Review: Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Mini
More than any other company in the iPod and iPhone audio space today, Bowers & Wilkins has established itself as the polar opposite of Bose: a gambler with a great sense of style. Whereas Bose has been content to release a stream of iterative, milquetoast Apple accessories over the past five years, B&W arrived later and bolder with the Zeppelin -- a risky, polarizing, and expensive all-in-one -- and has now debuted an equally striking smaller version called the Zeppelin Mini ($399), with a stylish new pair of Apple-licensed P5 headphones on the way, as well. At a time when companies have been tempted to appeal to as many people as possible with low-priced options, B&W's approach is clearly different: make beautiful and more expensive things for the niche that appreciates them.
Whether or not this approach will pay off with Zeppelin Mini is going to depend primarily on two things: a consumer’s appreciation for the looks of this new audio system, and its preference for the B&W brand name. Having reviewed hundreds of different audio systems for iPods and iPhones, we can say with great certainty that Zeppelin Mini is one of the most attractively designed and sophisticated all-in-ones yet released—a major draw for fans of the B&W aesthetic, in particular. Sonically, however, it’s essentially a draw with the B-rated $300 systems we’ve tested, and like the $600 Zeppelin that preceded it, an item that merits a premium price more as a piece of high-quality listenable art than as a mindblowing speaker.
Price aside, the thing that kept the original Zeppelin from being considered a bookshelf speaker was its almost crazy width: at roughly 26” long, B&W’s original design might occupy an entire shelf rather than just squeezing in alongside some books. Mini has no such issue. With a width of 12.6”, it has a nearly identical footprint to the Bose SoundDock Series II, and though Mini is 5” deep and 7.5” tall at its extremes, roughly an inch in each of those directions comes from its unusual iPod and iPhone dock, which protrudes out on an angle from the top of the otherwise 4” deep system. In practice, Zeppelin Mini is shallower and easier to fit in a small space than the SoundDock—much, much easier than Altec’s iMT800 or iHome’s iP1, and somewhat easier than JBL’s On Stage 400P—though its curves are at least as daring as the ones in any of these competing designs.
Let’s spend a moment discussing those curves. With Zeppelin, B&W transformed an elongated oval into a blimp-shaped ellipsoid covered with a mix of Spandex-like black cloth and chrome. For Zeppelin Mini, the company has extruded an oval into a tall tube, then lopped off one end on a diagonal. The sliced end reveals what looks to be the chrome metallic core, a curved mirror that reflects either the docked iPod or iPhone, or the unit’s surroundings, depending on the angle you’re sitting at. B&W has otherwise preserved the Spandex, black plastic, and chrome body, with the latter two components downgraded only modestly from the original Zeppelin in overall sex appeal. To our eyes, Zeppelin Mini looks like a more successful, classy riff on the unusual shape JBL’s iPod and iPhone systems have taken over the past two years—a design worthy of being placed in a bedroom or nice office, and problematic only in as much as the mirrored surface really attracts fingerprints. As small as it is, it’s apparently meant to be placed in one spot and left alone; for reference, it runs only off of wall power and has no compartment for batteries.
Functionally, Mini has changed in a number of ways from the full-sized Zeppelin. The original model’s floating front dock has been replaced by a rotating iPod/iPhone dock that can be used either in Cover Flow vertical mode or in horizontal scrolling list and icon mode, as you prefer. We generally really liked this new feature, but B&W holds iPods and iPhones in place with included, interchangeable device-holding plastic frames, which work, assuming the devices are not already in cases. Remove the frames and you’ll find that encased devices vary in stability on the rotated dock depending on the specifics of the case, ranging from acceptable to less than entirely satisfying. If Zeppelin Mini’s dock had used a more extended Dock Connector, it might have been a little bit better at accommodating more case designs—a virtue of virtually every competing speaker that uses Apple’s Universal Dock standard.
Some other changes from Zeppelin may or may not matter to you. Zeppelin Mini drops its predecessor’s video output functionality altogether, losing both the composite and S-Video outputs found on the full-sized Zeppelin. While it preserves the analog auxiliary input of the Zeppelin, it loses the same port’s optical input functionality. It can, however, serve as a USB audio device for a computer connected via its rear USB port—you supply the cable—as well as a synchronization dock for a connected iPod or iPhone, and can also update its firmware via the same port. B&W has issued a number of firmware releases for the prior Zeppelin, mostly for post-release iPod compatibility bug fixes, but also for others that are quite interesting in their specifics. Mini currently ships with the same 2.0.6 firmware that is available from the company’s web site, but as time goes on, it may well be updated to improve its functionality or device compatibility in ways that competitors can’t match.
