REVIEW: Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Wireless
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The history of Bowers & Wilkins is well known. But, if you’re buying into a wireless speaker for the first time, you may not have heard of them.
Beginning as a radio and electronics shop in a large seaside town in England, known as Worthing, company founders, John Bowers and Roy Wilkins, met whilst serving in the Royal Corps of Signals during World War II. When the shop began supplying public address equipment to schools and churches in Sussex, Bowers became increasingly involved in the design and assembly of loudspeakers. This eventually led to the setting up of a small production line behind the store - the remnants of which are still visible in that backyard to this day.
While mostly known for their HiFi and Home theatre loudspeakers, in 2006, they delved into the iPod-friendly market with the original Zeppelin speaker. Having a dock to insert the iPod was received warmly by a market that was falling in love with Apple’s new vision for portable audio. Following this success, shortly after they followed with the Zeppelin Mini in 2009, and the Zeppelin Air in 2011. This new audio category was here to stay.
Bluetooth speakers aren’t exactly new to the market, but they have seen a surge in popularity in recent years. Smartphones are more common right now than ever, and Bluetooth speakers provide easy access to decent audio volume without ever worrying about cables or adapters.B&W have taken this ease-of-use concept and have expanded upon it - by not only using Bluetooth, but by adding Wi-Fi connectivity as well.
Not surprisingly the latest Zeppelin has been stripped of its iPod dock and despite this, the new Zeppelin Wireless is now more technically advanced than ever. Can a unit packed with this much modern tech give justice to the Bowers and Wilkins name?
The unit weighs 6.5kg and is not small, coming in at 660mm wide, 183mm deep and 188mm high. It’s a far cry from being a portable unit and it’s not supposed to be. It does not have battery power. It is however considerably smaller than some of the other all-in-one solutions, such as the Bang and Olufsen BeoPlay A9.
“Zeppelin” is an appropriate name for this device, considering its interesting football-style shape. It has a soft cloth front, which takes up a good portion of the device.
The rear is a high-quality plastic. There are three buttons across the top: Volume down, volume up, and a play/pause. Sources can be selected via touch buttons located either side of the Bowers & Wilkins logo at the bottom. The rear of the base neatly hides the not-so-wireless options - Ethernet, 3.5mm auxillary, and a “service only” USB port.
The top buttons are positioned in an obvious and easy to reach spot, and have a shallow travel with a solid click. The touch buttons underneath are not in the most immediately intuitive position, but work nonetheless and also help to keep a very slim profile on the unit.
The soft cloth front does not seem to be removable - a shame, as it is a little bit of a dust trap, and we would love to see what the drivers look like underneath.
We were impressed with the build of this unit and typical of Bowers & Wilkins, no shortcuts were taken with the design. It’s available in Black or White, and an optional wall bracket is also available.
The soft-cloth exterior hides a total of five drivers underneath.
To produce the bass frequencies there is a 150mm subwoofer with a long throw voice coil. While sitting neatly either side of the subwoofer, are two 90mm midrange fixed suspension transducer drivers. At the wings are 25mm double-dome tweeters. For every driver, there is an individual bespoke Class D amplifier delivering power. Five in total. Paired with B&W’s latest DSP offerings, this unit has more than enough drive for a domestic environment. For connectivity, the Zeppelin Wireless takes advantage of Bluetooth aptX, as well as 802.11 a/b/g/n wireless, which is plenty for its considered use.
During our testing, we never found these options to be lacking, no matter which source device we used.
Software and setup
Bluetooth pairing is as simple as it gets and we had no issues establishing a connection with our smartphones or PC.
Pairing without NFC does feel a little more complicated than it needs to be, but we are happy to forgive this considering the myriad of connection options offered.
Upon switching the unit on and loading up the PC software, the user is given some very clear instructions about hooking it all up.
The Zeppelin will connect to your router via Wi-Fi - much like your PC, smartphone or tablet would. Once this initial set up is complete, it can then be plugged into any power outlet around your house assuming it’s within range of your wireless network. It will register on the network automatically when powered on again.
“Why would a speaker need Wi-Fi?” we hear you asking. Well, it might seem like a confusing concept at first, but this key feature is what turns the Zeppelin Wireless from being just another speaker into being a companion for your home.
When the Zeppelin is powered on, it is discoverable to all iOS devices via Airplay, which means that any iPhone can stream music or video audio to the device merely by being on the same WiFi network. No “discovering” or “pairing” required. Similarly, any device with Spotify installed will be greeted with a notification indicating that the Zeppelin is available for playback.
