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Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin review: Take me up, up, up and away

Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
699
inc VAT

The fourth iteration of the iconic B&W Zeppelin speaker is a wireless wonder with premium audio quality and streaming options aplenty

Pros 
Superb sound quality
Iconic design
Impressive companion app
Cons 
No Chromecast
Tricky to accommodate
No physical inputs
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It’s been over 14 years since the launch of the original Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin. Back then I was but a fledgling journalist and iPods were all the rage.

Today, Apple is still making the iPod touch but iPod docks like the first Zeppelin have been consigned to the annals of history. Physical connections between speakers and their audio sources have made way for wireless streaming via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth connectivity and voice controls courtesy of super-smart AI assistants.

Few products reflect that shift better than the B&W Zeppelin. What started life as an iPod dock for affluent audio enthusiasts has been transformed into an all-singing, all-dancing wireless speaker supported by an accomplished companion app.

It’s expensive and is committed to modernity to a fault – there’s not a physical input in sight – but the Zeppelin justifies its lofty price tag with sensational sound quality and multiple streaming options wrapped up in a striking package.

Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin review: What you need to know

The 2021 Zeppelin is the fourth iteration of Bowers & Wilkins’ airship-inspired speaker. Each generation has brought with it new functionality: the 2011 Zeppelin Air added Apple AirPlay support to the 2007 iPod dock and in 2015 the dock was dropped by the Zeppelin Wireless.

The model reviewed here is the most advanced yet, delivering stereo sound from a single speaker unit and doubling down on wireless connectivity. The 3.5mm auxiliary port present on the Zeppelin Wireless is gone, leaving the speaker without any physical ports save a USB-C service port.

You’re certainly not short on streaming options, however. When connected to a Wi-Fi network, you can stream content via both Apple AirPlay2 and Spotify Connect, while the Bowers & Wilkins Music app integrates popular services including Qobuz, Tidal and Deezer. Chromecast support is notably absent but most people will be very satisfied with the array of options at their fingertips.

To complement its Wi-Fi connectivity, the Zeppelin can be paired with devices via Bluetooth and there’s support for Qualcomm’s advanced aptX Adaptive codec in addition to AAC and SBC.

Completing what is a sophisticated package is built-in Amazon Alexa. There’s no remote included with the Zeppelin so voice controls will be your go-to method of sending commands to the speaker when you’re not using the B&W Music app.

Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin review: Price and competition

The new B&W Zeppelin costs £699, which is a hefty sum but par for the course for all-in-one wireless speakers from premium audio brands. In fact, many of the Zeppelin’s competitors cost rather more.

Naim’s Mu-so Qb 2nd Gen is among our favourite wireless speakers and will set you back £749. It delivers a mono soundstage and lacks the Zeppelin’s smart voice control but has 3.5mm, USB-A and optical inputs along with Chromecast built-in, UPnP and support for Spotify Connect and AirPlay 2.

For those in search of stereo sound from a pair of wireless speakers, we recommend the beautiful KEF LSX, which will set you back £999. Like the Mu-so QB 2nd Gen, they lack voice control but sound incredible and support Spotify Connect along with Tidal and DLNA network streaming via the KEF Stream app.

If an in-built CD player and phono inputs sound appealing and you’ve got £1,099 to spend, you’ll want to take a look at the Ruark R5, a wireless speaker blending legacy features and modern technology. Its lack of AirPlay 2 and Chromecast support leave it lagging behind the Zeppelin in the wireless department but it sounds and looks great.

A significantly cheaper option is the Sonos Move, which is available for £399. Its audio credentials are no match for the Zeppelin, but it’s portable, comes with an IP57 rating that allows you to use it outside and offers support for both Alexa and Google Assistant.

Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin review: Design and setup

The technology powering the Zeppelin has come on leaps and bounds since 2007, but its appearance remains very similar to that of previous generations. That’s no bad thing, however; the Zeppelin cuts a striking silhouette in both its Midnight Grey and lighter Pearl Grey colourways and is guaranteed to catch the eye of visitors.

