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Kevin Hunt - The Electronic Jungle
The Electronic Jungle
10:23 AM EDT, May 17, 2013
The aerophobic Z2, the first speaker dock from Bowers & Wilkins that doesn't look like a dirigible and doesn't cost $600, would still be easy to pick out in a police lineup of compact, midpriced systems.
Though it lacks the drama, and wingspan, of Bower & Wilkins' Zeppelin Air, it's curvy enough that an aerial view recalls a slightly sloped, pointed NASCAR oval. At 12.6 inches, about half the width of the original Zeppelin Air, it's also better suited to a bookshelf, desktop or kitchen counter corner.
And that itty-bitty dock connector? The Z2 is among the first speaker docks with Apple's new Lightning connector: If you don't have an iPhone 5, you'll need an adapter to fit an old-school iPhone or iPod. (The Z2 does not accommodate iPads.)
Let's quickly remove the asterisk from "midpriced" and define it as $400 (the Z2's price) or less. Bowers & Wilkins, a British high-end speaker manufacturer, might finally have a working-class hit.
The Z2 has the same sophisticated sound as the company's bigger Zeppelin Air, though neither replicates the stereo imaging of a conventional audio system with two speakers. For its size, however, the Z2 plays big and, within reason, loud and full-bodied.
Like the Zeppelin Air, it's more than a home for a docked Apple device. It also plays music wirelessly from those same Apple devices connected to a home network using Apple's AirPlay technology. For in-home streaming, AirPlay beats Bluetooth for stability, range and fidelity.
Connecting the Z2 to a home network should take only a few minutes using the Bowers & Wilkins app available from the App Store or the company's website (.bowers-wilkins.com/setupapp). Once connected, you might as well discard the app: The Z2's song selection, volume adjustments and other controls are now administered from your iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad.
The Z2's remote, the familiar little Bowers & Wilkins egg, handles basic navigation of docked Apple devices. The Z2 itself, which weighs less than 6 pounds, has no visible controls unless a sharp eye sees the subtle plus and minus symbols, for touch-sensitive volume adjustments, adjacent to the dock. The top panel, with its rubberized finish, slopes downward from the top toward the dock, a subtle design that conceals the dock when there's no iPhone or iPod sitting on it.
Bowers & Wilkins surely knows the dock's days are numbered, that iDevice owners would rather use their device while listening to music than leave it mounted atop a speaker dock. Wireless is the way people prefer their music. (Already, Bowers & Wilkins offers two no-dock, Airplay speakers: the $500 A5 and $800 A7.)
The Z2 has alternatives to wireless and docked music built into the back panel, with an Ethernet port for a direct connection to a laptop or computer and 3.5 mm jack to connect another device, like an Android. The power button is also on the back panel, as is the Flowport that uses escaping energy generated by the pair of 3.5-inch full-range drivers driven by a 20-watt amplifier to produce more audible low frequencies.
A straight-on view of the Z2, then, is an all-black metal grille, the rubberized top and a glass-enforced lower rim that also bears the company name. (Coming in June: the white Z2.)
During my audition of the Z2, I used the master on-off button only once. Once connected to my home network, the Z2 remained in standby, so that when I started Slacker or dialed in Temple University's WRTI using iPhone's TuneIn app, or using AirPlay listened to music from a hard drive connected to a laptop, the speaker came to life automatically.
So if wireless is your thing, you could use the Z2 for its lifetime without ever touching it again after the initial setup. Fluance's FiSDK500 (fluance.com) remains the best $200 speaker dock I've heard, but if my budget were $400, I'd look first to Bowers & Wilkins' Z2.
What: Bowers & Wilkins Z2 speaker dock
Hot: A Lightning connector speaker dock with superb sound and great design that fits almost anywhere. An ideal in-home wireless speaker.
Not: Pre-iPhone 5 devices need an adapter for docking.
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