How the Zeppelin led me to Nirvana

5 Jan

The Zeppelin iPod speaker is named for its dirigible-like shape, but you can blast the Led Zeppelin if you please. (Geoff Meeker photo)

January 5, 2009

By Geoff Meeker

I can finally say, with confidence, that my CD collection is obsolete.

At the very least, it has been relegated to ‘back-up’ status.

Until now, there has always been a raggedy-arse pile of CD’s in the living room, threatening to collapse in a clatter of broken plastic. We played them on the Bose Wave system, which is compact and fills our living room / kitchen space with great sound.

Yes, I have an iPod – crammed nearly full with the same selection of music – but it has never satisfied these ears. I have tried connecting it to a variety of stereo components, including the Wave, but was never satisfied with the sound quality. It was muddy and lacking punch.

I assumed I was hearing the inherent limits of digital music compression; that an iPod simply couldn’t deliver the goods on a decent audio system.

I was wrong, of course. Early in December, I took a listen to the Zeppelin, at West End Electronics (exclusive dealer in NL).  Developed by Bowers & Wilkins (B&W), makers of reference quality speakers for audiophiles and recording studios, Zeppelin is that company’s first foray into smaller, more affordable speakers (if you consider $600 to $700 affordable).

My first reaction, on observing the ellipsoid shape and fine stainless steel accents, was cynicism. ‘Another cool-looking iPod dock. Ho-hum.’

Then sales manager Dave Budden attached his iPod and pressed play.

Whoa. It was good. Stopped me in my tracks. Other people in the store also stopped and looked, wondering where all the sound was coming from.

I bought the unit and ran home with it, looking very much like the construction worker who runs off with the dancing frog, in the classic 1950’s Warner Bros cartoon. I tried it with a range of music, from Loreena McKennitt to Nirvana to Hey Rosetta!, with breathtaking results each time.

The Zeppelin is just two feet wide and eight inches high at the centre, but close your eyes and it sounds massive. I can’t decide what impresses me most: the superb clarity in the high end, warmth in the vocals, or depth and detail in the bass. On soft, acoustic tracks, with spaces between the notes, there is silence – no hiss or hum. Just pure, wonderful music. I’ve not heard anything this good in quite some time, even in component systems.

The unit puts out 100 watts across five speakers, with a woofer in the centre, two midranges and two tweeters. The unit puts out 100 watts total – 50 to the woofer with the other speakers gobbling up the remainder.

I’m no longer skeptical about the Zeppelin’s good looks, accepting it as part of a smartly-designed package, a melding of funky and functional. B&W’s research has found that too much cabinetry around speakers has a damping effect on sound, so they minimize enclosure ‘packaging,’ in this case with the tapered ends.

This is no boom box however; not something you can grab and carry to the beach. At almost 17 pounds, it’s startlingly heavy, and there is no ‘carry’ handle.  Besides, too much slugging around might damage the fabric or scratch that lovely stainless steel finish on the back.

A quick note about sound quality on the iPod. If you’ve been downloading music from your CD’s to mp3 format, the audio quality is going to suffer, especially at the minimum 128-bit rate. This consumes much less storage space and is fine if you are listening on headphones or small speakers, but inadequate for quality audio systems. You should be using the superior AAC format – now standard in iTunes – or, better again, Apple Lossless format for Mac users.

To sum up, the Zeppelin is a great way to bring audiophile sound to your iPod, in a compact, eye-pleasing format and an (arguably) affordable price.

For more information, visit http://www.bowers-wilkins.com.

Geoff Meeker is a communications consultant with a soft spot for technology. He also writes a blog about the local media scene, which is hosted at http://www.thetelegram.com.

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