While there is much to be said for high-performance iPod/computer audio systems that feature dedicated docks, DACs, amps, speakers and even subwoofers, the fact is that many people want something much simpler than that—and preferably better looking. This, of course, is where today’s nicer standalone iPod/USB audio systems, such as the B&W Zeppelin Mini, come into play.
For those of you who aren’t normally followers of this product category, it helps to know that B&W’s first effort in this area was a medium-sized and visually stunning iPod speaker system called the Zeppelin (so named because the speaker enclosure looked like a jet-black, futuristic interpretation of one of the famous Zeppelin airships). The big Zeppelin has many admirers, partly because it’s such a striking piece of industrial design, but also because it sounds quite good. However, it also has its critics, who complain that the über Zep is too large (just over 25” in width), too expensive (roughly $600), and—despite what techno-fashionistas might say—too radical looking for some home environments.
To grasp what the Zeppelin Mini ($399.95) is all about, picture it as kinder, gentler, smaller, classier, and cheaper take on the Zeppelin concept, yet one that still shows a strong commitment to sound quality and that adds some worthwhile technical innovations of its own. While the big Zep had pass-through video outputs for use with video-capable iPods (a feature that’s been dropped in the Zeppelin Mini), the Mini adds two potentially more useful features. First, the Mini’s iPod dock pulls digital—not analog—audio signals from attached iPods, and second, the Mini can play USB audio files from your computer. Very cool.
Consider this iPod/desktop speaker system if: you want a stylish and quite compact speaker system that shows both sonic and visual sophistication. Consider the Zeppelin Mini, too, if you like the idea of a desktop system that can interface with iPods and iPhones, that provides an auxiliary analog audio input, and also a USB port that you can use either for syncing iPods to your PC or to play digital audio files stored on your computer. While no system this small can rival the sound quality of a full-on, separates-based computer audio system, the Zeppelin Mini at least gets you ballpark close, and with a heaping helping of style and panache.
Look further if: down deep, you really do want the performance of the aforementioned full-on, separates-based computer audio system. Also look further if you have your heart set on a one-piece desktop system that provides AM/FM/HD radio tuner functions, or that provides video outputs from iPods or iPhones (the Zeppelin Mini has no tuner or video functions).
Important user tip: The Quick Start Guide that comes packed with the Mini Zeppelin is downright inscrutable, so plan on using the online owner’s manual if you have questions.
Ratings (relative to comparably priced iPod/desktop speaker systems):
- Highs: 9
- Mids: 9
- Bass: 8
- Imaging/Soundstaging: 7
- Visual Design: 10
- Functional Design: 7 (no tuner or video functions)
- Value: 8
- Sleek industrial design by Morten Warren of London-based Native Design (the same firm that shaped the big Zeppelin).
- Compact footprint (roughly 12” x 4”).
- Two 3-inch full range drivers with DSP-driven EQ (or voicing) system.
- 2 x 18 Wpc amplifiers.
- Docking system draws digital audio—not analog audio—signals from iPods and iPhones.
- Docking pedestal swivels 90 degrees to allow landscape screen view for iPods, iPhones.
- USB 2.0 port supports streaming digital audio from PC/Mac, iPod syncing, and software updates.
- An auxiliary analog audio input lets you connect other sources such as non-Apple personal digital music players, CD players, etc.
- Remote control supports on/off, volume up/down, play/pause, track forward/backward functions and input switching.
Before we talk about the sonic character of the Zeppelin Mini, let’s set up some ground rules. First, we aren’t comparing the product to separates-based computer audio systems, but rather to other one-piece desktop iPod systems. Second, we will focus primarily on how the system sounds when the listener is seated nearby, giving only secondary consideration to how the Zeppelin Mini works as a whole-room entertainment system. Fair enough?
When heard at close range, the dominant characteristic of the Zeppelin Mini is its suave and very sophisticated midrange, which is where the product’s rich B&W heritage really shines through. Just as with some of B&W higher performance speaker systems, the little Zeppelin Mini draws you in, leads you to pay attention to details and nuances in the music, and invites you follow individual musical lines as they unfold. It’s this ability to get the broad middle of the midrange right that really sets the Zeppelin Mini apart from many of its like-priced competitors. Remember, the midrange is where most of the music really happens.
Highs are very clean and clear, with a pleasing articulate and sparkling quality on cymbals and the like. That said, however, the Zeppelin Mini’s highs are perhaps not quite as silky smooth and extended as those produced by the full-sized Zeppelin, which uses a dedicated woofer and separate Left/Right midrange drivers and tweeters.
Bass—or more accurately mid- and upper-bass—is articulate and fairly well-defined, though I think some listeners might wish for greater overall weight and impact, especially where musical tastes lean toward bass-heavy rock, hip-hop, or orchestral material. While B&W’s DSP-driven EQ circuits no doubt help, the fact is that there is only so much bass output an enclosure this size can support; if you want more output, you’ll need to step up to a bigger system such as the full-size Zeppelin. This is where the listener’s position relative to the Zeppelin Mini becomes critical. When seated at your desk with the Mini placed at arm’s length from you, bass output seems pretty generous and satisfying, but if you try to listen to the Mini from across the room—especially in a larger space—bass can seem a bit lightweight.
Stereo imaging works well from up close, with the Mini casting a holographic “bubble” of sound that extends upward from, and slightly to the left and right of, the Mini’s elliptically shaped enclosure. If you listen from further away, however, you will of course not experience the very broad soundstages you would hear with systems that have separate left and right speakers that can placed several feet apart.
