German zeppelins killed hundreds of English in World War I bombing raids, so it's rather sporting of Bowers & Wilkins to model an iPod dock after the infamous flying object. B&W, of course, is best known for its world-beating speaker lines. It refers to the product as the Zeppelin iPod Speakers. The product takes to the air to survey an impressive swath of high-end territory, backing up its peculiarly gutsy appearance with powerful performance and iPod-hip ergonomic restraint.
Are you ready to fly? Follow the link for more detailed impressions.
THE ESSENTIALS: B&W ZEPPELIN
WHO WANTS THISThe iPod user who wants high-end-ish sound in the form of a style statement.
WHYBecause we've had enough of quasi-boombox form factors in iPod docking systems.
WHAT'S COOLStatus symbol and phallic symbol in one whimsical package. Sorry, but it's true.
WHAT'S LAMEUsing an iPod as the primary signal source for a high-end-ish audio system.
FINAL MARK: AWith sound this good, we'd take a system shaped like a trilobite or a zucchini.
A sturdy quarter-inch-thick steel strip curves up the middle, jutting more than an inch away from the enclosure, with the iPod dock resting on what looks like a B&W belt buckle. The dock base has just enough forward wiggle room to accommodate an iPod of any thickness. Viewed from the side, its shiny metal edge harmonizes with those of several iPods including my first-generation Nano. You get an uncanny sense that the iPod has grown organically out of the system, though in fairness to Steve Jobs, the opposite is true.
Though long on style, the product is short on controls. The chassis includes only a power button and volume up/down rocker. An egg-shaped remote adds another seven buttons mimicking the iPod controls. I had trouble with it, or it had trouble with me: Opening the battery lid, to free the battery from its plastic packing layer, took a pair of needle-nosed pliers. By the time I was done, the cover was broken and one of the buttons on the other side had gotten permanently punched in. Sorry.
The remote changes volume, pauses, skips tracks, powers up or down, and switches between your iPod and the minijack input. You can also adjust volume using the system's rocker button or the iPod's clickwheel. Volume level fades up as the system emerges from pause, a slick touch. For menu navigation, just step up to the system and operate the iPod directly. The dock holds it firmly in place, so you can safely press with your thumb, and there's space in back so your fingers can wrap around the player. There's no learning curve — the Zeppelin is just ridiculously easy and fun to use.
Sound, for a device this size, couldn't be better. The Zeppelin plays loud and clean at the top of its volume range. Midbass is well proportioned as long as you keep the unit and its dual rear ports a few feet out from the wall. Rhythm sections and grand pianos have the right amount of heft. Midrange is natural and relaxed, so you can turn it up without undue brightness or digital grit. The one thing you'd miss from the signature sound of B&W's better speakers is treble extension — perhaps a concession to the messy audio codecs most iPod owners favor.
At $599, the Zeppelin is priced high enough to raise an eyebrow. But compared to what? There's nothing else with the same form factor. And with 2.1 channels of amplification running chambered drivers, not much else at the same price with the same level of performance. Adding more features — radio is a notable omission — would only add more buttons and spoil the high-concept simplicity. No, for those willing to pay, the Zeppelin is fine as is. Oh, the technology!