Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Speaker Review
Bowers & Wilkins launched their original wireless Zeppelin speaker in 2007 as an iPod dock. At the time, the iPod itself was only six years old and in its earliest forms priority was given to capacity over quality. Docks and speakers were conveniences rather than hi-fi items.
With the original Zeppelin, Bowers & Wilkins set out to challenge the orthodoxy that said you could never achieve the highest sound quality with Apple’s pocket device. Furthermore, people who bought iPods clearly weren’t serious about their listening and would never be persuaded to buy a speaker that was more expensive than the iPod itself.
B&W proved the doubters wrong and introduced new consumers to the world of top-quality audio. What’s more, they treated the Zeppelin with the same passion for improvement that they’ve shown in all their products. Each new version significantly improved on its predecessor so that by 2012, although the different Zeppelins looked broadly the same, the newest incarnation was markedly different with better drive units and amplification plus new 24bit-96kHz DACs to lift its performance dramatically. Zeppelin Air was also the first high-end iPod dock to support AirPlay wireless streaming technology. For the first time, you could play music through the Zeppelin without docking your iPod, just using wi fi.
Today, some six years on from the last upgrade, we have the latest Zeppelin upgrade, which is built very much with streaming in mind but doesn’t sacrifice the quality we’ve seen over the years. B&W call it the ‘smartest and most flexible Zeppelin’ of all. And by the way, if you were wondering where Apple’s decision to discontinue production of the iPod leaves it, there’s no physical iPod dock in the new model. Streaming, from Tidal to Amazon Music, has very conclusively supplanted storage and playback devices.
The Zeppelin of 2021 is actually the fourth version of its iconic speaker. Each reinvention has been accompanied by new functionality. The original Bowers Wilkins Zeppelin from 2007 was an iPod dock, pure and simple. The 2011 revamp was renamed Zeppelin Air and added Apple AirPlay support. In 2015, in anticipation of the imminent demise of the iPod, the dock was removed. Now Zeppelin number four has arrived, promising a high-quality stereo sound from a single wireless speaker and doubling down on its Bluetooth 5.0 wireless connectivity. Gone is the 3.5mm auxiliary port which means there is no longer any input for external devices.
So what do you see when you open the box? The Bowers Wilkins Zeppelin is an extremely striking, elliptical object, reminiscent of an airship or a football from the front but actually slightly wedge-shaped with the upper plastic casing sloping down to the curved, horizontal base. It sits on a metal pedestal quite similar to the stand of an iMac. It weighs in at 6.5kg, measuring 65cm wide and 19cm deep. By the time you’ve got it home you’ll be well aware that this is not a cheap piece of kit. In its home market, the UK, it retails at around £699 while in the US, you’ll generally find it priced at about $799.
The Zeppelin needs a mains electricity supply and the power port is located in the stand at the rear of the unit. Here you will also find a USB-C port to receive software updates and a reset button. There is also a factory-reset option in the app. That’s the extent of its physical inputs.
There’s a choice of just two finishes, midnight grey or pearl grey, either of which helps it to fit into most interior schemes, although its distinctive shape and considerable size means it will always be prominent. Our preference leans towards the pearl grey, which we found easier on the eye. The midnight grey is softer than black, but has a stronger visual footprint. It is fitted with a dimmable ambient light which shines downwards, creating the illusion that the speaker is floating. The light can be switched off in the app.
Its most important specifications are its power output of 240w, its codec support - Bluetooth 5.0 and aptX Adaptive - and its AirPlay2 capability. The B&W engineers have imported the driver technology from the company’s stereo speakers range which ensures a very broad soundstage. There is not one aluminium double dome tweeter but two. These are 25mm decoupled models as featured in the 600 anniversary series. There are also two 9mm midrange drivers which incorporate B&W’s Fixed Suspension Transducer technology, a key feature of its floorstanding speaker range. Finally there is a 150mm woofer, mounted at the heart of the speaker in such a way as not to cause vibration interference. With 240w of amplification powering the drivers, the Zeppelin packs quite a punch for a wireless speaker.
There is a row of buttons for the essential controls of volume, play/pause and multi-function mode. There’s also a button marked with the Alexa logo to give access to the Amazon Alexa voice control feature. Use this to mute the microphone.
A much broader range of controls is available in the Bowers Wilkins music app. This is available for both iOS and Android operating systems. Simply download it to your smartphone and you can use it to guide you through the set-up process. You’ll need to enter your wi fi password which the Zeppelin will then store and you’ll be asked to give the speaker a name.
