Product: Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air
Rating: Strong Recommend*
We've eagerly been awaiting the release of an AirPlay enabled system, audio speakers equipped with Apple's high-quality wireless audio streaming technology, promising a world where wireless multi-speaker performance comes without signal degradation and is controllable from the comforts (or confines) of iTunes or your iOS device. Our prayers were answered a couple weeks ago when we took shipment of the Zeppelin Air, Bowers & Wilkins' flagship iOS compatible model and one of the first AirPlay options out on the market. The Zeppelin Air has built upon all the memorable features of their original Zeppelin, improving nearly every aspect of its performance and features, while retaining the iconic shape. Does this AirPlay equipped audio airship ascend higher than its original 2008 predecessor? Find out below…
- Input Type: 30 Pin Dock,3.5mm Stereo Jack,USB
- Output: Composite Video
- Power Source: AC
- Speaker Configurations: 2.1
- Length: 275mm
- Width: 685mm
- Height: 265mm
- Weight: 6.12kg
- AirPlay compatible
- Two-year limited warranty
Underneath the stretched oblong glass-fibre composite design, the Zeppelin has seen a significant overhaul of its components resulting in noticeable improved performance. The iPod/iPhone dock was upgraded to a digital-to-analog converter; the 24bit-96KHz digital-to-analog converter up-samples and processes audio to 24-bit resolution and a 96kHz sampling rate, compared to the previous version, which was only able to use the iPod’s built-in analog audio output. This updated model is still a 2.1 system, showering the ears via a 4x25W + 1x50W Class D amplifierstweeter and midrange drivers setup. In fact, the same Nautilus tweeters found inside B&W's MM-1 computer speakers handle the high range, while the 50 watts driving the woofer do ample service for the low end. More about how it sounds in a bit…
Now let's get to what makes the Zeppelin Air so special: AirPlay. Out of the box, the Zeppelin Air isn't equipped for plug-and-play use with iTunes as we had hoped. Although you can easily dock an iPod or iPhone into the integrated cradle (we hope B&W considers a removable dock for a more streamlined presence) or connect the speaker to your computer directly via USB connection, the real appeal of the Zeppelin Air is the ability to stream audio from either an iOS device or in our case, our laptop. This is the one area of the Zeppelin Air experience which fell short of expectations; AirPlay setup requires a specific and particular 17 step process (to their credit, B&W's instructions are extremely clear and easy to follow) to begin enjoy the pleasures of AirPlay.
Network setup requires your computer and Zeppelin Air to be connected via Ethernet cable, the process involving careful monitoring of a colored indicator light on the front dock; after an annoyingly long wait, a browser interface eventually prompts you to add the Zeppelin Air to your home network. If all goes well, your device will flash for a moment, connect to your network wirelessly and be ready for iTunes use. If not, or if you need to change your network preferences, you'll need to reset the device using a paperclip [insert groan here]. If there is any complaint we have with the Zeppelin Air, it is this non-Apple, non-user friendly setup, which relies too much upon an arcane colour light indication system (e.g. fast flashing orange vs. slow flashing yellow) that feels a bit like Russian roulette.
Originally stocked with the shipped virgin firmware, the Zeppelin had an intermittent issue of losing its AirPlay connection for half a second, perhaps happening once an hour. The audio hiccup was a minor annoyance, but we're happy to say since a V1.1.3 firmware update, the Zeppelin Air's issues have disappeared completely. From iTunes, users only but have to click open a pull-down menu where one or multiple AirPlay enabled devices can be all utilized in connection to one source. That means you can't stream separate songs to specific AirPlay devices; each AirPlay enabled device will be tapping into your single iTunes library. Not a big deal for us personally, but worth noting if you're looking for a fully customizable, multi-user solution.
Our Zeppelin was tested from our living room, situated directly toward us, both in solo mode and also in a beautiful tandem with our existing MM1 speaker. We're apartment dwellers, so the small desktop MM1's have done a more than fair job of playing a variety of music without angering neighbors next door or below. But we've always noted the absence of any significant presence on the low end. With the Zeppelin Air picking up the slack, our 2.0 system has upgraded to a 4.1+ experience which really does wonders with almost any song, especially songs already in Apple Lossless file format. One has to strain to hear the difference between the streamed AirPlay version of Rafael Anton Irisarri's "A Thousand-Yard Stare" compared to when the Zeppelin Air was connected via USB or directly from the iPod Touch, and any difference was so slight we'd call it negligible.
Full bodied and resolute, the full range of sound created is satisfying, especially when handling classical and ambient electronic music. Even with the more hazy Sabbath inspired, bass guitar-heavy strummings of "The White Bird" from Arboretum, the sound never crossed anywhere into Distortionville, preserving the distinct qualities of individual instruments and vocals as recognizable unless maxed out. Perhaps the highest compliment to the Zeppelin Air is we're now listening to music sans headphones noticeably with more regularity, finding previously undiscovered joy in tracks revealed by the Zeppelin Air's capabilities.
Except for the largest and most cavernous of spaces, the Zeppelin Air should provide an exemplary option for iTunes and iOS device users looking for the absolute best in AirPlay sound, with nary a complaint in the couple weeks we've put it through the tests. At $599, par for the course when it comes to B&W products, you'll be paying for the joy of this listening pleasure, but oh what a joy it is.
The bottom line: In spite of some setup issues, the Zeppelin Air made us forget those ills almost immediately once the AirPlay streamed audio sprung forth from its 3.5" mid-range drivers and 5" woofer. The sound is sublime and implementation with iTunes is easy to use once network connection is established.
Pros: Excellent full-bodied 2.1 sound produced by class D amplifiers, bass-enhancing DSP and updated digital-to-analog converter at almost any volume; modern sculptural design still holds up well visually, compatible with nearly every iOS device; once Airplay/network settings established, controls are extremely user friendly.
Cons: Airplay setup is not plug-and-play, volume control via iTunes can be imprecise, iPod dock is not removable, the entry-fee into AirPlay nirvana is steep.
Apartment Therapy Media makes every effort to test and review products fairly and transparently. The views expressed in this review are the personal views of the reviewer and this particular product review was not sponsored or paid for in any way by the manufacturer or an agent working on their behalf. However, the manufacturer did give us the product for testing and review purposes.