Bowers & Wilkins is arguably one of hi-fi's most storied brands, as well as one of the most iconic. The English loudspeaker manufacturer, rich with tradition, has never been about resting on their laurels. In fact, they're trend setters. A few years back, before it was en vogue to do so, Bowers & Wilkins branched out and brought to market a few lifestyle-oriented products, mainly an all-in-one iOS speaker dock, the Zeppelin, as well as headphones. The Zeppelin was an instant hit among the iOS crowd and proved that streaming devices needn't be complicated or ugly. Well, the Zeppelin is back, this time featuring Apple's lauded AirPlay technology, as well as a few other improvements.
Retailing for $599.95, the Zeppelin Air sits smack in the middle of Bowers & Wilkins' wireless music system lineup that includes the less expensive A5, as well as the costlier A7. Both the A5 and A7 speakers are pretty much aimed at the wireless or streaming-only crowd, whereas the Zeppelin Air still has a front-mounted iOS dock. The Zeppelin Air's iconic shape remains, though some of the materials seemed to have improved, as has the finish - not that these were poor on the original Zeppelin. The Zeppelin Air measures a little over 25 inches wide by a hair under seven inches tall and eight inches deep, albeit in a oval or zeppelin shape. The Zeppelin Air weighs 13.5 pounds, which is substantial for a loudspeaker aimed at the iCrowd, as most feel cheap and rather budget-oriented. Not so with the Zeppelin Air. Behind the black grille cloth rests two one-inch Nautilus tube loaded aluminum tweeters, two three-inch midrange drivers and one five-inch subwoofer. The drivers are all individually powered, with the tweeters and midrange drivers each enjoying their own 25-watt power amplifiers, whereas the subwoofer gets 50. The driver/amplifier complement gives the Zeppelin Air a reported frequency response of 51Hz to 36kHz. Inputs include iPod/iPhone (30-pin connector), Network (Ethernet or wireless), 3.5mm mini-jack and USB 2.0. There is a composite video output as well. Lastly, the Zeppelin Air's onboard dock is compatible with most (if not all) iOS devices, relying on either a 30-pin connector or an adaptor, while its AirPlay compatibility is with any Mac or PC running iTunes 10.2.2 or later.
While I may no longer be a Mac enthusiast, there is no denying that in terms of simplicity, especially when it comes to setup, no one does it better than good ol' Apple. Setting up the Zeppelin Air on home network and subsequently on my PC was a snap. First I located the Zeppelin Air on my wireless network and configured it by entering its router-assigned IP address in my Internet browser. From there, I simply chose my wireless network, entered my password, hit "join," and that was it. Then I launched iTunes (yes, I do have iTunes on my PC for testing purposes) and hit the AirPlay icon. In less than three seconds, music started playing via the Zeppelin Air. One-two-three, it doesn't get easier than that.
As for the Zeppelin Air's sound quality, I found it to be very reminiscent of other Bowers & Wilkins loudspeaker offerings, meaning it possessed a smooth, composed sound that was quite balanced throughout. Some have commented on the Zeppelin Air's boomy or over-ripened bass, which I can understand. However, as with any loudspeaker, I believe the Zeppelin Air's bass issue has a lot to do with placement. Setting it on a table and or/ butting it up against a wall is obviously going to load the bass. I set my Zeppelin Air atop a small side table that allowed for the slightly angled flow-ports (think bass ports) to fire somewhat down towards the floor, which was carpet. In this configuration, I didn't experience the same bass issues some have noted. However, when I tried to replicate the issue by putting the Zeppelin Air on my kitchen counter with its back against my tile backsplash, I was able to hear a bit of that bass loading, though I could rid the Air of it completely by engaging the EQ on either my iTunes or attached device. Aside from the surprising bass, the midrange was open and natural in its tone. The high frequencies, while not super airy, never felt compressed or anything but natural, possessing round edges and a sense of organic decay. The success of the Zeppelin Air's sound isn't in its parts, but instead in how everything works together in concert. While the Zeppelin Air didn't possess stereo levels of imaging, the sound was nevertheless room-filling and able to be enjoyed. Remember, the Zeppelin Air isn't meant as a replacement for a dedicated two- or multi-channel setup, but rather as a means of bringing distributed audio to all of the various living spaces in one's home.
