Bluesound, with its Vault, Powernode, Pulse, and Duo, has entered the market with a full arsenal of products for an ecosystem of high-end streaming audio from one to 34 rooms.
The marketing jargon used to describe wireless music systems is typically laced with terms like “simple,” “convenient,” and “lifestyle.” While these are certainly true, and wireless audio has opened up music listening to millions of existing homes, one thing you rarely see in the same sentence as “wireless audio” is any mention of sound quality. Wireless audio is typically synonymous with compressed, low-resolution, just-good-enough-quality. I could tell from the first moment I laid eyes on Bluesound, at this past CES, that they were different.
Bluesound comes with a serious audiophile pedigree, being a division of Lenbrook International, the company responsible for NAD and PSB.
Bluesound also enters the market with a full arsenal of products available in gloss black or white. Together these components deliver a full ecosystem of high-end streaming audio from one to 34 rooms. Bluesound sent me a Vault, Powernode, Pulse, and Duo for review, letting me experience a three-zone system. The Powernode includes an 80-watt DirectDigital amplifier designed by NAD to power any speakers with or without a powered subwoofer, the Pulse, an all-in-one tabletop amplified speaker system, and the Duo, a 2.1 speaker system designed by PSB’s Paul Barton and team. (A non-powered Node is also available, connecting to any existing audio system via analog or optical digital cabling.)
Unique to Bluesound is the Vault, a component that demonstrates just how much thought Bluesound put into who their customer would be. The Vault incorporates a slot-loading CD drive and 1 Terabyte hard disc for easily importing new discs into the collection (rips take about 10 minutes). Existing music can also be “dragged” into the Vault across the network, and Bluesound is looking to add direct downloads to the Vault from high-res audio stores like HDtracks.com. More importantly, the Vault allows one to enjoy and add to their music library without ever having to touch a computer or set up and manage a network-attached drive.
Setting up the system–and all control–is done via the Android or iOS app. (I was a little bummed that there wasn’t a PC control option as I’m often on my laptop while listening to music, but Bluesound says an update will add both PC and Mac control this fall.) While all components feature an Ethernet connection, the Vault must be hardwired to the network with any other component able to connect via Wi-Fi, up to a maximum of eight Wi-Fi-connected components.
After downloading the free Bluesound app onto my iPhone and iPad, its “New Player Setup” guides you through the proper steps to put players into “hot spot mode,” and going to setup.bluesound. com helps you jump on the home’s Wi-Fi. You then give each player a unique name and hit update.
Once players are added, settings and configurations can be tweaked for each. You also set how music will be imported to the Vault, speaker configurations for the Powernode, and how replay gain (volume leveling) is used or not. Output can be set fixed or variable and as normal, left, or right channel only, or mono, which can be flexible in larger rooms or areas, such as my outdoor swimming pool where the speakers are separated by about 30 feet. Oddly, the only component in the system that has an input for adding an external source is the Pulse speaker, which includes an optical digital in.
The Nodes and Vault have a rather unconventional diamond/wedge-shaped design that is more geared toward a “modern aesthetic” of sitting on a stark cabinet or counter and will likely give installers fits when trying to install them into a traditional rack. The Pulse is a more standard shape, albeit on the larger size of tabletop speakers.
Bluesound decodes the usual alphabet-soup of audio file types including MP3, AAC, WMA, OGG, WMA-L, FLAC, ALAC, WAV, and AIFF. More importantly it handles sample rates from 32 to 192 kHz at 16 and 24-bit resolution, meaning listeners can throw their 192/24 files at it, and Bluesound will decode them and output outstanding, luscious, detailed audio. Bluesound also raises audio quality awareness by indicating whether music in a user’s library is HD (lossless 24-bit files greater than 48k), CD (lossless 16-bit files), or other, meaning they will know the quality of each track in their library and (hopefully) be inspired to purchase and enjoy better music. Bluesound says the system “has been designed to work with today’s larger music collections, and can easily accommodate any library up to an average of 80,000 songs.”
Web-based streaming music services are increasingly the way people enjoy music collections, and Bluesound supports Spotify Connect, TuneIn, Rdio, and Slacker. It also supports Qobuz, JUKE, Deezer, and WiMP, services currently only available in Europe. Germany-based highresaudio. com is also supported but with a limited library available in the U.S.) Bluesound commented, “We are adding a couple of new services every month and plan to ‘have them all’ eventually.” A USB Bluetooth 4.0 adapter can be added to any player allowing music to stream from a Bluetooth device. I used this quite a bit to enjoy Rhapsody and Songza, and Bluetooth audio can be perfectly synced and streamed to any other player in the home.
Currently, Bluesound doesn’t integrate with any third-party controls, but the company assured me this is definitely on the timeline. For now, the Bluesound app is the only way to control it. Fortunately the app is well designed, enabling easy and intuitive operation. The app is similar between iPhone and iPad but definitely makes smart use of the iPad’s larger real estate. The app is divided into different “drawers” to easily move between Navigation where you select the source (streaming services or local library) and make any settings changes, the Centre screen where you browse your library and see the now playing queue, and the Players drawer where you select the Player/room to control and group/ungroup areas. Sliding between drawers works really well to give access to lots of information without being cluttered or confusing.
There are so many cool things to say about the Bluesound that I haven’t left much space to talk about the sound quality. Suffice it to say, audio from all of the Bluesound players sounded terrific, whether through my reference Definitive Technology Mythos ST speakers or using the Pulse in our dining room. Using the system never felt like I was compromising performance for streaming’s convenience, especially with my entire library of high-res audio at my fingertips.
Terrific sound quality; no computer required; well-designed app
Unique shape not rack friendly; no PC control (yet)
• All components decode MP3, AAC, WMA, OGG, WMA-L, FLAC, ALAC, WAV, AIFF files up to 192/24 quality
• System supports up to 34 players, maximum 8 connected via Wi-Fi
• Controlled via free iOS or Android app
• Vault includes CD ripper and 1 TB drive; must be connected via Ethernet; RCA analog and Toslink digital outputs, USB Type A
• Node connects wired or Wi-Fi and includes RCA analog and Toslink digital outputs and 5V trigger
• Powernode connects wired or Wi-Fi and includes 80- watt DirectDigital Amplified designed by NAD and features speaker terminals and RCA subwoofer output and USB Type A