Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air
AirPlay and beyond!
Ralph Graves is one of Crutchfield's blog editors, and part of the company's social media team. He writes about home audio/video gear, specializing in Apple-related and wireless technologies. Ralph holds a master's degree in music composition, and his works have been released on various labels. He's served as product manager for an independent classical and world music label, produced several recordings, and worked extensively in public broadcasting. Since 1984 he's hosted a weekly classical music program on WTJU, and is also active as a blogger and podcaster.
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Behold the Zeppelin Air
There are two important things Bowers & Wilkins wants you to know about the Zeppelin Air, their powered speaker system with Apple AirPlay® wireless streaming and iPod®/iPhone® dock:
- It has Apple AirPlay®
- It's substantially redesigned from the original Zeppelin to deliver even better sound.
Since I had done an in-depth review of the original Zeppelin, I was interested in testing the strength of that second claim when I took the Zeppelin Air home to try out.
It turned out to be true.
Some of the changes from the previous model Zeppelin weren't readily apparent. I couldn't really see the five speakers (two for each channel plus a woofer for the bass), through the black mesh speaker cloth, nor the amplifiers attached to each speaker to deliver more detailed sound.
I could, however, see two dimpled bass ports in the rear. According to Bowers & Wilkins, the dimples minimize air turbulence, as they do on a golf ball, to keep the bass clean. Well, it's one thing to read about this technology, but what really counts is the performance.
After trying out the Zeppelin Air for a while, I can say that I don't think B&W are exaggerating their claims.
As always, I played a wide variety of music through the Zeppelin Air, listening carefully to what was there — or not there — in the sound. The Zeppelin Air seemed to have much broader sound field than the original model (I made sure to place it in the same locations I did the Zeppelin). I also played many of the same tracks I auditioned through the original Zeppelin. For the most part, I also heard more detail in the music (more on that later).
Two ways to listen
As much as possible, I tried to listen to the same music from two different sources: from an iPod docked on the Zeppelin Air, and from my laptop's iTunes library streaming wirelessly to the speaker system using AirPlay. In both cases I primarily used Apple lossless files, and didn't hear any significant difference between the two sources. So my comments about the musical performance really applies to what I heard from both the docked player and the wireless computer connection.
If you're into a lot of bass-heavy music this system might not be your first choice. It's not that the bass was lacking with the Zeppelin Air. It just wasn't front and center in the mix. For some primarily acoustical genres of music, such as classical, Americana, or bluegrass, that's a good thing. But if you're into house music, trip hop, or industrial metal, then you probably won't experience the visceral feel of chest-pounding bass with the Zeppelin Air (at least, I didn't).
One other thing about the bass — because the ports are in the back, where the Zeppelin Air is placed makes a big difference. If it's on a coffee table, then most of the bass will be dispersed out the back into the room. If it's on a shelf close to a wall, then that that vertical surface will reflect the bass back into the room, making it sound stronger. Fortunately, Bowers & Wilkins is very much aware of this issue, and provides a separate setting so you can adjust the bass to better match the system's placement in the room. That way, if you want to put the thing on a pedestal (as they show in an add), you can adjust the EQ to compensate for the open-air placement.
Acoustic perfection (or a reasonable facsimile)
As I noted above, the Zeppelin Air did a slightly better job with acoustic than electronic genres. Classical music is one of the most difficult to reproduce accurately, as the extreme over- and under-tones generated by the instruments subtly color the sound. And if they're not there, the music can sound flat and unconvincing.
No problem with the Zeppelin Air.
The Endelion Quartet's performance of the Haydn "Lark" quartet sounded both warm and detailed. I could hear the initial scrapes of the bow on the strings in the quieter sections (just as I would hear in a live performance). Orchestral music fared well, too. One of my favorite test recordings — Gerard Schwartz and the Royal Liverpool's performance of Hovhaness' "Mysterious Mountain" — sounded appropriately spacious. Plus, I had no trouble following the individual lines of the work's double fugue. Whether it was a full orchestra, or a single lute (in this case, Ron McFarlane playing John Dowland), the instruments had a natural sound I was very happy with.
The Zeppelin did well with other acoustic music, too. I've been listening to a lot of Gibson Brothers tracks recently, and through the Zeppelin Air's speakers this bluegrass group had a warm sound that was in line with what I heard from the original CDs. The guitar and bass were a little softer, but the mandolin had enough treble to pierce through the mix without an unnatural edge (as it sometimes gets with entry-level docking speaker systems).
