Review: B&W Zeppelin Air

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Review: B&W Zeppelin Air
Highlights
  • The Zeppelin Air boats of an innovative design, stellar sound quality and support for Apple's Airplay wireless technology, need we say more
Back in 2007 Bowers & Wilkins entered the consumer audio market with the MM-1 desktop speakers and quickly followed it up with the original Zeppelin. The Zeppelin was an unknown quantity when it was initially released because of its now trademark airship-like shape. With the Zeppelin B&W, did no harm to their reputation as the dock sounded like a million dollars and was relatively affordable considering the other products in the company portfolio. The Zeppelin Air pushes the envelope further as it adds Apple Airplay support and includes updated mid-range drivers and tweeters, along side a beefier sub-woofer. So is it worth the hype?


DESIGN

When we saw the Zeppelin initially, inventive was the word that came to mind. The simplest way to describe the product would be to compare it to an abnormally elongated egg. The same holds true for the Zeppelin Air as, looks-wise, nothing much has changed except the fact that the original chrome finish at the rear has been replaced by a more classy glossy black plastic finish.

All ports are housed in the rear. We get the standard auxiliary port, component ports and USB along side the new ethernet port for AirPlay and power port. As always, the dock connector is in the front. Keeping up-to-date with changes in mobile computing technology, the dock connector can support an iPad. Most probably, B&W reinforced the base of the dock connector making it more sturdy for iPad compatibility.

In keeping with the design of the dock, B&W also provides an egg-shaped remote control which, frankly, looks adorable. One gripe one may have with it is that the battery compartment of the remote is covered with rubber which can be quite a pain to attach.

Build quality is exemplary even by B&W standards, with the Zeppelin being constructed of a mesh like fabric and having a rock sold plastic covering in the rear. When paying in excess of Rs 40000 for an iPod dock, quality is what is expected and that is exactly what we get. In comparison to the slightly cheaper Bose and JBL offerings, the build quality is light years ahead and we are guessing that is a tradeoff most will be willing to swallow considering the amount of money being invested.

SOUND QUALITY

The original from 2007 wowed people with its sound quality, a fact that doesn't surprise given that B&W has always had a penchant for superb sound quality. One has to just listen to all the old Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and the Who records as most of them were mastered with the help of B&W monitors placed in London's legendary Abbey Road Studios. As a matter of fact, some of the vintage B&W equipment is still used there. We are talking about some of the most iconic albums in music history here. So, could a relatively inexpensive B&W system sound poor? The answer to that would be no.

The Zeppelin Air is a modern B&W marvel, it incorporates the best sonic technologies developed by the company in their iconic Nautilus line of speakers and combines them with mid-range drivers and tweeters used in their award winning MM-1 desktop speakers. We also get the same DSP sound processing found in the MM-1 which converts to superior sound quality if one  bypasses the PC sound card and takes the sound output directly through USB.

While all the tech jargon is alright, the big question is - how does it sound? To put it simply, it is the best sounding iPod dock south of Rs 50k, which is a massive category as we have more than 50 products in the under Rs 50,000 range. In many cases it outclasses docks which are must more expensive  - for instance, the Bang & Olusen BeoSound 8 which will set you back by Rs 85,000.

Overall, the sound does have remnants of dynamic compression but acoustically the Zeppelin Air delivers a hair raising sonic quality which one has become accustomed to with B&W audio gear.

The sound is very open and warm, which cannot be said about the much more expensive Bang & Olufsen BeoSound 8 or the Bose Soundock.

We tested multiple tracks on the Zeppelin Air, covering a plethora of genres. From the brash sonic boom of progressive metal of Tool to the silky suave blues licks of the late great Stevie Ray Vaughn, the Zeppelin conquered a sonic stratosphere only known to audiophiles. All tracks were 320KBPS MP3's and the same files were used for Airplay tests too.

Drums thudded, cymbals blasted and distorted guitars roared on the machine gun riff of Tool's oddly timed Jambi. Interestingly, the guitars maintained the machine gun rhythm interplay of Adam Jone's Les Paul and Danny Carey's drums without sounding overly muddy and providing adequate clarity allowing us to hear every nuance of the flanging and echo effects used by the band. The key here was the ambient reverb which was audible and made the song come alive. Even the pinch harmonics used sat well in the mix and never gave us an ear piercing squeal which can often happen with sound docks.

