!
Parrot says the Zik are designed around a powerful processor that "spatializes sound and recreates the acoustics of a concert hall." The head Parrot, in fact, claims to have enlisted Lou Reed's opinion, and the late musician apparently said the Zik worked better for classical music than for rock and offered to help improve them. It must have worked, because I didn't notice the Zik better with one type of music over another, from classical orchestra to big band to good old rock and roll.
As far as noise cancelling is concerned, they do a fine job. Parrot says the Zik eliminates up to 98 per cent of ambient noise and while I have no way to test or prove that, they do seem to work as advertised. Of course, at this price ($399-ish), you're even past Bose territory, so they'd better!
One thing I wish you could do with the Zik is use them with a home theater - and maybe you can, with the right home theater. You'd need a home theater audio system that streams. I was hoping the Zik would work with my home theater, which does everything short of singing and dancing on its own. But while I can stream to my home theater, I can't stream from it, so the Zik weren't the right tool for the job. It's a pity; sometimes I don't want to serenade the neighbors and sometimes I play music after my dear wife has gone to bed, so it would be welcome capability.
To be fair, Parrot doesn't claim the Zik will do this, so it isn't a problem with the product, it's just that I wanted more. And, to be even fairer, you can plug them in via wire; it's just that in my application I'd need a really long wire, hence my quest for a wireless solution.
But as far as what Parrot does claim for the Zik, I can't think of a wireless headphone that'll play your tunes so well, so conveniently, or with such a cool "gee whiz" factor.
Speaking up on speeCup…
Then there's the speeCup, yet another Bluetooth portable speaker. But in this case, the Siri/S Voice enabled Bluetooth speeCup is also designed to be used in your car as well as freestanding. It also features gesture control, though in my admittedly limited testing I was using gestures it wasn't programmed to understand.
That's because I really didn't get this product. It seems to want to be everything to everyone, which is a great thing to aspire to, but which can also be a tough target to hit. Still, it does offer some neat capabilities. For instance, it not only plays music, it also functions as a hands-free speakerphone for your car (or wherever). It's easy to pair, and it also comes with an integrated noise canceling microphone (for phone use) and a built-in rechargeable lithium ion battery that the manufacturer claims is capable of up to 20 hours between charges.
speeCup's tapered tower is meant to fit "perfectly" into your car's cup holder, but in my Audi A4 it flew across the passenger seat at the first sign of a curve in the road. It can be wedged in tighter, depending on the cup holder, but in my car it wouldn't stay in the holder that hides in the dashboard and it was annoyingly in the way when it perched in the one on the already obtrusive center console. At least it stayed there!
This only applies to my particular installation, of course. Your cup holders and your experience may be much more speeCup amenable.
Of course you don't have to use the thing in your car; it'll work anywhere you want a Bluetooth speaker, whether it be a boat, RV, office, or your patio.
The sound quality is okay, but you can certainly do better - though perhaps not for the speeCup's $130 price. The little speaker fires upward and is disseminated from openings near the top of the unit and I found it a tad weak for my taste. Of course, if you're only planning to use it to stream to your car audio system this is irrelevant - though it also raises the question of why you'd buy a speeCup in the first place if that's all you want to do with it. After all, if you have a Bluetooth-enabled phone and a Bluetooth-enabled car, you can bypass the speeCup altogether.
On the other hand, many cars aren't Bluetooth compliant yet, so a nice touch is an auxiliary jack interface with which you can connect the speeCup directly to your car (if it has an aux input) or your home audio system, the latter of which gives you Bluetooth streaming capability from your smart device to your home audio system. That can be very handy if you have the right cable.
The gesture control works okay, and you can use it to answer calls or skip tracks without touching the device - which can be handy when you're driving, especially since the things control panel is small and kind of obtuse and you don't want to fuss with it. On the other hand, watch where you're aiming the gestures; you don't want to prompt road rage from someone who might misunderstand your gesture!
For some reason, the power switch has been mounted onto the speeCup's base which means you have to pick it out of its perch to turn it on or off. You'd think they'd put it up on top, where the control panel is, or the side where the USB charging and auxiliary ports are.
Still, the speeCup does seem to work as advertised and I could see it being a handy choice for some folk. Not me, though. I'd rather use separate tools for the separate jobs. This is why I prefer the Bluetooth phone/tunes streaming thingy that hangs from my car's sun visor and my little Bose SoundLink Mini. That way, I get the best of both worlds: phone service and tune streaming to my car's audio system (via the Bluetooth device's FM transmitter) as well as fine quality tunes in hotel rooms, patios etc.. And since I can leave one in the car and one in my backpack, I don't have to keep track of where I left something like a speeCup.
Admittedly, my dual device solution costs more like $300 compared to the speeCup's $130, so there's that to consider as well.
But if the idea of an all-in-one device like this turns your crank, you should probably check out the speeCup.
Copyright 2014 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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