- Written by Jim Clements
- Published on 03 February 2011
Philippe Starck is a very prolific French designer. He focuses primarily on interior design and product design. Probably the most seminal example of his work is the Philippe Starck Salif juicer, which looks a lot like a miniature Martian war machine from "War of the Worlds". It has become a very popular cult item on the internet.
- Power: 50W (3-Channel Class D Amplifier)
- Mid/Tweeter: Bi-Polar Honeycomb Panels
- Woofer: 1~5" (125 mm)
- Mfr.: 50 Hz – 20 kHz
- RF Remote
- Wi-Fi b/g with SES/WPS
- Bluetooth v2.1 + EDR
- Profiles supported:
- A2DP (Advanced Audio Distribution Profile)
- AVRCP (Audio/Video Remote Control profile)
- Maximum range: 50 feet, 15 m
- Stereo RCA
- Height: 29.2 in., 750 mm
- Bottom: 12.5 x 11.3 in., 320 x 290 mm
- Top: 5 x 1.4 in., 130 x 35 mm
- Weight: 17 lbs., 3.5 kg
- MSRP: $1,600.00/pair
Here, Starck teams with Parrot, a company best known for their Bluetooth hands free car audio systems. Together they created the Zikmu wireless stereo speaker system. These self-contained wireless speakers have a digital iPod dock on one of the mini towers (the dock pulls a USB feed off your iPod) while the other mini tower has touch sensitive controls for basic operation. In addition to the iPod dock, the Zikmu system can also synch to a total of 10 individual Bluetooth or WiFi devices. There is a web interface for controlling the mini towers from a PC or Mac. Each mini tower includes 50 watts of Class D amplification, a small down-firing woofer and a bi polar panel for the mids and highs.
Design and Set-up
The speaker set comes with two mini towers, two 6-1/2' (2m) decent quality braided power cords, an RF remote, a rudimentary Quick Start Guide in 9 languages and a variety of iPod dock adaptors.
I don't comment about product packaging very often, but I can't help myself this time. The speakers were shipped in a relatively flimsy cardboard carton and I was worried that they were probably jangled around mercilessly in transit. I opened this outer carton and was delighted to see the real packaging underneath. The real packaging was a black Styrofoam case that from the outside looked like it had a couple of trombones in it! This case had a handle on it. Does Parrot view this as a "portable" sound system? The handle straps around the case and is held by four snaps. It could be a little difficult to get all the snaps to close because the strap fit snugly. Inside the case, each speaker and the remote were packed in individual, form-fitting neoprene socks. All told, this may be the most unique packaging I have ever seen.
The mini towers' enclosures are predominately glossy plastic enclosures with perforated metal grilles up top covering the mid/high drivers. The Zikmus are available in four basic colors, plus some limited edition units with skins designed by various artists. While I found their look to be interesting, I don't think the Zikmus will ever achieve cult status like the Salif juicer. The fact of the matter is that they will blend in with a limited range of interior styles. They didn't fit into the Mission-Style interior design of my suburban home. On the other hand, if I lived in a metropolitan flat with modern furnishings, then the Zikmus would be a welcome addition.
The towers are only 2'-6" (750 mm) tall and weigh a scant 7 lb 11 oz (3.5 kg) each. I kind of wish that they had an integral handle because they were awkward to lift and carry. But I think a handle would defile the speakers' visual design and would obviously interfere with the top-mounted controls and docking station.
Each tower contains 50 watts of Class D amplification. They are said to be tri-amped. No additional details are provided, but I will assume that one amp powers the bass driver while the other two amp channels drive each of the two "exciters" for the bi polar mid/high panels.
There is one 5" (125mm) down-firing bass driver in each tower. According to Parrot, the "Zikmu is a bass-reflex system equipped with a custom designed woofer. The motor of the driver and its suspension [have] been tuned for a perfect sixth order alignment between the driver, the acoustic enclosure and the electronic filtering."
