True story. I got a call from a friend shortly after I’d hooked up the latest Bowers & Wilkins desktop system, the Z2. I told her that I was testing the new Z2 from B&W. A car nut, she replied, “Wow, I didn’t know BMW had a new Z.” Nope, I said. Not BMW. B and W. Exasperated, we went back and forth like the old Abbott and Costello routine “Who’s on first?”
So, here’s what it is not. The $399 Z2 is not a BMW or even an Old School clock radio. Like its pricier stablemate the Zeppelin, the Z2 is a powered wireless speaker system designed to stream from iTunes on a networked Mac or PC straight to the Z2 or directly from an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch over WiFi or via its Lightning connector.. It operates on the AirPlay protocol and can stream 16-bit/44kHz lossless files as well as MP3 files, music apps, and Internet radio sites such as Last.fm, Pandora, and Mixcloud.
It’s elliptical in shape, with the concave docking panel on top con- juring up the purer sculpted form of the original Zeppelin. But the Z2 is more monolithic in shape, with a shallow depth that makes for especially convenient placement. It’s a brilliantly clean form, with a nice tactile feel to its glass-reinforced ABS enclosure—and drum-tight fit and finish. B&W fills the interior space with twin, full-range drivers with lightweight glass-fiber cones. A familiar feature found on many B&W speakers are the Flowport dimples around the rear port that smooth airflow and improve bass response. Power is sup- plied courtesy of a pair of DSP-augmented 20W Class D amplifiers.
The Z2 comes equipped with an egg-shaped remote control, but the sameness of the button layout is confusing. Undoubtedly B&W was thinking that most users will control the Z2 via whatever smart device is storing the music, or via the Remote app, which is a free download from the Apple store. Getting the Z2 configured onto a home network is simple thanks to B&W’s downloadable set-up app. Once the Z2 was installed on my Macbook its clean graphics and intuitive design got me up and running swiftly. Even app-o-phobes should have few problems. You can even check for firmware updates or consider adding a second or even third Z2 for streaming music throughout the house.
As a current Cambridge Audio and former Bose desktop CD/radio owner I’ll admit the competition does not present an especially high bar for the Z2 to clear. Still it crushes these other units sonically with its “look Ma, no wires” bravado. Immediately, I was greeted with a sonic presentation of authority and openness. There’s weight and substance to the midrange, and genuine lower- frequency pitch definition and extension that don’t just allude to the real thing but can actually be felt. Tonally and dynamically, the Z2 is a bit forward in the mids with a darkish overall cast—a character that makes it an excellent system for voice, whether it’s the reedy timbre of Ira Glass podcasting “This American Life” or the resonant comedic inflections of former Spinal Tap bassist Harry “Derek” Shearer from Le Show or the burlap baritone of Tom Waits. I was also struck by how well individual images were delineated, even during complex orchestral passages. And the low end has some actual weight, enough to give pop tracks the lively rhythmic foundation and bottom-up energy they deserve.