A few years ago there was a scurry among electronics manufacturers to bring an iPod speaker or dock system to market. Consumers soon had dozens of external devices to choose from: some good, some bad, some ugly, some bad and ugly. Claims of “room-filling sound” abounded, but is that a measure of desirability. I know people who can fill a room with sound by coughing or sneezing. Do I want to hear it? While mass-producers flooded the iPod speaker market, most audiophile manufacturers stayed away.
There was a perception among many audiophiles that the iPod was not worthy of high-end ears and was viewed with disdain and suspicion. That didn’t stop renowned loudspeaker concern Bowers & Wilkins from taking flight with the Zeppelin, a striking departure from most sound docks in design and execution. The Zeppelin dazzled with its airship looks, booming bass and overall sound. Unfortunately the Zep’s size made it cross over from compact into mid-size. Music lovers looking for a shelf unit or something to tuck away in an office or bedroom had to look elsewhere or wait. Until now.
The Zeppelin Mini ($399) is the latest of B&W’s sonic dirigibles and follows confidently in the footsteps of its bigger brother while kicking up some dust of its own. Measuring 6.8 tall x 12.6 wide x 4.0 inches deep and weighing less than 5 pounds, the Mini is imminently portable and placeable. On first sight, the Mini looks more like a piece of industrial or contemporary art than a typical iPod speaker. The ovoid body is wrapped in black fabric and sports a scalloped and polished stainless steel top that mirrors the unit’s docking arm. But this isn’t just any docking arm, the Mini’s arm rotates 90 degrees from vertical to horizontal allowing iPhone and iPod Touch users to navigate tracks with album art (Cover Flow) displayed or watch video.
It also lets one hold the portable device as if it were not even docked. Although certified by Apple for iPod and iPhone, the Mini is not compatible with all models. Vertical docking works with iPhone, iPhone 3G, iPhone 3GS, iPod Touch, iPod Touch 2nd generation, iPod Classic, and iPod nano 2nd, 3rd and 4th generation models. Horizontal docking is limited to iPhone, iPhone 3G and 3GS, iPod Touch and iPod Touch 2nd generation.
To get the best sound from files stored on an iPod, the Mini takes the signal in digital form and performs the digital-to-analog conversion with its own circuitry. As well, users can listen to stored or streamed audio via the USB connection. Another cool feature is the Mini’s ability to sync a docked iPod or iPhone directly via the USB port. When docked, the Mini also charges the iPod/iPhone batteries. The Mini features a pair of full range 3-inch fiberglass cone drivers powered by twin 18-watt Class D amplifiers. Digital Sound Processing combined with B&W’s own Dynamic EQ work together to achieve dynamic range and sound, while a rear Flowport is designed to minimize any noise created by air movement in the port.
The Mini is simplicity defined, with just three inputs (USB, AUX and Power) on the back and on-off and volume buttons on the unit’s side. I think B&W missed the boat by putting the controls on the side instead of the front. If placed in a bookshelf or other tight space, the controls can be difficult to access and operation requires pulling the Zeppelin out to manipulate volume settings. In that respect, the remote is vital for easiest operation. The remote handset takes its design cues from the mothership and resembles a flattened egg. It fits nicely in the hand and makes navigating iPod/iPhone files a breeze. I even has a recessed “fingerprint” beneath the power button where the tip of the forefinger naturally lands.
One of the Mini’s greatest strengths is its portability. I was able to move it from my office to kitchen to bedroom in seconds, and in those three rooms is where I spent most time with the unit, either streaming music from my Mac mini or playing tunes stored on an iPod. No audio was compressed or otherwise injured during this time.
Some reviews of the Mini have bemoaned its lack of bass extension and presence. The bass isn’t overwhelming, but it’s much better than I expected. It can be boosted by placing the back closer to a wall. Where the Mini truly takes flight is with its crystalline mid-range and upper-end. Whereas other sound docks are often smudgy or tinny in these ranges, the Mini shines and sounds much more like a stereo speaker than an iPod dock. And it must be noted that few mini-monitors plumb subterranean bass depths.
The recent release Ali & Toumani, captures Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré and kora player Toumani Diabaté during three afternoons in 2005 at a London, England, recording studio. It’s a magical ride across Western Africa that unfolds in waves like the shifting dunes of the Sahara. The duet’s string playing has a crystalline quality to it, and the Mini let the sparkle through, never brusque or congested.
The recent death of Alex Chilton sent me back to the first two Big Star albums, #1 Record and Radio City, both masterpieces of what would later be called power pop. No band did jangly guitar and harmonies better than Big Star, and the Mini accorded itself well with shimmering classics including “Way Out West” and “Back Of A Car.”
Megadeth’s fiery “Holy Wars…The Punishment Due” features a barrage of guitar riffs and licks courtesy of rhythm master Dave Mustaine and lead phenom Marty Friedman. The tune had plenty of crunch and drive, but here the bass fell short of satisfying. To get the impact of the 4-string rumble I had to turn the Mini around and let the rear port unload its artillery.
But for precision, the Mini is a dead-eye. I played a series of high-resolution classical and jazz (24/88, 24/96 and 24/192) files through its twin cones and was very impressed by the clarity, imaging and transient response. The Mini is very good with transients. The Moody Blues’ “Are You Sitting Comfortably,” from On The Threshold Of A Dream, features a wash of percussion including a steady cymbal beat/crash from Graeme Edge. Instead of fizzling out, the Mini let the brass breathe and decay naturally. Nice performance from a speaker box.
The Mini exceeded my expectations and kept me company with an iPod longer than I had in years. Its attractive lines and crisp presentation made it easy to live with and listen to. For tight treble, clear mids and better-than-average bass, the Mini should keep most music lovers shuffling through their ‘Pods and computer files to hear them anew. Refined, elegant and poised, the B&W Zeppelin Mini won’t shake the Halls of Valhalla, but it will make the Misty Mountains hop.