B&W Zeppelin: Still Soaring Above The Crowd After Three Years

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I’ve tested a number of iPod speaker docks over the years, and variations on the theme (such as the Sonos ZonePlayer S5 a few months ago) and I’ve listened to some impressive systems. While few iPod docks can approach the quality of sound that a decent component stereo system can pump out, there are some that do a decent job of overcoming the lack of stereo separation, compact size and reasonable price point that’s working against them. What I frequently encounter online is a comparison of any model to the B&W Zeppelin, which appears to have become an audiophile standard to which other docks are compared. I’m a little late to the Zeppelin party, but I finally decided it was time to experience this standard for myself.

B&W (Bowers and Wilkins) is a British company dating back to the mid 60s that’s built a reputation for crafting premium speakers that I can’t afford. However, in 2007 the company introduce the Zeppelin, an iPod speaker dock that looked like nothing else out there and flirted with affordability. Actually, I should address that issue upfront. At $599, the Zeppelin isn’t cheap, but I don’t think it’s outrageously priced. I paid only $50 less for my first “boombox” as a teenager and with inflation in play (I don’t want to even think about how long ago that was), that $550 portable stereo probably cost the equivalent of $2,000 today. Put in that perspective, six hundred bucks for vastly superior sound at approximately the same size seems like a bargain. If that price point freaks you out though, B&W released the Zeppelin Mini (reviewed by Paul at GeekDad UK) for $399.95. Despite being nearly three years old in a highly competitive market that boasts hundreds -if not thousands- of competing models, the Zeppelin continues to be a point of comparison for new systems. I put one through its paces to find out why.

B&W Zeppelin (image from Bowers and Wilkins)

I had three immediate impressions upon unboxing the Zeppelin that B&W sent me:

1. Aesthetically, it’s a beautiful piece of gear. The namesake “zeppelin” shape may take some getting used to, but the combination of stainless steel and matte black cloth with the unusual docking arm design looks like a piece of modern art.
2. It’s unexpectedly heavy. I’ve seen products that were intentionally made to look larger (presumably because they would then look more capable), but picking them up gave an immediate impression of “cheap,” whether because of tiny speakers, lightweight plastics or empty space. The Zeppelin is 16.5 pounds. It’s solid as a lump of steel.
3. It’s not as big as I thought it would be. Aside from price, most of the knocks I’d read about the Zeppelin were over it’s size. Granted, it’s just over two feet wide, but it manages to look more compact.

Setup was simple. There’s no power brick to deal with, just a power cord. There’s a USB port in back, but it’s used exclusively for updating the firmware (via a laptop); I ran through the routine in about 5 minutes to ensure that the test unit was current. The other input ports are a 3.5mm analog jack and a digital optical input; you can use this system as a powered speaker for your TV or computer, or hook it up to an Airport Express, Sonos ZonePlayer or other streaming music solution. Outputs are S-video and Composite video. The remote is line of site IR, good for 30 feet or so. I have other docks with RF remotes and iPod menu control that offer superior functionality, but the Zeppelin’s is fine so long as you don’t plan on navigating between playlists or controlling the unit from another room. In a nice touch, the remote appearance mirrors that of the speaker dock -an ellipse with black on top, chrome beneath and a grey rubber circle on the bottom for the battery door.

The Zeppelin uses a unique approach to iPod docking. A curved, stainless steel arm extends from the base of the unit across the front, with a gap of several inches between it and the speaker body. It’s fitted with a universal 30-pin iPod connector (compatible with iPhones and most iPods other than Shuffles) and the iPod ends up seated on the connector with the arm acting as a support behind it. This arrangement has the benefit of making your screen visible, but also gives you room to grasp the iPod with one hand while scrolling. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but I quickly grew to appreciate this design. It’s natural to hold your iPod in one hand and the arm also prevents flexing stress on the connector port. The downside is that the arm might make a tempting handhold for toddlers or young kids and it could also be mistaken for a means to lift the unit. Both of those scenarios would end badly.

In terms of technical specs, the Zeppelin is a serious high fidelity package featuring design principles and an adapted version of the tweeter tube used in the company’s acclaimed Nautilus speakers (which go for around $60,000 per pair, by the way). Amplifiers and signal processing are digital with output rated at 1x50W (bass) and 2x25W (midrange/tweeter). The enclosure houses a 5 inch Kevlar-reinforced subwoofer, a pair of 3.5 inch midrange drivers and a pair of 1 inch metal dome tweeters. According to B&W, the tapered “zeppelin” design is not only to add visual appeal, but serves the purpose of reducing cabinet area around the midrange drivers and tweeters, making for better sound dispersion. A single LED indicator glows through the left speaker mesh and changes color to indicate key statuses: power on or off, auxiliary input, iPod connected, iPod paused, remote command received and maximum volume reached. Dock a compatible iPod and you see several changes on its screen. First, the Zeppelin’s volume is displayed at the bottom of the iTunes window when playing music. Second, there’s a new Setting in the iPod’s menu called Speakers. This lets you tweak the bass performance of the unit to account for its placement in terms of walls. Finally, when you turn off the Zeppelin, the display on a docked iPod will also fade off. Technically a version 2 of the hardware, the Zeppelin is fully iPhone compatible as well, addressing an issue with first generation units and it’s also dispensed with the first generation’s removable stand, going with an integrated rubber support. It also allows you to toggle between an iPod and a second external source by using the remote.

