Review: Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin iPod Speakers
Pros: By reference to past all-in-one iPod speakers, a precisely tuned piece of listenable art, with balanced, impressively detailed sound, an unorthodox but attractive enclosure, and a novel chrome dock. Strong performance at volume levels ranging from quiet to blistering, with support for iPod/iPhone volume mirroring and on-screen bass control. Includes matching, good Infrared remote control.
Cons: High price is only partially justified by differences in audio and design relative to less expensive top performers; threadbare on features and frills save for its optional optical audio input, and rubber stand is less than ideally suited to the unusually wide, heavy design. Bass, and related tone controls, aren’t as adjustable or powerful as in top peer systems.
Since there are now thousands of iPod accessories out there, only four types of iPod-related announcements still appear to have the ability to attract mainstream media attention: something from Apple, something from a huge Apple partner or competitor, or something at an eye-popping price. Not surprisingly, expensive accessories face an uphill battle no matter how impressively designed or otherwise noteworthy they may be—price alone puts them in the “not for everyone” category—while surprisingly lower-priced ones announced by big Apple partners, such as the Nike + iPod Sport Kit, can become runaway hits overnight.
Though it has barely reached mainstream awareness at this point, there’s little doubt that Bowers & Wilkins’ new Zeppelin iPod Speakers ($600) system has great potential to do so in the near future. It comes from a storied British speaker house that has many fans in audiophile circles; the very fact that B&W would release an iPod-specific product adds to Apple’s cachet. Thanks to the work of a London firm called Native Design, Ltd., it sports an industrial design that can only be described as pleasantly unconventional. And though it will be carried by Apple Stores, which have the ability to quickly expose new products to large audiences, its price instantly places it in the same “wow, can it really be worth that much?” category. In other words, people will definitely be aware of the Zeppelin in the near future, but will they buy it?
Though “they” won’t be a huge crowd, Zeppelin will certainly succeed on some level. Like JBL’s On Time and Radial speakers, as well as Geneva Lab’s Model L and Model XL speakers, B&W is helping to trailblaze a new accessory category: the “iPod speaker as art.” Each of these all-in-one speakers has dispensed with traditional notions of what people should expect stereo systems to look like, choosing big, bold shapes to house speakers and universal iPod docks at prices higher than their components might otherwise justify. Some people like them; others reject them on price alone. The purchasing decision becomes less about how they sound than how they look, and, as a secondary or tertiary issue, what they do.
Design and Pack-Ins
When we first heard rumblings about the Zeppelin months ago, the word on the street was that people would either love or hate the unit’s roughly 25” by 8” by 8” ellipsoid design. Yet so far, we have not meant anyone who hates it once they’ve seen it in person, and photographs don’t quite do justice to how impressive or large the Zeppelin actually is. Chrome is used for both front accents and the rear of the enclosure, standing out dramatically from its black fabric front grilles and plastic surfaces. Most unusually, a minimalist chrome dock suspends your iPod or iPhone in the air with the sort of creative whimsy that only a first-rate industrial designer can pull off; an included power cable from its rear is the only other component you’ll need to look at. When it sits in an office or home, it looks and feels expensive, and packed with quality components, sharply contrasting with the hundreds of cheap speakers we now see for testing on a weekly basis.
As a nice added touch, B&W includes a flattened egg-shaped, color-matching remote control with Zeppelin, glossy black on top with chrome on the bottom. Using Infrared, the remote achieves 30-foot line-of-sight control of the system, offering seven total buttons to change tracks, volume, play/pause status, system power status, and audio inputs. Zeppelin’s face includes only power and volume control buttons, arrayed in a line behind the dock, while its back includes an audio input that self-toggles between TOSLink optical and analog input for use with AirPort Express or other audio devices, as well as a USB synchronization port, composite and S-Video outputs, and a power port.
Like Apple’s iPod Hi-Fi, Zeppelin uses a single multi-colored light to indicate its current power, input, and volume status. Found to the left of the dock behind the fabric speaker grille, the light glows red when the unit’s power is off, green when it’s turned on or performing auxiliary input, and blue when an iPod is connected. It flashes when the iPod is paused, or when remote control commands are received, and switches to white to let you know that it can’t go much or any further in adjusting volume upwards or downwards. The elegance continues with automatic volume fading, which makes music ramp up gently rather than starting abruptly when you press play.
B&W’s only mistake in the aesthetic design is Zeppelin’s rubber mounting stand. Rather than shipping the unit pre-assembled to stand on its own, the company ships Zeppelin with a detached black rubber piece that is necessary to stabilize the unit on a flat surface, using coordinated grooves on the speaker’s bottom and mount’s top to keep everything together. Frankly, Zeppelin’s weight, unusual width and shape make each assembly of these parts (and re-assembly) feel uncomfortable and tenuous, akin to lifting a priceless vase above waist level onto a display table, only to find that it’s not resting perfectly flat. You’ll then need to lean over the unit, hold it with both arms, and reposition it on the base to make sure that it’s safe, and even then, you’ll feel a little insecure even when it is firm. This isn’t a system you’ll want to keep out in a house with young children.
Sound and Conclusions
Though its looks will either sell it or sink it with most potential buyers, the question most people will ask is one that’s easy to answer quickly and incompletely: “Does it sound like a $600 speaker?” Multiple listeners here have agreed that the answer is “no;” but all think the reality’s deeper than that, on account of Zeppelin’s premium-meriting design and high-quality construction.
