Zeppelin full review

Bowers & Wilkins may not be the first specialist British loudspeaker maker to build a speaker dock for the iPod. Nonetheless, the company has created one of the most iconic designs yet – and if its 40-year reputation for sonic excellence is anything to go by, this country’s biggest name in acoustic engineering may just have made the best one-box iPod speaker system to date.

Keen-eyed observers of the bottom line may have noticed it’s also one of the most expensive. At £400, it’s twice the price of a Bose SoundDock, for example. So what does the Zeppelin offer that other systems don’t, and does packing high-end audio techniques into a compact system such as this really pay
dividends that the average listener can appreciate?

From the front, we’re presented with a matte black lozenge, 64cm across, with a fixed cloth cover concealing an array of drive units inside. Pick it up and the Zeppelin shows its pedigree as a solidly engineered unit – at 7.3kg it’s an anvil compared to the hundreds of cheap-and-nasty plastic iPod speakers that flood the market.

A look around the back reveals why – the Zeppelin is seemingly hewn from a solid piece of metal, stainless steel brightly polished like chrome, with beautifully sculpted reflex ports to augment the tuning of the bass speaker. Extra socketry is also found here – the power inlet (mains power only for the Zeppelin); S-video and composite video outputs for video-enabled iPods, and an auxiliary audio 3.5mm input for secondary sources. Usefully, this doubles as
a mini-Toslink optical digital input, great for connecting to sources with optical output such as an AirPort Express wireless base station. There’s also a USB Type B port here, for future software updates.

Watts going on
Inside the black-and-silver unit are five drive units powered by a total of 100W of amplification: this comprises 2 x 25W to the 90mm midrange, 25mm metal-dome tweeter units, and 50W dedicated to a single 125mm woofer, centrally mounted behind the iPod mount.

That amplification is Class D switching technology – not the first choice for audiophiles but perfect for enabling a lot of power from small amp modules.

It’s also cool running, which is essential if the back plate isn’t to double as a radiator. Simplicity in design is married to straightforward operation. An iPod is plugged into the metal band cradle, which reassuringly supports the entire iPod securely; even when firmly pressing buttons and dialling up new songs, there’s no concern about the iPod rocking off its mount or breaking the
dock connector.

Only two controls are provided on the Zeppelin itself: standby, and volume ‘+’ and ‘-’. These controls subtly blend into the polished metal band that circles its waist. A small pebble-like remote handset duplicates these functions and adds play/pause, track skip back/forward (press and hold for fast-forward), and aux input selection.

Light show
When plugged into the Zeppelin, the 5G iPod we used for testing also showed an additional option in the top-level menu, offering Bowers & Wilkins-customised tone control and the option for full-screen album art.

A power-on blue LED lurks behind the speaker cloth, switching momentarily to red when a remote command is detected. This LED also provides other user feedback. When it’s flashing white, for example, you know you’re approaching maximum volume.

On-board digital signal processing and considered cabinet engineering ensure that the modest dimensions – relative to a regular hi-fi system anyway – don’t result in anaemic sound.

In fact, the audible results of B&W’s labours are quite something to behold.
The B&W Zeppelin has a big, spacious sound that could almost redefine the expression ‘room-filling’ when applied to iPod speaker docks.

It hasn’t quite the low-end grunt of Apple’s now-discontinued entry into the lucrative market, the iPod Hi-Fi. The propellerheads at B&W’s research centre in Steyning are clever people but not magicians, and to get truly big sound from a speaker there’s no substitute for a big physical cabinet volume and large diameter speaker cones. But what you do get is wide sound, and impressive tonal evenness across the spectrum.

Playing stadium rock such as Pink Floyd’s live version of Wish You Were Here, we were rewarded with a crowd roar that imaged well behind and around the actual Zeppelin. This ‘speaker disappearing act’ is the first good sign of high-performance audio. The opening 12-string guitar floated free to the left, leaving solo acoustic guitar to project cleanly from the centre.

Permission to land
This was far from the usual sonic equivalent of peeking through a letterbox to get a restricted view of the original recording. Bass is entirely solid and tuneful, and even if you won’t get the depth of a true hi-fi system you’re rarely left wanting, even when the Zeppelin’s handed cinematic low bass.
From Vangelis’ soundtrack for Blade Runner, we heard clean, controlled low frequencies with realistic texture.

Vocal projection is an area where many add-on speaker packages fall over, suffering from a dreaded suck-out of body and detail in the crucial midrange region. Not so with the Zeppelin, whose midband allows clearly intelligible vocals to project freely. And as an intelligent means to upgrade the sound of a flat-screen TV, you’ll find the Zeppelin is more than up to the challenge, preserving good dialogue diction.

The perfect sounding speaker? Well, critical ears may spot a slight emphasis in the treble that gives steel-strung acoustic guitars a little more zing than is real, and that treble could be sweeter, perhaps betraying the use of ‘digital’ amps; yet compared to any other compact iPod speaker solution, this Zeppelin excels in its precise yet flowing sound quality.

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