In fact, it would be hard for them to miss it given its imposing stature. Weighing 6.5kg and measuring 650 x 194 x 210mm (WDH), this is a big speaker that requires a sizeable amount of desk, shelf or table space and one you probably won’t want to move around too often.

The only place I was able to accommodate my review sample without completely rejigging the decor of my flat was on my office desk. This proved a perfect location for testing but wouldn’t be ideal were I wanting to impress guests with a Hi-Res playlist over dinner.

It’s by no means a deal-breaker but it’s worth thinking about where you might be able to position the Zeppelin if you’re planning on it taking centre stage in a particular room. Should you fancy displaying it on your wall, Bowers & Wilkins sells a bracket for £59.

Size worries aside, the build quality of the Zeppelin is superb. Premium fabric wraps around the front portion of the speaker – the rear is plain but premium plastic – and the whole thing sits on an integrated metal stand that is pleasingly wobble-free. The Bowers & Wilkins logo, visible on a metal plaque embedded into the speaker housing just above the stand, has an LED light running underneath it that illuminates blue when Alexa is active and red when the microphone is muted.

There’s also a larger, downward-facing LED on the undercarriage of the Zeppelin that creates what Bowers describes as a “halo effect” on the stand. This adds very little save some extra visibility in dim conditions and it turns off after 20 minutes of inactivity. Should you wish to deactivate it entirely, you can do so via the B&W Music app, which also allows you to adjust the light’s brightness along a sliding scale.

As I've already mentioned, there’s no remote control for the Zeppelin but there are a few control buttons located on the rear of the speaker. A multifunction button can be used to reset the Zeppelin or put it into pairing mode, there’s a button via which you can manually hail Alexa and mute the mic, and you’ll also find play/pause, volume up and volume down buttons. They’re all raised slightly and each has a distinctive shape, which helps when trying to tell them apart by feel.

You’ll need to download the B&W Music app and create a user account before getting the Zeppelin set up but, once those steps have been completed, the rest of the process is quick and painless.

The app will search for the speaker and when found, prompt you to name the space within which the Zeppelin resides. Next, you’ll have to confirm your choice by pressing the multifunction button and then connect to your Wi-Fi network of choice. After you’ve received a confirmatory audio prompt, you’re good to go.

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Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin review: Sound quality

The Zeppelin features the kind of high-end driver arrangement you’d expect from an esteemed audiophile brand and the results are marvellous.

High frequencies are handled by 25mm “decoupled double-dome” tweeters at either end of the speaker enclosure, two 90mm fixed suspension transducers (FST) look after the mid-range and a 150mm subwoofer located smack bang in the middle of the airship takes care of low-end frequency reproduction.

The tweeters are the same as those used in B&W’s 600-series loudspeakers, while the mid-range transducers use the same FST technology as its flagship 800 series. That’s some serious technical pedigree and it’s all driven by 240W of amplification, which ensures the Zeppelin delivers a mighty punch even in the largest of living spaces.

As a stereo speaker, the Zeppelin successfully delivers a wider, more expansive soundstage than your average single mono unit. However, if you’re expecting the kind of stereo imaging you’d get with a pair of speakers handling left and right channels separately, you’ll need to temper your expectations. Stereo separation, while reasonable, isn’t as tangible as it would be were there two units working in tandem.

It’s not a limitation that damages the Zeppelin’s appeal, however. This is, without doubt, one of the finest sounding wireless speakers around and I’m yet to find a genre that it fails to do justice to. I did the majority of my listening during testing via Qobuz, which can be integrated into the B&W Music app and supports high-resolution streaming.

The double-dome tweeters produced wonderfully crisp trebles that retained a clean, natural quality no matter what volume I was listening at. At no point in time did trebles become overly harsh and they were always balanced supremely well with the other elements of the Zeppelin’s presentation.

