Editors' Note: As of November 2009, Bowers & Wilkins has released a smaller, less costly stepdown version of this product known as the Zeppelin Mini. As of March 2011, Bowers & Wilkins has released the Zeppelin Air, an updated version of this product that adds compatibility with Apple AirPlay at no extra charge. The Zeppelin Air fully replaces the model reviewed here.
Let's face it: as a category iPod speakers are a pretty uninspired lot. Their plastic, boxy, and sometimes downright awful industrial design flies in the face of the iPod's masterful aesthetic and intuitive ergonomics. Until now, that is. Bowers & Wilkins' curvaceous Zeppelin iPod speaker is as every bit as sophisticated as Apple's iconic player. Best of all, the Zeppelin isn't all show--its detailed sound largely lives up to B&W's high-end reputation (at least when we played acoustic music). So sure, it's one of the most expensive iPod speakers you can buy, but it may well be worth it, especially if you fall in love with the Zeppelin's looks.
Unpacking the Zeppelin, we couldn't help but be impressed with its build quality: the speaker's entire backside is constructed out of mirror-polished stainless steel, the front black cloth covering is tastefully demure. A LED indicator lights up from behind the grille to keep you informed of the Zeppelin's operational status: it glows red in standby mode, yellow as the unit powers up from standby; green when the Aux input is selected; white as the Zeppelin's volume approaches its maximum setting. The speaker's power and volume controls are embedded in the stainless trim piece just above the iPod. Suffice it to say, the overall package is just plain gorgeous--another fruitful pairing up of B&W and London's Native Design Ltd.
Measuring 25.2 inches wide, the Zeppelin is certainly bigger than most iPod speakers, and weighing a hefty 16 pounds, it's a good deal more substantially built as well. A thick rubbery pad is provided to cradle the Zeppelin--it's the only component of the system that looks and feels like something of an afterthought.
The Zeppelin's tapered ends house stereo 3.5-inch glass-fiber midrange and 1-inch metal dome tweeters to maximize stereo separation. Bass is provided by a single 5-inch woofer located in the center of the Zeppelin, and its sound is enhanced by twin rear-firing ports. A total of three digital amplifiers are included, delivering a total of 100 watts: two 25-watt amps drive the tweeter and midrange units, and with the remaining 50 watts allotted to the woofer. The amps generate a bit of heat, so the unit runs slightly warm to the touch.
Tucked into the Zeppelin's curvy rear end you'll find a 3.5mm auxiliary stereo input jack; a USB 2.0 port for firmware upgrades; and composite and S-Video outputs for connection to your TV (for displaying photos and videos from iPod models that are so equipped).
Previously, newer iPod Nano (third generation) and iPod Classic models couldn't take full advantage of the Zeppelin's features. As of the 1.0.3 (fall 2007) Apple firmware update, however, both models should be able to display the volume changes made through the Zeppelin and show the "speakers" menu when plugged in. The latter menu item offers tone control (five-position bass adjustment), backlight toggle (you can have it stay permanently lit when mounted on the Zeppelin), and large album art toggle (for easier viewing at a distance).
A bigger issue--again, not limited to the Zeppelin--is some incompatibility problems with the latest iPod Nano (third generation) and iPod Classic models. As noted on Bowers & Wilkins' Web site, these models currently have the following shortfalls:
- Volume changes made by Zeppelin's own controls are not shown by the volume bar on the iPod's screen.
- The extra speakers item in the iPod's main menu does not pop up when the iPod is docked in the Zeppelin. This prevents users from accessing the Zeppelin's variable bass level menu.
B&W's site goes on to say that "Apple has been made aware of these issues and is working on a patch to the iPod's firmware" due before the end of October 2007.
Other iPods should be able to access the full panoply of features, including the Zeppelin's "Speaker" menu, which offers a five-position bass EQ to tune response for system placement or individual preference.
With its hefty price tag, we were disappointed by the Zeppelin's dearth of step-up features: it lacks the AM/FM radio found on many competing models (the $500 Polk Audio I-Sonic Entertainment System 2, for instance, adds HD Radio as well). And the sort of wireless remote found on the Chestnut Hill George would've gone a long way to taking a bit of the sting out of that $600 price tag.
Antony and the Johnsons I Am a Bird Now sounded better over the Zeppelin than any iPod speaker we've tested to date. Antony's soaring vocals reached for the heavens, the band's acoustic accompaniment was very natural. Guitars and various string instruments were remarkably clear. Stereo separation, limited by the Zeppelin's two-foot width, wasn't any better than we've heard from other similar stubby single-enclosure speakers (the Bose SoundDock, the aforementioned Chestnut Hill George, Cambridge SoundWorks 745i, and so forth). The Zeppelin sounded best when we were sitting within three or four feet of it, much farther than that, and it started to sound, well, like an iPod speaker.
Piano jazz with Duke Ellington highlighted the Zeppelin's refined qualities. The piano, bass, and drums were all vivid, but their sound was miniaturized by the Zeppelin. The speaker's weaknesses were further revealed when we switched to heavier hitting genres. The quieter tunes on Arcade Fire's Neon Bible CD sounded great--the speaker delivers more, if not better, bass than the vast majority of its more affordable competitors. But when the band starts to work up a sweat, the Zeppelin's bass turned muddy. Turning up the volume certainly didn't help matters, but it will get fairly loud.
We couldn't resist cranking a few Led Zeppelin tunes over the B&W, but the sound fell flat. The speaker doesn't have the power to put across heavy metal with any real conviction, and the more we pushed the Zeppelin's volume, the less we liked it. The same was true on more pop-oriented songs like Nelly Furtado's "Say It Right"--the B&W was fine at medium volume, but strained at higher volume levels. Contrast that to the late, great Klipsch iFi--the 2.1 iPod speaker system will never compete with the B&W for looks, but it's still a clear-cut winner for overall sound quality.
The Zeppelin is an undeniably great iPod speaker: it looks amazing, and is far better built than most competing models, which are little more than hunks of plastic. But the hefty price tag and the B&W name may have raised our level of expectations to an almost unreachable level. For an iPod speaker, the overall sound quality is impressive, but it suffers when the material moves away from acoustic and instrumental music to harder-driving rock and hip-hop. If your musical tastes run to more mellow music--and you're looking to invest in an audio objet d'art--the Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin may be just the ticket.