Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air Music System (TAS 218)

Equipment report
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B&W Group Zeppelin Air Music System
Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air Music System (TAS 218)

Back in Issue 178, Robert Harley wrote about B&W’s first venture into the brave new world of iPod-based music systems. As Robert rightly pointed out, “Most amplified speaker systems for the iPod are cheap plastic jobs with sound quality so poor you ask yourself, ‘Why even bother?’”

Although things have changed since the original Zeppelin was launched in 2008, with dozens of manufacturers—including Wadia and other high-end firms—joining in, most iPod systems remain “cheap plastic jobs.”

But the Zeppelin is different. It offers sophisticated engineering and a genuine taste of high-end sound in a very cool-looking and nicely built package. And the latest version is cooler still.

The new Zeppelin Air features several improvements that we’ll get to shortly. But the one that makes it an especially fun and rewarding device to use is Apple’s AirStream technology, which allows music to stream wirelessly from a Mac or PC, an iPod Touch, iPhone, or iPad. Thanks to AirPlay—and unlike the original Zeppelin—no docking is required (though the Zeppelin Air does retain its iPod/iPhone dock).

Using any of these Apple devices as a remote control with the Zeppelin Air allows full access to your iTunes library, and to permit the very best possible sound quality the wireless transfer is done via Apple Lossless technology. You can also connect a computer or other USB source to the Zeppelin’s USB input for wired connection.

What’s more, and sexy as hell, is that the Zeppelin Air also streams Web content. So even if you’re listening to a favorite podcast, or watching a YouTube clip, or streaming from an Internet radio or movie source, the sonic improvement over built-in computer speakers and all but the best headphones is indeed significant.

Got apps? How about something like Virtuoso, the virtual piano app? One evening, while I was showing off the Zeppelin Air’s bag of tricks, a friend’s 5-year-old daughter played me snippets of a Bach partita using an iPad and the Zeppelin Air. Though not exactly the timbre of a real piano, the sound was still remarkably good—and what fun it was! And while I’m too much of a geezer to be a gamer, those who are should thrill at the sonic upgrade a Zeppelin will provide.

Even though custom-installers won’t like this, the Zeppelin Air also lets its owners create an extremely elegant and affordable multi-room system. You can stream music to each room in which you have a Zeppelin Air, plus you can adjust each unit’s volume to suit whatever room the Air resides in.

B&W has made plenty of performance-oriented changes to the Zeppelin Air, as well. The new tweeter set is the same Nautilus-tube-loaded 1" aluminum dome used in the MM-1 computer speakers I favorably reviewed in Issue 204. This tweet is said to provide both greater detail and a wider stage. In order to provide a more open sound, a pair of 3.5" midrange drivers replaces the original 4" units, and the amps that drive them have been improved, too. Where the original Zeppelin had a pair of 25-watters driving the tweeter and mids, the new unit is a fully active 2.1 design. A quartet of 25-watt Class D amps drives each midrange and high-frequency driver, while a 50-watt design powers the 5" woofer, whose Flow Port venting system has been lengthened to improve bass extension. The new and lighter enclosure is fabricated from glass-fiber filled ABS (a thermoplastic), which is stiffer than the original Zep’s chassis, and, says B&W, delivers improved dynamic range. Finally, the new Zeppelin uses more sophisticated DSP circuitry, and where the original DACs sampled at a 16-bit/48kHz rate, every input on the Air, including AirPlay, is upsampled and processed through newly deigned 24-bit/96kHz DACs. Rather remarkably, the price of the Zeppelin Air is identical to the original: $599.

Although I didn’t have the opportunity to spend a lot of time with the original Zeppelin, it strikes me as obvious that the Air is most definitely a sonic step up in many ways. When streaming Wilco’s live set, Kicking Television, for example, the Zeppelin Air was notably open and room-filling. There was a fair semblance of the hall’s space; Jeff Tweedy’s vocal was clean, with just a touch of chesty coloration; rhythm guitars and pianos were detailed and almost lush; Nels Cline’s guitar solos had nice sting; and Glenn Kotche’s drums had surprising weight and wallop. While there is only so much air these small drivers can move, the Zeppelin Air maintained a feeling of ease with sane volume levels.

YouTube videos, a bit of Jeff Beck, a bit of Martha Argerich will obviously vary in sound quality. But a more important point is that, regardless of source, the experience was much richer and dramatically better than that from the pipsqueak transducer in my iPad. Even if I were a headphone user, I would still prefer the Zeppelin Air for its wireless freedom and for allowing others to enjoy the music.

The original Zeppelin was fun and perfectly good sounding, but limited by its static docking station. (Note that the first edition Zeppelin, as well as B&W’s Zeppelin Mini, can be upgraded to AirPlay-ability with the addition of Apple’s AirPort Express.) The new Air edition not only sounds better, but is a remarkably versatile, way-cool—dare I say somewhat addictive?—little sound system to own and operate. A whole lotta fun for six-hundred bucks.

SPECS & PRICING

Type: portable ipod speaker system with remote control
Driver complement: two 1" nautilus-tube aluminum tweeters, two 3" midrange drivers, one 5" woofer
Inputs: 30-pin ipod/iphone docking station, network (rJ45 ethernet or Wifi), uSb-port
Outputs: Composite video
Frequency response: 51hz–36khz +/-3db
Amplifier output power: two x 25W (tweeter), two x 25W (midrange), one x 50W (woofer)
Dimensions: 25.2" x 6.8" x 8.2"
Weight: 13.5 lbs.
Price: $599

B&W LOUDSPEAKERS OF AMERICA
54 Concord Street North
Reading, Massachusetts 01854
(978) 664-2870
bowers-wilkins.com

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