Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Wireless Speaker Review
- Sounds absolutely outstanding for a one box
- Well made and easy to use
- Decent industrial design
- Rather large
- No UPnP
- No external inputs
Introduction - What Is the Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin?
The Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin is a self contained wireless speaker designed to sit on a network, access on demand services and receive content via AirPlay and Bluetooth. This is a burgeoning market and it is no surprise that Bowers & Wilkins wishes to participate in it. What is worthy of note is the product itself and the relationship it has with existing members of the Bowers and Wilkins range.
The Zeppelin itself is an enormously significant device both in the context of Bowers & Wilkins and the wider wireless speaker market. The first generation of the product was designed to partner with the Apple iPod and was fitted with the 30 pin dock connector. This seems laughably passé now but, at the time it was a big deal. The audio industry is entirely comfortable with the idea of building equipment that works well with other people’s products; it’s a cornerstone of separates. The idea of building a device the only worked with one other device from another company was a step change that took a bit of building up to. The decision by a major manufacturer to build such a device went a long way to normalising it. Successive generations of Zeppelins have tweaked the functionality to match the requirements of the times but kept the distinctive design; something we’ll cover in due course.
The arrival of the Zeppelin (which, as an aside, seems to be word I delight in misspelling; I seem hardwired to believe it has one ‘p’ and two ‘l’s), in 2021 is a little more of a surprise though. The decision to build such a thing is perfectly logical save for the fact that Bowers & Wilkins already makes one and we’ve tested it. The Formation Wedge, has a substantial specification overlap with the Zeppelin but Bowers & Wilkins feels that there is room in the range for both. Is that belief justified and can this latest version of the long running Zeppelin exert the dominance its predecessors did?
Specification and Design
The Zeppelin is designed to access content in three specific ways. It is fitted with AirPlay2 and Bluetooth with aptX, aptX adaptive and AAC which allows you to select it from your mobile device and play music to it. It adds Spotify Connect to perform a similarly universal role from all the different devices equipped to make use of the feature (and presumably also support lossless level playback should such a thing ever actually materialise). It then has the dedicated Bowers & Wilkins Music app for iOS and Android that allows you to log your Qobuz, Tidal, Deezer, Last FM, TuneIn and Soundcloud into the app and stream to the Zeppelin using the app as a control point.
The presence of Qobuz on that list is an indicator of a feature getting a first run out for this new Zeppelin in that it is Hi-Res capable. At the time of writing (early November 2021), this is the only means I can see of sending high resolution audio to the device (the slight uncertainty is SoundCloud that might allow for it but that I have no means of testing). Tidal will follow once MQA licensing is agreed upon (which is apparently in the works) but, at the time of writing it isn’t present. For those of you lured by the bargain pricing of Amazon and Apple’s streaming services, there’s no indication of these being added. You can use AirPlay or Bluetooth but this will limit transmission to lossless rather than out and out high res.
This could be neatly sidestepped by Chromecast but this isn’t specified on the Zeppelin, at least at the moment. Something else that can’t be done at the moment is access your own music library via UPnP (I am aware that the concept of ‘owning’ music is increasingly old fashioned but some of us still have some) which feels a little odd, almost a deliberate limitation to give the Wedge more justification to exist. Something else absent that I freely admit is more a personal bugbear is the absence of Roon compatibility. On a single £700 speaker it’s unquestionably niche but it does mean that someone in a Roon household is likely to spend an extra £50 on a MuSo Qb2 which will play nice with Roon, over the Zeppelin which won’t. If you’re eying it up to partner a TV, you can also forget that too. There’s no physical inputs of any kind bar a USB port for service.
Something you can do for the first time is integrate the Zeppelin with Alexa. This feature went live while the sample was here for testing and a quick play suggests that it works perfectly well within the many and varied limitations of voice assistants for controlling your listening devices, which are neither the fault of Bowers & Wilkins nor pertinent to the performance of the Zeppelin itself. Bowers and Wilkins has made it clear that the Zeppelin platform has scope for further development in terms of the features offered and, while our standard caveat that you should choose products for the features that they have, not the ones they promise, there are early signs that there are more to come.
Internally, the Zeppelin makes use of drivers that are designed and built in house. It is an example of a ‘crypto stereo’ device that is a design decision popular in devices of this nature. This means you get a left and right 25mm tweeter and 90mm driver that share a single 150mm ‘subwoofer’ mounted between them to share the load across the two channels. Bowers & Wilkins says that the shape of all Zeppelins from the first generation onwards is the result of making this driver arrangement work as effectively as possible and the placement of the tweeters over half a metre apart does auger well for a degree of stereo width that sometimes eludes one box designs.
It does mean that the latest Zeppelin has the same issue that was present on the first one and every successive generation thereafter. This is a big speaker; 650mm wide and 210mm high. This makes it wider and nearly twice the height of a Naim Mu-So2 and means that there are some prime environments for it where it simply won’t fit. I use a Mu-So Qb2 in my kitchen and, however likeable and capable the Bowers and Wilkins might be, it simply won’t go in the same place. It’s only fair to counter by pointing out that the Zeppelin uses that heft to give its drivers a little space to breathe. The quoted low end roll off of 35Hz is seriously impressive for a one box device and point to a room filling ability that rivals might lack.
