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.
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