The B&W Zeppelin Air is the second iteration of Bowers & Wilkins’ high-end iPod speaker system. When the British loudspeaker brand introduced the original Zeppelin back in 2007, it effectively redefined what was possible with digital downloads.
Now with the inclusion of Apple’s AirPlay music streaming technology, B&W hopes to raise the bar again. Can it? We put it to the test: read on and find out the results here in our B&W Zeppelin Air review.
The same but different
The B&W Zeppelin Air apes the original Zeppelin’s torpedo design, but this is not just the original funky boom box with a Wi-Fi bolt on. The brand has gone back to the drawing board, uprating internal components and drivers.?
Connections are located on the Air’s lower back, between two dimpled bass ports. There’s an Ethernet LAN, auxiliary minijack input for analogue and digital audio sources, USB and a composite video output.
The Ethernet jack itself sits too far inside the cabinet to allow hooded Ethernet cables to snap tight, meaning a goodly number of our cables just pulled loose. Luckily we did have a minimalist selection of flat Cat 6 cables that clipped securely in. The 30-pin iPod dock itself meanwhile orbits the centre of the Zeppelin. A tiny LED flits from red to purple to confirm it’s online.
We’d like to say that getting the Zeppelin Air online and streaming from iTunes was fast and simple, but unfortunately it wasn’t.
The initial set up routine actually requires that you connect the Zeppelin Air via Ethernet and call up its setup page in a browser. From here you can select your Wi-Fi network and input the requisite security key. Once online, the unit is duly discovered by iTunes. Unfortunately trying to connect and stream music from a test PC via a Netgear router was frustrated by a barrage of iTunes -15006 errors.
Instead, we quickly set up a secondary network using a BT Home Hub. This worked a charm and our Zeppelin Air was online and streaming in short order.
AirPlay in action
AirPlay itself is wonderfully elegant. Once registered onto the same network as your iTunes server, the Zeppelin Air turns up bottom right as a supported device. From this point you can stream albums and playlists directly from your PC to the Zeppelin. AirPlay supports multiple speaker delivery, so if you have other compatible devices dotted around you can create multi-room audio remarkably quickly.
The system really comes into its own when streaming from a partnered handheld iOS device. The iPad provides a glorious interface to browse your music and stream, but it works as efficiently with an iPod Touch or iPhone. Of course, if you want to dock your device you can. A glossy pebble-shaped remote offers simple volume and playback functionality.
The Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air can certainly play loud. It has enough muscle to drive the average MP3 rip to quite intolerable levels. For the best audio quality, the Air shouldn’t be played too loud. Kept within sensible listening limits, the beefy bass output blends well with the crisp mid-range. The result is an altogether polished sonic performance. There is no significant penalty between listening over Wi-Fi and having your iPod docked.
Read our Denon CEOL RCD-N7 AirPlay review now
There are a couple of disappointments, though. The video output allows you to plop JPEGs from your iPhone or iPod touch onto a TV, or to stream videos, but the quality of the output is poor. The provision of a low-def composite video output seems ill-judged in this age of HDMI. Quite why the Air is hamstrung in this fashion is a mystery. Equally confounding, while you can slideshow images to music when docked, you can’t view album art.
Overall, the Zeppelin Air is a worthy upgrade on an already lauded design. The inclusion of AirPlay seems a natural evolution, and performance is suitably premium. If you’re looking for a high-end sound system for your iTunes collections you’ll not be disappointed.
The £499 ticket is a high price to pay, putting this particular hardware squarely in the “if you have to ask then you can’t afford it” category of kit – but if you fell for the first Zeppelin, doubtless you’ve been saving up for this moment.