REVIEW: Bluesound NODE 2 Streamer
If you've been holding off streaming your own music collection, or you've been looking for a high-quality music streamer for Tidal and Roon, then look no more as the Bluesound Node 2 fits the bill perfectly.
Network Music Streamer
Haven't heard of Bluesound before? How about Lenbrook? For those of you who don't know, Lenbrook is the company that owns the well-known and respected audio brands, NAD Electronics and PSB Speakers. Bluesound also falls under the Lenbrook umbrella and is distributed in New Zealand by leading and established importers, Wildash Audio Systems.
Bluesound launched their original line up of components back in 2014 with a clear focus on being a higher quality alternative to mainstream wireless music systems.
They have a range of products which take full advantage of the technological capabilities of their sister brands including a variety of wireless speakers, the Pulse 2, Pulse Soundbar and Subwoofer, Pulse Mini and Pulse Flex, as well as the Vault 2, a CD ripping/storage playback system.
Finally, the range is completed with a two-channel streaming amplifier dubbed the Powernode 2, and the subject of this review, the Node 2 streaming preamp, which sells in New Zealand for $1,199 RRP.
Being new to the Bluesound brand, I did a little background checking before putting the product through its paces. I wondered, from a consumer's perspective and those who haven't yet invested in multi-room technology, what reasons should they consider Bluesound over more mainstream products such as Sonos, Heos or others built around the DTS Play-Fi architecture? My own findings proved Bluesound is a force to be reckoned with, with a well thought out architecture and roadmap for the future.
There are a number of compelling reasons why buyers should consider Bluesound ahead of other brands in the multi-room audio category. Firstly, other brands using the DTS Play-Fi platform are (mostly) all limited to playing CD quality music – let’s call this Standard Definition. This has been fine up until now, and certainly offers an improvement over MP3 quality music (Low Definition).
What is happening in the world of music now is similar to what happened with television broadcasting: there is a High Definition alternative to Standard Definition music available right now, known as High-Res Audio. High-Res Audio presents music much closer to the studio master quality that the artist and recording engineer approved. Bluesound products are designed to correctly handle and play back High-Res Audio, making them the ideal multi-room option for music lovers. If it’s all about the sound, then Bluesound is the logical choice.
Bluesound is also the first multi-room wireless audio platform to offer full Master Quality Authenticated, or 'MQA' decoding, allowing the players to receive 24-bit streaming from Tidal.
Bluesound has other advantages too compared to other brands. All Bluesound products have convenience features such as Bluetooth, IR learning, streaming in up to 34 rooms, apps to suit iOS, Android, Kindle Fire, Windows and OSX.
The Bluesound Node 2 also offers best-in-class connectivity options, with inputs for analogue, optical digital, USB, Ethernet and Wi-Fi, and outputs including analogue, optical digital, coaxial digital, subwoofer and headphone. Custom installers love Bluesound too for its features set including 12v & 5v trigger outputs, IR input, IR learning and modules to suit third party control systems such as Control 4 and Push Controls.
THE NEXT GENERATION
It's quite apparent that Node 2 has received many significant improvements over the first generation release. Node 2 features a new and extremely powerful ARM Cortex A9 that Bluesound says offers faster processing, increased memory and reduced energy consumption. This leads to snappier response from the companion app, faster file indexing, and a lot of headroom for future feature enhancements.
The addition of analogue and mini optical digital audio inputs provides greater flexibility when wanting to use external sources. These inputs can be shared to other players in a Bluesound multi-room system.
The Node 2 is really versatile, but one must stop and think about the possibilities. Node 2 features both optical digital input and output, allowing any sound bar to be used within a Bluesound system, controlled by the Bluesound app. For instance, the digital audio signal from a TV can be connected to the optical input on the Node 2. The optical output on the Node 2 can then be routed to any sound bar with an optical input (i.e. all of them), which then becomes a “slave” to the Bluesound app.
Node 2 also saw the additional of a headphone output has apparently has proven to be a very popular feature. The headphone amplifier stage is well-designed, and has enough current to drive even premium planar headphones.
The updated and new compact design also makes the Node 2 much easier to live with. It is 22cm wide (half normal component width), allowing two units be positioned side-by-side in a rack. The new rubberised finish does not show up annoying fingerprints like the gloss finish on the previous model; first world problem, I know.
