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First Look: Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air

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First Look: Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air

3:21 /

While the Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air is as pricey as the earlier Zeppelin, Apple AirPlay support and improved sound quality make it a better value.

-I'm David Carnoy, Executive Editor for CNET.com, and I'm here with Bowers & Wilkins new iPod speaker system, the Zeppelin Air. This is the 3rd Zeppelin speaker the company has produced and it looks a lot like the original Zeppelin, but offers better sound and one very important new feature--support for Apple's AirPlay. That feature allows you to stream music wirelessly from iOS handheld devices like the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad, or from a PC or Mac running iTunes, to the Zeppelin Air via your home network. The Zeppelin Air's design may not appeal to everyone, but it is unique-looking and its build quality is quite good. 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. 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 3 amps powering 5 drivers, including a 5-inch bass driver, twin 1-inch tweeters, and two 3.5-inch mid-range drivers. With the new Zeppelin, the tweeter design is borrowed from the company's MM-1 PC speakers and the size of the two mid-range drivers has been trimmed from 3.5 inches to 3 inches. Tucked into the Zepplein Air's curvy rear end, you'll find an Ethernet port, as well as 3.5-mm auxiliary stereo input jack, a USB 2.0 port for PC connectivity and firmware upgrades, and a composite video output for connection to your TV. The Air also boasts built-in Wi-Fi, so you're not limited to wired home networks. And it is worth noting that in addition to accepting standard analog cables, the 3.5-mm input jack also works with optical digital cables. Of course, you can simply use the Zeppelin as an iPhone dock, but the big selling point here is AirPlay. Now, I can't go into all the details of AirPlay playback in this video. You should really read the written review for that. But I will say that once you get past the initial setup, which is fairly straightforward, 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 get to Bluetooth, but it did encounter some glitches where the music stopped playing for short periods and even a couple of complete disconnects, so expect a few hiccups. As for performance, the Zeppelin Air sounds bigger than it really is. While I didn't have an original Zeppelin on hand for a direct AB comparison, I definitely think the Zeppelin Air has more bass and plays louder than the old model. It can fill a moderately-sized room with sound. It's a great compact system, though no iPod speaker ever really sounds as good as a pair of decent bookshelf speakers. Is the Zeppelin Air really worth its hefty $600 price tag? Well, let me put it to you this way. The Zeppelin Air costs the same as the original Zeppelin, sounds better, and has AirPlay built in to it. So, while it's still expensive, it does offer significantly more for the money. I'm David Carnoy and that's the Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air.

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