|Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin|
|Home Theater Loudspeakers Speaker Systems|
|Written by Jerry Del Colliano|
|Saturday, 01 December 2007|
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As the rock and roll legend goes, Jimmy Page was drinking with Keith Moon and John Entwisle, complaining about their fellow The Who bandmates Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend. A few drinks later, in the midst of a booze-drenched, brainstorming session, one of the group members suggested that Moon and Entwisle should start a band with Page, to which one of them said, “That would go over like a lead balloon” – a concept that Page never forgot. After leaving The Yardbirds, and starting a new band, the concept of a “lead zeppelin” was too tempting to avoid, especially considering the heavy nature of the blues-driven, early heavy metal sound juxtaposed with the band’s nimble syncopation and musical agility. With the “a” dropped from the name (reportedly because Americans wouldn’t be able to pronounce the name correctly) Led Zeppelin was born. They were a band so versatile they could musically perform in ways never heard before and never seen since.
Enter the Zeppelin from Bowers and Wilkins, a $599 desktop audio system designed to power an Apple iPod with the pedigree that comes along with being made by one of the world’s most lauded and important speaker manufacturers. With stuffy audiophiles cringing at the idea of one of their heroes taking on the challenge of making an iPod sound like B&W loudspeakers, it may just be the challenge the audiophile community won't be able to swallow. The reality of the matter is that even the most trained and serious of listeners own an iPod by now. They have hundreds if not thousands of songs resting comfortably in the palms of their hands, waiting for the flick of a thumb to activate a collection of music that a mere 10 years ago would require a forklift to move, let alone fit into the smallest pocket of your briefcase. Moreover, audiophiles and music enthusiasts alike don’t live exclusively in their acoustically perfect listening rooms. With the power of an iPod in your hand, it's now possible to listen to your entire collection of music in other rooms of your home, at the office, in a vacation home and beyond. Looking at the balance between flexibility and power, you start to see why this component can claim rights to a mighty important name in music – the Zeppelin. Oh, and there is the shape also.
This desktop audio system comes in an oblong cylindrical shape that measures about 25 inches long and eight inches tall. At 18 pounds, the Zeppelin gets up and boogies when you want to take your music to another room or location. The front of the unit is covered in speaker cloth, complete with an internal LED light behind the cloth that changes color when you take the unit from standby to active mode. The back of the unit shows the Zeppelin’s polished stainless steel construction more clearly than the front view.
The speaker arrangement has a five-inch woofer, as well as a pair of three-and-a-half-inch drivers and a one-inch metal dome tweeter. The reported frequency response starts at a relatively low 47 Hz and skyrockets to 22 kHz. On the front of the unit, there is a metal receptacle for connecting your iPod (or iPhone, if you prefer) to the Zeppelin. While docked in the station, your iPod or iPhone continues to charge the battery. The power behind the Zeppelin offers 50 watts to the woofer and 25 watts to each of the other drivers. The amps are digital, with switching power supplies. The Zeppelin uses digital signal processing to get the most from the small shape of the system, especially at low levels. There are S-video and composite video outputs to export videos from the iPod, with the Zeppelin as the speaker system and a larger video source for the picture.
The Zeppelin is sold at select Apple stores, as well as Apple online.
Downloaded music is only as good as the rip. Apple’s AAC files are pretty good when compared to a compact disc, especially when you rip them at the highest level of resolution. With that said, the Zeppelin sounds its best when you feed it less compressed, clean files from your iPod or computer. That version of “All the Young Dudes” you stole from Napster back in 1998 likely isn’t going to give you the best sound on the Zeppelin, nor, quite honestly, will it sound good on any system at any price.
Starting the only place I could, I cued up “The Song Remains the Same” from Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy album, ripped to my iPod as an AAC file. While not as high-resolution as the CD, you can hear the Zeppelin come alive as you squeeze the volume up button on the appropriately-shaped cylindrical remote. The little desktop speaker system effortlessly breaks free from the constraints of low-level listening and hits the accelerator for some spirited listening. The depth of field of the sound of Jimmy Page’s 12-string Gibson SG guitar was believably rendered. The bass was pushing it and droned a little compared to my desktop audio reference, the XHiFi-fi XDC-1. To be fair, the XDC-1 is a more expensive system that has its own dedicated subwoofer. On the Zeppelin, the mids were engaging and the highs were very open, but not really bright at all.
What was most noticeable about “The Song Remains the Same” on the Zeppelin was how good the off-axis listening was. You’d have to be a pretty big geek, with your head in a vise, to sit down in front of a system like this and listen like some audiophile snob. This system is for listening to music, not audiophile tomfoolery, so when sitting on my sofa, clear across the room and nearly 180 degrees from the spot on my desk where I installed the Bowers and Wilkins Zeppelin, I was shocked to find how engaging the unit could be from another zip code.
The Zeppelin thrived on music from The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour. While gazing at the area in West Hollywood (called “the Bird Streets”) from my office high atop Beverly Hills, the track “Blue Jay Way” seemed contextually appropriate. The Zen-like and somewhat lethargic doped-out intro had an openness that you would be surprised to hear from such an out-of-the-box audio system. The more natural instrumentation of “Fool on the Hill” sounded even better. The flutes danced above the piano in a way you would expect to hear from a speaker system costing thousands of dollars, not hundreds. The vocal harmonies that kick off “Your Mother Should Know” showed the finesse of the system, as the bass notes were solid and the vocals beamed above the Zeppelin. On “Hello, Goodbye,” the imaging was much wider than the physical limits of the Zeppelin. With the volume up, you really can widen the scope of the speaker system to sound much larger than the unit actually is.
You can’t help but want to bump the volume up for “Riding the Scree,” a disco-inspired, don’t-even-think-of-trying-to-dance-to-it odd time signature track from Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. To say “they don’t write songs like these anymore” is an understatement, as well as an indictment of today’s all-sizzle-no-bacon acts like Britney Spears and Coldplay. Peter Gabriel’s vocals hovered above the Zeppelin with a psychedelic aura that took me right back to the musically ripe year of 1974. Phil Collins’ snare sound was a bit thin, a sign of where bigger speakers pick up from where the desktop speaker systems leave off. When the band began their crescendos, I could actually feel the bass kick in, which was impressive for a unit this small. I liked the guitar sound on “Lilywhite Lilith,” as well as the separation on the vocals during the chorus. The piano sound on the title track of The Lamb Lies Down” on Broadway sounded open. However, the midrange was somewhat collapsed as the main verse kicked in. It didn’t really matter because with a tune this good, who ever reaches for the remote?
Never wanting to miss an opportunity to push an audio component to the point of combustion, I cued up “Thunder Kiss 65” from White Zombie’s La Sexorcisto: Devil Music, Vol. 1, and cranked the volume to a level that is fair to describe as “11.” The Zeppelin held its own, but you could sense the DSP try to keep things together as I pushed the limits of a 25-watt-per-channel amp. The bass wasn’t deep, but it was loud. I wouldn’t call it outrageously low, either, but when you consider the Zeppelin is 18 pounds, you must be reasonable with your expectations from a physically small system.