The Bluesound range is Wi-Fi certified, and the Gen 2 models have the latest generation chipsets and antennae with 30% improved sensitivity. This results in faster connection times, reduced interference from network traffic and perfect synchronisation between rooms. Up to 16 rooms can be operated wirelessly in a Bluesound system (depending on network strength), which is an extraordinary technological achievement.
The Ethernet port has been increased to Gigabit speed (1000Mbps), for zero network dropouts and music to up to 34 rooms.
The addition of Bluetooth 4.0 with apt-X now built in allows high quality wireless playback direct from any Bluetooth-enabled source.
The USB socket now outputs 1 A, instead of the previous 500 mA, which theoretically gives the Node 2 enough current to spin up any connected USB hard drive.
Like many sound bars, the Node 2 (and all other Bluesound Gen 2 models) can learn IR signals from an IR remote control. This is useful if the TV sound is being routed through the Node 2. When the TV remote power button is pushed, the Node 2 can automatically switch to its Optical input. The volume buttons on the TV remote can then also control Bluesound volume, meaning the user never needs to pick up a device and access the app for these simple functions.
For such a small and compact unit, it certainly packs a punch when it comes to features.
On the output side of things, we have stereo RCA, digital coaxial, optical as well as both a headphone output and subwoofer pre-out.
File support is fantastic, offering MP3, AAC, WMA, WMA-L, OGG, FLAC, ALAC, WAV, AIFF and High-Res audio up to 24/192. Unfortunately, for those few wanting DSD capability, you may have to look elsewhere.
There are a good number of music streaming services on hand too, major players such as Spotify, Tidal, Deezer and Qobuz as well as many others.
Un-boxing & Setup
The first thing I noticed about the Node 2 was the weight and overall feel of it. It genuinely felt like a quality piece of gear.
Plugging it in place of my usual Sonos Connect, it took no time to get the Node 2 up and running. Logging in to my usual music services was also simple and straightforward.
Each remote device you wish to control Bluesound from obviously needs to have the app setup, but again this was a breeze.
I tested the optical, coaxial and RCA outputs. Of the digital outputs, I found optical delivered a touch greater insight. The RCA outputs also sounded surprisingly good, with the slightest hint of warmth to the tone. The Node 2 clearly has a decent on-board DAC.
After these initial checks, I opted to use the optical output and set the Node 2 to ‘fixed output’ mode for the duration of the review.
At first, I was unsure about Bluesound's proprietary control app. Going from the Sonos controller which I was so accustomed to, it was a very different layout so it took me some time to adapt.
I'm happy to say though, it is for the most part, a great user experience that continues to evolve as Bluesound releases updates. The app is fairly intuitive and to gauge its user-friendliness, I ended up turning to my partner in crime for her thoughts. For context, Louise is a relative novice with technology so it was a great test to see how she coped.
A few hours in and I received a text message saying how much she was enjoying Bluesound and how she found the app even easier to drive than Sonos. That’s a win right there.
Like a number of controllers and interfaces I've tested lately, my recommendation is for the larger real estate, tablet version; everything is just laid out better in front of you. The smartphone version still performs fluidly too but it just takes a bit of time to find all the shortcuts to personalised content. This applies to virtually all control apps though.
Creating on-the-fly playlists is easy thanks to the latest update. There are three dots located to the right of each track, and tapping that will give you the option of Play Now, Play Next or Add to Queue.
One feature I really like is that the app can recognise the file quality of tracks in your music library, and indicates as much with a 'CD' for lossless content and 'HD' for high resolution content next to the track name. A nice touch.
The Young'Uns are a folk trio originating from Stockton in North East England. They’ve been together since 2005 and last year released their third album, Another Man's Ground.
Their particular brand of folk music is either stripped bare with minimal accompaniment, or no accompaniment at all, pure a‘Capella three part vocal harmonies. It's an excellent album featuring some fantastic true to life references.
Track three for example, 'The Streets of Lahore' is a beautiful ballad written about the 'honor' killing of Farzana Parveen in Pakistan in 2014. The story itself is actually quite horrendous, but it translates magically into song.