Read about the high points and low points of the B&W Zeppelin Air on Page 2.
The Zeppelin Air's fit and finish, much like all Bowers & Wilkins products, is simply beautiful. Within its class of iOS dock/speakers, it is among the more sculptural.
Unlike other Bowers & Wilkins' wireless loudspeaker setups, the Zeppelin Air manages to be more versatile, thanks in part to its front-mounted iPod/iPhone dock. It also allows for non-iOS devices to be connected via its 3.5mm jack (cable not included), which is good for Android users like myself.
Setting up the Zeppelin Air on one's wireless network is as easy as one-two-three, which is more than I can say for the competition.
In terms of sound, the Zeppelin Air's sonic signature is one of control and composure. It is incredibly balanced top to bottom. Unlike other iSpeaker/docks, it doesn't try to bowl you over with aspects of its performance and, where it comes up short, its omissions aren't criminal. At low volumes, it is pleasing, and at higher volumes, it remains musical.
Registering your Zeppelin Air online with Bowers & Wilkins will earn you a three-month free membership to their Society of Sound, Bowers & Wilkins' high-res audio download service. Very cool.
Some have mentioned (or complained) about the Zeppelin Air's copious bass. If you're unwilling to experiment with placement and/or your iDevice's EQ setting, this issue may persist. Just because a loudspeaker is aimed at the lifestyle crowd doesn't mean that the laws of sonic physics no longer apply. Place the Zeppelin Air's rear ports too close to a hard surface or wall and you'll no doubt experience booming bass, though you can curb it by changing the placement or by engaging your iDevice's EQ.
While the Zeppelin Air's inclusion of an iDock on its front does make it more versatile than the A5 or A7, I kind of wish it were removable, as it doesn't serve much purpose when not in use.
The small, river rock-style remote is stylish, but the battery cover located along the back is a bit finicky and prone to falling out.
Competition and Comparisons
When the Zeppelin originally launched some years ago, it was ahead of its time, though today the Zeppelin Air has more than its share of competition. One competitor that comes to mind is Libratone and its line of AirPlay-enabled loudspeakers. The less expensive Libratone Live retails for $699.95, though it lacks an iDock, as well as the sound quality of the Zeppelin Air. In truth, the Zeppelin Air can do battle with the costlier Libratone Lounge at $1,299.95. Another competitor to the Zeppelin Air is Aperion Audio's ARIS wireless loudspeaker. Retailing for $499, the ARIS is the yin to the Zeppelin Air's yang, as the ARIS is marketed exclusively to Windows users. I mean this with
all sincerity: while the ARIS is good, it is nowhere near as easy to set up as the Zeppelin Air. Also, while the sound may be comparable, I do prefer the look of the Zeppelin Air to that of the ARIS, though all opinions on aesthetics are subjective. For more on these loudspeakers and more, please visit Home Theater Review's Bookshelf Speaker page.
While $599.95 may seem steep for a lifestyle-oriented loudspeaker that isn't a soundbar, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that I can find instances where the Zeppelin Air's cost is justifiable. Years ago (10 plus), my mother spent over a grand on Bose's table radio and it sounded like, well, crap. I've reviewed many all-in-one solutions this year. All have been comparable in price to that of the Zeppelin Air and yet none have looked the high-end part as the Air has nor, in my opinion, have they outright bested the Air in terms of their sound quality. Many have matched or come close, though for all-round good distributed audio that is easy to live with and set up, I believe the Zeppelin Air takes the crown. It isn't perfect, no speaker is, but for what it is and for how most will enjoy it, the Zeppelin Air is fantastic.