Editors' note (March 2013): Bowers & Wilkins will begin shipping a version of this product with a Lightning-compatible dock (for iPhone 5 charging compatibility) in April 2013. It should be otherwise identical to the 30-pin model reviewed here. .
B&W, which is now branding itself by its longer, more formal name, Bowers & Wilkins, is known for its high-end speakers. However, a few years back the company dipped into the more mainstream consumer market with its first iPod speaker system, the $600 Zeppelin, followed by the smaller and more affordable Zeppelin Mini.
Now the company is back with a new version of the Zeppelin called the Zeppelin Air that shares many design traits with the original Zep but offers better sound and one very important new feature: support for Apple's AirPlay. That feature allows you to stream music wirelessly from an iOS handheld (an iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad) or from a PC or Mac running iTunes to the Zeppelin Air via your home network.
Design and features
As we said about the original Zeppelin, we are impressed with the Zeppelin Air's build quality and stylish look. While the older model had a mirror-polished stainless steel back, this one goes with a polished black back and the front black cloth covering remains tastefully demure.
Measuring around 25 inches wide, the Zeppelin Air is about the same size as the original model, but the new model is a little lighter, weighing around 13.5 pounds compared with the original Zep's 16.5-pound weight.
In the past, better components meant a weightier product, but Bowers & Wilkins has managed to trim the weight while improving the sound. That improvement is mostly due to new drivers, each of which now has a dedicated "audiophile" class D amplification unit. The previous Zeppelin had three amps powering five drivers: a 5-inch bass driver, twin 1-inch tweeters, and two 3.5-inch midrange drivers. With the Zeppelin Air, the tweeter design is borrowed from the company's MM-1 PC speakers, and the two midrange drivers have been trimmed in size from 3.5 inches to 3 inches.
Bowers & Wilkins says the combination of more power to drive the improved drive units along with its Flowport technology and advanced Digital Signal Processing has "dramatically improved the bass performance." It also points out that the DACs (digital to analog converters) have been upgraded with new 24bit-96KHz capability, which also helps on the performance front.
As we mentioned in our review of the original Zeppelin, the amps generate a bit of heat, so the unit runs slightly warm to the touch.
Tucked into the Zeppelin Air's curvy rear end is an Ethernet port, a 3.5mm auxiliary stereo input jack, a USB 2.0 port for PC connectivity, and a composite video output for connection to your TV. (The video output is useful for displaying photos and videos from iPod models that are so equipped, but it can't be used to stream videos via AirPlay.) The Air also boasts built-in Wi-Fi, so you're not limited to wired home networks.
In addition to accepting standard analog cables, the 3.5mm input jack also works with optical digital cables. The USB port is intended for connections to PCs and Macs--it can be used for firmware upgrades, for direct music playback (as a USB speaker), and as a syncing dock for iPods and iPhones. To that end, the 30-pin docking port accepts all recent-generation iPods and iPhones, but--like all iPod accessories--compatibility can be somewhat uneven, especially when it comes to older iPod models.
Of course, you can simply use the Zeppelin as an iPod/iPhone dock and it does work perfectly well in the capacity, charging your iPod or iPhone when it's docked (One warning: if you have a case on your iPhone, you may have to take it off to get your device to slip properly in the dock).
However, the big selling point here is AirPlay, and a lot of people will be interested in streaming music to the speaker from an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch, essentially turning those devices into remotes for music playback.
Before starting, it's best to make sure the Zeppelin Air has the latest firmware. Firmware updates must be done via the USB cable, which needs to be connected directly between the Zeppelin Air and your PC or Mac. It works well enough, but we'd prefer a system that provided for automatic "over the air" firmware updates.
To get started with AirPlay, you'll first have to get the Zeppelin Air onto your home network. You can do that by connecting the Zeppelin directly to a PC or Mac via Ethernet, or by logging onto the Air's initial temporary Wi-Fi connection. Both ways worked well enough for us. Once connected, you call up a browser, type "169.254.1.1" in the address bar, and press enter. You'll be taken to the Zeppelin Air setup page, where you can then log the Zeppelin Air into your wireless network using the password you've created to access the network. What's nice is that you can do this with any Web browser--there's no need to install special software.
Once you select your Wi-Fi network and enter your password, the unit saves that information in its internal memory. You can then disconnect and set up the Air any place within range of your Wi-Fi access point. (We left the Air unplugged overnight and then powered it back up, and it relocated and logged in to our Wi-Fi network again with no problems.) Note that AirPlay devices require secure, password-protected Wi-Fi to work wirelessly--open Wi-Fi points won't work.
Once the Zeppelin is up and running on the network, it should be ready to work with other AirPlay sources--namely, your iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, or PC or Mac running iTunes. In all cases, those other devices need to be logged in to the same home network. You'll also want to make sure you're running the latest version of iOS or iTunes, and that you have Home Sharing turned on.
It's worth noting that each method of using AirPlay--streaming from an iOS device or streaming from computer-based iTunes--offers a slightly different experience. When playing a song on your iOS portable device (iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad), you'll notice a devices menu icon in the lower right corner of the screen. You touch that button and select the Zeppelin Air from the menu, and your music will start streaming after a few seconds.
