BLUESOUND NODE (2021 ) wireless multi-room streamer
+ Well specified connectivity, wired and wireless; BluOS is a mature and slick app which integrates well with most devices and home hi-fi systems; new touch panel interface is slick and has useful new functions; operations are smooth and lag-free with the upgraded processor; new DAC section has significant gains in detail, clarity and transparency; smooth integration via Spotify Connect and Tidal Connect with its native apps, and Roon Ready integration.
– Not much at the asking price – perhaps a real display on the unit would have been the icing on the cake?; no Apple Music integration beyond Airplay2; no DSD support.
A guide to the ratings
BLUESOUND has over the past few years established a solid reputation in the now-not-so new digital streaming space, but the more recent development of online services such as Tidal, Qobuz and even Apple Music offering lossless and high-res subscriptions, the audiophile streaming space has now truly come of age.
Spotify, the vanguard in this space, has yet to launch its lossless service at the time of this review, but I have no doubt that will arrive soon. Bluesound itself has been a brand established by Lenbrook, the Canadian company which also encompasses a number of well-regarded hi-fi brands such as NAD and PSB. As such, the newer brand was established with a new positioning, but has borrowed some of its hi-fi DNA from its sister brands, not least NAD which has in return incorporated BluOS into some of its streaming amp products. I have personally been a fan of the brand, and have been using two of its products – a version 1 Bluesound Vault and a Node 2 – for many years now and have been more than satisfied with the performance of the system and the components.
Bluesound positions itself somewhat differently from its most direct multi-room audio competition, Sonos, and in the last few years, this differentiation has increased. Bluesound has focused more on the hi-fi end of the market, and has put more emphasis on hi-fi components such as this NODE (2021) streamer and the POWERNODE (2021) streaming amp, whilst Sonos has been more focused on the powered speaker and soundbar market, and has not truly entered the high-res market.
Hi-fi aspirations notwithstanding, the lifestyle nature of Bluesound products is still apparent in the design – much more in line with an appliance that you would put in your lounge as part of its design rather than hidden in a hi-fi dungeon. The NODE (2021) itself does not look too different to its forebears, the 2 and 2i. It comes as a smart dense plastic enclosure in black or white finishes, with rounded corners and a line around the circumference to break up an otherwise plain set of sides.
On top, the touch panel has been upgraded with a proximity sensitive set of buttons and sliders. Of particular note, there are five multi-function touch buttons on top which can be programmed as shortcuts to playlists, radio stations and the such. A volume slider is available as well as skip, play and pause buttons. There is no supplied IR remote control, although one is available for purchase. However, the unit can be programmed to understand commands from most existing remote control units you might already have.
Connectivity is very good, especially considering the modest size of the unit, which includes the mains PSU internally, fed by a “Telefunken” or figure 8 mains input. Source inputs are rich – via dual-band WiFi or wired Gigabit Ethernet, the unit can connect to a multitude of streaming services, such as Spotify, Tidal, Qobuz and Deezer. In addition, BluOS onboard is Roon Ready and will act as a fully featured endpoint. Airplay 2 support is also on board for iOS devices, though there is no direct integration to Apple Music. BluOS can also connect to SMB shares on your NAS. There is also a USB-A socket which can access portable HDDs connected directly to the unit.
There is also two-way Bluetooth on board, playing out to Bluetooth headphones and speakers as well as receiving Bluetooth audio streams from DAPs, tablets and smartphones. It is also fully featured in terms of audio codecs with APT-X, APT-X HD and AAC onboard as well as the obligatory SBC. Physical inputs are doubled on a 3.5mm analogue input which also is a 3.5mm jack optical TOSlink input. A new addition to the NODE (2021) is a HDMI eARC input – de rigueur these days for integration into home AV set-ups.
Physical outputs are a pair of unbalanced analogue RCA outputs, as well as a mono subwoofer outputs. There is also a TOSlink optical output (up to 24/192) and SPDIF coaxial RCA jack (also up to 24/192). There is also a 3.5mm headphone jack situated on the front panel which mutes the analogue and digital outputs on the rear. There is also an IR input jack on the read as well as a trigger out for integration into AV setups.
