Bowers & Wilkins, the British speaker company who audiophiles know as B&W, has been making speaker systems with unique, modern looking designs with prices ranging from the hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars since the 60s. That means that most iPod owners are not as old as B&W. So when I was setting up the details to review their latest monitor, I was surprised to be asked if I would like to hear their all-in-one iPod stereo. I mean who would have thought B&W would be making such a product. It’s call the Zeppelin, and it only takes seeing it once to know why. It is very modern looking, and in fact has won several awards from the artistic design world; but in some ways, it’s kind of an old-timey idea. The reason I say that, is because when was the last time you saw a brand new high-end, one-piece, desktop, non-portable stereo system?
Now it doesn’t look a bit old-timey though. If you sit the Zeppelin on a tabletop, the speaker points up at a 45-degree angle giving it the appearance of almost floating in air. Then also seemingly floating in air is the iPod dock. It is a brilliant design that uses a stainless steel, curved wand that reaches up and out in front of the speaker so that once docked, you can put your hand all over the iPod. This looks great and makes it as easy to use as your iPod has always been.
Other than the concept, there’s nothing old-timey about the Zeppelin. It is a very up to date and in some ways quite an innovative product. It includes a very cool looking cradle that works with all iPods, and it charges all 4G and later iPod, all iPhone, iPod touch and iPod nano models. Generations 1, 2 and 3 iPods only charge through their FireWire connections. The Zeppelin charges via the later model’s USB power connections. It comes with a cute little black remote control that works well. On the back you will find an auxiliary-input audio jack, a composite and S-video output jacks for viewing iPod-hosted video or photos on your TV. The good news is that it supports video-out with all video-capable iPods because it includes the necessary authorization chip for use with the third-generation iPod Nano, the iPod Classic and Touch, and the iPhone, meaning it will pass along the video from any of the video iPods, such as the 5th gen iPod, classic, 2nd & 3rd gen nano, both generation touchs and iPhones). It also has a USB port for installing software updates. Its dirigible-shaped enclosure is approximately 25 inches wide, 7.5 inches high, 8 inches deep and weighs 16.5 pounds. The front of the Zeppelin is covered in black, mesh fabric while the back has a very nice chrome finish. Almost everyone who saw it thought it was a very visually striking design.
Another feature of the Zeppelin is that it includes a built-in DAC. This means the Zepplin takes the balanced audio output of the iPod, converts the signal to digital, utilizes DSP to enhance the signal and inputs the digital signal into the Class D amplifier in the digital domain. This also allows conversion to digital, of analog audio signals input through the AUX input. In fact, you can even connect a CD player, a computer, or even something like the Apple’s AirPort if you use a mini-Toslink cable. In fact, Apple Macintosh, Apple TV and Apple AirPort Express offer optical digital audio outputs. The Apple AirPort Extreme does not output audio. I think this is really a nice feature.
With both my wife’s iPod Touch and my iPhone, docking with the Zeppelin allows you to go to the SPEAKERS settings screen on the iPhone and iPod Touch. This feature is available to 5th generation and later iPod, all nano, iPod touch and iPhones. This menu contains a tone control setting that lets you choose a bass level of -3, -2, -1, 0, or +1. The gradations are subtle, but they do allow you to make minor adjustments to the system’s bass level; for example, to compensate for the unit’s position relative to a wall or corner of a room.
Despite the fact that the Zeppelin doesn’t have any sort of built-in volume display, it is nice that the iPod’s screen shows the Zeppelin’s volume level using a display similar to the iPod’s own volume bar. The Zeppelin also gradually brings the volume back up to its previous level whenever you resume playback.
One last thing before we talk about what’s inside the Zeppelin, technically it’s not “Made for iPhone”.
That is an official Apple designation indicating that a product won’t interfere with the iPhone’s wireless functions, speaker systems, and that the iPhone won’t cause audible GSM interference. That being said, I found the Zeppelin to be perfectly iPhone-compatible, except for the alert message that suggests you put it in airplane mode when you place it on the dock; just tell it no and continue. The message also goes away if you swipe to unlock the phone when docking and will automatically go away by timing out after five seconds or so. Still, receiving a phone call or checking for email worked just fine, and I never heard any interference. Now, let’s talk about what’s inside this blimp.
