Review: B&W Zeppelin — oh, the technology!

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.

Is That a Zeppelin in Your Pocket?
It's impossible to walk into a room and not notice the Zeppelin. It is 24 inches wide, oblong in shape, and appears to float above the rubber oval that supports it. Thanks to a strong center of gravity, you'd have to work pretty hard to knock it over. The front surface is covered in black grille cloth and slightly tilted back, aiming the drivers both forward and upward. The back panel is finished in stainless steel and includes connectors for watching iPod videos on a TV, a USB port so you can sync your iPod while it sits in the dock, and a minijack (that accepts either analog or digital connections) for using the Zeppelin with other players.

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.

The Beef Inside the Hot Dog
Some sources of the Zeppelin's bragging rights are invisible to the naked eye. B&W ladles on the amplification with a generous hand. A single 5-inch woofer gets 50 watts, while pairs of aluminum dome tweeters and glass-fiber midrange drivers get another 25 each. As in the company's pricey 800 Series speakers, each mid-tweeter assembly is encased in a separate chamber to protect it from bass resonance rampaging inside the back-ported enclosure. The tweeters, placed at the far sides of the enclosure, are tube-loaded like those in B&W's bleeding-edge Nautilus speakers.

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!