Bowers & Wilkins Z2 review: A nice speaker that fails to wow

For those who aren't familiar with AirPlay, it's Apple's answer to Wi-Fi streaming, so if you don't have an Apple product -- and particularly one with a Lightning connector -- there's little reason to to be interested in the Z2.

One of the advantages to AirPlay is that since it works over a network (the Z2 works on Wi-Fi or Ethernet), not Bluetooth, your music -- and other audio -- doesn't get compressed and should sound better. However, the benefits of going with AirPlay steaming in a smaller, tabletop speaker probably aren't going to be as significant as they would be if the speaker were bigger (or a pair of wireless bookshelf speakers).

The system comes with the company's signature egg-shaped remote. Sarah Tew/CNET

While I won't do a deep dive into the Z2's setup, it's fairly straightforward (Bowers & Wilkins has an app to help walk you through it), though I wouldn't say it's quite as easy as Bluetooth. It's also worth mentioning that since the Z2 doesn't have a Direct Connect option like Libratone's AirPlay speakers, you will need to have a Wi-Fi network up and running to use the speaker. And, of course, you'll need a device or computer that supports AirPlay in order to wirelessly stream your music. That's basically an Apple product -- iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, or Mac -- or a Windows PC running iTunes.

The other option is to dock your Lighting-equipped iPhone or iPod Touch or use the auxiliary input to connect an audio device with a separate cable. If you happen to buy a couple of these speakers, AirPlay does allow you to stream music to multiple AirPlay-enabled speakers, so you can have several Z2s playing music simultaneously in multiple rooms. That said, currently the Sonos system does offer more-flexible playback options in a multiroom scenario.

For some people the speaker dock concept remains an appealing feature, but should you decide to switch, for instance, from an iPhone to an Android device for some reason (it happens), the dock becomes almost useless. It should also be noted that you'll most likely have to remove any case from your phone unless it is very thin because the dock's Lightning post won't be able couple with your device to enable charging.

The back of the unit. Sarah Tew/CNET

Performance
As I said, I think the Z2 sounds quite decent for its size and it's capable of playing quite loud. There's also some kick to its bass, so you you don't come away thinking the sound is thin. But it also doesn't sound like a big speaker, and where the sound falls down a little is in the treble. While there's good detail, the speaker has a slightly harsh edge to it and it tends to accentuate the flaws in poorly recorded tracks. It also doesn't handle complicated music as well as it probably should. Rock tracks with a lot of instruments can end up sounding a little mushed together. With some tracks, however, the Z2 sounds really good, so I found it to be a somewhat uneven listening experience.

The other issue -- and this is true for a lot of the smaller speakers where the two drivers are so close together -- is that you get little to no stereo separation. Companies rely on digital trickery to expand the sound stage and make your music sound wider and richer. The Z2 does a decent job of it but you're not going to mistake this for a true set of stereo speakers.

Close up of the Lightning dock. Sarah Tew/CNET

Conclusion
Bowers & Wilkins makes nice products, and the Z2 is an attractive little AirPlay speaker that sounds good for its size. Why I'm being a little more critical is that since its launch back in April, there are just a lot more wireless speaker choices out there and the Z2 doesn't stand out as much as it should, particularly at its $400 price point. The fact is, you can get two Sonos Play:1 speakers for the same price, and while they don't have the iPhone/iPod dock, the Play:1 one's the better value for wireless streaming.

That said, if you really want a speaker with a built-in Lightning dock, there's nothing wrong with the Z2. I'm just not sure it's worth the premium you're paying for it along with the AirPlay support.

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Quick Specifications See All

  • Release date Apr 4, 2013
  • Color Black
  • Nominal (RMS) Output Power 40 Watt
  • Speaker Type AirPlay speaker
  • Wireless Technology AirPlay
    Wi-Fi
    Ethernet
  • Amplification Type active
  • Connectivity Technology Wired
    Wireless