Review: Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air
Sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke's 1961 suggestion that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" has popped up in numerous Apple-related discussions recently, as the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad have suddenly brought Harry Potter's Hogwarts textbooks and Star Trek-styled multi-touch computers to life. Last year, Apple pulled off another yet trick, offering third-party developers access to the one-tap wireless media streaming technology now known as "AirPlay." Initially, AirPlay let iTunes and iOS devices wirelessly send video and audio to the latest Apple TVs, and with the release of Bowers & Wilkins' new Zeppelin Air ($599), AirPlay's reach has expanded to third-party iPod and iPhone docking accessories, as well.
Zeppelin Air wasn’t the first all-in-one AirPlay speaker system to be announced—that would be iHome’s less expensive iW1—but it will be the first to actually hit stores. Bowers & Wilkins has used its prior-generation, premium Zeppelin speaker as the basis for Zeppelin Air, preserving the same “oblong spheroid” elongated football shape and “floating front dock” that generated so much discussion back in 2007. The new version has been tweaked outside with a glossy black back rather than a chrome one, small differences in its curves, and a three-pound drop in weight, but still comes with an egg-shaped RF remote control and a power cord, plus another cable; more on that in a bit.
From the front, Zeppelin and Zeppelin Air look nearly identical. Bowers & Wilkins claims that they’re both 25” wide, but Air seems to be just a little longer than the original, and it’s certainly lighter at 13.5 pounds to Zeppelin’s 16.5. More obviously, the chrome dock has swapped its large engraved “B&W” logo for a more subtle “Bowers & Wilkins” mark, and changed the prior big color-shifting status dot for a tiny boxy light immediately beneath the iPod or iPhone. Because the wrap-around rear housing has changed from chrome to black, the face of the black fabric-grilled unit now looks a little darker than before on the bottom, where a rubber and plastic stabilizing foot remains in the same place as the all-rubber original. These changes are net positives for the fabric-grilled Zeppelin Air, though the small size of the new indicator light makes it difficult to see from a distance, and its tendency to shift between similar blue and purple tones offers less obvious differentiation than the prior model’s blue and green light. Chrome lovers may be dismayed to only see the mirrored, high-contrast metal running down the unit’s front center, including a thin stripe that contains power and volume buttons.
These all turn out to be relatively trivial changes compared to what’s been altered inside of Zeppelin Air. While both systems have five drivers, including a 5” bass driver and twin 1” tweeters, B&W has changed from dome to tube tweeters in Air,* and has reduced the two midrange drivers from 3.5” down to 3.0” each. New amplifiers move this Zeppelin from sharing three amplification units to instead offering one for each driver, adding two extra 25W drivers for the tweeters to the prior 25W and 50W midrange and bass amps. The back of the unit now includes an Ethernet connector, replacing the S-Video port found on the prior model, plus the old aux-in, composite video-out, USB, and power-in ports from Zeppelin. Interestingly, Zeppelin Air is now rated for five times higher power consumption than before, but with a nearly four times lower standby power consumption. In other words, it drains far less energy when doing nothing, but more when it’s actually in use.
Why does Zeppelin Air need more energy? It’s capable of doing more. The original Zeppelin was merely an iPod docking speaker—albeit one with high design on its side—and a revised version added iPhone docking support later in its life cycle. Zeppelin Air is a bigger departure. Using Apple’s AirPlay technology, Zeppelin Air adds the ability to perform music streamed wirelessly from iTunes 10 and iOS 4.2- or later-equipped iPads, iPhone 3GS/4 models, and iPod touch 2G/3G/4G models. Plug Air in, set it up on your wireless network, and all of the sudden you’ll see “Zeppelin_Air 00XXXX” appear in iTunes and nearby iOS devices as an AirPlay speaker, accessible by simply clicking or tapping on its name.
A couple of seconds and a “Connecting to Zeppelin_Air” iTunes dialog box later, music will start playing through the system even if it wasn’t officially powered on. You can control Zeppelin Air’s volume using the slider in iTunes or the iPod/iPhone/iPad app you’re using, as well as physical volume buttons on the iOS device, Zeppelin Air, or its RF remote control. Disconnect the device wirelessly and the Zeppelin will go into standby mode after a brief period of inactivity. You can have multiple Airs around your house, each accessible from iTunes and your iOS devices; iTunes can even output to more than one at the same time.
Everything mentioned above feels like the sort of techno-magic Arthur Clarke described and Apple has delivered on in recent years, but there are a few areas in which the spell isn’t quite strong enough. First is the initial setup process, which feels decidedly unlike any AirPlay-ready Apple product we’ve tried before. B&W requires you to use the included Ethernet cable to connect your computer to Zeppelin Air* — sorry, MacBook Air users — then use a web-based interface to bring the Zeppelin onto your 802.11b/g Wi-Fi network. A purple flashing light on the speaker’s face lets you know that it’s hunting for Wi-Fi, a process that seems to take a little while every time the power cable is unplugged, and then it’s ready to play streamed audio from iTunes or iOS devices. While setup wasn’t terrible on a “Windows XP wireless networking” level, it didn’t feel like the sort of near-zero-effort configuration one might expect from a device leveraging the latest generation of Apple wireless technology. iHome has demonstrated an iOS-based setup app for its iW1 and future AirPlay speakers, and we’d have to think that there are other, easier ways to bring new AirPlay devices onto a network than a web client.
