I live for the weekends! When Friday morning arrives, I get this acquired taste in my mouth – a taste for some Canadian whisky on the rocks and an evening of intelligent conversations with friends. Okay, it’s more like cheap wine and conversations about nothing, but you get the idea. I love to socialize with friends on weekends. Almost everyone in our circle owns an iPod, and iPod docking systems are as common as toasters in our homes. The problem is most of these docking systems sound like toasters playing music. But it doesn’t have to be like that!
When world renowned speaker manufacturer B&W asked its team to develop an iPod speaker system, we knew they weren’t fooling around. The $599 B&W Zeppelin speaker system was designed with a single goal in mind – to entertain iPod owners with high fidelity audio. The Zeppelin has an oblong shape completely covered by a black cloth speaker grille in the front. The middle is broken up by a thin stainless steel band with power and volume up/down buttons. A polished stainless steel arm in the middle serves as the iPod cradle. The design is trivially simple, yet suit-and-tie elegant. The speaker grille conceals a pair of 1-inch tweeters which borrow design elements from the B&W 800 Series, a pair of 3.5-inch midrange drivers and a 5-inch subwoofer in the centre. A built-in digital amplifier provides 25 watts to each tweeter and midrange driver and 50 watts to the subwoofer. But the unusual shape of the Zeppelin is purpose driven – the rounded, tapered ends of the enclosure minimize the baffle area around the drive units resulting in wide sound dispersion and a smoother response.
The back of the system houses a mini-stereo input and an optical digital input for MP3 players and other audio sources. S-video and composite video outputs allow iPods to pass their video along to a display. A USB input is also present for future software upgrades.
The supplied remote looks like a “mini-me” version of the Zeppelin, finished in glossy black. A group of seven buttons provide basic control of the iPod, volume and source selection.
I placed the Zeppelin on top of a drawer chest and listened to it from different spots around my living room. I doubt that anyone ever sits down in front of an iPod speaker system for critical listening. These systems are designed to provide room-filling sound that can be enjoyed in the entire room. My iPod Nano fit snuggly into the dock, and I began listening to songs encoded at various bit-rates.
I performed most of my listening at a moderate volume level with various genres of music including rock, hip hop, jazz, dance, pop and house. From the moment I turned on the Zeppelin, it created an enjoyable sound field in my entire living room. The highs sounded smooth and didn’t have the unpleasant harshness that I’ve heard from other iPod speaker systems. The mid frequencies presented warm characteristics and delivered clean vocals. While listening to jazz selections, instruments sounded pleasantly natural considering they were coming from this relatively small system. The Zeppelin also produced a very satisfying amount of tight bass. Overall, I found the sound to be well-balanced and quite detailed. Of course, the details and overall sound quality varied noticeably depending on the bit-rate of each song. As expected from any system with little separation between the left and right channels, the stereo imaging and the soundstage were limited. Most iPod docks or speaker systems can’t be turned up too high because the sound quickly becomes distorted. But this was not the case with the Zeppelin – I was able to listen to this system surprisingly loud and distortion free.
On a number of occasions I turned the Zeppelin off with the volume set to relatively loud. I noticed that the next time I powered it on, the volume started very low and gradually increased to match the same level at which I turned it off. I’ve been attacked by loud playback from iPod docks too many times (!) in the past so this was a very welcomed feature. Something else I enjoyed was that the iPod screen lit up every time a button on the remote was pressed. This took guessing out of selecting songs or controlling the volume. Speaking of the remote, I wasn’t a fan of its unusual shape, but it was very responsive and I quickly memorized where every button was so I didn’t have to look down at the buttons every time.
At $599, the B&W Zeppelin is the most expensive iPod speaker system I have tested to date. However, given this system’s musical performance, solid build quality and gorgeous design, the price is well justified. Not all iPod speaker systems are created equal, and the Zeppelin definitely soars above the crowd.
Bowers & Wilkins
B&W Zeppelin iPod Speaker System
Price (MSRP): $599.95 CAD