Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin mini: First Class iPhone Speaker System

| In-Depth Review

The Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin mini is a first class desktop speaker system that accepts a wide range of iPods or an iPhone. Two stereo speakers plus synthesized LFE port are included in a beautiful case. One can also connect it to a Mac or PC, via USB, to serve as a desktop speaker system. Everything about it is terrific and well thought out.

 

Zm - mine

Zeppelin mini on reviewer's desk

When Bowers & Wilkins offered me chance to review the Zeppelin mini, I jumped at the chance. My living room speakers are from Bowers and Wilkins, and I wanted to see how a company with such a great reputation for quality, much like Apple, would handle an Apple focused product. I wasn't disappointed.

Basic Operation

The primary mode of operation, if you will, is to attach the power supply and then slide an iPhone or iPod into one of the specially designed cradles. Suddenly, the tinny sound of the iPhone is converted into a booming, rich, deep stereo sound with pleasant bass.

This mode is perfect for locations where you don't have a computer, a dock or connector, and desktop speakers. For example, a kitchen, a bedroom, a recreation room, a work room, a cubicle at work or perhaps a vacation home. You have your iPhone in your pocket and just want to listen to great sound.

A second mode of operation, auxiliary mode, allows you to connect the Zeppelin mini directly to the computer via a USB cable (not supplied). In this case, the Zeppelin mini appears on the Mac in System Preferences -> Sound as "zeppelinmini," and you can use it as a replacement for cheaper desktop speakers. The product works with a Mac or PC.

There is a very cool looking remote control (see photo below) that switches between these two modes, controls the sound level, and selects next or last song. Coincidentally, it uses the same CR2032 battery as the Apple remotes. That was a wise choice.

Zm remote

Remote control- top and bottom

Out of Box Experience

Out of the box, the setup couldn't be simpler. We all know how to connect a power plug to a power supply and get that part running. If in doubt about anything else, there is a large visually oriented Quickstart guide that shows how to do the rest. Basically one just selects the proper cradle and slides it onto the stub. Then slide the iPhone or iPod into the cradle and the 30-pin connector. I particularly liked how each cradle is engraved with the name of the Apple product. That kind of attention to detail is rare.

Zm cradle

Engraved cradle detail - icon and text for each device supported

Apple devices supported include:

  • iPhone
  • iPhone 3G, 3GS
  • iPod touch 1G, 2G
  • iPod Classic, 80, 120, 160 GB
  • iPod nano, 2G, 3G, 4G, 5G

That's basically all you have to do to get the Zeppelin mini up and running. If you need to, the stub swivels so you can orient your iPhone or iPod in landscape mode. If there are additional questions, a full PDF manual can be downloaded from the Bowers & Wilkins Website for the Zeppelin mini.

There are three modes use. The iPod or iPhone can sync back to the host. To sync, use the remote to put the unit in standby. A red LED will glow. To hear the iPod/iPhone sound, turn on the unit with the remote. A green LED will glow. Or if the iPod/iPhone is removed and you select auxiliary mode with the remote, you can play sound directly from a PC or Mac. A blue LED will glow. I liked that attention to detail and design.

Notes on Quality

Before I continue, I want to digress for a bit about product quality. As Mac users, we all know about the quality of the Mac, but sometimes one has to look outside a familiar technical area to gain a new perspective.

For example, one can buy a pair of binoculars at a sporting goods store for US$49.95. Some of the lenses may be plastic. One can also buy an equivalent roof prism binocular from Nikon on Leica. Such a binocular will have multi-layer dielectric coatings on every air-glass surface, have special prism coatings, be nitrogen purged and filled, and cost as much as US$1,000. Will the Nikons provide a visible image that's 20 times better? Maybe not, but it will be a lot better. Regrettably, the first time you drop your cheap binocs with plastic lenses at a football game, they're history. The Nikons are adjustable and repairable, will outlive you and likely be handed down from father to son as a family heirloom.

The upshot is that overall product quality has lots of components, and that's essential to keep in mind here. For example, the concave, mirrored backdrop for the iPhone/iPod highlights the inserted device in an aesthetically beautiful way. It didn't have to be there, and most companies, clearly, have never have thought of doing this. It's a great touch added to the mini.

The Sound

In my experience as an audiophile, I can say is that the sound from the Zeppelin mini was a lot better than from my fairly good JBL desktop speakers attached to the Mac Pro. And much better than from my Harman/Kardon speakers on the MBP -- which sounded mushy by comparison. Or any desktop PC speakers I have ever used. The trebble is brighter and the bass is deeper, and I can hear fine detail that is a little bit smudged on other speakers.

The port on the back of the unit is dedicated to Low Frequency Effects (LFE), even though there are only two speakers. Here's how Bowers and Wilkins explained it:

Ports on speakers are used to tune and reinforce low frequencies. For Zeppelin Mini specifically, the tuned port on the rear helps extend the low frequencies and give Mini deeper bass than it would have in a sealed cabinet. It also makes the system more efficient, so it gets louder with the available amplifier power. In the case of Mini, the two 75 mm speakers radiate sound forward toward the listener. But, just as much sound is radiated into the cabinet from the back of the speaker. That rear radiated energy is what excites the air in the port tube, whose opening is on the back of the Mini, and reinforces the bass notes.

I could definitely hear that bass coming from the rear, but interestingly, the unit is designed so that you get really good sound coming from just about any angle.

Sample Specifications

  • Digital Signal Processor (DSP) and amplifier
  • Speaker size: 2 x 75 mm diameter
  • Amplifier output: 2 x 18 watts
  • Frequency range: -6 dB at 38 Hz to 20 KHz
  • Height, width, depth: 200 x 320 x 100 mm
  • Weight: 2.5 kg.

The full specifications can be found here.

Summary

Here's why I mentioned the binocular analogy. Is the sound from the Zeppelin mini so much better than $40 desktop analog speakers that it's worth ten times more? We have to remember that getting to that last plateau of overall quality costs proportionately a lot more. So the value of this product really depends on what things you value. These are practical but also intangible things such as appearance, pride of ownership, the reputation and quality of the B&W brand, ease of use, attention to detail, an so on.

So if your $40 desktop speakers are "good enough," then you may not be interested in this product at all. However, for someone who does have the discretionary funds and who appreciates the sheer joy of a well crafted device plus superb sound, then the MSRP is appropriate.

Considering the design aesthetics, quality, attention to detail, integration with Mac, documentation, out of the box experience and quality of the sound, the Zeppelin mini receives a perfect 5 out of 5 rating.

 

Zm Gallery

B&W Gallery shot

The Zeppelin mini, which started shipping in late October, is avaiable from: Apple, Amazon and approved B&W dealers.

Product: Zeppelin mini

Company: Bowers and WIlkins

List Price: US$399.95

Pros:

Unique, beautiful, functional design.  Channeled Low Frequency bass. Great out of the box experience.  Great sound.  Complete documentation. Perfect integration with Apple iPhones and iPods. Works with PC and Mac. Attention to every detail.

Cons:

None.

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