Much of what the Zeppelin Mini does right is beautifully revealed by the track “Senia’s Lament” from the album Lookout for Hope [Sugar Hill], as performed by theDobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas and his band. The Mini does a great job of reproducing the soaring yet at times melancholic voice of the Dobro, perfectly capturing its ability of cut through a mix without ever sounding edgy or strident. The Mini has nuance enough to let you appreciate Douglas’ masterful playing style and the sure, evocative way in which he bends notes to add expression and emphasis throughout the track.
High percussion sounds very delicate, too, though again not quite as smooth or as effortless as it might be through the bigger Zeppelin. The bass lines on “Senia’s Lament” play an important role, creating a deep, solid, low frequency foundation for Douglas’ overarching Dobro themes.
Through the Mini, the foundational sound of the bass had some but not all of the power and weight I’ve come to expect through listening to this track on a number of systems over time. While the Mini sounds amazing good given that it uses just two 3-inch full range drivers, the fact is the system’s low-frequency output can only go so far. On most material it is perfectly enjoyable, but don’t expect thunderously powerful bass lines or pipe organ notes; those simply aren’t on the menu.
Let me provide some comments to show how the Zeppelin Mini stacks up versus some of its more accomplished competitors.
Zeppelin Mini vs. Chestnut Hill Sound “George” ($500)
- Overall, the Zeppelin Mini offers a clearer, more nuanced, and more focused sound than the George, at least for desktop listening, though the George might arguably be a better whole-room entertainment system.
- The remote control system of the George, which is one of the best we’ve ever tried (and which mimics the menu structure of the iPod from across the room), is superior to the remote of the Mini.
- The Mini can stream digital audio files from a PC or Mac, where the George cannot.
- The George provides an ingenious “combined” AM/FM tuner, plus video pass-through functions, where the Zeppelin Mini does not.
- In terms of sculptural appeal, the Zeppelin Mini is a more sophisticated piece of industrial design than the George.
Zeppelin Mini vs. B&W Zeppelin ($599)
- There is a discernible family resemblance between the sonic character of the Zeppelin Mini and that of the full-sized Zeppelin, though at the end of the day the larger unit produces a more robust, more full-bodied, and slightly more refined sound. Not surprisingly, the big Zeppelin also makes a better system for whole-room applications.
- The big Zeppelin provides pass-through video functions, where the Zeppelin Mini does not.
- The Zeppelin Mini can stream digital audio files where the full-size Zeppelin does not.
- The Zeppelin Mini’s docking pedestal can rotate 90 degrees to support landscape screen viewing, where the Zeppelin’s dock positions iPods vertically, only.
- Though both units are quite beautiful, the big Zeppelin is the more radical-looking design and a product that is more than twice the size of the Zeppelin Mini (which potentially makes the big Zeppelin too large for some desktop applications). By comparison, the Zeppelin Mini is the perfect size for desktop use.
Zeppelin Mini vs. Focal XS 2.1-channel iPod system ($599)
- The Focal XS is one the best sounding iPod systems we have heard and as such it enjoys a sonic edge over the Zeppelin Mini, whether viewed as a desktop system or as a whole-room system. In fact, as iPod systems go, the XS rig is one of the best for use as whole-room hi-fi system.
- The tradeoff, however, is that the Focal XS system is a three-piece rig (two desktop speakers, one of which incorporates an iPod dock plus USB audio and analog audio inputs, with an under-desk subwoofer. For obvious reasons, the XS system is considerably bigger and somewhat more complex (but as a result also more flexible) than the simple and elegant Zeppelin Mini.
- Significantly, both systems can stream digital audio via USB from PC or Macs, which greatly increases their usefulness.
- Both systems are beautifully designed, though in different ways. The Zeppelin Mini appeals more as a singular, sculptural object, while the XS system draws its design cues from Apple’s popular iMac desktop computers.
- The XS system dock cannot be swiveled as can the Zeppelin Mini’s, but the Focal design is clever nevertheless as its dock is an integral part of one the desktop speaker stands. What is more, the Focal remote is, by design, magnetic so that it can be attached to the XS speaker stands when not in use.
B&W’s beautiful and compact Zeppelin Mini is a pleasing desktop iPod/computer audio system that represents a treat both for the eyes and ears. Sonically, the system’s performances hinges on its surprisingly sophisticated and nuanced midrange capabilities, which are augmented with DSP-enhanced highs and lows. The Mini will appeal specifically to listeners who want a desktop-centric system, rather than a system designed to serve as a larger-scale whole-room entertainment system (for larger rooms, B&W’s full-sized Zeppelin would be a better solution).
B&W Zeppelin Mini iPod/desktop speaker system
Driver complement: two 3-inch full-range drivers with DSP-driven EQ system
Amplifier Power: 2 x 18 Wpc
Inputs: 30-pin iPod/iPhone docking connector mounted on a swiveling pedestal (to allow landscape screen viewing); USB 2.0 connector for iPod syncing, streaming audio from PC/Mac, and for software updates; auxiliary stereo analog audio input (via 3.5mm mini-jack)
Other: remote control
Dimensions (H x W x D): 6.8” x 12.6” x 4”
Weight: 5.51 lbs.
Warranty: Two years, parts and labor
B&W GROUP NORTH AMERICA