Antony and the Johnsons I Am a Bird Now sounded better over the Zeppelin than any iPod speaker we've tested to date. Antony's soaring vocals reached for the heavens, the band's acoustic accompaniment was very natural. Guitars and various string instruments were remarkably clear.
Stereo separation, limited by the Zeppelin's two-foot width, wasn't any better than we've heard from other similar stubby single-enclosure speakers (the Bose SoundDock, the aforementioned Chestnut Hill George, Cambridge SoundWorks 745i and so forth). The Zeppelin sounded best when we were sitting within a metre of it -- much farther than that, and it started to sound, well, like an iPod speaker.
Piano jazz with Duke Ellington highlighted the Zeppelin's refined qualities. The piano, bass and drums were all vivid, but their sound was miniaturised by the Zeppelin. The speaker's weaknesses were further revealed when we switched to heavier hitting genres.
The quieter tunes on Arcade Fire's Neon Bible CD sounded great -- the speaker delivers more, if not better, bass than the vast majority of its more affordable competitors. But when the band starts to work up a sweat, the Zeppelin's bass turned muddy. Turning up the volume certainly didn't help matters, but it will get fairly loud.
We couldn't resist cranking a few Led Zeppelin tunes over the B&W, but the sound fell flat. The speaker doesn't have the power to put across heavy metal with any real conviction, and the more we pushed the Zeppelin's volume, the less we liked it.
The same was true on more pop-oriented songs like Nelly Furtado's "Say It Right" -- the B&W was fine at medium volume, but strained at higher volume levels. Contrast that to the late, great Klipsch iFi -- the 2.1 iPod speaker system will never compete with the B&W for looks, but it's still a clear-cut winner for overall sound quality.
The Zeppelin is an undeniably great iPod speaker: it looks amazing and is far better built than most competing models, which are little more than hunks of plastic. But the hefty price tag and the B&W name may have raised our level of expectations to an almost unreachable level.
For an iPod speaker, the overall sound quality is impressive, but it suffers when the material moves away from acoustic and instrumental music to harder-driving rock and hip-hop. If your musical tastes run to more mellow music -- and you're looking to invest in an audio objet d'art -- the Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin may be just the ticket.
Additional editing by Shannon Doubleday