Review: Bowers & Wilkins Z2

Bowers & Wilkins has been making excellent speakers in the United Kingdom for nearly half a century. The company’s studio monitors sit atop the mixing desks at world-famous studios like Abbey Road, and its free-standing home stereo speakers have long been among the first choice for hi-fi nuts looking to upgrade from their Polk Audios or KLH Thirty Twos.

But most North Americans only became aware of the venerable speaker company when the iPod showed up. Bowers & Wilkins made the first really awesome-sounding iPod dock, the Zeppelin. The oblong doobie sat on shelves at Apple Stores, drawing the eyes and ears of passersby like a big, black, elliptical showpiece. The Zeppelin Air, which saw a slight speaker redesign and the addition of AirPlay compatibility, followed in 2011. The $600 price tag, while justified given the Zeppelin Air’s power and sound quality, was just too high for most people to consider spending on a dock.

Here’s something less expensive but still high quality: the Z2. Bowers & Wilkins has gone with a subtler design for its latest AirPlay speaker, moving on from the Brancusian whimsy of the Zeppelin and arriving at something more stark and universally appealing. The Z2 has a pair of forward-facing 3.5-inch drivers, powered by discrete 20-watt Class D amplifiers. There’s a dimpled bass port in the back, and a tiny LED in the front to indicate its status.

And, yes, it’s a dock. There’s a lightning adapter poking out from the center of its bowl-shaped top. This placement is a neat design choice, because when you have the speaker sitting on a shelf or a piece of furniture at roughly eye level, you can’t immediately tell it’s a dock since the Lightning port is recessed into the body and tucked out of sight. Of course, if you stick an iPhone into it, the speaker’s dockiness becomes obvious. But when it’s sitting on the shelf sans-iPhone (which is most of the time) it’s just a nice, minimal piece of sculpture.

Now, the second caveat. I can’t whole-heartedly recommend speaker docks anymore, especially one this pricey. The dock connector on the Z2 is a Lightning connector, and there’s very good reason to believe Lightning will be the only choice on all Apple hardware for a while. But $400 is not a small investment for a home audio component, and since B&W has always made very solid hardware, the Z2 will likely still sound excellent in ten years. Will you still be an iPhone user in ten years? And will that iPhone have a Lightning connector on it? Sure, there’s an Aux-in jack on the back of the Z2, but if you go that route, you’re not using a pure digital connection and the audio quality is degraded.

But if you’re confident about your status as “a dock person,” the Z2 would be a welcome upgrade from an earlier model speaker with a 30-pin connector. If you really want a dock, it does at least present a great way for you to go all-Lightning.

And the sound and looks are worth the cost if you’re already fully invested in an all-Apple AirPlay system. But if you haven’t yet made the leap to multi-room wireless streaming, the Z2 is a risky — and pricey — way to experiment.

*No such proverb.

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