A network can have multiple AirPlay-compatible devices on it--anything from a Mac or Windows PC running iTunes to a Zeppelin Air, Apple TV, or Apple AirPort Express. But when playing audio from your portable iOS device, you can only stream to one AirPlay-compatible speaker (such as the Zeppelin) at a time.
On the other hand, the AirPlay option should be universally available from nearly any application with audio output--be it the iPod playback app, Pandora, a video player, or what have you. Keep in mind that the Zeppelin (or other AirPlay speaker) will stream whatever sound you'd otherwise hear from the iPhone/iPad's internal speaker--so if you boot up Angry Birds, you'll hear that on the Zeppelin as well.
AirPlay can also be used to play music from a networked computer running iTunes. But you don't need to be sitting at the computer to use it--just download Apple's Remote app, and follow the onscreen instructions to link it to a given computer (basically, you input a four-digit code). Once that's done, you'll have access to the entire iTunes-based music library on your hard drive from the screen of the iPad, iPod Touch, or iPhone. For whatever reason, these songs can be played on multiple AirPlay speakers (just choose which ones--and relative volume levels--from the Remote app). Currently, though, you can't play different songs in different rooms--just the same song in multiple rooms.
We're not going to go into too much detail about AirPlay playback, but overall we'd say that once you get past the initial setup, which is fairly straightforward though not without the potential problems endemic to setting anything up on your home Wi-Fi network, it's definitely a nice feature that's well worth taking advantage of. Also, the audio quality of the streaming is superior to what you'd get with Bluetooth, but we did encounter some glitches in which the music stopped playing for short periods or simply conked out altogether, forcing us to reconnect to the Zeppelin Air.
In other words, AirPlay isn't exactly rock-steady at this point. As it stands, if you're really looking to set up a multiroom audio system, it makes more sense to go with Sonos, which offers more features, more reliability, and better bang for your multiroom buck.
In our review of the original Zeppelin, we docked it a little for not having certain extras like an FM radio. And while that particular feature still is missing, the ability to load apps onto your iPhone or iPod Touch makes those omissions easier to ignore. As mentioned, more and more audio apps, including Pandora, are compatible with AirPlay speakers, so you'll be able to stream music not just from the music library on your device, but from a multitude of apps.
The Zeppelin Air sounds bigger than it really is. While we didn't have an original Zeppelin on hand for a direct comparison, we definitely think the Zeppelin Air has more bass and plays louder than the old model.
Stereo imaging quality varied with distance; it was best when we sat 2 to 5 feet away from the speaker. As we moved further away stereo separation dwindled, so the sound was essentially mono. Not that the speaker sounded small; the Zeppelin Air's rich tone and healthy bass output will never be mistaken for a table radio's. The Zeppelin Air's built-in subwoofer bass is powerful for a small speaker, but definition is only fair, so distinguishing individual bass notes isn't always possible. The speaker doesn't have bass and treble controls, but you can fine-tune the Zeppelin Air's sound to taste with the EQ setting on your iPod or iPhone. We experimented with the EQ and preferred the sound with the "Bass Reducer" turned on.
The Zeppelin Air really came into its own with acoustic music of all kinds, and Diana Krall's vocals and piano were crisp and clear. With Krall's effortless jazz filling the CNET listening room, the Zeppelin Air's audiophile credentials were fully in order.
We couldn't resist playing some Led Zeppelin tunes, cranking them up to a healthy volume. The Zeppelin Air can play fairly loudly and fill a moderately sized room with sound, and it's a great compact system, though no iPod speaker ever really sounds as good as a pair of decent bookshelf speakers. The size limitations will become more obvious when playing the Zeppelin Air at high volumes. The Bose SoundDock 10 or Monster Beats by Dr. Dre Beatbox iPod Dock would be better choices if high-volume playback is a priority.
Turned down to a very low volume, the Zeppelin Air's Dynamic EQ feature automatically increases the subwoofer's bass output. The Zeppelin Air's sound doesn't get thin or weak at hushed, late-night listening volume.
We briefly compared the Zeppelin Air with a pair of Audioengine A5 powered speakers. The A5s are great, but the Zeppelin Air had more bass power and a more natural tonal balance. The only area where the A5 bested the Zeppelin Air was in stereo imaging. The Audioengine A5s are stereo speakers that can be separated as far apart as you'd like, so they had a decisive advantage in stereo imaging.
We also pressed the Zeppelin Air into service as a sound bar speaker in the CNET home theater. The sound had great authority and fullness, but men's voices sounded too "chesty," so dialogue intelligibility suffered. Movies with wide-dynamic-range explosions and such were scaled back in their impact. All in all, the Zeppelin Air is an excellent iPod speaker, but only a fairly competent sound bar speaker.
We liked the original Zeppelin and said it looked "amazing" and was better built than a lot of competing models. However, we also said the hefty price tag and the Bowers & Wilkins name may have raised our expectations to an almost unreachable level.
As we said in the introduction, the new Zeppelin Air costs the same ($600) as the original, sounds better, and has AirPlay built into it. So while it's still expensive, it does offer significantly more for the money. If you're in the market for a luxury iPod, iPhone, or iPad speaker, this Zeppelin Air certainly fits the bill. Just make sure to compare it with the Sonos and the growing number of AirPlay devices before you throw down the platinum card.