On a positive note, Bowers & Wilkins has developed a speaker that sounds at least a little and sometimes a lot better than its best-known peers—we’d begin by calling the sound well-balanced and impressively detailed, almost regardless of volume level. In comparisons against Apple’s $349 iPod Hi-Fi, which excels more at delivering warm, high-volume, room-filling sound than low-volume clinical or critical listening, the Zeppelin was able to reach identically aggressive volume levels while maintaining the same degree of apparent clarity. At lower volumes, where iPod Hi-Fi is weaker, the Zeppelin delivers a superior dynamic range (frequency response) with noticeably better treble and midrange detail, and somewhat better apparent staging. When heard with songs that place instruments around a room, both units render sounds apparently beyond their own edges—the narrower iPod Hi-Fi more surprisingly so—but the Zeppelin’s placement of the instruments, and their occasional transitions from side to side in space, sound more natural.
Top to Bottom: iPod Hi-Fi, Zeppelin, Altec inMotion iM7
As readers will note, however, we’ve never been huge fans of the iPod Hi-Fi’s sound; Logitech’s AudioStation delivers better audio and more features at a lower price, while Altec Lansing’s inMotion iM7 is even less expensive, and yet still capable of delivering an audio experience that will fully satisfy most listeners. The iM7 is of particular note because of its attractive design and battery-powered portability, which further enhance its appeal.
It’s not a surprise that Zeppelin outguns both of these systems at high volumes. Beyond internal physical reinforcements that, like iPod Hi-Fi, keep the housing stable regardless of the power of the music that’s being played, its 5-inch center-mounted subwoofer has its own dedicated 50-watt amplifier and two rear breathing ports, while each of its two pairs of aluminum-domed tweeter and midrange drivers has 25 watts of amplification; further, all three channels are DSP-assisted to maximize output from the five speakers. At lower volumes, the differences are less pronounced, but still present, particularly in Zeppelin’s staging, which makes the iM7 sound comparatively flat, and the narrower AudioStation seem closer to its physical size. To its full credit, no matter what’s playing, B&W’s system does present audio with at least slightly superior clarity to these less expensive but excellent speakers, and commensurately substantial improvements over less reasonably priced but better-known sonic underperformers such as Bose’s SoundDock.
However, as is frequently the case with increasingly expensive audio equipment, B&W’s acoustic improvements won’t strike most users as worthy of a $300 premium over the AudioStation, or even more over the iM7; unless it’s put next to the SoundDock, the Zeppelin seems like more like a sophisticated gold medallist in olympic fencing than the ominous, Mike Tyson-style heavyweight champion of the world. Its added detail is noticed if you listen closely, rather than instantly knocking you out, and its five-inch bass driver isn’t used to the edges of its limitations, so its low-end performance is clean and detailed, rather than noticeably sub-sonic. Similarly, audiophiles will appreciate the option to use optical audio input from an AirPort Express or another device, a feature that distinguishes the Zeppelin from any iPod speaker sold for less than $350, but most users won’t even realize the ability’s there.
Worth noting is the unusual presence of a partially new Speakers menu on the iPod’s main screen (and iPhone’s Settings menu) when Zeppelin is used; the only other speaker with such capabilities is Apple’s own iPod Hi-Fi, and B&W’s implementation is a little different; this, along with the system’s ability to mirror its volume to the adjusted level of the connected iPod or iPhone, suggests that Apple played an unusual role in Zeppelin’s development. Here, the Speakers menu permits -3, -2, -1, 0, and +1 adjustments to the unit’s bass performance, with +1 augmenting the bass past the 0 default, and the negatives reducing the bass presence below the standard level. On +1, Zeppelin reaches a little lower than the AudioStation and bass tube-assisted iM7, but we found the resulting sound chunkier and less pleasant as a result. The negative numbers reduce the system’s low-end to levels that may better suit certain listeners, room acoustics, and songs; we found the system most enjoyable at 0 or -1.
By reference to other expensive iPod-specific audio systems, Zeppelin’s appeal is “different.” Previously sold for $600, Geneva Lab’s 33-pound, 17.6” wide by 11.1” high by 15” deep Model L has a similar 100-watt amplification package, but uses twin 5.25” woofers to increase bass power in the absence of dedicated midrange hardware. It also packs an FM radio and CD player, neither found in the Zeppelin, and is designed to stand roughly three feet tall with an optional stand. And Chestnut Hill Sound’s $549 George is a far more compact hybrid speaker and clock radio, with comparatively weak high-volume performance, justifying its steep pricing largely by its multifunctionality, great average-volume sound, and an advanced but slightly odd remote control. Price aside, the Zeppelin has little in common with these units, and really shouldn’t be compared against them.
Next to these offerings, and Klipsch’s now-defunct $400 bass monster iFi, the B&W Zeppelin looks and sounds a finely tuned piece of listenable art. It’s not going to sit on your night stand, stand next to your television like a piece of furniture, or shake your living room silly while you’re watching an action movie. Rather, it will sit on your mantle or another suitably long, flat surface where people can see it and hear it, inspiring plenty of discussion about its looks, sound, and how far the iPod has come to merit such an accessory. Though its design and pricing won’t make it a hit with mainstream iPod owners, those who can afford it and find a place to display it should consider the Zeppelin a worthwhile indulgence.
Updated October 26, 2009: In 2009, Bowers & Wilkins updated the Zeppelin with a version that is iPhone compatible, removing the prior rubber stand from its package and making modest tweaks to the dock on front to improve the docked iPhone’s phone performance. The new Zeppelin relies solely upon its own integrated rubber bottom for stabilization, which changes the tilt of the device a little. Photos of the new version are above and below.