The original Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin offered decent sound quality and resembled a great big blimp. Those are key qualities for an iPod speaker in our book, and qualities that helped to make it the definitive device of its type.
But the Zeppelin landed years ago, and the Apple lovin' consumers of today expect something slightly fancier. Happily, the new Zeppelin Air packs Apple's AirPlay technology, so you can pump out tunes directly from your iDevice over a wireless connection. But is it worth £500?
Music to our ears
B&W has made a few changes under the hood since the first Zeppelin appeared, opting for smaller mid-range drive units, which it reckons will allow for better audio dispersion. Essentially, the Air will do a better job of flooding the whole room with noise. There are five units in total hidden in the Zeppelin's rounded body -- four 25W units and one 50W unit.
While the inner components have changed, there's almost no difference between this unit and the previous Zeppelin in terms of design. Shaped like a blimp, or possibly a novelty oversized cigar, the Air measures 640mm by 173mm by 208mm. The Air is quite large, but we still reckon it'll fit snugly into most living rooms, especially if you've got a shelf to stick it on.
This speaker weighs 6.2kg, so it's far from portable. Once you've heaved this behemoth up into your AV set-up, you won't want to move it again.
Overall, the Air looks good. The shape is pleasing, and the fabric texture that surrounds the noise-making parts is of a deep black hue. A stripe of stainless steel down the centre houses a power button and volume keys. The only oddity is that the actual dock section sticks out on a stalk, a little distance proud of the main body of the speaker. That might look weird if you're using AirPlay most of the time, because, apart from docking an iPod or iPhone, this stalk doesn't serve much purpose.
Around the back, the speaker covers have a dappled, golf-ball-style texture. B&W reckons that covering the casing in these little dimples reduces air turbulence around the speaker port. Pumping out serious bass produces plenty of air movement, so the idea is that this texture will reduce the annoying noise you get when the port is shaken around by a build-up of air. It's nigh-on impossible to gauge how much impact those dimples actually have, but we can report that the bass response from the Zeppelin Air is very impressive.
Fantastic bass is about more than just rattling the floorboards. A great speaker will deliver that tummy-turning bass vibration without obscuring the rest of the mix, and without sounding flabby or distorted. Happily, the Air's bass is served up with a satisfying thump that shook our eyeballs in their sockets, while also sounding extremely precise.
Spiking our hair up and rocking out to Billy Idol's Rebel Yell, we could hear the kick drum prominently. Turning the volume up, we were impressed by the Air's ability to keep things balanced. We could feel the bass guitar line buzzing in our internal organs, but, even at higher volumes, we never lost track of the hi-hat cymbals in the higher parts of the mix. The Zeppelin Air sounded powerful and rock-solid, with the bass kept well under control and incredibly clear.
The Air is a good all-round speaker, and rock tracks like My Chemical Romance's Bulletproof Heart sound as clear and light as instrumental numbers like Antoine Dufour's Lost in Your Eyes. Vocal tones sound impressively precise and natural.
Come out and AirPlay
The Air supports AirPlay, Apple's wireless audio technology. Using it, you can wirelessly stream audio from iTunes on a Mac or PC, or from your iPhone, iPod touch or iPad, as long as it's running iOS 4.2 or later. It works over your home network, with the Zeppelin Air connected either via Wi-Fi or an Ethernet port around the back. AirPlay supports multiple speakers, so, on the off chance you've got enough dough to purchase two Airs, you can have more than one playing at once.
Streaming from iTunes works as follows. A tiny AirPlay icon will appear in the bottom right-hand corner of the iTunes window. Clicking on this brings up a multiple-speakers window, which lets you control the volume of any AirPlay devices on the network.
If you're using an iOS device, an extra icon will appear in apps where AirPlay is available. Tap this and you'll get the option to export your music to connected speakers. The system works with Spotify, although we noticed Spotify was rather slow to respond to commands.
AirPlay works very well and, if you're playing tunes through an iPod, iPhone or iPad, the ability to control them while walking around, tapping out emails and even playing games shouldn't be underestimated. Not having to consign your device to the speaker dock every time you feel like zoning out with some music is very liberating.
There's one caveat, however. Our office Wi-Fi can be flaky, and it's not particularly speedy. We did notice music cutting out now and again, or spluttering as the connection wavered. If your home network is stable and fast, we imagine you won't have this problem, but it's worth bearing in mind if your wireless network is temperamental.
If AirPlay's not your bag, there's an RCA phono socket around the back, and a 3.5mm socket too, as well as a slot for USB streaming from a PC or Mac. There's also a remote control in the box. It's small, rounded, highly susceptible to being lost, and redundant if you're using AirPlay with an iPhone, iPad or iPod, since you can control the volume and track selection from the iDevice itself.
The Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air is expensive, but its design is attractive, its sound quality is great, and its AirPlay features are handy. In short, it's a very cool piece of kit, and its extra features make it notably better than the first Zeppelin. If you're willing to blow £500 on a speaker for your iPhone, iPad or iPod, the Zeppelin Air is the best option out there.
Edited by Charles Kloet