I do like the design though. That distinctive shape is something you would choose to make a feature of rather than hiding away and the choices of materials involved, the manner that they integrate with each other and the overall presentation of the Zeppelin is top notch. Not for the first time though, one of the stiffest rivals in terms of mimicking this feel is - perhaps unsurprisingly - the Wedge but there are enough points of difference to make the Zeppelin feel worthwhile as a product in its own right.
That distinctive shape is something you would choose to make a feature of rather than hiding away and the choices of materials involved, the manner that they integrate with each other and the overall presentation of the Zeppelin is top notch
How was the Zeppelin tested?
The Bowers & Wilkins has been used in my bedroom, placed on a sturdy chest of drawers and added to my wireless network. It has been mainly used with Qobuz as a listening source but a 2021 iPad Pro has been used for AirPlay testing and an Oppo Find X2 Neo has performed Bluetooth testing.
I have gone on (at length) in the past about how Bowers & Wilkins has perfected the art of congratulatory unboxing on their products but I have to report a minor blip with the Zeppelin which has a large cardboard liner for the box which is a little undignified to remove unless you cut it (which I didn’t because it’s a point of honour to return a review sample exactly as I receive it). Once out the box though, it’s business as usual. The wireless set-up on the Zeppelin works just as the manual says it will and I would be amazed if someone couldn’t be connected and running in less than three minutes. Quite a few companies would do well to have a look at how it is done.
You would be forgiven for feeling that the first section of this review damns the Zeppelin with faint praise. I’ve pointed out the gaps in the specification and that it is too big for certain tasks and quite legitimately so. Let me be rather more unequivocal then when I say that I’m prepared to overlook a great deal of this because the Zeppelin sounds outstanding. The Bowers & Wilkins is £50 cheaper than the Mu-So Qb2 and can’t match the Naim’s specification but in a straight sonic fight between them, the Zeppelin is comfortably superior; In fact, it can keep the big Mu-So honest too. Remember kids; there’s no replacement for displacement.
What this means is that, if you eschew anything remotely audiophile and make a beeline for Evil Nine’s magnificent You Can Be Special Too, the manner in which the Zeppelin tears into the opening track Crooked is absolutely sensational for a one box. The machine gun lyrics from Aesop Rock are clear as a bell and the low end shove that underpins them is genuinely room loading. Does the Zeppelin roll off towards that quoted 35Hz figure? Undoubtedly. Does it roll off by very much? No, not really. Furthermore, this isn’t processed, augmented ‘DSP bass.’ I’ve no doubt that there is plenty of electronic trickery going on inside the Zeppelin but, when you sit and listen to it, the result feels entirely unembellished.
There is plenty of headroom too. Things are starting to get a bit less composed by the time you hit 50% on the volume slider which might sound a little alarming but that was generating comfortably in excess of 80dB at over two metres from the unit which is louder than I’d wager most people are going to need. At lower levels than that, the Zeppelin is effortless in a way that doesn’t come naturally to products of this nature and speaks both to Bowers & Wilkins’ vast experience and the benefits of evolving a design that has 15 years of data behind it.
Moving away from hard edged electronica (with some regret), the Zeppelin keeps its composure and reveals some more talents too. The glorious Cuttin’ Grass Vol.2 (Cowboy Arms Sessions) by Sturgill Simpson is no less joyous on the Zeppelin. Absolutely crucial to what gives the Zeppelin the edge over many rivals is the width between the tweeters. This is still not going to give you a true stereo image but it’s wider and more expansive than the vast majority of its rivals. This allows the other qualities; solid tonal realism and decent detail retrieval to name but two.
What it means is that you can sit and listen to the Zeppelin for a few hours as I have done typing this up and enjoy a performance that is ‘great for £700’ rather than ‘great for a one box.’ It’s perfectly possible to be sniffy about devices of this nature and say they aren’t ‘proper Hi-Fi’ but I think this is a reflexive position rather than a considered one. The Zeppelin pulls you into what it does every bit as effectively as affordable separates; there’re different pros and cons but they’re on the same page.
The Bowers & Wilkins is £50 cheaper than the Mu-So Qb2 and can’t match the Naim’s specification but in a straight sonic fight between them, the Zeppelin is comfortably superior
Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Wireless Speaker Review
In summing up the Zeppelin, I need to be honest about the quirks it has, certainly at this point of its development. In an objective features comparison between the Bowers & Wilkins and the Naim MuSo Qb2, the Bowers takes a beating. For £50 more, the Naim does AirPlay 2 and Bluetooth (albeit without aptX) and Spotify Connect but adds Chromecast, UPnP support (with Roon), an optical input, an analogue input, and a remote control (and it can be made to work with Alexa too). I don’t expect Bowers & Wilkins to make good on everything but Chromecast and UPnP would be a good start to close this gap. Even when they do, the Zeppelin still won’t fit in my kitchen or take the feed from a TV.
The counter to this is that the Naim cannot live with the Zeppelin sonically; not much at the price can. If you need a device to play music and not perform the various other subsidiary roles that many of these speakers are called upon to do, this is a sensational choice, comfortably the class of the field under £1,000 and realistically some way beyond. For these reasons, even with the queries I might have over the specification, it’s hard to argue that the Zeppelin is anything other than rather brilliant and for this reason, it comes enthusiastically Recommended.
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