We installed Spotify on the Google Pixel smartphone, an iPhone, a PC, even gaming consoles. Every single one of these devices could detect and stream to the Zeppelin instantly purely by being on the same Wi-Fi network. Clever stuff, incredibly well executed, and intuitive by design.
It’s also worth noting that due to how this connectivity works, phone calls do not interrupt the streaming. This alone gives it a huge leg-up over Bluetooth pairing.
The Zeppelin is much more than just a speaker system, HiFi system or “just another Bluetooth speaker”. This introduces a whole new level of interactivity into daily life that anyone can enjoy, and not just audio enthusiasts.
In what I regard as the ultimate test, whilst I had the Zeppelin installed at home, my Fiancé learned to use it very quickly and easily. The downside? I almost had to “book in” time to use it critically and complete the review. From either her iPhone, iPad or computer, all she had to do was fire up
Spotify, and music would be playing out of the Zeppelin.
All listening tests were completed using Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and the hard-cabled capabilities of the device. We used a variety of Spotify Premium (320 kbps Ogg-Vorbis) tracks, as well some FLAC and miscellaneous MP3 files.
We tried the speaker in a variety of listening positions. Placement is always crucial in achieving the desired sound from a cabinet, but in the case of the Zeppelin, no immediately obvious position seemed to be the best choice. It’s obviously quite forgiving when it comes to placement but when it is in the sweet spot, it disappears, becomes transparent and projects a sound much bigger than itself.
Listening up close, a distance of around 1 meter or less, the sound is a little thin. Stand back however or sit in a more realistic listening position and the sound opens right up.
The amount of bass is quite surprising from what is just a 150mm driver. Despite not having a great deal of cabinet volume to work with, it seems that the Zeppelin has a well-enough tuned enclosure as to not get too lumpy in the lower frequency response. There’s plenty of emphasis around the 80hz- 150hz which gives a bit of oomph and power to basslines and kicks.
As the volume rises, there is never a feeling of hesitation or distortion from the woofer. The active digital signal processing does a wonderful job in tuning the bass to ensure that it can be kept loud and thumping, should the source material require it.
Realistically, with a bass driver of this size, the house won’t be rattling and shaking. However, given the amount of headroom provided by the Zeppelin it will still give your neighbours an easy ticket to submit noise complaints.
Despite the walloping bass, the midrange does manage to shine through. The mids have a warm and coloured signature, so don’t expect studio monitor flat response here. Details are easily retrieved when either listening at a comfortable level, or when letting the unit thump away.
Vocals and acoustic music are reproduced easily, with satisfying detail and realism.
The angle of the drivers gives a surprisingly expansive impression of soundstage, too. It’s not as wide as having two individual speaker cabinets as you would expect. But from one single unit, there’s some clever driver mounting and DSP magic going on which gives impressive width and depth to the sound.
Having the tweeters flank either side of the unit helps the perceived soundstage to be wider than the unit itself, while also allowing the sound to image correctly.
Depending on source track and volume, the highs get a little bitey at times, but overall the response is palatable, considering the size of the unit.
The sheer volume available is far louder than would ever likely be required in a domestic environment. The DSP actively alters the sound signature as the volume increases. For example, it won’t push the bass too hard at full volume, and avoids driver distortion at all possible volume levels. A truly impressive feat of programming and engineering.
Despite its smaller size, and “all-in-one” style enclosure, it’s far from being a portable unit. It’s a heavy and bulky unit, which carries no battery. It’s designed to sit atop a sideboard, kitchen bench or bookshelf, semi-permanently.
We also had a few issues when making connectivity changes after the initial setup. When pairing to multiple devices, or changing Wi-Fi networks, it proved to be a little challenging for the software on the unit.
Lastly, the lack of NFC pairing for a product in this price range is a little disappointing but the wireless connectivity makes up for this.
With its detailed and warm signature, the Zeppelin Wireless is not just a great unit for casually enjoying music, but it’s also a companion for any family home as well.
Excellent connectivity options mean that anyone can use and enjoy this unit - not just the audio enthusiasts in the house.
The Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Wireless is available now for $999.95 RRP.
Bowers & Wilkins is distributed in Australia by Convoy International.
Constantly keeping himself busy, Matthew is a production manager, Brazilian jiu-jitsu blue belt, Head-Fi fanatic, coffee enthusiast and all-round cool Dad.