Actually using Zeppelin Air as both a docking and wireless audio system also feels a little less than completely seamless, though it’s obvious that B&W is trying. If you’re playing music through the system using a docked iPod or iPhone and try to interrupt with playback from iTunes, you’ll get an error message that the speaker’s already in use—rather than an acknowledgement that streaming is happening, but on a second audio input channel. You need to stop the iPod or iPhone from playing or switch Zeppelin Air to a separate audio input using the remote before you can use AirPlay. This turns out to be important because Zeppelin Air doesn’t treat the dock and the AirPlay stream as if they’re part of the same system; instead, they compete. You can actually see Air turn power off and on to the dock when switching between wired and wireless modes—a docked iPhone will vibrate—and you’ll have to wait a second or two for one to stop and the other to start. We also noticed infrequent but occasional hiccups in audio streamed from AirPlay devices, including the iPad 2. The interaction between wired and wireless modes obviously needed a little more work before release; we’ll have to see how much, if at all, post-release firmware updates can do to fix this.
Last up is the issue of sound quality, and there are a few things that need to be said about Zeppelin Air by comparison with lower-priced rivals. First, Bowers & Wilkins is playing on a somewhat different field than most of its competitors, using better speaker drivers, cleaner amplifiers, and arguably superior tuning. Like the original Zeppelin, Zeppelin Air is not some junky piece of plastic with tinny highs, flat thuddy lows, and not much in between. It’s an almost museum-quality design, and under the right conditions, it can produce some really beautiful music—always smooth, generally quite detailed, and more often than not, powerful. Even if the actual differences aren’t especially obvious, spec-obsessed audiophile iTunes users will appreciate Air’s new support for 24-bit/96Khz sound recordings. And users looking for insane volume levels will find Zeppelin Air capable of scary levels of amplitude, enough in fact that you’ll want to be on the other side of a conference room when it’s at its peak. This isn’t a small speaker by iPod and iPhone standards, but it puts out even bigger sound than you’d imagine a two-foot-wide football could manage.
That having been said, we weren’t totally thrilled by Zeppelin Air’s sound balance straight out of the box, either with the iPhone/iPod dock or via AirPlay. Bowers & Wilkins has re-tuned this model to address something mentioned in our review of the prior Zeppelin, namely low-end performance that was clean and detailed rather than powerful—a signature that would satisfy neutrality-seeking audiophiles rather than bass enthusiasts. This time, between the smaller midrange drivers and some tweaks to the 5” bass driver, Zeppelin Air begins with a level of bass that we’d call somewhat overwhelming, clouding the midrange and increasing in dominance as the volume is raised. Flip over to AirPlay mode and the relative bass level is even more pronounced. As with the original Zeppelin, you can go into your iPod or iPhone’s Settings menu to find a special Speakers option that lets you throttle the bass back, and this time, you can similarly use iTunes to apply a “bass reducer” effect to the audio as well. This time, Zeppelin Air really needs it; last time, it didn’t. (iPad and iOS AirPlay users don’t get access to the Speakers settings, and thus will have to play with the iPod app’s EQ options, not necessarily with equally satisfactory results.)
Overall, there are some decided pros and cons to Zeppelin Air as a sequel to the original Zeppelin. We love the fact that Bowers & Wilkins is delivering better value for the asking price in this model, as the addition of AirPlay wireless functionality adds to the nearly iconic chassis design as a reasonable justification for maintaining rather than lowering the first Zeppelin’s hefty tag. Between its new ability to work with iPads and iTunes without wires and its continued support for both iPods and iPhones with or without the dock, Zeppelin Air is one of the most widely device-compatible speakers yet released. The fact that its RF remote control provides track, volume, and play/pause controls for whatever might be playing—and wherever you may be, line of sight control be damned—is a nice bonus, too.
However, given the expectations users will have for both AirPlay and the $600 price, Zeppelin Air really could have benefitted from some additional development time before release. Apple’s “it just works” AirPlay technology isn’t quite as magical when you have to tether a new speaker to an Ethernet wire and computer, then go through a web-based setup process to get everything working—complete with some awkward pauses and input-switching issues when it’s all set up properly. And the speakers, while undeniably powerful, could really benefit from both guaranteed identical balance in both wired and wireless modes, and an initial setup feature with, say, three or five different predefined audio balance offerings the user could choose from. All of this could be handled with an iOS app or iTunes-integrated AirPlay setup process, and going forward, it probably should be. Based on its past track record with Zeppelin firmware updates, our hope is that B&W will step up to the plate and make some of the post-release tweaks that would enable Zeppelin Air to live up to its full potential. It’s obvious that this unit has under-tapped abilities under the hood, and if they’re unlocked, we’ll be happy to take another extended listen. As-is, this is a beautiful speaker and good option for Apple device users with extra cash on hand, but not exactly the roar out of the gate we’d expected from dedicated AirPlay speakers.
Updated March 21, 2011: Though it’s not mentioned in the manual included with early Zeppelin Air units, Bowers & Wilkins has added an alternative, fully wireless AirPlay setup mode to the device, eliminating the need for the Ethernet cable. Instructions can be found in an updated manual on Bowers & Wilkins’ web site. Additionally, B&W notes that its web site’s spec description of the new tweeters in the Air is a little confusing: both Zeppelins actually use a combination of dome and tube tweeter, but Zeppelin Air’s version is newer and lighter, coming from the company’s MM-1 computer speakers.