Rich Warren | High-tech Zeppelin speaker makes a lot of joyful noise | Science-technology


Seeing the Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin, a contractor in my home almost dropped his screwdriver.

“Wow, what’s that?” he inquired. I replied that the Zeppelin reproduced music from the internet and smartphones. He opined that it was great to see a really interesting, attractive product for a high-tech speaker, since most existing products were drab, boring boxes.

Bowers & Wilkins, based in Britain, displays a dry British sense of humor in naming this internet speaker Zeppelin, because it resembles the famed airship. An American company would have named it Canoe. Don’t worry, the only explosive part of this Zeppelin is the sound quality.

This fourth-generation Zeppelin eschews the iPod dock of its original incarnation. Previously, you could dock an iPod or smartphone to the Zeppelin. The new model goes entirely wireless. It incorporates the latest wireless Bluetooth and Wi-Fi circuitry.

While the Zeppelin works well as a standalone unit, Bowers & Wilkins designed it to mesh with any of their whole-home wireless speaker systems. It comes in midnight or pearl gray with an integral shelf stand or an optional wall bracket. A white option would be nice.

A minimalist two-page manual accompanies this $800 speaker. You can download a more complete four-page manual from the Bowers & Wilkins’ website, but the company assumes, virtually insists, that the app explains and controls everything.

Bowers & Wilkins goes out on a limb with this newest Zeppelin by requiring a smartphone or tablet to operate it. You download its free app from Apple or Google to adjust all settings and stream the audio.

Without the app, the Zeppelin is a very attractive paperweight. You can feed it Bluetooth audio from a PC or Mac, but that’s not ideal. It also accepts Spotify Connect, which you control from your phone, tablet or computer. The Zeppelin also connects with Apple AirPlay 2. Five small raised buttons on the back allow a limited degree of manual control. It’s also compatible with Amazon’s Alexa for voice commands.

Bowers & Wilkins designed its app to work with such online streaming audio services as Qobuz, Tidal, Deezer, SoundCloud and Apple Music. It suggests that TuneIn and Pandora are on the way. You always can beam any music app directly from your phone or tablet to the Zeppelin via Bluetooth. The only complication is that you have to reset the Zeppelin when switching between Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Rather than hydrogen, this Zeppelin comes filled with a 240-watt amplifier driving five speakers derived from Bowers & Wilkins’ high-end reference speakers. The digital circuitry can decode 24-bit ultra-fidelity audio from audiophile internet streaming services.

The Zeppelin reproduces open, spacious, full-range sound. There’s ample bass and ambience. By banning the box, Bowers & Wilkins eliminated the drawbacks of conventional enclosures. It designs most of its expensive home and studio speakers with slightly curved sides and unusual interior angles. In its famed $800 family of speakers, it mounts the tweeters outside the enclosure altogether.

I loaded some uncompressed high-quality audio files on my Pixel 6 and zapped the Zeppelin with Bluetooth audio using the latest iteration of Bluetooth. The impressive sound easily and evenly filled a fairly large room. Vocals sounded natural without sibilance, but at the same time not dull or lost in the production.

Even my partner, who normally keeps her own counsel, commented on the quality of the sound.

My main quarrel with the Zeppelin is its complete reliance on owning a smartphone or tablet. Without the app, it’s just a conversation piece.

The least Bowers & Wilkins could do is to supply a simple remote control. It also could take a cue from the Bose SoundTouch by incorporating an internet tuner to be able to select favorite music channels without the need of a smartphone.

Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime reviewer of consumer electronics. Email him at hifiguy@volo.net.