Onboard is an upgraded new generation 1.8 GHz quad core ARM Cortex A53 processor with increased memory and processing power, running BluOS. Also upgraded is a new DAC with the capability to decode 32bit, 382kHz PCM data, though I was unable to confirm if BluOS can pass PCM data in excess of 24/192. The DAC and unit does not handle DSD streams or files, though there is a rather poor workaround in BluOS to play such files though transcoding. The onboard DAC is also a full fledged MQA renderer and as such works well with TIDAL MQA streams as well as MQA files streamed from a NAS or via Roon.
In terms of app support, BluOS is a very mature ecosystem with elegant apps for both iOS and Android for your mobile devices as well as Windows and MacOS apps for your desktop computers. The interface is easy to use and functionality is quick and intuitive, on par with SONOS’ apps. However, most may find it even easier to stream to the NODE using Spotify Connect or TIDAL Connect which will sense the NODE as a speaker to send audio to. Of particular note, TIDAL connect supports MQA streaming from its Masters collection of tracks.
Roon integration has been part of the BluOS ecosystem for years as a Roon Ready endpoint, and a Roon setup will pick up all the signalling back from the NODE including the processing.
Last but not least, the NODE supports Voice assistant integration for Amazon Alexa, Google Home and Apple Siri.
I tested the unit initially in a more modest set-up of a Pioneer A400 amplifier driving a pair of Falcon Acoustics Silver Badge LS3/5as. I also connected a REL Acoustics T5 to the subwoofer output to test that functionality. The NODE was functioning in fixed output mode with the volume controlled on the amp.
I then connected them to a very revealing pair of Focal Twin Be 6 professional active studio monitors via the XLR to RCA converters for more critical listening via a Chord Hugo2 DAC, driven from the NODE’s SPDIF coaxial output. I principally drove them as a Roon Ready endpoint, but also used Spotify Connect and Tidal connect to stream music.
I tested the analogue input using an external phono stage fronting a Lenco L78 turntable and also the digital optical input from a Sony D100 field recorder as a monitor for a recording.
I also briefly tested the unit via the eARC input, with Grado Hemp headphones on the headphone output, and also a pair of Bowers and Wilkins PX bluetooth headphones in Bluetooth mode.
– with the Pioneer A400 and Falcon LS3/5as, and REL Acoustics T5:
Off the bat, the Bluesound shows a very similar voicing to my own Node 2 streamer, but it became abundantly clear that there was a lot more detail, transparency and depth/scale in the soundstage. Quick A/B comparisons made abundantly clear that Bluesound has not been resting on its laurels and has made some significant improvements in the DAC and analogue outputs.
Whilst the older NODE 2 was never a slouch in the pace and rhythm department, the new NODE has a sharper sense of timing and such dynamics and swings seem easier to appreciate. This was most evident in Bill Evans’ seminal live album at the Village Vanguard, Waltz for Debby (24/194 FLAC file from HDTracks). Paul Motian’s brush work on cymbals and snare play off rhythmically with Scott LeFaro’s bass and Evans’ piano, especially in the eponymous track. The added detail and space in the soundstage made for an even more enjoyable listen.
I switched to some downbeat electronica next – a CD rip of Zero 7’s sophomore album When it Falls (16/44 FLAC). Here, the NODE showed a good grip on the multi-layered production, and the aptly named track Warm Sound sounded suitably warm without being too wooly. The NODE shows a generally even-handed tonal balance, with only the mildest hints of warmth in the upper bass, but never does that intrude on the midrange. Sia’s vocals on the second track, Home, was well projected with her diction clearly articulated.
Changing tack again to one of my favourite recordings to illustrate soundstage depth and scale – maestro Herbert von Karajan conducting Beethoven’s Symphonies leading the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1963 (Tidal MQA stream). The MQA decoder on the NODE came into its own on this recording, revealing a subtle additional layer of detail and ambiance retrieval which allowed for an impressively large soundstage with good width and depth as well as height. Rhythms, again, were well handled with a good sense of the ebb and flow between the sections of the orchestra.
I also turned on Bass Management on the NODE, which enabled me to connect my REL T5 subwoofer. I set the crossover at 80Hz and BluOS will set the DSP to high pass the outputs from the rear, whilst low passing the subwoofer output. The net effect was a good integration of the subwoofer to the LS3/5as with a greater sense of ease and a larger/deeper soundstage as the main speakers are no longer handling the lowest bass notes.
