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(Pocket-lint) - Bowers & Wilkins introduced its first Zeppelin speaker in 2007. Originally an iPod dock set into a massive, oval speaker system, it became an iconic product for Apple device fans.

Subsequent follow-ups appeared in 2011 and 2015 - in the form of the Zeppelin Air and Zeppelin Wireless, respectively - each adopting a feature set depending on the music listening trends at the time. But things have been quiet ever since, both figuratively and literally.

Now it's back for 2021, rebooted and refreshed as the Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin anew. It ditches the last remnants of wired or dock-like connectivity though, going more wireless than even the Wireless model ever was, and once again brings to a modernising feature set to the table.

Like its forebears, it is a premium one-box stereo speaker solution and has a price to match, but considering the audio landscape is now so saturated with cheaper, mass-market alternatives, does it offer enough to make a significant splash?

Design and ease of use

  • Dimensions: 210mm (H) x 650mm (W) x 194mm (D) / Weight: 6.5kg
  • Connections: No ports, USB-C for service only
  • Setup through Music by Bowers & Wilkins app
  • Finishes: Midnight Grey, Pearl Grey

Certainly it looks the part. That truly iconic shape is back - elliptical and eponymously zeppelin-shaped - but this time set on a stand that makes it look like it's floating.

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It is made of premium materials, with LED lighting built into the stand so you get a halo lighting effect when in operation. This is dimmable too, including the ability to turn it off completely, but we like the aesthetic.

There are controls on the top rear of the speaker, although they are purposely simple. Volume, play/pause and an Alexa voice control button are ranged alongside a multi-function button that can be used for pairing and power.

Connectivity is also sparse, with a USB-C port for service purposes, power (a figure-of-eight cable) and a reset button.

Everything about the new Zeppelin is designed around ease of use. The idea is that, after initial setup, you barely have to touch it again. Everything is controlled through the dedicated Music by Bowers & Wilkins app, a direct Bluetooth/AirPlay 2 connection, or voice using Amazon's Alexa assistant which is built in. You cannot connect a wired source, which has its downsides, but that's somewhat the point.

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Sometime in 2022, this Zeppelin will also gain compatibility with Bowers & Wilkins Formation speakers for multiroom playback, but it's a standalone product at the time of writing.

Hardware and speaker units

  • Speakers: 2x 25mm dome tweeters, 2x 90mm mid-range drivers, 1x 150mm woofer
  • Frequency response: 35 to 24,000Hz, Total power output: 240W
  • Bluetooth 5.0 (aptX Adaptive, AAC, SBC codecs), Wi-Fi
  • Far-field microphones for Alexa voice assistant

Underneath the speaker grille are some real treats.

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While stereo, the system effectively boasts a 2.1 setup. There are two 1-inch decoupled double-dome tweeters - as found in B&W's excellent 600 bookshelf and floorstanding range. They are isolated at each of the furthest edges of the Zeppelin to reduce distortion created by the other speaker units.

They control the high frequencies, while a pair of 3.5-inch drivers with the company's proprietary fixed suspension transducer (FST) tech handle the midrange. Again, these have bled down from other B&W speakers, including the 800 Series Diamond line.

Last, but certainly not least, there is a 6-inch dedicated subwoofer front and centre of the array. It naturally handles the low-end of the frequency spectrum and, in our tests, very ably to boot. While many speakers and soundbars claim 'sub', the Zeppelin isn't kidding: its 35Hz minimum frequency output is firmly in that arena.

In terms of wireless technologies, the Zeppelin supports Bluetooth 5.0 and Wi-Fi. It is also certified for aptX Adaptive so can handle hi-resolution music streamed via a compatible Android phone. We were told this is mainly on the aptX HD side, so can receive and playback tracks streamed in up to 24-bit/48kHz (albeit a little "lossy" as that generation of the codec isn't perfect). Qualcomm's latest format, aptX Lossless, is not supported - but compatible products for that are not expected to start to hit the market until later in 2022.

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Amazon Alexa voice support is built into the speaker system itself. There's no need for a separate Echo device, for example, as there are multiple far field microphones set into the Zeppelin.

You have to set it up in B&W's app, but once connected to your Amazon account it can do anything an Echo could - including playing music from different streaming services, even giving you weather reports and news updates. Strangely, it started out in US English by default for us, with an accent to match, but you can change that in Amazon's own Alexa app. Of course, that's fine if you are, indeed, in the States already.