Volume and power buttons have been relocated from the top to an inconspicuous location on the bottom right edge, which we found somewhat inconvenient, particularly when Zeppelin Mini’s placed in a tight space. The power/input indicator light has been shrunk and moved to a dead center position below the dock and just above the system’s chromed base. Finally, the Zeppelin’s egg-shaped black and chrome Infrared remote control has been ever-so-slightly tweaked to replace the B&W logo on back with the full Bowers & Wilkins name, and add a finger depression for easier gripping. These changes are minor, but for those using Mini in cramped quarters, the remote’s value as an alternative way to access power and volume controls has increased substantially.
Of course, the biggest differences between Zeppelin Mini and the Zeppelin are the sonic changes, and it’s here that the smaller system disappoints a little. Ideally, B&W would have made one of two decisions, either of which would have made the Zeppelin Mini a knockout: offer exactly what’s here at the same price as the SoundDock, or a version with superior performance at Mini’s current price of $399. Instead, Zeppelin Mini’s audio hardware is basically a peer-but-different alternative to the SoundDock at a higher price, distinguished more by its flashy aesthetics and the aforementioned functional differences than anything else.
Start with the hardware. Mini drops from the five-driver array in Zeppelin—two 1” tweeters, two 3.5” midrange drivers, and one 5” woofer for bass, backed by 100 Watts of amplifier power—to a system that B&W describes as having twin 3” “full range” fiberglass drivers and 36 total Watts of amplification, plus a flow port on the back for what the company says is a “mighty bass driver,” without further specifications. It’s unclear whether Zeppelin actually has a third driver, or whether the flow port is just there as a vent for the full-rangers up front; we suspect the latter. Regardless of the changes in speakers, the net effects on the Zeppelin Mini are drops in power and bass. Whereas the full-sized Zeppelin had a legitimately powerful but pretty well-controlled woofer, performing music with enough warmth that you could easily tell the difference between a Zeppelin and a less competently built system, Zeppelin Mini falls short of the low-end performance of even the $300 SoundDock.
To quantify that a little, Bose’s SoundDock isn’t a fantastic audio system for its price, but as we’ve said in the past, Bose has optimized it to perform music with a natural-sounding warmth that most listeners find to be pleasing, leaving behind treble and some midrange detail in the process. B&W has instead tuned its drivers to preserve that treble and midrange detail at the cost of some bass, which for better or worse—different listeners may disagree—means that songs performed by Zeppelin Mini just don’t have as much body: beats are a little less thumpy, and rumbles a little less engrossing. On the other hand, Mini has superior treble performance and a cleaner midrange than the SoundDock, such that songs mightn’t always sound as rich, but do offer additional detail and a more vibrant, slightly wider soundstage. The more we listened to the Zeppelin Mini, the more we appreciated its presentation, though we couldn’t help but feel that the price tag merited additional low-end horsepower. At best, the Mini could be praised for keeping its bass closer to “tight,” but given the $399 asking price, it’s more reasonable to say that it’s anemic by comparison with top systems at lower prices.
For instance, Altec’s iMT800 has none of B&W’s style but a lot more bass hardware inside, with complete bass and treble control features—both missing from Zeppelin Mini, which has dropped the on-iPod/iPhone Tone Control bass-adjusting feature found in Zeppelin—to equalize tracks to your liking. iHome’s iP1 has its own beautiful looks, slightly stronger bass, and accentuated midrange, but less clarity by comparison with the Mini. Finally, JBL’s On Stage 400P has stronger bass hardware than the Zeppelin Mini and an otherwise similar sonic profile—a comparatively strong value for its $250 price tag, assuming that you’re okay with its own tapered oval design. Notably, however, none of these systems can fit in small spaces like the Mini: each is substantially deeper and at least a little wider, if not considerably so.
In sum, though we certainly wouldn’t call Zeppelin Mini a product of style over substance, there’s little question that its aesthetics are more of a selling point than its audio: Bowers & Wilkins is making some of the most distinctive and impressive-looking iPod and iPhone accessories available these days, and Mini manages to evoke the same sense of visual wonder that the original Zeppelin did—without the huge chassis. If you like the way it looks and are willing to pay a fairly steep premium over the raw value of its sonic performance—think $150 more than the On Stage 400P—you’ll be impressed by its compact design, neat rotating dock, and cool remote. It’s a sharp, minimalist system with style, and if nothing else, B&W deserves kudos for daring to be different from the pack. That said, those willing to make aesthetic compromises will find peer systems in the $250 to $300 range to deliver similar and in some regards superior audio quality.