Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Mini
Review Bowers & Wilkins' Zeppelin is undoubtedly the world's most iconic iPod speaker. Every one of its rivals, from the high end of the market downward, looks pretty much how you'd expect an iPod speaker to look. Not so the elongated ovoid that is the Zeppelin.
B&W's Zeppelin Mini: not quite as iconic a look as its sibling's
Conversation piece and darn fine example of audio engineering it may be, but the Zeppelin is also rather large for small rooms. While it may perch pleasingly on the sideboards of the well-heeled, those of us in more modest abodes will prefer something more compact.
So, welcome then, the Zeppelin Mini, a unit that has far less of a footprint than its bigger sibling but which, B&W promises, delivers no less an audio performance. That means it's not a scaled down version of its predecessor - only the mirrored oval behind the dock connector mount and the matte black finish are reminiscent of the full-size Zeppelin - but a more form-fits-function offering that doesn't look out of place alongside Bose SoundDocks, Altec Lansings and the like.
The secret to the Zeppelin's sound is to treat the iPod or iPhone simply as a file store. Unlike almost every other iPod speaker, the Mini grabs tracks from the player's storage and through the dock connector entirely bypassing Apple's digital-to-analogue converter chippery.
The iPod mound swivels through 90°
With the pristine digital data in the Mini's own buffers, B&W's engineers have full total control over the conversion process and can optimise the whole path from music file to audio output.
The sound is generated by a pair of front-facing full-range speakers which also produce the bass output that's ported through the back of the Mini to reflect back off whatever is placed behind the unit.
There's an outlet at the back to boost the bass
Which means you need to place it close - but not right up against - a wall or similarly solid, sound-reflecting material. Stick the Mini in the middle of the room, say, and the treble dominates. Push it back, though, and the sound beefs up nicely, especially if you nudge the sound up past 50 per cent.
In true audiophile fashion, the Mini lacks tone controls, so don't expect to adjust the sound beyond its volume - which can get ferociously loud if you push it to the top. You'll not want to do that using the minimalist controls mounted on the Mini's side but keep a good distance away and use the pebble-shaped remote control.
This is of a nice palm-friendly size, gloss black on top, chrome on the bottom. We're not sure about the chrome - it makes the remote look a bit cheap, though it clearly isn't. There is one nice touch: the battery cover has a rubber texture so it doesn't go sliding about on all that low-friction gloss.
As you can see from the pictures, the Mini's iPod connector is raised above the upper edge of the speaker unit. B&W supplies a range of clip-on sleeves to fit a number of iPod and iPhone models that help you connect your player smoothly. They're not essential, but they do give the player more support when it's rotated through 90° to activate Apple's CoverFlow feature - the pivot is a nice touch for which B&W should be commended.
Keep it in its comfort zone
We tried the Mini with an iPhone 3GS, from which it won't amplify and relay radio noise as some, cheaper speakers do. It'll also work with dockable iPods from the Classic onwards - Nanos have to be generation two or later. Other models - and other brands - can be connected through a 3.5mm jack. The Mini also has a USB 2.0 port so you can sync in situ.
Whatever musical genres float your boat, the Mini will deliver them to you with aplomb. At any volume level, the speakers' output is clear and crisp, without distortion. The bass comes out best when the volume is in the middle: there's not quite enough of it at the very low or very high settings.
The Mini has the volume to fill a big room, but it doesn't feel comfortable doing so. It's at its happiest pumping out tunes into a bedroom, study or small living room, somewhere where you'll want the volume at listening rather than hoofing level.
Keep the Zeppelin Mini in its comfort zone - not too loud, not too quiet - and out of cavernous rooms and you'll thrill to its lively presentation. Two speakers set so close are never going to give you spacey stereo, but the Mini more than compensates with clarity and volume. Our only real concern is the price: £299 isn't unreasonable, but Bose's equally impressive SoundDock II is £50 cheaper. ®
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