Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Wireless Speaker Review
Iconic rocker or load of hot air?
What is the Zeppelin Wireless?It seems hard to imagine now but in 2008 when Bowers & Wilkins launched the original Zeppelin there was an element of risk to them doing so. As one of the very few audio brands with a level of recognition outside of the industry, taking that brand name and attaching it to something decidedly different to the speakers that had given them their reputation, could have been a step too far. When the distinctly radical shape was taken into account, the Zeppelin was a bold move. That it launched to universal acclaim and has gone on to considerable success in revised versions has left us familiar with the shape but it was a bit of a departure nonetheless.
The original Zeppelin launched as an iPod dock and it is worth bearing in mind that since 2008, the nature of how we use these speakers has changed considerably. The idea of physically attaching players to speakers to make them work seems slightly old fashioned now. The evolution from the original Zeppelin to Zeppelin Air, saw Bowers & Wilkins add AirPlay to the product but keep the dock connection, albeit with a Lightning connector. Since the Zeppelin launched in 2008, every competing product has fallen by the wayside and been replaced by something different.
This makes the Zeppelin Wireless an interesting proposition. This is the first Zeppelin to dispense with the docking connection and rely exclusively on wireless connectivity. Bowers & Wilkins has been hard at work evolving their baby but can one of the original all in one speakers still hold its own against the tidal wave of new competition?
DesignThe Zeppelin Wireless is in essence a five way speaker system that uses a quintet of class D amplifiers controlled by an on board DSP. In keeping with a number of products we have seen recently, the Zeppelin Wireless uses a pair of 25mm tweeters and 90mm midbass drivers to work in stereo and then underpins this with a single 150mm driver mounted centrally to give the Zeppelin Wireless meaningful bass response. Although the appearance of the Bowers & Wilkins might suggest that there is an element of the omnidirectional to the driver arrangement, the Zeppelin mounts all five drivers in a forward facing configuration.
The drivers themselves are not the trademark kevlar weave that Bowers & Wilkins is renowned for, but there is a fair amount of technology involved. One piece of technology that has made the transition is what Bowers & Wilkins called 'Fixed Suspension Technology (FST). This is a driver mounting that replaces a conventional surround to reduce the adverse effect of the driver interacting with the coil and mount and ensures that maximum energy is radiated out by the driver and not lost back into the mounting. This reduces the travel of the driver but ensures that all the movement it is applying is all signal and no noise. This does mean that the 150mm driver doesn't use the technology as it needs to be able to achieve greater driver excursion.
The Zeppelin Wireless uses a total of 150 watts of class D amplification for the drivers- 25 watts for each tweeter and midrange and 50 for the sub. As you might expect, the use of class D ensures that the Zeppelin is energy efficient and cool to the touch. The amps themselves are controlled by a DSP system that allows for the drivers to work as effectively as possible in the chassis.
The chassis itself is visibly a Zeppelin but internally, it has been revised for this latest version. The thickness has been increased to improve the rigidity and dampening of the unit as a whole. A major difference between the Zeppelin Wireless and older versions is that the rear bass ports have been omitted with this model operating as a sealed unit. Doing so should address a concern directed at older models that saw them work at their best when some distance away from walls.
Aesthetically, the removal of the iPod dock has ensured that the Zeppelin Wireless is the 'cleanest' of the models in terms of styling. This ensures that the Bowers & Wilkins does look more like its namesake than any of its predecessors (although if we're going into technicalities here, the form factor of the 'Zeppelin' is much more in keeping with that of Henri Giffard's steam powered dirigible of 1852 but I can't see 'Bowers & Wilkins Giffard' achieving the same traction in marketing terms). There is less chrome and brightwork on this model than before which means that the Zeppelin can come across as a little oppressive but the build quality of the unit is extremely good. Like a number of rivals, the Zeppelin is reliant on a single multicolour LED to tell you what the unit is up to but given that it'll either make noise or it won't, it isn't too hard to work out what is going on.
Like its predecessor, the Zeppelin Wireless offers AirPlay but adds Spotify Connect and Bluetooth support. As you might expect from a premium level product such as this, the Bluetooth functionality includes Apt-X for the ability to work at lossless rates. Bowers & Wilkins has additionally fitted a legacy 3.5mm input on the rear panel if parting with your iPod Classic is a bit too much to ask. What you don't get with the Zeppelin Wireless that quite a few competitors now offer is UPnP. If you fire up a third party app like Bubble, you can see the Zeppelin as a renderer but it won't play any material. If you are adding the Bowers & Wilkins to a household already using UPnP that is a shame but not too much of a problem otherwise. Again, even though it is technically now a music streaming device, rather than a dock, it has no UPnP networking capabilities.
Zeppelin Wireless positives.Bowers & Wilkins knows how to make a product feel desirable. From the well laid out packaging to the feel of the three 'hard' controls on the top of the Zeppelin, everything here feels considered and high quality. The setup procedure is a breeze and the time between opening the box and getting sound out of it should not be more than ten minutes. With 150 watts on tap, it is unlikely to struggle in most normal domestic situations and the removal of the rear bass ports adds to the flexibility too. This is not a cheap product but you can feel where the money has gone.