The mid/high drivers are handled by flat honeycomb transducers. Here is Parrot's explanation of their design and implementation, "[The panels are] driven with 2 exciters. The panels are [hung] with a surround whose profile has been adjusted to lower the mechanical impedance of the edges. Neoprene dampers are used to control the drum mode at high frequencies. The exciters are maintained in a semi-rigid manner thanks to a damping material attached to a metal structure. They enclose a compact double neodymium magnet motor and a dedicated suspension to minimize rocking mode at high volume."
Parrot states that the internal DAC's are 48 kHz and 24-bit. This may not sound like a lot in this day and age, but considering the nature of this system, I am certain that the resolution of the DAC's is not a limiting factor in the Zikmu's performance.
Basic set up was a breeze. You simply attach the power cords, plug them into a wall outlet and then jam an iPod into the right tower. The power cords plug into the base of each tower and are the Mickey Mouse type. One of the cords did not fit very snugly and I was worried that it would come loose too easily. I obsessively checked it often but it never did come out on its own, even as I schlepped the speakers from room to room.
Of course, synching the towers to my laptop via Wi Fi was a little more involved. Still, the only real hiccup was that I needed to relax my firewall settings to establish the initial connection. The Zikmus then connected to my WEP-encrypted router without a hitch. After that, I was able to restore my usual firewall settings and the unit worked flawlessly.
You can also easily synch the Zikmu to Bluetooth devices such as smart phones and Mac Books. As mentioned above, it can synch up to 10 devices so I could see synching the Zikmu to your friends' devices and they could share their music whenever they come by for a visit. Each tower also has a stereo RCA input for legacy analog connections or to use the system as external speakers for your TV.
The included RF remote has power, volume up/down, skip/replay, play/pause and source buttons. You can't access the iPod menu from the remote or from the web interface. This is something that Parrot should seriously consider providing with future versions of the Zikmu. If you were using an iPod Touch, an iPhone or another Bluetooth device to control the Zikmus, then the external device would become your remote and you would have full control.
I found out right quick that the Zikmus had certain limitations with respect to their loudness capability. But when run within their limits, the Zikmus' sound was remarkably engaging if not downright beguiling. So I wound up doing 90% of my critical listening with the speakers about 6' apart with me sitting on the floor about 6' from the speakers. This way I could evaluate their sound without overdriving the system.
Since its release, I have really enjoyed MuteMath's self-titled debut album. The biggest track on this album is "Typical". This Grammy-nominated song has an excellent You Tube video of the song being performed in reverse. I love the driving beat and excellent drumming of the Mutemath sound. I ripped the CD to my iPod with Apple Lossless Encoding and played it back over the Zikmus.
I heard right away that the Zikmus have more inner detail than the ZVox ZBase 550 which I use for my bedroom system. The haunting vocals from "You are Mine" sounded subtly nuanced. The fast-paced songs had great rhythm and drive. The pacing was so good on all the upbeat material I played through the Zikmus that I spontaneously performed a greater spate of air-guitar exhibitions than I have done in years.
The downside is that the Zikmus usually produced a very small acoustic image. It was like a little diorama. This made Darren King's drum kit sound as if it were about 3' x 3'. The small image effect was not a problem when I used the Zikmus widely separated for background music. Also, tracks with lots of low bass, like "After We Have Left Our Homes" could easily tax the Zikmus amplifiers. The highs were rolled off, but they remained reasonably clean when I kept the volume within the limits of the internal amps.
An early form of "Crossroads" was the mid-70's collaboration between the jazz pianist, Claude Bolling and the classical flautist, Jean-Pierre Rampal titled "Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano". Something about the sound of the Zikmus made me reflect back on this old work and I promptly downloaded it from iTunes to my iPod Touch. Isn't technology great? I'm really glad that I downloaded this album it was a real blast from the past and small ensembles sounded good on the Zikmus due largely to the scale and power demand issues.
