Bowers & Wilkins is a well-respected, high-end brand for audio equipment, but have only recently reached further into the consumer realm. The Z2 ($399.99 list) is the least expensive product we’ve seen from the company yet—and it’s a stunner. We’ve been waiting for a while for a do-it-all speaker with a Lightning connector and wireless capability. The Z2 packs all of this into a conveniently sized dock with surprisingly transparent and natural sound. It’s not perfect, but it certainly raises the bar for the kind of audio you can expect in a mid-price system, and is our new Editors’ Choice for speaker docks, replacing the JBL OnBeat Xtreme.
Design and Connectivity
The Bowers & Wilkins Z2 measures 7.09 by 12.6 by 3.94 inches (HWD) and weighs 5.73 pounds. The enclosure is made of glass-reinforced ABS plastic with a textured, soft-touch coating around the top and curved back panel. The top panel features the Lightning dock and a pair of touch-activated Volume buttons. Around back, you’ll find an Ethernet port, a 3.5mm auxiliary input, and a DC input for the power adapter. There’s also a pinhole Reset button and an easy-to-find Power button on the right side. The package contains the speaker, a small AC adapter and power cord, a remote control, an AirPlay setup manual, and a booklet about the company itself.
Bowers & Wilkins did some clever design work here. On the top panel, the Z2 hides the Lightning dock in such a way that when you use the Z2 in wireless streaming mode, it doesn’t look odd, with an empty docking connector sitting out in the open and screwing up the clean aesthetic. The dock is hinged, and can move back and forth by a significant amount; this reduces the chance that someone will accidentally snap off the connector if they grab the iPhone or iPod touch too quickly, and from an angle. (The connector doesn’t support iPads, though you can stream from your Apple tablet via AirPlay.)
Unfortunately, the remote control is the same one Bowers & Wilkins packages with its other powered speakers, such as the larger and more expensive Zeppelin Air. It’s a small, black, simplistic, egg-shape piece of plastic with volume, track playback and skip, and power controls, along with a Select button for switching between the auxiliary input and AirPlay streaming. It’s difficult to hold, and it’s really tough to remove or replace the battery cover.
AirPlay setup is much simpler than before, as it’s app driven—versions are available for iOS, PC, and Mac desktops. Power up the dock, and a small LED in the bottom right corner of the front panel will pulse red before flashing yellow. Then, in the app, go to Settings>Wi-Fi, and chose “Z2_Setup_70A1C” as the Wi-Fi network, and return to the app to continue setup. The Z2 only supports the 2.4GHz band, not 5GHz, which can be an issue if you have a lot of wireless interference. I had no problem setting the Z2 up on one of the many wireless networks in our test lab.
During normal operation, you’ll see a solid red LED on the Z2, which turns blue when successfully docked with an iOS device—although it took upwards of 15 seconds to register the connection with an iPhone 5 and an iPod touch. Annoyingly, the Z2 chopped the first half-second or so of every track I cued up over wireless; for a while, it was even doing that when the iPhone was docked, but then the problem seemed to resolve itself. The Z2 isn’t the first device we’ve tested to have this issue; the Pure Contour i200 Air did the same thing.
Performance and Conclusions
Behind the metal grille is a pair of 3.5-inch full range drivers and a 20 watt-per-channel stereo amplifier. Bowers & Wilkins lists the system’s frequency response as 50 to 20,000Hz +/- 3dB, with 6dB down points at 42Hz and 22kHz. The Z2 sounds warm, full, and rich at moderate volumes, with surprisingly deep, resonant bass. On our standard test track for bass response, The Knife’s “Silent Shout,” the Z2 rendered the synth bass and the 808-style kick drum with plenty of punch and weight. As I turned the volume up, some distortion began to creep into the signal. While the unit seems to be doing some signal processing to limit the bass as I turned up the volume, it still distorted a bit anyway.
Flunk’s chill-out track, “Indian Rope Trick,” sounded smooth, airy, and a little bright, which is pretty much how it was intended to sound. I didn’t get much of a sense of the weighty synth bass extension, but the kick came through loud and clear and delivered sufficient punch. On Bill Callahan’s “Drover,” his baritone vocal sounded warm and natural, thanks to the Z2′s excellent low-mid response, and as the plucked acoustic guitar and repeating kick drum come in, you get a surprising sense of space out of the recording. I say “surprising” because it’s tough to achieve that with a dock the size of the Z2, at least without proper stereo separation, but it goes to show you what good drivers and amplification can obtain even out of a small enclosure.
With the Z2, Bowers & Wilkins is bringing a real taste of high-end sound to a lower price point than before. While $400 is by no means inexpensive, it’s par for the course for an AirPlay speaker and combination iOS dock, so to get this level of sound quality at this price is remarkable. The $500 JBL OnBeat Xtreme, our previous Editors’ Choice winner, also sounds great and offers Bluetooth and iOS docking (via the older 30-pin dock connector), but it’s not as elegantly styled, and it’s $100 more expensive than the Z2.
Perhaps the closest competitor to the Bowers & Wilkins Z2 is the $500 Denon Cocoon Portable, but the Z2 is a better bet. While the Z2 also has some distortion issues, they’re not as bad, and the Z2 costs $100 less, adds a docking connector, and is capable of more bass output. Bowers & Wilkins’ own A5 offers better sonic performance than the Z2, but it costs $100 more and lacks a dock connector; it’s purely a speaker for wireless streaming. The Zeppelin Air goes louder still, and Bowers & Wilkins just announced a new version with a Lightning Connector. But the Zeppelin Air’s polarizing design isn’t for everyone, it’s $200 more expensive, and it’s a much bigger unit than the Z2.
While the Bose SoundLink Bluetooth Mobile Speaker II is an exceptional portable speaker, it’s not quite as capable thanks to its smaller size, and it lacks a Lightning connector. The Libratone Zipp is an inspired wireless speaker with good sound, although the Z2 is a little more robust-sounding overall. Finally, if you’re a real bass fan, have a look at the Beats by Dr. Dre Beatbox Portable, which is also wireless-capable, but lacks the Z2′s Lightning connector and beautiful midrange response.
|Wireless Remote Control||Yes|
|Power Rating (Left and Right, Each)||20 watts RMS per channel|
|Type||iPod, Computer, Wireless, iPad, iPhone, Android|
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc