Hi-fi iPod docks — they do exist. Though Bose has flirted with the category for several years, it was a category revolutionised by English company Bowers & Wilkins back in 2008. The original Zeppelin upped the ante for both performance and style, and it seems the company has upped it once again.
Though named after the infamous German Zeppelins of the early 20th Century, the Bowers & Wilkins version is less cylindrical and more egg-shaped, with tapered ends like an American football. It's also less likely to explode into a ball of flame.
With the new "lighter-than-air" name, the Zeppelin Air has managed to shave a kilo off the original version, while keeping the same dimensions.
The playful, pebble-shaped remote control is similar to the previous version, with a source selector and rudimentary iPod controls.
So it's a little bit lighter, but what's with the Air title anyway? The dock's newest feature is wireless support, and with it comes compatibility with Apple's AirPlay standard. Connect an Ethernet cable to the back of the unit and the Air will now show up on your iPhone as a playback source.
If Bowers & Wilkins had stopped here this would still have been a terrific little system, but the features came in thick and fast. This unnecessary complication then becomes the only issue with the unit.
If there was ever an iPod dock that needed a screen this is it. Bowers & Wilkins, however, seems to consistently substitute usability for a single-minded "quirkiness". Take as a case in point the Panorama, which is still the best soundbar we have ever heard, but its lack of usable controls means it's also hard to use. The same applies for the Zeppelin Air, as it uses a single multicoloured light half the size of a grain of rice to give you information about the dock, such as the selected input. To decode this colour-based system, you'll need to be very familiar with the manual, as none of it is terribly intuitive. To change inputs you press the "Power" button on the unit itself, and you'll get a series of colours. If you're stuck at this point, then you should know that it's Red for off, Green for PC sound, Purple for Airplay, Blue for iPod and Orange for Aux.
The Zeppelin also throws in wireless connection, but since set-up is PC-based it's quite difficult to configure. Ethernet connectivity takes the hassle out of all of this. Other connections on the unit include USB (for streaming and iTunes syncing), a composite video output and a 3.5 auxiliary.
The dock officially supports iPods and iPhones with the 30-pin port, but we also found that it could handle an iPad. The long-term viability of doing this is something you'd take at your own risk, though.
While trying to get some of the advanced features working may warp your noggin, we found that using it as a straight iPod dock worked really well. As with the Panorama, it's performance that sees Bowers & Wilkins out in the end.
Some people have different ideas of what listening to music is about, but the Zeppelin Air reminds you that it's supposed to be enjoyable. Listening to "Yellow Brick Road" by Angus and Julia Stone is intimate and deftly underpinned by the set's ability to reproduce a wide dynamic range. When the rhythm section comes in during the song's second verse the Zeppelin's impressive bass handling provides a solid counterpoint to Angus' delicate vocals.
Though the dock is angled upwards there's no off-axis problems, something we found with the Philips Fidelio Primo DS9000, which needed propping up to fire music out to your ears. Due to the dual rear ports you may want to situate the dock clear of walls, though the bass-boosting effect isn't unpleasant if you don't. Move it out a little, however, and voices gain further naturalness.
At most volume levels the sound is full, yet detailed, and will be sufficient for all but the rowdiest parties. Meanwhile, at maximum volume the treble distorts and it's not recommended to keep the system at this level if you don't want to destroy your speakers. We found the dock sounded best with the volume control halfway, as it conveyed an ideal balance between vocal detail and bass weight, even if it was still a little hot in the nether registers.
If you connect the Air via Ethernet to your router and then your iOS device wirelessly, you'll find that using AirPlay is as simple and as straightforward as any other device. Our iPhone detected the Zeppelin instantly and we were able to stream to it without fuss.
The Zeppelin will support video, though not via AirPlay, and we found that videos stored on the unit and via YouTube looked decent on a large display. Of course, a unit like the Cambridge Audio iD100 and its dedicated component output is able to convey more detail on a large screen.
So far, so good, but there were still be some little niggles that put off potential buyers. For example, the unit has an auto shut-off circuit, but we found it to be a little enthusiastic. If you want to listen to a song on AirPlay you may need to turn the unit back on again first, which isn't great if you're in another room.
Syncing with iTunes is also unintuitive. You have to switch the unit off with the remote, then hold down the power button on the Air for two seconds, and then press the power button again. The light turns yellow and you can then synch via the USB cable. Simple, huh?
Lastly, though the unit supports updateable firmware, it's not for the faint-hearted. It involves a quite arcane procedure of holding down power keys while unplugging and plugging in the power cord and then opening a series of (unforeseen) installation windows.
When it comes to iPod docks, there is nothing that can touch the performance of the Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air for the price. If you're not looking to use the advanced features then you don't need to, and in this way it improves on the original in almost every respect.
If you're looking to dip your toe into the extra features of the Air, we'd suggest making a nice strong cup of tea first. That's the English way, of course.