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.