For the majority of the track, we are met with Sean Cooney's vocal accompanied by Michael Hughes' acoustic guitar. Around halfway through, David Eagle comes in with his accordion and towards the end, the song opens right up into stunning three part harmonies.
Streaming via Tidal, the Node 2 didn't fail to convey the intimacy of this performance I know so well. In fact, having listened earlier to the CD playing through my OPPO BDP-103D as a transport, I would actually say the Node 2 sounded at least as good if not better.
'Goodbye Pork Pie Hat' by Charles Mingus, a stunning jazz piece, is something I happened to stumble upon in a nicely compiled playlist, again via Tidal.
The instrument separation is top class, with no detail left unturned. Perhaps a little cliché, but I felt like I was in my listening room and a jazz club simultaneously!
Bluesound are all about the high resolution experience, so I wanted to see what that had to offer.
'Instant Crush' from Daft Punk's 'Random Access Memories' is probably one of my favorite tracks from the release.
In 24/88.2 it delivered a full bodied sound, placing the multiple synth sounds in appropriate positioning across the two channels with Casablanca’s' melodic vocal sitting comfortably in the middle. I can't mention Daft Punk however without also listening to the big single, 'Get Lucky'.
The groove is what drives this song, and the Node 2 wasn't about to give up and lose its grip on that track either. It had me tapping my foot along as the song progressed through.
Something a bit left of field, my favorite Nirvana track 'Heart Shaped Box' from the 20th Anniversary 24/96 re-release of 'In Utero'. For lack of a better word, it just sounded awesome. I felt like I was in high school all over again. Dynamically transitioning from the quiet verses into the bold chorus, it really tore down the barriers between a man and his music.
Pink Floyd's 'What do you want from me' in 24/96 from the recent 'The Division Bell' re-issue also sounded brilliant, taking up centre stage in my room. The track was huge, spanning far and wide, the backing vocals lingering in the background, but sticking out just enough to really demonstrate the depth of what I was hearing.
We’ve already established the Node 2 sounds great, the control app is up there with the best, file playback is exceptional, and it offers some great streaming service compatibility. What about all of its other gizmos?
iPad Bluetooth, activated …
Pairing to the Node 2 was quick and painless, particularly compared with other Bluetooth devices I have tried in the past. Running via my iPad, it became the volume control with the Node 2 simply operating as the receiver.
I perused my 'high fidelity' playlist on Tidal. 'Man in the long black coat' by Bob Dylan is one of my favorites to test a system.
It wasn't a pleasant experience upon initial connection however, as I was getting some crackle through the speakers. I realised it was because I had put the volume on my iPad up to maximum in order to use my amp remote as the volume control, however it seemed as though the gain was too hot with the iPad volume set to maximum output.
Pulling the volume back a touch on the iPad resolved it. And sound was clear, as in crystal.
The harmonica passage in the intro vanished into the room, exactly as it should and while I personally don't really have a use for Bluetooth myself, I can see it being an excellent addition for others who might.
It had been mentioned to me that the headphone amplifier built into the Node 2 really was impressive and it would happily drive Planar Magnetic cans. I decided to put that to the test with my OPPO PM-3s.
The connection of the headphones immediately defeated output to the amplifier as well as converting the volume control from fixed output mode to variable. It dropped it to around half volume, potentially saving my ears in the process, a clever and intuitive touch.
The OPPO PM3s were able to get more than enough gain from the Node 2. In fact, I couldn't see myself needing to go beyond 70% volume on the slider.
Another test track I love using is 'Two Weeks' by FKA Twigs. This track has very full bass, but with a nice clean vocal. Listening via the headphones certainly didn't disappoint. The bass had heft to it, and the vocal remained composed, even under aggressive passages with lots going on. In short, the headphone output is yet another satisfactory addition.
Bluesound had managed to fly under my radar for its first couple of years. It was there, and I knew about it, but until recently I had never had the chance to try it out for myself.
Missing out I most certainly was. I have really been blown away by this compact, yet feature packed device; the whole Bluesound platform in general actually. Better late than never as they say!
Call this former Sonos user a Bluesound convert, and it’s fair to say the Node 2 has remained here in my system. It's really been that good.
For more information visit Bluesound.
The article Bluesound Node 2 Review first appeared on StereoNET AU.
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