by John Gatski
When it comes to iPod-class audio products I am very picky in what I review on this site, I have turned down numerous low-quality products (not always cheap in price), due to their audio mediocrity or worse.
But I have reviewed some, and the list includes the three products I picked for this roundup. They are good performers in their respective product classes and not so overly expensive to be out of a potential customer price range.
Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Mini ($299 retail)
The original B & W Zeppelin is a good-sounding, nicely built, portable iPod mini-stereo system that quite a bit more expensive than a typical iPod boom box. The Zeppelin Mini, however, is perfectly positioned for iPod audio playback in a compact package. It is about $300 bucks on the street, is small enough for placement nearly any where and it sounds great!!!!!!
The Zeppelin Mini is built in a compact, easily placed, 12-inches wide by 4-inches deep footprint, containing two 3-inch full range drivers. The bass is enhanced and reinforced through cabinet porting.
The unit cranks out enough peak power for most volume requirements (15 watts) from a digital amplifier that gets its juice from a 16V DC line lump power supply. Connections include the 30-pin iPod mount/arm, a 3.5-inch stereo mini-jack for connecting other analog sources (portable CD player, computer, etc.), and a USB 2.0 input for streaming audio via Mac/PC. The USB port also allows synchronization and software updates duties. The USB input can take 24-bit 96 kHz sample rate music streaming from iTunes and play it back, though it is bit reduced and sample rate converted.
Overall, the Zeppelin Mini is what a boom box style iPod-stereo should be — good sound, enough features to accommodate your setup and compact enough to stuff anywhere in small room.
The arm that holds the iPod can rotate to accommodate the iPod touches, various Nanos or and classic-sized iPods. With an iPod attached, the package excludes a modern, classy look. The remote includes power, volume up and down and track back or forward and pause buttons. It does not, however, allow you to maneuver within an iPods playlist.
I loaded up a 2009 iPod Nano with 44.1 kHz AIFF files and placed the Zeppelin Mini on a nightstand beside my bed. With jazz and classical, pop, acoustic music the Zeppelin Mini projected a nice balanced tonal spectrum with just a hint of warm bass — even in the room corner. The big brother Zeppelin has a lot of mid-bass energy that that needs to be EQ’d in my room. Not the Zeppelin Mini, as they say in Goldilocks, its bass is “just right.”
I streamed audio from my Macbook Pro, including some 24/96 tracks that I downloaded from HD Tracks. According to my Macbook Pro’s Audio/Midi settings the Zeppelin Mini is a 16-bit/48 kHz playback device so you will not get full 24-bit audio playback from the streaming; it still sounds pretty darn good.
Overall, the Zeppelin Mini is what a boom box style iPod-stereo should be — good sound, enough features to accommodate your setup and compact enough to stuff anywhere in small room. As a secondary or even a primary playback system, I love the Zeppelin Mini. I even bought one. It gets the Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award.
iPort FS21 iPod Dock ($250 retail)
What if you already have a nice stereo or an audiophile system, and you just want interface with your iPod? There are lots of iPod docks, but many of them are cheap, and their iPod-transferred analog output is not so good.
The iPort FS21 is one of the good ones. This basic iPod dock sports a cradle to accommodate about any iPod, and it can be operated with an optional remote control. A USB 2.0 port top allow software upgrades from your PC or Mac. The FS21 also keeps your electrically hungry iPod at full charge — via its internal charging circuit.
If you want a quality, basic iPod dock that befits your nice stereo components, the iPort is highly recommended — with a Stellar Sound Award.
Its connection list is impressive and includes component video output (via a min-jack-to-component cable) to feed to your TV; the 3.5-inch stereo mini-jack output feeds analog signals to your favorite audio system through a an included RCA output adapter cable. S-VHS/composite video-to-mini-jack cable and a balanced stereo audio connector cable are available as options, as is the the $60 remote control! Huh? At $175 on the street, the I believe remote should be included. But luckily, a good universal remote, which you likely already own, can be programmed to work with the iPort.
The iPort worked perfectly in my test with my 2009 Nano and a 2004 80GB iPod. I did not receive the remote option for the test, so I adjusted the audio and video features via the iPod. I fed video to my Sony LCD, and it looked quite sharp for the image being so large on the 52-inch screen.
Audio quality was as good as the source iPod, which is the way the iPort is designed. It is merely acting as the middle man here, allowing the analog audio output from the iPod to be relayed as is.
The iPort FS21 costs more than the super-cheap iPod docks, but it is a better quality unit and should hold up for years. If you want a quality, basic iPod dock that befits your nice stereo components, the iPort is highly recommended — with a Stellar Sound Award. They just need to throw in the remote. The company also offers upgraded models with more bells and whistles — and compatibility with iPads.
P5 Headphones ($399 retail)
What if you don’t want to listen to your iPod on speakers; maybe you are a headphone kind of guy or gal. B & W recently introduced its P5 Series headphone for serious iPod listeners or hi-fi buffs.
The $399 retail, well-built headphone sports a number of nifty features, including New Zealand sheepskin leather ear pads (replaceable) and headband, magnet-attached ear pads, and mylar drivers with neodymium magnets. It also includes a nifty remote/mic features that allows using it as a talk/monitor system for your iPhone.
The closed-back design isolates the sound from the background noise, so it suits plane travel. And the most important part — it sounds good. Many of headphones available today, low-cost or expensive, are voiced with a varying degrees of sonic color. Overextended mid-bass and low-treble spectrums make for a boomy and harsh top-end that is fatiguing.
Overall, the P5 tends toward the warm and smooth side of sonic spectrum with slightly reserved transient response that makes it ideal for the various qualities of personal audio gear playback quality (MP3, etc.)
The P5 is voiced more neutral, It has just a bit of bass enhancement and none of the overly hyped upper-spectrum audio; more balanced — less hype. Reminds of the old Koss headphones from the 1970s.
I played music from my Nano iPod, an iPod Classic, a portable Sony CD plater (remember those), and my $2,000 Sony PCM-D1 high-resolution flash recorder/player. Jazz and classical musical sounded balanced with just enough bass; classical violins did not exhibit the screech you often hear through modern headphones made for portable electronics.
On the Sony PCM-D1, my own home brew 24/96 Martin acoustic guitar recordings sounded pretty darn natural. I also enjoyed the 24-bit/44.1 kHz playback of the recent Beatles re-releases; “Hey Jude” sounded really good through the P5.
Overall, the P5 tends toward the warm and smooth side of sonic spectrum with slightly reserved transient response that makes it ideal for the various qualities of personal audio gear playback quality (MP3, etc.) I downloaded an old Neil Diamond live recording from 1970 that was way more listenable on the P5 than my big expensive AKGs.
The factory spec show a good sensitivity and power handling. The 10 Hz frequency extension claim is amusing considering the size of the drivers, but there is reasonable bass at 50-60 Hz without the big 100 Hz+ bump that is typical in phones these days.
The P5 ergonomics are nice they are really comfortable and easy to adjust. If you want to switch from the 3.5-inch mini-jack to the smaller 2.5-inch airplane mini-jack, just pull off the left-side, magnet-attached ear pad and swap cables. A 1/8th-inch to 1/4-inch adapter and extra cable are also included. My only complaint is that the cable is really small gauge; At the P5‘s price point, I would think you get slightly larger wire.
The B and W P5 is not inexpensive, but it is not overly pricey for its build and sound reproduction. If you want to move up to a serious headphone for quality iPod or audio component listening, the P5 is recommended. It receives a Stellar Sound Award, too!