Steve Jobs's yacht maker does cool headphones

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The most noteworthy thing about Parrot's new Zik over-the-ear stereo headphones isn't the sound. It's that these babies are stuffed with more technology than an F-15.

Start with Bluetooth for wireless pairing with your Apple or Android device. Add gesture-based controls, plus sensors that automatically stop the music when you remove the headphones. And include a passel of microphones for taking and making phone calls, as well as for noise cancellation.

They sound pretty good, too. For $400, they should.

While Paris-based Parrot makes voice-activated, hands-free systems for cars, the company may be best known for the AR.Drone, the elaborate smartphone-controlled, high-def-camera-equipped flying machine.

The Ziks, which are available from retailer Brookstone and through Apple's online store, follow in the AR.Drone's tradition of flashy tech more or less just for the hell of it.

The headphones were designed by Philippe Starck, the superstar product auteur whose other projects include the yacht Steve Jobs was having built before he died, now continued by his widow.

The first thing you'll notice about the Ziks are how hefty they are -- 11.5 ounces, which is nearly double the weight of Sennheiser's MM 500-X.

Sturdy comfort

Still, the premium materials used in the Ziks give them a sturdy feel, and the weight is sufficiently well-distributed so that I could wear them for several hours at a stretch without feeling as though my head were trapped in a vise.

Pairing the Ziks with my iPhone 4S was easy. I just went to the phone's Bluetooth settings and selected them, without having to enter a code.

It's even easier on some phones running Google's Android operating system, because the Ziks include a special chip called NFC -- for Near-Field Communications -- that pairs devices just by tapping them together.

All Bluetooth headphones have a couple of inherent weaknesses: They sometimes cut out momentarily during music playback, and the audio quality isn't as high as with wired phones. While I encountered a few skips, they were minimal, and, at least in the kind of music I listen to, not distracting.

Custom controls

As to the sound, the Ziks are among the best wireless headphones I've tried. The noise cancellation creates an impressively tomb-like environment, while a free Parrot app, available now in the iTunes App Store and soon in the Google Play store, lets you control equalizer settings and concert-hall effects to customize the audio to your particular tastes.

The neatest controls, though, aren't found in the app; they're built into the headphones themselves. The exterior of the right ear cup is actually a touchpad that converts your finger swipes and taps into commands.

Glide your finger up and down to control the volume. Swipe backward once to return to the start of the current song, twice to go back to the previous one. A forward swipe skips to the next track. An incoming phone call stops the music -- a tap of the ear cup answers the call, while a two-second press refuses it.

As a general rule, I found the motion and touch-sensitive controls exceedingly fun to use, even if they weren't always completely reliable.

The volume and track-jumping controls worked fine. But when I slid the headphones down my neck, the music would occasionally continue to play.

Other times, there might be a several-second delay before it paused. The headphones seemed to do a better job at resuming play once I put the Ziks back on my ears.

Accidental disconnect

It also took me a while to master the phone controls. A couple of times, I accidentally disconnected calls while I was trying to answer them or adjust the volume.

Once I got the hang of everything, though, the Ziks proved to be thoroughly enjoyable. Their ability to shut out ambient noise is at least on a par with, and may even exceed, my usual Bose Quiet Comfort traveling companions.

Phone-call quality was good, and people I spoke to reported that my voice came through loud and clear. It's likely a function of the jawbone-sensor microphone built into the right ear cup that helps isolate the wearer's voice from ambient noise.

Be aware, though, that using the Ziks for phone calls will rapidly drain the battery, which otherwise can go 15 to 20 hours between charges. (The headphones come with a USB cable for rejuicing from a computer that can also be used with most smartphone wall chargers.)

There are cheaper headphones, lighter ones, and, if you're willing to plug in rather than go wireless, better-sounding ones, too. I'd be hard-pressed, though, to name any cooler ones.

Rich Jaroslovsky
Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

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