Classical numbers such as the Vienna Philharmonic’s rendition of Johann Strauss II’s Künstlerleben, Walzer, Op. 316, demonstrated the Zeppelin’s superb sense of rhythm, with violins, violas and cellos frolicking in delightful synchronicity. Dynamics were handled equally impressively, with the Zeppelin never missing a step, keeping pace with volume shifts as individual instruments reached mini crescendos before gradually becoming quieter again.

The Zeppelin’s frequency response extends down to 35Hz and its subwoofer does a great job of reproducing pitches in the bass and sub-bass ranges. There’s no sense of artificial boosting of lower frequencies, nor do said frequencies bleed into the mid-range to muddy the overall sound. The relentless rolling bassline on Shy FX’s Wolf proved tight and punchy, hitting hard without straying into boomy territory.

Those in search of a big, bassy party speaker will likely find the Zeppelin’s sound a little analytical but there’s no doubting it has the muscle to fulfil the role. Anything over about 50% volume and I felt in danger of being the subject of a noise complaint.

Of all of its sonic characteristics, however, I most admired the speaker’s ability to draw out detail from vocals. Adele is a go-to when I’m testing for this and the Zeppelin handled her latest hit “Easy On Me” with aplomb. The level of clarity was such that the songstress’ emotive enunciation shone extremely brightly – both literally and metaphorically – and I was able to pick out the tiniest quivers in her voice as she drew out longer notes.

Those subtle details combined with the breadth of the soundstage to create an immersive experience that had me feeling like I was in the front row of the London Palladium at “An Audience with Adele”.

It’s just as well that the Zeppelin sounds as good as it does, as audio customisation options are extremely limited. You can boost and reduce bass and treble by up to 6dB in the B&W Music app, but that’s your lot in terms of EQ tweaking.

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Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin review: Smart functionality and app

The 2021 Zeppelin gets just about everything right in the sound department and it scores well on the smart front, too.

By aligning itself with Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant, the Zeppelin alienates those that favour Google Assistant but, outside of Sonos, few companies provide a choice between multiple smart ecosystems.

Alexa built-in works very well here and my voice assistant experience was smooth throughout testing. Alexa picked up my commands accurately, executed them correctly and, for the most part, provided me with appropriate information and answers. Commands were received and acted upon from distances of over 5m and with music playing at a reasonable volume, too.

As with all third-party Alexa speakers, the Zeppelin doesn’t support calling features, and the AI can only open apps supported by the Zeppelin. Alas, these don’t include Apple Podcasts or BBC Sounds, so you’ll need to use AirPlay 2 if you plan on catching up with the latest episode of Desert Island Discs.

At the time of writing, the Bowers & Wilkins Music app supports the following services: Tidal, Deezer, Qobuz, last.fm, NTS, Soundcloud and TuneIn. Once you’ve linked your accounts within the Music app you can access playlists, albums, artists and songs from each service very simply.

The app is neatly laid out, with the homepage arranged in horizontally scrolling rows and these include personalised playlist recommendations, your recently played playlists, new releases and recommended radio stations. Elsewhere, you can search your entire catalogue of music, podcasts and radio and search for new content via specific in-app tabs.

Navigation is a breeze and the breadth of content impressive; this is a robust companion app that does just about everything you could ask of it in a straightforward manner.

Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin review: Verdict

The B&W Zeppelin is an excellent modernisation of an iconic piece of British audio engineering. It can’t match the stereo imaging of a premium pair of speakers but sounds superb nonetheless, looks striking and is well-equipped to meet most people’s streaming needs.

The lack of physical inputs may be a sticking point for some and there’s no denying such connectivity options would have been welcome but more consequential is the absence of Chromecast support. There’s also the issue of whether such a large, awkwardly-shaped speaker is a practical installation in most modern homes.

Ultimately, however, this isn’t a speaker designed to fit in but to stand out. It does so for predominantly the right reasons and deserves to take pride of place wherever it resides.

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