Obviously, the Zikmus have limited bass extension and the fundamentals from Max Hediguer's upright bass were hinted but not reproduced. But the bass weight was satisfactory and the bass was extremely nimble with fine pitch definition. This was good.
The piano sounded a little colored in the upper mids, but was generally quite natural throughout most of its range. On "Sentimentale", the flute floated over the stage and sounded really, really real.
Erica Wheeler's album Good Summer Rain was released In March 2008. The album features Erica's signature fusion of folk and bluegrass roots music. Instrumentation on this work includes mandolin, guitar, dobra, drums, piano and upright bass. This album is sponsored by The Trust for Public Land.
Track 1 is "As the Crow Flies". On it, Erica's voice was clean and clear – female vocals were quite nice on the Zikmus. The sound was nicely layered from front to back. This may be in part because of the bipolar mid/tweeter. Still, the sound was missing a certain sparkle in the highs. "Lucky in Love" had limited dynamics, but I was drawn into the song. There was better apparent bass extension on this album and the vocals were more transparent. The strings had an uncanny delicacy about them.
Some of the Zikmu marketing photos I saw had people lying around all catawampus on a sofa with the speakers almost randomly in the room and a guy controlling them from a laptop. In many respects, this is the best way for these speakers. For example, I took the Zikmus out on my 16' x 24' covered patio for an afternoon of cooking up a batch of English IPA. The burners I use are high pressure burners that make a lot of noise (like a tiny jet engine) when on all the way. The Zikmus generally played loud enough to be heard over this din. And they were much more balanced and transparent than the Mirage speakers that are mounted under the eaves of my patio.
It was a Sunday afternoon and we listened to the Third Coast Music Network on 90.1 KSYM, the local community college station in San Antonio. The FM transmitter they have is only 5,000 watts and getting a signal can be iffy at times. So I streamed the station off the internet using my laptop. It worked excellently all day long. I am recommending Third Coast to anyone who likes roots music, zydeco, blues, and alternative country. Check it out on a Sunday afternoon sometime. The only real drawback is that KSYM steams exclusively through Windows Media Player.
In this section, I have posted screen shots of the Zikmu web interface.
On the Bench
I drove the Zikmus through their analog inputs for the following tests.
This is the Zikmus' frequency response at 1 meter on axis. You can see that the bass begins to roll off at about 75 Hz. There is usable response to about 50 Hz or so. The treble is down about 10 db by 15 kHz.
Here is the Zikmus' response spectrum at 1 meter and 30 degrees off axis. The response gets a little peaky in the upper registers but remains acceptably smooth throughout the audible bands.
Near field distortion measurements at 1 kHz and 90 db are very clean.
At 10 kHz the % distortion remains low, but with a pronounced harmonic at 20 kHz.
The 500 Hz spectrum shows more harmonics and some apparent cabinet resonances. The THD is up to 0.32% is this instance.
I actually got almost 95 db at 1 meter and 50 Hz before the total harmonic distortion increased above 2.67%
Finally, the 40 Hz spectrum is laced with harmonics, but the THD remained within acceptable levels at 90 db.
I would say for sure that the Zikmus are not for head bangers due to their limited power rating. They had other limitations like a diminutive musical image and highs that started to roll off at about 15 kHz. They also have a unique industrial design that would appeal to many but would be of little interest to many others. Finally, they are not cheap at $1,600 a pair. You could get a nice integrated amp, docking station and speakers for less than that.
On the plus side, their sound had a respectable amount of inner detail with decent front to back layering and a certain delicacy. Their bipolar design works well to fill all kinds of spaces with music. The Zikmus also have nimble bass with excellent pitch definition. Their sound could be downright beguiling at times. The Zikmus' concept and implementation are good and their web interface is very slick. They are almost "plug and play" which may be the most I can say about a lot of other devices that claim they to be "plug and play". So for those of you with a casual lifestyle, a digital music library and the right décor, I recommend you check out the Zikmus before making a buying decision. They may just be your cup of tea.