The setup procedure is a breeze and the time between opening the box and getting sound out of it should not be more than ten minutes
Zeppelin Wireless negativesThe design of all iterations of the Zeppelin have been striking and effective at catching the eye but the Wireless like the models before is not the most space efficient piece of kit available. The footprint of the design- the physical part that makes contact with whatever you have placed it on- is not especially large but the overhangs on either side ensure that the Zeppelin takes up a lot of shelf space. Beyond this, there are some quirks in keeping with other speakers of this type. As the Zeppelin Wireless has no remote, volume adjustment is dependent on the connected device leaving it vulnerable to rather large step adjustments. At £500, the Zeppelin is also close to products that offer network audio too- the new Sonos Play 5 at an extra £50 stands out as a clear rival.
How was the Zeppelin Wireless tested?The Bowers & Wilkins was placed on my home network wirelessly via the iOS app setup procedure. My iPad 3 was used to run the app and for AirPlay testing while my Motorola Moto X was used for Bluetooth testing as it is Apt-X capable. Material used included Spotify via Connect and AirPlay and Tidal via Bluetooth. Some listening to compressed material like the AVForums podcast and TuneIn radio was also undertaken.
Sound QualityBefore you start listening, the Zeppelin shows some positive characteristics that suggest that Bowers & Wilkins has moved comfortably into a world beyond Apple products. As you might expect, AirPlay works brilliantly but the Spotify Connect and Bluetooth functionality also feels slick and well implemented. The Bluetooth in particular is stable, has extremely long range and sounds completely imperceptible from AirPlay.
The presentation of the Zeppelin is distinctive and largely very appealing. There are some similarities with what the Naim Mu-so does. The Zeppelin spends much of it time sounding impossibly big for a device with the dimensions it has. The DSP conspires to give the Bowers & Wilkins a scale and impact that are genuinely beyond a number of devices of this size. From a purist perspective, this scale seems a little artificial but equally it is impossible to state which part of the sound is actually the unnatural bit.
As such, with the pounding low end and electronic rumbling of Aquaria by BOOTS, the Zeppelin sounds immensely competent. There is meaningful bass extension and impact while vocals are clear and well defined. As a single point source, the Zeppelin is never going to give you a vast stereo image but equally it manages to sound more than a simple mono speaker. When you select something more obviously 'hi-fi' like the new St Germain album, the Zeppelin has real presence and tonal realism and partners this to a far greater sense of left/right separation and something that is much more obviously a soundstage.
This sense of scale is almost perfectly achieved but there is a very slight thickness to the lower midrange that stands out in what is otherwise a very clear and open presentation. The Bowers & Wilkins can sound unnaturally weighty where the music in question should not have roughly the same level of bass depth as outright bass. This is presumably a slight quirk of the DSP and it is the sort of thing that really stands out if you are listening to the Zeppelin alongside a more conventional amp and speaker combination.
If you switch to compressed material, this starts to make a little more sense. The Zeppelin is a tremendously effective way of making Spotify sound bigger and richer than it might do on a device that simply played the files 'as is.' As a device for making full use of Spotify Connect, the Zeppelin takes a fair bit of beating but this ability with more compressed material doesn't end here. As a means of listening to podcasts, internet radio and other services, the Zeppelin is an impressively forgiving and capable source. You really have to drop bitrates down to virtually nothing before the presentation of the Zeppelin starts to sound significantly different from its appealing default presentation.
One area that is very worthy of note is the amount of available power that the Zeppelin has on offer. Most listening undertaken here has been undertaken at comfortably less than half of the available volume and at no stage has this felt quiet or anaemic. If you do decide to give the Zeppelin the beans it becomes clear that you have to push it very hard indeed before the overall presentation balance changes or any trace of harshness creeps in. The Zeppelin Wireless takes up a fair amount of space but equally it is capable of filling a fair amount of space too.
As a device for making full use of Spotify Connect, the Zeppelin takes a fair bit of beating
- Refined and powerful sound
- Extremely well made
- Excellent bluetooth implementation
- Rather large
- No UPnP streaming
- Fairly pricey
Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Wireless Speaker ReviewSince the initial launch of the first iteration of Zeppelin, the big speaker from Bowers & Wilkins has been seen as the sound choice at the price. Nothing really changes with this third iteration of the speaker but against the stiff competition that now makes up the market, it is impressive to see how the evolution and developement of the design has kept the Zeppelin near the top of the pack. Now shorn of physical connections, the Zeppelin is sicker, easier to use and more capable than ever before.
Bowers & Wilkins seems to have taken the conscious decision to voice the Zeppelin to deliver an extremely consistent performance regardless of the input material and while this means that the last fraction of performance with lossless material might be missing, the staggering competence that the Zeppelin brings to a variety of sources is hard to ignore. Behind the zany appearance, the Zeppelin has always been seen as a solid choice. This latest version is the best yet.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £500.00
Ease of Use9
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