Review: B&W Zeppelin
by Danny Kaey on May 07 '08
Count Zeppelin would be amazed at the latest iPod/iPhone speaker system designed by the fine folks at Bowers & Wilkins. No, the B&W Zeppelin iPod/iPhone speaker system doesn’t fly, but it does provide superb fidelity for such a small and genuinely fresh styled package. Who would have thought that a company synonymous with premium fidelity loudspeakers would dive head first into the world of iPod? The answer to that question lies in the shear penetration iPod/iPhone have been able to attain over the last couple of years (150+ million and counting). Knowing full well that many audiophiles have iPod’s as all-round music players and often want and need a secondary or tertiary music system, B&W went on to capitalize on the iPod phenomenon in a cool, Zeppelin sort of way.
Premium iPod boom boxes are of course nothing new: to the contrary, most every mainstream audio company has something to offer: JBL, Klipsch, Polk, Bose, heck even Apple have their very own premium boom box implementation, though curiously, Apple’s has been deleted from their catalog some time ago. When Apple introduced their $349 Hi-Fi speaker system in 2006, it quickly established itself as the setup to beat: it was rather big and boxy, ran on either AC or batteries and clad in all white, looked like a true Apple product. Sound wise, it was nothing to sneeze at either, though of course you can’t expect miracles from such a small system – or can you?
Enter B&W’s $599 Zeppelin: styled like a Zeppelin, the casing is truly first rate and the choice of materials oozes quality and grand workmanship. Don’t be fooled: this isn’t just another iPod boombox you’ll see advertised on late night TV. Naturally, the Zeppelin is packed full with proprietary B&W technology, which coming from the company that has such a prolific history in designing world-class loudspeaker systems is saying quite a lot actually. After all, who can forget such ground breaking designs as the famous Nautilus or the 800 series of loudspeakers, many of which grace today’s most respected music studios.
To get “real” Hi-Fi experience, B&W employs a total of 5 custom drivers, a DSP engine and a “digital” amplifier, not bad for a design that has fairly modest proportions, measuring about 25 inches in length and weighing in at a respectable 16.5 lbs. Speaking of the drive units, one would assume these to be some cheap, plastic type’s in order to fit the target price. Sorry Jack, try again: these are authentic B&W drivers, the main woofer for example featuring a Kevlar reinforced cone, while the tweeters are actually the same alloy dome units found in B&W’s much more expensive and elaborate home audio and stereo speaker systems. Nicely done!
The aforementioned superbly constructed cabinet was specifically designed to be as stiff as possible and thus features a sturdy polished stainless steel enclosure. Apart from the added strength, one added side effect is a truly gorgeous look of the Zeppelin: high-class baby! Finally, there’s video output (mandated I believe by Apple), a USB input for software updates and such as well as an auxiliary input for external connectivity. A neat, Zeppelin shaped remote which takes care of all functions completes the beautiful package.
Zeppelin being the high-tech flagship that it is was designed specifically around the latest generation of iPod’s and iPhone, although it is of course compatible with earlier iPod’s, such as Nano, mini, etc. I used both my iPhone and iPod mini of the 1st generation to conduct my listening and usability tests. Files loaded onto my pods where mostly 320kps LAME encoded mp3’s, though I did have a few lossless files on my iPhone as well.
If all stereos where as simple to setup and use as Zeppelin, we’d be breaking down new walls and frontiers: plug your iPod into the gorgeous looking pedestal and the unit powers itself on. A flick of the remote quickly adjusts playback volume and that’s pretty much it: off you go er, fly! Of all iPod speaker systems on the market that I am familiar with, Zeppelin immediately struck me as being the best and most natural sounding - by a long shot. The typical tinny, undefined, cheap sound inherent in most of these ultra mass market manufactured systems was replaced by well defined, full range Hi-Fi sound. Simply unbelievable what B&W has created here! Bass output is taught, firm and plentiful; the critical midrange well defined, and the highs extended, yet never harsh or piercing.
Playing a variety of material, from Frank Sinatra to Yello; Shostakovich and Led Zeppelin (‘come on now, you can’t help it: Zeppelin on Zeppelin rocks!), B&W’s Zeppelin never blinked an eye and always offered the best possible sound from such a small and convenient form factor. Ultimate loudness, ie. overall volume level was downright frightening, what with the 50w bass amp pumping out clean lows to way louder levels than most would care for. I used Zeppelin in my main music room as well as next to my bed and our kitchen. Never once did I feel as though Zeppelin couldn’t do the job, or that bigger guns were needed. Simply outstanding!
Mind you, all the whiz-bang technology B&W managed to pack into Zeppelin won’t replace a true, proper high-fidelity system, much less something in B&W’s own 800 series. You can’t defy physics. No matter how many times Steve Jobs claimed exactly that (with the introduction of Apple Hi-Fi in 06’), a big speaker system fed by proper electronics will undoubtedly create a whole new experience level when fed by the very same iPod. While sound is full, engaging and truly welcoming, you never really unravel a true full bandwidth stereo image with real depth for example. In the end, none of these shortcomings are a fault of Zeppelin: it was never created as a true stereo replacement.
What is truly amazing however, is how cleverly designed Zeppelin really is: particularly when fed by the graphically intensive iPhone, usability is top notch and leaves nothing to be desired. At $599, Zeppelin takes the crown of all these so-called iPod Hi-Fi systems. In my opinion it outclasses all others by a wide margin and actually manages to bring across the very essence of Hi-Fi in a small package. Mine’s on order – what are you waiting for?!