B&W remains the king of all Apple-centric audio devices
The iconic Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin hit the market in late 2007 and instantly established the high-water market for iOS speaker docks, both in terms of price and performance. B&W has now bested itself with the all-new Zeppelin Air, which adds wireless audio streaming, a beefier amplifier, better drivers, and more without adding a dime to the price tag.
The Air in the new Zeppelin’s name springs from its support for Apple’s AirPlay technology and it might be the first non-Apple product to use it. The new Zeppelin retains its iPod dock (more on this in a moment), but you can also stream music wirelessly either from any late-model iOS device or from your iTunes library on your computer or server using your existing wireless router (provided the router is configured to allow 802.11g clients). Install Apple’s new Remote app on your iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad and you have a very good remote control for the system.
B&W's Zeppelin Air is an exquisite iPod dock and music streamer.
You can also set up a multi-room audio system by placing additional Zeppelin Airs in other rooms inside your home. But the Zeppelin Air/Apple AirPlay combo is no Sonos killer: First and foremost, if you’re streaming music from a single iTunes library, every Zepp must play the same song. Second, if you’re wirelessly streaming music from your iOS device, that stream can be directed to only one Zeppelin Air. And third, since AirPlay relies on your existing wireless router, other traffic on your wireless network—especially video streams—can limit the number music streams in flight (although AirPlay can use wired network connections, too, which would eliminate this limitation). We also prefer the manner in which the Sonos remote control allows us to manage that system’s song queue (we’ve yet to find a better solution for creating and manipulating playlists on the fly). These are all limitations imposed by Apple’s Technology, not B&W’s, and none of them make the Zeppelin Air sound any less glorious.
The most important of the Zeppelin Air’s many design improvements is the manner in which it interfaces with the iPod: The dock on the new model taps the iPod’s digital audio output (carried on one of the pins inside the iPod’s docking port). B&W’s engineers not only put a high-end digital-to-analog converter (an Analog Devices’ AD1936) inside the new speaker, they also plopped an Analog Devices’ ADAU1445 sample-rate converter and digital signal processor in the signal path. The sample-rate converter element inside theADAU1445 upsamples the bitstream to 24-bit resolution and a 96kHz sampling rate and then passes the signal on to its DSP element, where it’s massaged with a custom algorithm. (B&W didn’t reveal any details about what its DSP algorithm does to the bit stream before it’s passed on to the DAC for conversion to analog.) The first-gen Zeppelin also had a DSP and a DAC, but it relied on the iPod’s analog audio output. This new design choice renders the new speaker dock incompatible with older iPods that don’t have digital audio outputs, but that’s a trade-off we’re perfectly happy with.
The Zeppelin Air utilizes a high-end sample-rate converter/DSP and a top-shelf DAC.
If you’d like to use the Zeppelin Air as a computer speaker, simply connect it to your PC’s or Mac’s USB port and it will function as a USB audio device. If you’d like to use it with a digital media player other than an iPod (or with an older-generation iPod that doesn’t have a digital output), plug the device into the Zeppelin’s aux input (this input can accept either an analog mini-jack plug or a digital mini TosLink plug). The Zeppelin Air’s remaining I/O ports are Ethernet, composite video out (for docked iPod’s only—you can’t stream video to the speaker dock), and AC power.
In addition to the new silicon, the Zeppelin Air is outfitted with new one-inch Nautilus tube tweeters (the same drivers used in B&W’s astounding MM-1 computer speakers, a pair of newly designed 3.5-inch mid-range drivers (placed further out to the sides of the enclosure to improve stereo imaging), and a five-inch woofer. Where a single 100-watt amp drove all the speakers in the first Zeppelin, the Zepplelin Air features five discrete Class D amplifiers that deliver 50 watts to the woofer and 25 watts to each of the other drivers. The enclosure retains the same unconventional look as the original, but this model is fabricated from a glass-fiber composite material (the original was formed from polycarbonate ABS).
We’re not big iTunes fans, but the Zeppelin Air is intimately tied to that software. And while it annoys us to no end that Apple refuses to support our favorite lossless codec, FLAC, we re-ripped a number of favorite CDs and encoded them using Apple Lossless before loading them onto an iPod Touch and iTunes running on a MacBook Pro for our listening tests. B&W tells us that no matter which other codec you choose for your music, AirPlay will convert it to Apple Lossless on the fly before sending it over the network.
The original Zeppelin sounds fantastic, but the Zeppelin Air sounds even better. After performing blind listening tests comparing the sound quality of a docked iPod Touch to the same song (Steely Dan’s “What a Shame About Me,” from the band’s Two Against Nature CD) streamed over our wireless network, we began to wonder if AirPlay was compressing the audio before streaming it. High-frequency sounds, such as the drummer’s high-hat cymbal and certain guitar strokes, just didn’t have quite the same sizzle. The discrepancy was extremely subtle and we would never have noticed it if we hadn’t been listening so carefully. When we queried B&W about this, they informed us of the aforementioned Apple Lossless conversion and suggested that the degradation we detected might actually be the result of jitter (timing errors) in the wireless transmission.
The Zeppelin Air had absolutely no problem filling our 247-square-foot home theater with sound; in fact, several people came into the room thinking they were hearing the B&W CM8 tower speakers and PV1 subwoofer we featured in the January/February issue of Maximum Tech. The five-inch woofer rendered the honk of Doc Kupka’s bari sax in Tower of Power’s “Squib Cakes” (from their Back to Oakland CD) so fat it was almost lewd, while the mid-ranges and tweeters enabled us to hear every crack, splash, and stroke of Dave Garibaldi’s incredible drumming work.
The Zeppelin Air isn’t a great choice for a multi-room audio system, unless you’re satisfied with playing the same song in every room of your house (even if you have a multitude of iOS devices and/or computers with iTunes libraries, there’s no way to control all of them using a single device), and we don’t like being limited to Apple Lossless as our only high-end codec. The $600 price tag puts this high-flying device out of many people’s reach; but if you’re an Apple fan, the Zeppelin Air is one of best audio systems you can buy.