Internally we discover the Zeppelin is a three way design, basically it is laid out like their satellite – subwoofer speaker system. On each of the far ends of the enclosure we find it has the same 1″ metal dome tweeters found in many of B&W speakers. Each tweeter and mid/bass pair is driven by its own 25-watt digital amp. The mid/bass driver is a 3.5″ woven, resin impregnated, polymer coated glass-fiber cone. There is also a single 50-watt subwoofer amp. On either side of the midrange drivers we find these electronics, that include the amps and crossovers. Then in the center is the 5″ Kevlar reinforced bass driver with its own 50-watt digital amplifier. There are two rear ports, this allows you to adjust the bass by varying the distance from the rear wall.
B&W says the shape of the Zeppelin comes from their ultra modern looking and top-of-the-line Nautilus speaker. They say this shape allows the speaker to deliver full power without being hindered by speaker distortion or cabinet diffraction. The cabinet of dense polymer and stainless steel is designed for maximum structural integrity and as little resonance as possible.
B&W’s sense of design aesthetics even includes its cute remote control. It’s about the same size, shape and color as the small, black, decorative stones I put in my Coi-pond. It has a glossy-black front, a chrome-plated back with a small rubber foot in the middle of the back, to protect the chrome and keep the remote from sliding around when you set it down. This small simple remote allows you to control the POWER, PLAY/PAUSE, BACK, FORWARD, VOLUME, and it also provides an INPUT button that toggles between iPod and auxiliary-input modes. It simply works very well. You can also turn the system on or off, toggle between inputs, and adjust the volume using chrome buttons on the top of the Zeppelin itself.
Well, Can the Zeppelin Fly?
The answer is most definitely. The Zeppelin sounds really good. Real good. It sounds more like a small stereo setup, than a desktop-style iPod speaker. The system’s sound is rich and warm, maybe a bit too warm if you put it too close to the wall. It easily filled my 15′ by 20′ room with sound. Truth be told: The Zeppelin is capable of producing ear-splitting volume levels effortlessly while still sounding relaxed. It has a real quality of listenability somewhat like analogue, but that is only true with WAV or Apple Lossless files.
The midrange is full and smooth with enough air to give you a taste of high-end music reproduction. While warm and smooth, I never found it to sound like the sound was coming out of cupped hands. No, just the opposite, the midrange was quite open sounding. With WAV files the music actually had a nice flow to it.
While the Zeppelin isn’t the last word in detail or transparency, somehow it manages to engage me because of its pace, weight, and scale. In fact, plucked strings are really quite good and voices, especially female voices are quite surprising in how relaxed they sound.
The bass, or especially the lower midrange, is quite impressive. No, it doesn’t go down to 40 Hz, but it does sound like it goes a little below 50 Hz. The bass also isn’t the fastest out there, but it is far more musical than I would have ever dreamt possible from an entire system that costs less than nine hundred dollars. Think about it, you’re getting a high quality three-way from B&W, plus three amps, a DAC, and you iPod or iPhone for a transport. That’s a lot for the money and it sounds better than any sub-thousand-dollar systems I have heard if you can live without a wide soundstage.
Treble, or the lack thereof, is the most noticeable weakness of the Zeppelin. It’s not that it has no top-end; no, the upper midrange and lower treble region is quite good, but the top-end is somewhat recessed. This is actually a blessing compared to some of the iPod speakers I’ve heard. I have never heard a digital amp with a top-end that I really liked, and likewise I have never heard a redbook player for under $5,000 that had a musical and extended top-end. So, it may be that B&W envisioned the laid back top-end as a more musical sound in a unit at this price point. I had surely rather have it than the top-end I usually hear from even moderate priced redbook digital.
Let me just say, this is by far the best sounding I have heard from a one-piece iPod system. It is definitely good enough to make it painfully obvious when you’re listening to mp3s instead of WAV or Apple Lossless files.
A Different Option
If you’re willing to put up with cables everywhere, and having a separate iPod dock, you can get better sound for less money from Audioengine’s A5s, but not the A2s. The A5s’ stereo separation and imaging are far better than is possible with any one-piece system. The A5s do not have quite the effortless scale of the Zeppelin, though.
The B&W Zeppelin is a wonderful product. It has the best interface for an iPod I have seen. It is as intuitive to use as the iPod touch or iPhone. It is built like a tank, and looks like a work of art. It is the solution for the readers looking for a one-piece, desktop or even wall-mount stereo.
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