Next in line was our personal favorite, the '80s classic Sweet Child O' Mine. Here, the sound of the main riff is always the key and, thanks to our good fortune, Slash's Les Paul never sounded sweeter with all the harmonic overtones singing. The midrange was beautifully balanced with all the natural harmonics of the distorted neck-pickup popping in the mix. The treble response was equally impressive and Axl Rose's husky wail never caused our ears any discomfort. The same held true for the lightning fast Wah-Wah laced guitar solo. Most impressive was the bass response, as normally in most hard rock songs we hear the guitars, the drums and the vocals, but the bass gets lost in the mix.

A constant oddity with most speakers is that they perform well with newer music but struggle with music from the '60s - basically, we mean mono recordings. So we had to check out some Jimi Hendrix style psychedelia. In our experience, the fuzz laden tone of Hendrix's albums is the ultimate litmus test for the mid-range of a speaker. Zeppelin was proficient at what ever we threw at it, be it the univibe laced fuzz of his Fender Stratocaster on Purple Haze or the Wah-Wah pyrotechnics on Voodoo Childe. The Zeppelin conquered. We believe this happened due to the newly redesigned mid-range drivers and tweeters as the old Zeppelin did not reproduce audio with such detail.

Impressive as this was, we found that the real forte of the Zeppelin lies in reproducing acoustic music. On the 12-string reverberating bliss called Stairway to Heaven, the nuances of guitar slide, subtle chord changes, hammer-ons and pull-offs, all came forth with a magnificence only seen before in high quality studio monitors. This was quite amazing.

Even for hardcore Texas blues. the Zeppelin was astoundingly competent. The percussive rhythms, the baritone vocal style of Stevie Ray Vaughn and the  throaty overdriven Stratocaster were all omnipresent in the mix. Actually, the most satisfying bit was the throaty tone on the solo on Life Without You. Luthiers will tell you that the single coil tone is the most dynamically complex but this complexity is often missing on sound systems, leave alone iPod Docks.

Overall, we were very satisfied with the performance of the Zeppelin Air but, if we were to get really picky, then we would say it could offer better stereo imaging although, as a rule, iPod docks are limited in this aspect due to their general design.

AIRPLAY

One of the more hyped features of the Zeppelin Air is the Airplay functionality giving it the 'Air' moniker. For starters, Airplay is Apple's wireless technology which allows streaming of music via Wi-Fi. Airplay automatically converts your music to Apple-Lossless while streaming but this will never result in any audio quality gains. The most impressive thing about Airplay has to be the potential for wireless playback which is extremely convenientand it even works with other iOS based hardware. While the audio may not be as crisp and clear as a direct wired or docked connection, the quality loss in Airplay is quite minimal. So minimal that the layman will not even identify the difference, only audiophiles will - but, then again, audiophiles flinch at the thought of wireless sound. 

When it works Airplay is a delight, but when it does not it is a pain in the neck. We noticed some minor lags in changing songs or changing volume levels but these issues are very trivial. The major issue with Airplay, at the moment, is that it is only as good as one's wi-fi signal. The moment you have issues with your signal you have issues with your audio which is quite a turn-off.

VERDICT

At present, the B&W Zeppelin Air is the reigning king of all iPod docks at present. With the Zeppelin Air, British audio alchemists have managed to enhance an already sublime product. Apart from the upgraded internals and better sound quality, B&W provides AirPlay which is a nifty little addition making it more iOS friendly. We can even connect it to our TV and use it as a sound-bar. The only thing stopping one from buying this dock would be it ultra high price tag of Rs 48,000.

PRICE
Rs 48,000
 
Pros

Stellar Sound Quality
AirPlay
Inventive Design

Cons
Price
Overwhelming Bass
 
RATINGS:

Value:3
Design:4.5
Sound Quality:4.5
Wow Factor:5
 
product The Zeppelin Air boats of an innovative design, stellar sound quality and support for Apple's Airplay wireless technology, need we say more
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Further reading: Airplay, Apple, Zeppelin Air
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