Yes, it looks like something out of a ’50s sci-fi flick. But its sound is the aural equivalent of a swimming pool filled with French vanilla ice cream topped with chocolate-dipped diamonds.
Go ahead and snort at the price — $600 is a lot of cheese for an iPhone dock — but the Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air is simply the best multimedia speaker in its class. The quality and clarity of the audio that comes out of this monolithic oval is jaw-dropping, and anyone who’s serious about hi-fi gear will see this price tag as a bargain, once they sit down and listen to it. The fact you also get lossless streaming over Wi-Fi, thanks to Apple AirPlay, is a big bonus.
Bowers & Wilkins, a British company dating back to the mid-1960s, has built up a glowing reputation among audio geeks. The company’s P5 headphones and MM-1 desktop speakers both earned high marks from our test lab, and B&W’s first Zeppelin, introduced in 2008, was considered the gold standard of audio fidelity for devices in this class its first couple of years on the scene. So there’s no hard sell required among those in the know, even at six bills.
The speaker layout has changed since the first Zeppelin — the midrange drivers have been upgraded and the tweeters are now the same ones B&W puts in its MM-1 desktop speakers. The new Zep’s low-frequency amp is still rated at the same 50 watts, but the midrange amp array has been upgraded from two 25-watt amps to four 25-watt class D amps. There’s also a new dimpled rear port design.
The iPod/iPhone dock is now a fully digital connection (and yes, you can plop your iPad in, but it’s awkward), and the on-board chips for digital-to-analog conversion and signal processing have been redone as well.
These enhancements have improved the sound, adding more detail and clarity. It’s especially noticeable in the very high and very low frequencies.
The external design has stayed the same, to the dismay of those who think it’s silly. Also, the fact the Zep now Wi-Fi-enabled throws a wrench into things, because even when it’s pumping out sound without the phone or iPod docked, that big metal thumb is still sticking out the front. If the dock was removable, design freaks wouldn’t give it the stink-eye.
At least the minimalist look is unobtrusive, and it won’t dumb down your classy, ultra-modern wine bar with garish logos. And so what if it looks like a giant black doobie? The sound is kick-ass.
I threw every kind of music I could at it — rock, techno, hip-hop, jazz, modern pop, roots reggae, Balinese gamelan — and everything sparkled.
The bass can be overwhelming if you stand right next to it, so I wouldn’t recommend using it as your desktop computer speaker rig. But three feet away, the sound becomes perfectly balanced and stays that way all the way across the room. You can also adjust the amount of bass being sent to the speaker by fiddling with the controls that appear in your phone’s Settings menu when it’s docked to the Zeppelin Air. Once you’ve adjusted the sound, the settings stick, even when you remove the iOS device and go wireless.
It sounds best on a table or dresser about a foot away from the wall, which is fine since the cable connections, should you need them, are also in the back. In fact, I moved it around when we were shooting photos, and the only place where it didn’t sound amazing was on my hardwood floor.
Now, about the wireless features: The Zeppelin Air is one of the first products to market with Apple’s new AirPlay technology built-in. AirPlay is young and I had some issues, but the verdict is that AirPlay support is a big positive. That’s good news since AirPlay, first introduced last November, is about to start showing up in every set of speakers out there.
Apple’s tech lets you stream audio wirelessly from the iTunes library on your PC or Mac to the Zeppelin, or any other AirPlay-equipped device.
To control what’s playing, you can either sit at your computer and choose songs in iTunes, or you can download Apple’s free Remote app from the App Store (iOS version 4.2 is required for AirPlay). It’s fun to sit there on your couch and tap around from song to song on an iPad, playing DJ.
You can control the volume of multiple AirPlay devices from your iOS handheld, too, if you want to pepper your home with a few different AirPlay speakers.
A couple of cool things about AirPlay: It transmits sound using the Apple Lossless container, which can handle high-quality audio up to 24-bit, 96-kHz. So if you have lossless files in your library (and if you don’t now, you will once Apple gets its way), you can stream them to the Zeppelin Air without the sound ever dipping below CD quality (iTunes is currently limited to playing back files at 16-bit/44kHz, or CD quality, even if they’re ripped at a higher resolution — if you want to listen at 24/96, you have to connect the Zep with a USB or Ethernet cable to avoid iTunes dumbing your music down).1
Which brings us to the second cool thing about AirPlay — all of the digital-to-analog conversion happens on the device, not on your computer, so the manufacturers who make AirPlay-compatible speakers can use their own DAC chip designs. Bowers & Wilkins haven’t skimped here, and the Zeppelin Air is loaded with a beautiful-sounding DAC that represents even the most detailed recordings wonderfully.
I listened to a lossless rip of the latest Sean Hayes album — close-mic’ed vocals and mostly acoustic instrumentation, all carefully recorded and mixed — and every nuance, from string noise and snare buzz to the inhalations between phrases, were perfectly represented. I followed up with some of John Zorn’s Masada string trios, and some 24/96 recordings of a jazz piano trio. Crystal clear all around with a deep punch. To test the bass, lossless rips of “Housequake” by Prince and James Blake’s version of “Limit to Your Love.” I was grinning from ear to ear the whole time.
One thing to note: AirPlay lets you stream directly from an iPhone, iPod or iPad too, but when you’re streaming from the iPod app on your handheld, the audio quality isn’t as good. Whether your ears will notice is a separate issue. As is common with portable digital music, you trade quality for convenience. But stream directly from an iTunes client on your Wi-Fi network and you’ll get the full Monty.
Now all of this would be great if AirPlay worked exactly as advertised. AirPlay is still very new, and I had some problems with it. Setup is a bit complicated only because there are about a dozen steps required to get the Zeppelin Air wirelessly synced with your iTunes library over AirPlay. It involves an ethernet cable (included), some typing of IP addresses, some restarts. The provided instructions are clear, but I can see inexperienced users being intimidated. [UPDATE, September 2012: B&W’s latest firmware eliminates many of the setup headaches.]
Then, once it was on the network, the Zeppelin Air kept dropping off about once an hour. I’d have to go over and power cycle the thing, then close and reopen iTunes to get it to reappear. I live in a crowded neighborhood in San Francisco, so I have to deal with a lot of Wi-Fi interference, and switching channels on my router helped. But the longest I was able to stream music continuously without a drop-out in iTunes was about six hours.
I had fewer problems when I used AirFoil, the $25 cross-platform app from Rogue Amoeba, which supports streaming any system audio to AirPlay devices. I could play streams from NPR and Rdio. Web streams aren’t 24/96, but I appreciated the fact I had options. And only one drop-out in a day of use.
When Airplay did work, which was about 95 percent of the time, it sounded great and was incredibly convenient.
I brought the drop-out issue up with the Bowers & Wilkins folks over the phone, and they say they haven’t seen any more than just a handful of tiny hiccups in their AirPlay testing. So maybe it’s a Wi-fi interference thing, or maybe it’s an iTunes thing (Apple didn’t respond to my inquiry). I only mention it because your mileage may vary, and if you have experience with home-network hardware and software, you’ll take it in stride.
All in all, a few minutes of frustration buys dozens of hours of high-def sound. I consider that a reasonable trade-off.
Note 1: This post was updated to clarify iTunes’ capabilities and limitations when playing audio over AirPlay.
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