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You know the line. Soon coming to a theatre near you. B+W's new $599 Zeppelin Air is due at dealerships next month. It's as good an opportunity as any to talk about technological IQ. As a breed, high-enders overlook this product category altogether. In this instance it would overlook an object lesson in clever engineering that ought to be applied to 'our' type product.


For starters this iDock machine's five drivers are actively amplified. This means discrete amps for each transducer—4 x 25 watts for the tweeters and mids, 1 x 50 watts for the woofer—and electronic crossovers. During a CES 2011 interview, B+W's engineers talked of having rewritten DSP code to adapt this new scheme over the Zeppelin's precursor model. This suggests that the Zeppelin Air applies intelligent equalization in the digital domain for both natural bass boost and overall response linearization.


The reason the Zeppelin Air can do that is its digital-direct iPod dock (the original Zeppelin's wasn't). By starting with digital files rather than analog signal, Apple's own iPod DAC can be upgraded to a 24/96 unit which also applies to the USB input. More importantly, B+W's fully active drivers can incorporate built-in speaker correction [at right is the firm's MM-1 computer speaker from whom the Zeppelin Air borrows its tweeters.]


During the CES, another company presenter called the Air model four times better than the precursor. You'd expect him to say that. He's on their pay roll. Even so common sense just from the above would predict a significant performance advantage. How much would require careful comparison. For today's purposes that's irrelevant. Relevant is that a $600 fully integrated concept from a corporate player implements technological brain power that goes far beyond 99% of all costly high-end separates.
High-end snobbery walks right past the Zeppelin Air as a stylish but sonically immaterial exercise in riding the iPod wave. I predict that for the above reasons this machine—minus obvious soundstaging effects its close channel placement can't duplicate—will compete with separate efforts up to €2.000. Again, the core reason is digital speaker correction and fully active mode. Sadly in the high-end bible equalization and active speakers are dirty words. Rather than benefiting from more intelligent solutions to pervasive problems (room correction and inherent speaker nonlinearities due to mechanical issues and passive crossovers) the high-end at large is committed to remaining technologically dumb.


Mention Bang & Olufsen to high-enders and noses wrinkle. All style and no substance is the implication. Meanwhile the same high-enders happily listen to a Jeff Rowland or Bel Canto amplifier with B&O ICEpower™ modules (or while we're on the class D subject, a seriously expensive Kharma amplifier with Hypex boards).


For now it's up to big corporate and so-called midfi to more fully exploit technological progress in DSP, class D power modules with digital inputs and active speaker drive. Their market segment expects and appreciates integration. With the Zeppelin Air for example you can stream directly from an iDevice. There's no need to even dock it. If you've got multiple Zeppelins, the sound can travel with you from room to room. In party mode your main router streams the signal wirelessly to all Zeppelins simultaneously for whole-house fun. Due to active drive and smart equalization, this machine without distortion also plays wildly louder than you'd give it credit for.


Again high-enders wrinkle their noses. None of this is serious enough. What they—conveniently, cough—overlook is that people into such features are into them because they listen to a lot of music a lot of the time, arguably more so than the man-cave dwellers with their short stack of audiophile-approved perfectly recorded cuts. B+W's Zeppelin Air thus caters to crass consumerism. Good on them too. The problem for the high-end? Due to far higher applied IQ, expectations with the Zeppelin Air are raised for what wildly more expensive and complex stuff ought to do even better. Can we really hope for much of the so-called midfi audience to embrace higher-performance audio when the latter comes in ugly rectangular black boxes with antiquated low-tech solutions? All that really means is that the high-end must charge disproportionately more for what could be accomplished for less if we went about our thang with a lot more brains.


To justify this perversion our religion sanctifies small boutique makers whilst demonizing big corporate with its massive engineering staffs and real resources. If you think me wrong at least pay the Zeppelin Air a quickie visit in your local sound emporium when the time comes. Oops. That'd require you bring your iPod. Don't have one yet? That's my point precisely. High-end snobbery is rooted very deep indeed. To reach out we gotta start with that.
Bowers & Wilkins website