– with the Focal Twin Be 6 via the Chord Hugo2 and its own analogue outputs:
I then repeated the listening of the tracks above with the Hugo 2 as the DAC, driven by the NODE, feeding into a pair of recently-acquired Focal Twin Be 6 active studio monitors. These speakers can be ruthlessly revealing given their nature as professional studio monitors. The Chord Hugo2 is also a detail and structure monster and as such, remains an affordable reference DAC for me. I switched back to the analogue outputs of the NODE as well to compare the output of the stage.
On the PCM tracks, the Chord Hugo2 had a clear advantage – there was more detail, structure and a more “hear-through” soundstage, especially on Waltz for Debby. But on switching back to the NODE’s own analogue outputs, there was a greater sense of ease – not as ruthlessly revealing nor detailed, but certainly easier to listen to.
However, on the orchestral selection, the NODE came into its own, where the MQA stream gave the NODE an additional advantage – just a tad more delicacy in the upper registers and a little more air than via the Hugo2. The Hugo2 still dug out more detail, but the NODE seemed to present the music in a slightly less forced manner with more than enough convincing detail.
– Other modes of testing:
I tested the analogue input first using my trusty Lenco L78 turntable fitted with a Shure M44G running into an ADL GT40a phono stage into the 3.5mm mini-jack analogue input. I spun a new copy of Massive Attack’s Mezzanine album, and it was clear that the analogue input was not an afterthought. Although it goes through analogue-to-digital conversion, the characteristics of the turntable, recording and phono cartridge were evident, even when it was used to pipe the music via my home Ethernet network to my own Node 2 streamer in a different room driving another system. Of particular note, the force and rhythm of the bass on Teardrop was visceral even when transmitted over a network. Bluesound’s core multi-room features are flexible, mature and synchronisation was spot on.
I also tested the digital input by using the NODE as a monitor for a recording I was making on a Sony D100 field recorder of a rare piece of vinyl for my own archiving purposes. The optical input locked onto the 24-bit/96kHz recording stream and performed well to allow me to monitor the recording.
Next, I hooked it up briefly to my TV via the eARC input and it worked duly after some configuration, though I would point out that not all TVs have ARC or eARC well implemented, so your mileage may vary.
Last but not least, I tested the Bluetooth output to my B&W PX headphones which sport APT-X HD codec which the NODE supports. Connecting was a doddle on the BluOS app and I was able to listen via Bluetooth – the codec exacts a small penalty, but the convenience far outweighs this.
I also briefly tested the headphone output on the front with a pair of Grado Hemp headphones and it has the same basic hallmarks of the rear analogue outputs, though I would say that the power output is limited, so it will not drive serious headphones such as planar magnetics.
The Bluesound NODE (2021) is a fantastic streaming unit which represents a great way to get into streaming audio, with a fully developed and mature app ecosystem, ease of set-up and use, as well as rich functionality. I’ve been a user of the Bluesound products for almost seven years, and the continued updates and support as well as the reliability of previous products has been excellent.
There are cheaper ways into streaming, namely building your own Raspberry Pi based units or buying solutions based on such units, but none of them can beat Bluesound products for their out-of-the-box usability. On the other end of the spectrum, there are a lot more expensive streaming solutions, but few can beat the Bluesound on ease of use and functionality.
Although its internal DACs lose out to more advanced outboard DACs, they are more than capable in all but the most esoteric systems. More importantly, the audio quality from the NODE’s own analogue outputs is wholly musical and enjoyable, and would put a smile on even the most jaded audiophile’s face when incorporated into most systems.
My only wishes would be for DSD support and perhaps some form of Apple Music integration (especially now with Lossless and High Res streaming) beyond the limitations of Airplay 2!
Sources: Lenco L78 Turntable with Shure M44G cartridge, Sony D100, Roon Core running on a Intel NUC i7, Spotify and Tidal / Amps: Pioneer A400 / DACs: Chord HUGO2 / Speakers: Falcon Acoustics LS3/5a Silver Badge, Focal Twin Be 6 active studio monitors, REL Acoustics T5 subwoofer