As far as operability is concerned, it works as well as any first-party Amazon device we've used and better than many alternatives. Each "Alexa" command was understood first time, every time. And, the response was always quick and clear. It's even accompanied by a glowing blue light on the front of the Zeppelin that tells you when the assistant is awake and thinking.

For a high-end audiophile product, this is all a "nice-to-have" rather than necessity, but it works very well and at least you have the option to turn it on or not.

App and services

  • Bowers & Wilkins Music app (iOS and Android)
    • Services: Tidal, Qobuz, Deezer, TuneIn, Last.fm, Soundcloud
  • Apple Airplay 2, Spotify Connect

The main method of control is through the aforementioned Music by Bowers & Wilkins app for Apple iOS and Google Android.

You need to use it to connect to the device in the first place, then set up its network capabilities (which is does relatively autonomously). You can also link multiple music services to stream from.

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Qobuz, Tidal, Deezer and TuneIn are among those available and, when linked, they populate the app with all the playlists, albums and searchable tracks you could hope for. You don't need to exit the app to play any music from a linked service and you get recommendations and "recently played" content bars to make things easier.

Handily, there are also some B&W curated playlists that will give your new speaker a good test.

The app works as a hub, so you select the tunes on it but the speaker streams directly from the service rather than your phone. At present, Hi-Res Audio is only available via Qobuz this way (it doesn't currently support Tidal's MQA tracks, for example), but you can always use other direct streaming methods too.

Apple AirPlay 2 streaming is available for iPhone, iPad and Mac users, as is Spotify Connect. And, as we've said above, Qualcomm's aptX Adaptive (which covers aptX HD) is supported for those with compatible Android devices.

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That essentially means you can feed lossless or near-to-lossless audio from other streaming services, just over alternative means. A wired connection would have been nice for a truly lossless hook-up, but the supreme quality of the audio output on even the most lossy tracks means you are unlikely to hear fractional improvements - or, at least, care.

Importantly, Bowers & Wilkins makes it as easy as possible to feed the Zeppelin with your music, radio stations, podcasts and any other (wireless) audio you want to listen to.

Performance

  • Dynamic EQ in app
  • Hi-Res Audio playback

Bar a minor niggle or two, including a little more legwork during setup than we'd hoped, this reborn great is everything we'd hoped.

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Bowers & Wilkins is a dyed-in-the-wool audiophile company. It makes great headphones, but speakers are its bread and butter; its heritage. This Zeppelin, like former models, continues the legacy of providing maximum oomph without the need for separates. It is therefore ideal for those who want sleek design and aesthetic simplicity, but without a trade-off in sonics.

The system boasts a combined total amplified power output of 240W and, in reality, you'll never even reach it. We played all our test tracks at a tiny fraction of the maximum volume - between 10 and 20 per cent - and were even then worrying what the neighbours will think.

Sitting atop an AV stand, we experienced throaty bass that resonated through our chests - a proper whoomp of low frequencies that put significant meat on the bones of The Beatles' Come Together. And Roni Size's Brown Paper Bag filled the air with tangible jungle beats you could almost touch. All without muddying the accompanying electronica.

The spacing is great too. Don't expect soundbar-like wave beaming - this unashamedly provides a front-facing experience, as is expected of a stereo output - but you do get a wide soundstage that delivers every note, every pull of a guitar string, all without compromise.

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This is greatly evidenced in Started Out With Nothin, by Seasick Steve, with the ability to pick out every recording foible and the unique sounds of his strumming style and homespun percussion. The ASMR-style warblings of Billie Eilish on No Time To Die have also rarely sounded better.

In short, this is a powerhouse of a speaker system but with fine control. It sounds superb at any volume too.

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Verdict

Bowers & Wilkins will have undoubtedly been nervous in reintroducing one of its most iconic products, especially as there are so many alternatives out there now at all price points. There are even direct competitors, such as the Sonos Five, that will set you back less.

However, you can count on one finger the amount of speakers that combine streaming simplicity with such audiophilic prowess. The 2021 Zeppelin is a quite magnificent wireless music solution, with the looks to go with it.

Yes, there are a couple of very minor quibbles, such as the lack of a wired source connection, but it's easy to overlook them when namesake Led Zeppelin's Kashmir is thoroughly enveloping you.

This is a triumphant return of a much-loved favourite and well worth considering if you want to keep life simple.

Also consider

Pocket-lintAlternative photo 1

Naim Mu-so 2

The sound quality from this industrial box is second to none, although its styling is arguably less alluring than the Bowers & Wilkins. It's a chunk of cash pricier too.

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Writing by Rik Henderson. Originally published on 23 October 2021.