Let's face it: as a category iPod speakers are a pretty uninspired lot. Their plastic, boxy and sometimes downright awful industrial design flies in the face of the iPod's masterful aesthetic and intuitive ergonomics. Until now, that is.
Bowers & Wilkins' curvaceous Zeppelin iPod speaker is as every bit as sophisticated as Apple's iconic player. Best of all, the Zeppelin isn't all show -- its detailed sound largely lives up to B&W's high-end reputation -- at least when we played acoustic music. So sure, it's one of the most expensive iPod speakers you can buy, but it may well be worth it, especially if you fall in love with the Zeppelin's looks.
The Zeppelin is currently available in the US, but will be available in Europe and the UK in early 2008 for around £400.
Unpacking the Zeppelin, we couldn't help but be impressed with its build quality. The speaker's entire backside is constructed out of mirror-polished stainless steel, the front black cloth covering is tastefully demure.
A LED indicator lights up from behind the grille to keep you informed of the Zeppelin's operational status. It glows red in standby mode, yellow as the unit powers up from standby; green when the Aux input is selected; white as the Zeppelin's volume approaches its maximum setting. The speaker's power and volume controls are embedded in the stainless trim piece just above the iPod. Suffice it to say, the overall package is just plain gorgeous -- another fruitful pairing up of B&W and Native Design Ltd.
Measuring 640mm wide, the Zeppelin is certainly bigger than most iPod speakers, and weighing a hefty 7.5Kg, it's a good deal more substantially built as well. A thick rubbery pad is provided to cradle the Zeppelin -- it's the only component of the system that looks and feels like something of an afterthought.
The curvy black plastic remote matches the Zeppelin's shape. We appreciated its minimalist button count, but we noted that we had a 50-50 chance of picking it up upside-down -- you really have to look at the thing before you use it. The remote can raise or lower volume, mute and change tracks, but cannot access the iPod's menu -- that's still a hands-on operation.
The Zeppelin's tapered ends house stereo 89mm glass-fiber midrange and 25mm metal dome tweeters to maximise stereo separation. Bass is provided by a single 127mm woofer located in the center of the Zeppelin, and its sound is enhanced by twin rear-firing ports. A total of three digital amplifiers are included, delivering a total of 100W: two 25W amps drive the tweeter and midrange units, and with the remaining 50W allotted to the woofer. The amps generate a bit of heat, so the unit runs slightly warm to the touch.
Tucked into the Zeppelin's curvy rear end you'll find a 3.5mm auxiliary stereo input jack; a USB 2.0 port for firmware upgrades; and composite and S-Video outputs for connection to your TV.
The Zeppelin automatically accepts any AC power from 100V to 240V, so it'll work anywhere in the world. The 30-pin docking port accepts all recent generation iPods and iPhones, but -- like all iPod accessories -- compatibility can be somewhat uneven. For instance, our third-generation 15GB iPod had no trouble playing music, but its battery wouldn't recharge while in the dock -- later models should.Other iPods should be able to access the full panoply of features, including the Zeppelin's "Speaker" menu, which offers a five-position bass EQ to tune response for system placement or individual preference.
With its hefty price tag, we were disappointed by the Zeppelin's dearth of step-up features: it lacks the AM/FM radio found on many competing models. And the sort of wireless remote found on the Chestnut Hill George would've gone a long way to taking a bit of the sting out of that price tag.