by John Gatski
As I mentioned a few months ago when reviewing the Kicker iPod dock, the iPod has become the replacement for standalone CD player — both portable and home. The iPod has already taken over the lower and mid-price playback niches, and companies are now offering iPod docking products aimed at the high-end.
Bowers and Wilkins, aka B & W of the high-end speaker world, now offers the Zeppelin iPod docking station — designed for those who desire a higher-end iPod system.
Priced at $599, the Zeppelin is shaped like a mini-zeppelin with a modern visual style and easy-to-use functionality. The stainless steel body is heavy duty and robust, and is designed to be placed on a shelf or stand. Its extra price notches its overall build quality several steps above many of the lower-cost, all-plastic iPod docks I have seen.
The Zeppelin is compatible with most iPods, either through the direct dock connection or via the 1/8th-inch analog/digital input jack. But to get the best out of your Zeppelin, the later iPods (5th generation and higher) are recommended. Some early models and the Shuffle don’t directly dock with the Zeppelin.
Being a speaker company, you would expect B & W to design quality speakers into the Zeppelin, and that is indeed is the case. The dock features a three-way speakers system. Each side gets a 3.5-inch midrange and a 1-inch metal dome tweeter, while a center-mounted, 5-inch bass driver handles the low bass — in concert with two bass-enhancing rear ports.
Function-wise, the Zeppelin is a minimalist machine — since most functions are controlled by the iPod. On the front, the only features you see are the top-mounted on/standby push switch and volume control. Around back are audio and video connections: an Aux 1/8th combo analog/TOSlink digital audio input jack, and a USB input for software upgrades.
It also has two video outputs: S-video and composite video output jacks for those who want to feed videos, movie and TV shows to a larger video screen from the iPod video output. You can use the Zeppelin for the sound and your TV for the video. Pretty slick.
The classy, round remote control allows control of volume, track advance/back, and selection of either the mounted iPod or a second audio source hooked into the Aux jack.
Unlike the Kicker I reviewed a few months ago, the Zeppelin remote does not have any menu control other than track advance/back. The Kicker allows access the playlist, artist and music sub menus, with the remote. On the Zeppelin, you have to access those menu items via the actual onboard iPod controls. The Zeppelin also does not offer any on-board external tone control, but tone can be tailored by control software in the later model iPods (more on that later).
The iPod mounts to the Zeppelin via a silver vertical arm with the iPod connection base at the bottom. It looks pretty cool and holds the iPod snugly. When docked with the Zeppelin, the iPod audio output is taken from the analog pin of the dock connector.
Because location of the Zeppelin can affect the sound, B & W includes an optional rubber mounting base that aligns the chassis so that the speakers aim directly forward. This features is designed to be used when the shelf or other mounting platform puts the Zeppelin close to ear level. The rubber base aligns the speakers directly with the ears. Without the base, the Zeppelin is angled to compensate for shelf mounting that is likely to be at lower-than-ear level. The Zeppelin needs a fairly stout placement location; it weights 16 pounds and is more than 25-inches wide.
I first mounted the Zeppelin on a low shelf in my listening room. The shelf was about 6-inches from the back wall and nearly four feet from the floor. The Zeppelin, without the optional base setup, allowed the speakers to fire up at me in my listening position — about 6 feet away.
Initially, I used a 4th generation, non-video iPod. It has an internal Wolfson DAC and is considered one of the best-sounding iPods. But after initially using the 4th Generation iPod, I soon found that its limited internal tone-control options, coupled with the lack of an external Zeppelin tone control, resulted in a heavy bass sound with Pop and Hip-Hop music. This characteristic was enhanced when placing the Zeppelin in a corner near a wall.
The nice folks at B & W reminded me that the Zeppelin manual recommends a 5th generation or newer iPod, which, when connected to the iPod, enables the Zeppelin’s “Speakers” setting. This iPod-to-Zeppelin communications protocol allows the dock’s EQ curve to be altered.
The setting is important; it allows the tone to be adjusted to tame room-affected, bass anomalies that can occur when placing speakers too close to a wall. The adjustments can reduce the boominess that can be further magnified by mid-bass heavy, Hip-Hop, Dance and other forms of Pop music.
B & W sent me the latest generation iPod to enable the tone-setting “Speakers” option. By adjusting its maximum bass-reduction setting, most of the overly heavy bass was gone. FYI, the “Speakers” mode setting — once adjusted through a 5th Generation or later iPod — does not change when switching to another iPod for playback.
I loaded a bunch of albums into the iPod at the 44.1 kHz AIFF mode (no compression, no MP3). I first selected the 2004 Avril Lavigne — Let’s Go album and hit play on the remote. This pop album has a number of musical elements, including prominent bass, edgy electric guitars and out-front percussion and acoustic guitar. The first thing I noticed was the nice projection of the treble and midrange — very detailed, and excellent stereo separation from a portable speaker dock. Drum cymbals sounded good and guitars were out front.
With the bass adjusted through Category A iPod, I found that the Zeppelin had pretty good bass for such small drivers. The lower limit was about 80 Hz, but it was ample enough for most of the Pop, Dance and Rap music that I tried.
Overall, Pop music sounded good through the Zeppelin, but I liked the Zeppelin even better with Jazz, Acoustic and Classical music. Country, Folk and Bluegrass had excellent definition and separation through the Zeppelin. One of my favorite sub-genres, jazz guitar, fared well through the Zeppelin. In particular, Wes Montgomery’s live album, Full House, and a couple of early Grant Green CDs that I transferred to the iPod, showcased the quality drivers B & W uses in the Zeppelin. Wes Montgomery’s warm-sounding, thumb-picking tone came across well through the B & W Zeppelin.
With acoustic material, the Zeppelin reminds me of the good old days in the 1970s when you listened to LPs thorough a receiver and a set of small Advent speakers. You knew it was not the most expensive system, but it was perfect for getting into the music when kicking back in the living room or bedroom. With the Zeppelin, the warm bass and midrange, indeed, makes it a seductive listening station.
Since I did not have a video iPod on hand, I did not sample video output, but I did try some Aux audio input sources, including a portable CD player analog output, a FLASH drive recorder/player with TOSlink digital output, and the digital output of my Apple MacBook Pro. They sounded as good as the iPod.
Although most high-resolution music fans would not listen to a SACD through an iPod dock, I tried it with the Zeppelin. Via the analog input, it performed admirably as a secondary amplification system with my Pioneer SACD player. In particular, Classical solo recordings of cello, piano and harp were quite good, considering the size of the speakers.
The B & W Zeppelin is a nice, upscale-looking companion for those who want a no-fuss, well-built, iPod audio playback system for their bedroom or small to medium listening room. The Zeppelin should relay audio playback that even an picky audiophile can enjoy. Since the Zeppelin has no adjustable tone controls, I strongly recommend you use a one of the newer iPods for its enhanced tone control software capability that enables the Zeppelin to be better “tuned” to your listening room.
Go to www.bowers-wilkins.com to get more information about the B and W Zeppelin.