Dispensing with all the techno babble, how does it sound?

One word: awesome. It simply blows away most iPod docks and is noticeably more capable than other premium systems I’ve listened to. The Zeppelin may not offer the same degree of audio tweaking other models offer (controls are limited to volume and the bass adjustment), but you can fine-tune with your iPod’s EQ settings if needed. While the unit obviously can’t match the stereo separation of standalone speakers hooked up to a component system, the wide positioning of its speakers help to give it a very full sound that’s pretty damned close. Dynamic range is excellent. While many systems sound flat or muddy at low volumes, you don’t need a whole lot of power for the Zeppelin to sound good. The bass is always present, but there is no muffling effect or vibration at low or high volume extremes; it sounds good, balanced and undistorted right up to its maximum volume, which (with a total of 100 watts of digital amplification) is impressively loud. Beyond room filling, my neighbours got a good blast of my musical tastes whenever I cranked it up. I found that crappy source material sounded considerably worse on the Zeppelin than a less capable dock, but if you feed it a good source file, it will make the most of it. I ended up investing many hours re-ripping some of my CDs (originally archived years ago when 128 kbps was the norm and 160 was living large) whose low bit rate files still sounded passable on my JBL dock, but were washy and noticeably distorted sounding on the Zeppelin. Once that problem was addressed, it was smooth sailing. I threw my library at it for two weeks and I was constantly impressed. While everything from classic rock to folk sounded great, electronic music like Depeche Mode, Ladytron and MGMT sounded spectacular. So good that my wife began to worry about the withdrawal I’d experience when it was time to send the unit back.

Despite my obvious fondness for it, the Zeppelin isn’t perfect. An RF remote would have been nice as the line of sight remote left me leaning around corners or waving the thing over my head on occasion. A handle would spoil the aesthetics, but the Zeppelin could really use one. If you plan to leave it in one spot (and a wall mount is available for those who want to go that route), then it’s not an issue, but iPod docks scream portable. Sure, I could lift it up -being careful to avoid grabbing the arm- and carry it outside if I wanted to listen to the Zeppelin on the patio, but it’s awkward and leaves finger prints all over the stainless steel finish. Maybe something that folded up out of sight when it wasn’t being used? I’d love to see the Zeppelin Mini’s rotating dock feature incorporated to allow horizontal placement for full Coverflow effect. And it would be nice if the speaker grills could be easily removed. I’m told it can be done, but it’s not easy and B&W says it’s because the drivers are very fragile. I can understand that reasoning, but for parents of young kids, the ability to remove and wash grills is really useful. I think my kids are beyond actively attempting to smush food through a speaker grill, but there’s still the danger of passing swipes with grubby hands, not to mention violation by curious dog noses. If it were released today, I suspect that HDMI output would be an option. Finally, while the appearance is stunning and I mentioned the Zeppelin actually looks more compact than it is, it’s still a two foot wide piece of equipment and that can limit where it’s placed.

The Zeppelin’s flaws are relatively minor and affect convenience as opposed to performance. None of them really bothered me that much and by the end of the review period I was having difficulty with the prospect of going back to my old iPod speaker dock. My wife took pity on me and, despite rolling her eyes whenever I tried to demonstrate elements of its performance, she admitted that it did sound better than anything else I’d had and looked pretty stunning as well. In the name of full disclosure, she offered to buy me a Zeppelin for my birthday (figuring that having a fondness for listening to music and collecting various electronic gizmos was ultimately a cheaper vice than golf or sports cars) and B&W sold me the review unit at a discount. Crisis averted. The JBL Radial goes down to the rec room and the Zeppelin assumes the role of primary stereo.

B&W Zeppelin iPod Speaker Dock from Bowers and Wilkins
MSRP: $599.99

Wired: Fantastic sound, attractive appearance with premium materials and solid build, supports most iPod/iPhone models without adapters, iPod dock arm is very ergonomic, optical digital input.

Tired: Could use a handle, takes up a fair bit of space, more expensive than most iPod speaker docks.

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