Pros: Superb sound, Airplay, visually appealing
Cons: Expensive, somewhat big, software needs some wrinkles ironed out
My lust for B&W products dates back to a while. Back when I was a kid, this friend’s father, all-around enjoyer of fine things, built a home cinema setup decked out with a full set of Bowers and Wilkins speakers. The gear nerd in my was fascinated by the equipment in this room, and my friend and I spent countless hours locked up in the sound-tight room indulging in the pristine audio that this remarkable setup delivered to our ears. As a matter of fact, that setup is probably what got me into loving fine audio products in the first place... once you’ve had sound this good, you generally don’t every want to go back to something inferior. The Bowers and Wilkins Zeppelin is the perfect continuation of what the brand means to me in regard to sound quality, while being modern in both design and function.
Before I start with this review, I’ll have to admit something: I did not actually buy this product. Being a student, I am far from having enough disposable income to shell out a couple hundred bucks at a fancy iPod base. I did however spend an entire day being graced by the magnificent sound that it has to offer, under the pretext that I had to setup it up for demo use at the store that I work for. As a result, I believe that I have the necessary knowledge to produce a review that is of some use and interest.
For starters: if you already heard of the original Zeppelin by B&W, be aware that this is the exact same thing, with some added functionalities, notably networking capabilities and compatibility with iTune’s Airplay system. Big deal, right? Well, yes. More on this later.
Out of the box, the Zeppelin is a beautiful device that oozes class. The oval design and integration of very minimal controls makes the device sleek and a great choice for display in homes with a modern decor. The colors are classic and will fit in with anything... black and chrome, how can you possibly go wrong with that? It’s a big device though, much bigger that most other iPod bases out there, and definitely heftier. The weight isn’t that bad, but it’s size is really an issue if you’re looking for something for desk use. The good news is wall mount brackets do exist, for another fistful of dollars: I’ve seen swivel-type brackets, but what B&W offers is a straight up bent-metal wall mount. DIYers, the fitting system is pretty basic, and cooking up your own stand/mount should be relatively easy.
Despite it’s lack of buttons, the Zeppelin is very easy to use. For use with an iDevice, simply plug it in on the chrome arm, adjust the volume directly on the base and press play on your device. For any other type of input, the device will auto-sense the source. The only indication of what’s going on with the device is a teeny tiny LED on the dock’s arm that changes colors and flashes at different speeds. This will be a bit difficult to understand at first, so have the manual near-by. This is probably the only undesirable side-effect of the cool design, and you get used to it pretty quickly.
Airplay! It’s probably what you bought this base for in the first place, and it’s what makes it different from it’s predecessor. This system from Apple integrates different devices (notably this dock, some Denon devices and Airport routers) into iTunes to enable the broadcasting of your music from your computer to the connected devices. All you need to do is to setup up network connectivity, either via network cables or WiFi, and once you’re set the device will automatically appear in iTunes. Airplay is definitely a HUGE advantage if you listen to a lot of music: it’s so perfectly integrated with other functions that iTunes and iDevices have to offer that it opens up a wold of possibilities. With the “Remote” app on your iPhone, you can stream your entire library to your Zeppelin while keeping entire control over what plays using just your phone! This can be done with other bases, but only with the iPhone/iPod plugged in, which is a pain. Early buyers reported problems with the configuration via wired ethernet, however I did not experience those; follow the instructions and you’ll be set-up within minutes.
One thing that IS a bit awkward is connecting the device into a computer for a firmware upgrade: the Zeppelin isn’t automatically recognized by Windows when you plug it in while it is in DFU (device firmware upgrade) mode. You will have to manually load the DFU mode driver from the folder where you installed the update application. This is not documented by the manual, and is a serious shortcoming for more technologically challenged customers who do not know what a driver is, let alone how to manually load one! Hopefully this is fixed in later revisions of the device.
Sound-wise, this is the best sounding dock that has every graced my ears. From the very moment that you fire the Zeppelin up (Hindenburg pun unintended), you’ll be amazed at how easily it fills up a room with it’s rich sound. It’s hard to describe really... but it really does fill a room with an ease that other docks have not shown to possess so far. I guess that you could probably attributed this to the carefully engineered venting and location of the speakers in the chassis. The highs are tight, the mids are plentiful and accurate, and the bass is crisp, clean and well defined. Even though this is more of a general-public type of product, B&W choose to give this device a great balance, unlike in other top-dollar units where all you hear is bass and treble. Some might not like it: if you’re looking for monster bass, save yourself a couple hundred bucks and get another unit. I’ve tested this unit with electronic music exclusively, with subgenres varying from classic breakbeat jungle to minimal techno to mainstream dubstep (aka brostep). Even though some of these genres traditionally call for big bass, I did not feel that the Zeppelin failed to supply the goods when it came to low frequencies. This near-perfect balance coupled with loseless audio files really gave nice results.
Everybody around the store immediately were struck by the quality of the sound that the Zeppelin Air put out, even those not usually interested in HiFi. Only one co-worker seemed unimpressed, pointing out there was insufficient bass. The only sound system he owns is made by Logitech. Read between the lines.
One of the shortcomings of not having actually owned this product is that I can not really report improvement of the sound quality following the “burn-in” period, or after the drivers and components have “settled-in”. However, it could be argued that the effect of the burn-in is either minimal or a total fabrication of ritualistic audiophiles, so I believe that this information is of minimal interest. Besides, if it sounds good out of the box, it should only sound better after a burn-in, right?
I’m glad to see a REAL high end audio company cook up a quality product in an integrated packaging. Companies like B&W seemed to have held off products like the Zeppelin for a while, maybe by fear of losing their audiophile customer-base, or maybe by total lack of technical expertise on things like networking and amp design. B&W proves that with proper design, companies like them don’t have to stick to just making speakers and audio components.