During set-up, you will have the opportunity to link your Tidal, Oobuz and Deezer memberships through the Bowers Wilkins app, which means you can access all your playlists immediately in one place. A helpful extra provided by the manufacturer is their very own playlist that has been assembled to show off the Zeppelin’s capabilities. Sadly there’s no Led Zeppelin on the list, but there’s a pretty eclectic mix ranging from Muddy Waters to Nine Inch Nails, and Jeff Buckley to Bjork, which shows B&W’s confidence in the versatility of their premium wireless speaker.
Because the Zeppelin supports AirPlay2 you get full multi room functionality but this is currently limited by the fact that the Zeppelin doesn't yet work with the B&W Formation multi room set up. We’re sure it’s only a matter of time and an upgrade before there will be full compatibility.
The app provides controls for the bass and treble EQ levels which you can play around with as you wish but we found that leaving them in their original neutral settings was perfectly satisfactory. The Amazon Alexa voice control is also set-up via the app but you need to link your Alexa account. If you want to use Alexa to play music you’ll also need an Amazon music account as she won’t be able to access any of your other streaming accounts. It’s good to have a choice between the Bowers Wilkins music app and Alexa voice control, simply for convenience when you can’t be bothered to use your phone.
Bowers and Wilkins have chosen Alexa and AirPlay2 for the Zeppelin, which means you don’t get Google Assistant and Chromecast - Amazon and Apple preferred over Google. Neither is there Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) support, although B&W have promised this is on the way. Of the streaming services you can link through the app, only Oobuz offers hi-res support that’s better than CD quality. There is no intrinsic limitation in the Zeppelin’s firmware to prevent B&W adding other hi-res services which we expect to see happen in the relatively near future, In the meantime, Amazon Music, with its hi-res tier, and Tidal are both promised while B&W is one of the launch partners for Spotify Hi-Fi.
It’s not clear why there are these omissions. It might have been preferable for B&W to make sure it offered a full suite from the launch but perhaps they were conscious that it has already been six years since the speaker was updated and decided to take the plunge early. Given the relative ease of distributing upgrades via the USB-C port, it’s certainly not something to worry about.
How Does it Sound?
Just because we like to be different we didn’t base our test on B&W’s suggested playlist but rooted around instead for some music of our own choosing that would test the frequency range, stereo separation, detail and overall soundstage.
We tried some serious minimalism, first with Erik Satie’s Trois Gymnopedies and then with Paul Buchanan’s Mid Air. Satie’s simple, delicate piano filled the room but with acres of space to complement the melancholy tone. Buchanan’s album with just piano and voice, both played at a level barely above a whisper, similarly occupied the whole room with the silences as richly pronounced as the spare music.
We cranked it up a few notches with ‘Let Love In’ by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, a whole album populated with aggressive guitars and vocals along with some really interesting percussion choices. The sense of inescapable menace on ‘Red Right Hand’ in particular with its tolling bell has never sounded so powerful. The double dome tweeter and the woofer did Nick proud.
Old but timeless, Captain Beefheart’s ‘Trout Mask Replica’ seemed to reveal some hitherto concealed depths and its relatively primitive stereo separation was transformed into something that sounded almost like a remix. Equally effective was the furiousness of ‘Moonlight on Vermont’ and the hayseed poetry recital of ‘The Dust Blows Forward and the Dust Blows Back’ (complete with faked vinyl clicks).
Finally we turned to a couple of Joni Mitchell albums, the piano-heavy ‘Blue’ and the more guitar-based ‘Clouds’. Both records were ideal tests of the Zeppelin’s range of frequency range, with Joni’s voice at its highest register and the accompaniment dipping well into the bass range. We were very pleased with the results.
Overall, we were extremely impressed with the texture and definition which really separates out the strands of music and vocals until you feel as if they’re surrounding you but with enough distance between them to let you appreciate each part. The high frequencies are crisp and clear while the bass range is heavy and pounding without any distortion.
On the whole The Zeppelin’s presentation is full and expansive. Frankly, it stands up very well against many sets of stereo speakers we’ve listened to, all in one stylish package. While the Zeppelin doesn't quite reach the standard of B&W’s 800 series, it does a superb job. In any case, it’s a little unfair to make the comparison, since the 800 series is truly at the top of the range. The fact that we’d even consider comparing is an indication of how good we found the new Zeppelin speaker.
The original Zeppelin was probably the best-in-class for wireless speakers in the early years of the century and it has moved on from its iPod dock beginnings to transform into something that offers a huge sound and extremely balanced frequency response. Bowers & Wilkins have made a major leap forward in wireless technology. In recent years they have made it pretty clear that their priority today rests with streaming rather than device-based music. This is clearly the direction of travel for audiophiles and the industry so it makes perfect sense that one of the great pioneers should seek to lead the way.