Audio gear like headphones used to be defined by its sound qualities, the way the designers tuned the sound -- for example to be "more brassy" for strong percussion, or have a "strong bass" for heavy metal.
But new digital designs like the Parrot Zik headphone are part of the next generation of programmable audio devices, where you can customize the sound to your personal preferences from your smartphone or tablet.
The Zik is controlled from the free Parrot Audio Suite app for iPhone and Android, which enables DSP (Digital Signal Processor) algorithms in the headphones to tune the sound.
You can adjust the balance of the sound 7-band equalizer. And the Parrot Concert Hall effect positions the sound within an ambient environment, so you can move the stereo images from the sides to the front, and adjust the virtual space from a small room to a concert hall. Plus, there's a bonus setting personally programmed by Lou Reed.
But the Zik is a lot more than highly configurable, as you would expect from the $399 list price.
It's wireless, supporting Bluetooth 2.1 and pairing with up to five devices. And it supports NFC (Near Field Communication) for pairing, as on Android devices. There's also a 3.5 mm analog input to play the old fashioned way with a cable, and passively with a dead battery.
It also support voice calls, with clearer sound from two directional mics, plus a bone conductor sensor that captures the vibration of your jawbone and merges it with the sound of your voice.
And it performs active noise cancellation, with 4 active microphones inside and outside each earpiece to eliminate up to 98% of ambient noise.
There's also a head detection sensor that can pause or restart the music when you take off or put on the headphones, and switch an incoming call to your smartphone if you remove the headphones.
But the coolest technology is the most subtle -- a touch-sensitive control built into the right earpiece. The earpiece surface is flat and smooth, but you can tap on the panel to play or pause, swipe vertically to raise or lower the volume, and swipe horizontally to skip tracks forward or back.
The Zik has a distinctive over-ear design, featuring an adjustable metal headband with "leather-like" soft wrapping, and the metal look extending as accents onto the back or white matte earpieces. All this impressive technology is crammed into somewhat large earpieces that are around 2 3/4 x 3 1/2 x 1 1/2 inches thick.
It also uses a custom rechargeable battery which provides about 6 hours of usage with all features enabled, 18 hours with only active noise cancellation, and 24 hours standby time.
The bottom line on the Zik is that it is not just a collection of cool technology. The features work well together -- the Audio Suite app is simple and straightforward (and fun) to use to configure the sound, and the touch-sensitive control is really pleasant to use. Even people who did not typically use headphones found swiping on the earpiece to be a very natural way to adjust volume and skip through tracks.
The Parrot Zik headphones are available in classic black with silver metal, black with gold, white with yellow gold, and white with rose gold.
See my Holiday Gadgets & Portable Accessories 2013 coverage for more on portable audio and other fun devices.
Find the Parrot Zik headphones on Amazon.com