We were very impressed with the original Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin speakers when we reviewed them back in 2008, so we were pleased to hear about the launch of the Apple AirPlay-enabled version. We managed to get a sneak preview of the Zeppelin Air shortly before it launched so we've been keen to get one in at Pocket-lint HQ for a thorough testing.
Boasting the same good looks as its predecessor, the speaker is shaped like an old Zeppelin airship from the 1930s, giving it a distinctive look that smacks of premium quality. It feels reassuringly hefty, although not so much so that it's difficult to move around. Although the same size as its older sibling, it's actually slightly lighter at 6.2kg, compared to the Zeppelin's 7.5kg. The rear panel of the speakers is glossy black, but the front is finished with sedate speaker cloth.
There's a shiny silver strip that runs vertically down the centre of the speakers, incorporating a small power button along with equally tiny volume up and down controls. These are the only buttons that you'll find on the minimalist chassis. There's also a silver iPod cradle that sticks out from the front of the speakers and provides a surprisingly sturdy home for your iDevice. The protruding cradle may look supsciously like a carrying handle, but using it as such is likely to end in breakage and tears.
The back of the unit reveals a modest selection of connections, including an Ethernet port that you'll need for the initial AirPlay setup with your computer. You'll also find a Composite port for video playback, a USB for upgrades and a 3.5mm jack for hooking up any non-Apple music players.
Of course, the big draw here is the inclusion of Apple's AirPlay which enables you to stream music from your computer (on iTunes) or from the music library on your iPod, iPhone or iPad, as long as it's running iOS 4.2 or later. Before using AirPlay, you'll need to configure it by connecting the speakers to your computer using the supplied Ethernet cable. The set-up is very easy indeed - all you need to do is follow the simple instructions on the printed card that's provided and you can't really go wrong. You should only have to do this once, presuming that you don't switch internet routers. You will need to make sure that you've got the latest versions of iTunes and iPhone/iPod software, or you could run into trouble.
The Zeppelin Air is supplied with a small remote control that looks a bit like a shiny black pebble and is adorned with a rudimentary selection of controls. It's comfortable enough to hold although its diminutive proportions means that it'll probably end up down the back of the sofa in no time and it's also something of a dust-magnet.
You can also download the Apple Remote app from iTunes and turn your iPod or iPhone into a remote control for iTunes so that you don't have to be next to your computer in order to change tracks. If you change the track or volume on your iDevice, then this will be reflected on iTunes on your computer (and vice versa), with any commands being sent to the Zeppelin. If you've got Spotify on your iPhone you can also stream tunes directly from there.
You can also use the Zeppelin Air as a conventional iPod dock and plug your device straight into the cradle for playback and charging. However, if you're shelling out nearly 500 notes for AirPlay-equipped speaker then the chances are that this is what you're going to be using it with for the majority of the time. If you want to sync your iPod or iPhone with iTunes then you can do this through the Zeppelin Air by connecting it to your computer via USB, rather than undocking your iPod or iPhone.
The inclusion of AirPlay isn't where the Zeppelin's skills begin and end. It's also been give a thorough technical makeover since the first model. New drive units have been included for better dispersion of sound within the room and the Zeppelin Air is also an active 2.1 system meaning that it has dedicated amps for each driver. The digital signal processing has also been improved for better control over the driver units which is designed to offer a balanced sound at all volume levels. It also benefits from an audiophile-grade DAC as well as a Flowport that appears of one of the maker's high-end speaker ranges and controls the air flow produced by the bass, to keep the sound clear and stable.
The original Zeppelin speaker was certainly impressive and the new version is just as good. It's hard to say whether it actually sounds better withouth lining the two up side by side, but we have no complaints about the sound. Overall, the audio is outstandingly good with a warm, rich tone that's high in transparency (that is, it sounds like the musicians are in the same room).
The 50W built-in subwoofer gives the sound some real punch, offering probably the best bass performance we've heard on a speaker of this size. What's more, the Zeppelin even manages to maintain the bass-laden tones when the volume is lowered or boosted up to the max. In fact, the speakers sound superb at high volume (possibly not for our neighbours), and there's no sign of any tinny sounds or shrill tones creeping in. Despite the relatively compact design of the speaker, it has absolutely no trouble in filling the room (or rooms) with sound.
We did find that that there were a few glitches in playback when the music dropped out for a second, but that's not entirely avoidable when using a wireless device so we can't compain too much. We also would have liked to have seen an option for internet radio to make full use of the Wi-Fi connectivity, but again, it's hardly a deal-breaker.
There's no denying that the B&W Zeppelin Air is a very fine speaker indeed, and its quality and features make it hard to describe it as just iPod dock. Along with superb audio quality, the addition of Apple AirPlay makes this a great piece of AV kit, albeit a rather pricey one. The fact that you can use your iPhone or iPod as a fully functioning control is also a very classy touch.
As it's about £100 more expensive than the original Zeppelin, the technical improvements probably don't justify an upgrade, unless you've got cash to burn, or you simply can't live without AirPlay. Having said that, if you're in the market for some slick, compact speakers to team up with your iTunes library then the Zeppelin Air is definitely worth a punt.