Rock and pop tracks sounded good, too. As mentioned earlier, even after adjusting the bass, it didn't hit quite as hard as I would have liked. Bootsy Collins seemed a little sedate on the Funkadelic tracks I played. Ditto for Too Many DJs. Their remixes often use compressed audio to begin with, so I wasn't expecting a lot of top end, but they really punch up the bass. There's no denying it was there — like its predecessor, the Zeppelin Air can still get a party started — but it seemed to be just a little lighter than what I remembered hearing listening to the CD.
Airplay setup — easier if you read the directions
A primary feature of the Zeppelin Air is its AirPlay compatibility (you can find out more about Apple's wireless technology in our Intro to Airplay). That meant I could wirelessly stream audio to the system from any device using iTunes 10 or later — like an iPod touch, iPhone, or (in my case) my laptop. Since I deal with a lot of wireless iPod-related devices, I was sure I could set up the Zeppelin Air without bothering with the instructions. All I had to do was power it up and my laptop would find it, right?
After powering up and down a few times, and even rebooting the computer, I admitted defeat and looked at the quickstart guide. There, with nice, big pictures, was the answer. The Zeppelin Air comes with an Ethernet cable. In order to get the system's address into my home network, I had to connect the Zeppelin Air to my laptop via that cable. Once I did, a window popped up and with a few clicks I completed the setup. If I had read the directions to begin with, I would have had things up and running a lot sooner (and understood what that cable was for).
AirPlay across the room
From that point on, I had no problems accessing the Zeppelin Air wirelessly through iTunes. With AirPlay, I found the Zeppelin Air in a drop-down menu in iTunes, and could select it as the speakers for the music I was playing (or I could make it one of the sources). I could control the volume either through my laptop, or with the Zeppelin Air's remote.
Because I prefer to save all my music in a lossless format, I don't actually store it on my laptop. I currently have a little over a terabyte (TB) of music (that's about 1,000 gigabytes) which is more than my computer could handle. So my library is stored on a 1.5TB drive connected to my Apple Airport Extreme router. The iTunes library directory resides on my laptop, but the files are stored on the external drive.
Follow the signal
So when I connected AirPlay, here's what was happening. I was selecting the destination for the music and setting the volume on my laptop. When I started the first track, the laptop sent the request to my external drive, which feed the audio file through the Airport Extreme to the laptop, which relayed it to the Zeppelin Air for playback.
Sound complicated? Perhaps. But here's all that friends who visited needed to know about it. They picked a track on my laptop, and the Zeppelin Air started playing. And it sounded great.
There was a brief pause when the connection was made for the first time between the Zeppelin Air and my laptop, but once the first track started, I didn't experience any delay in the music, even when I rapidly cycled through tracks. I could also control the whole system through the Zeppelin Air's remote. At one point, I sat in a chair in our family room, with the laptop on one side, the Zeppelin Air on the other, and the external drive and router on the far wall. I could see the iTunes display on my laptop from where I sat (I had made it full screen). From my chair I used the Zeppelin Air's remote to start the music, skip through tracks, and control the volume. That's what I want in a wireless system — convenience.
Beyond the basics
The cool thing about AirPlay is that it streams whatever audio iTunes is playing. So I could enjoy my podcasts through the Zeppelin Air, and — more importantly — the Internet radio stations I access through iTunes. A few of the Internet radio reviews I submitted were written while listening to the stations through the Zeppelin Air via AirPlay. Now that's using my time wisely.
Another nice feature is that I could have added more Zeppelin Airs to my wireless system and very quickly have whole-house audio. With AirPlay you can select and deselect all the connected speakers, so you can mix and match your outputs. And you can set the volume levels for each system individually, and then use the iTunes volume as a "master control." raising and lowering all the connected speakers' volumes proportionally.
The only thing you can't do is have different tracks playing in different rooms. With AirPlay, every connected device plays the same thing.
The Bottom Line
For me, there's no question that Bowers & Wilkins have made good on their claims. The Zeppelin Air does sound substantially better than the first-generation Zeppelin. And the added functionality of Apple AirPlay made it a definite asset in my wireless iTunes-centric home.
I wouldn't go so far as to suggest that folks should discard their component systems in favor of a Zeppelin Air. But if you're just getting into serious listening with your iTunes music, and don't already have an advanced audio playback system to do it justice, then a Zeppelin Air would be an excellent investment.