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):
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?