Bluesound is NAD in disguise. Made by the same Canadian parent company this range of streaming audio products ticks all the boxes in René's list of what's required in a decent multiroom product.
The market for products that can rip, store and play music is rapidly growing and has full press attention worldwide, but that in itself is not sufficient reason to launch a new brand. A newcomer must be fully-fledged and prepared. If there is one company that understands what is needed it’s Bluesound. Where many other brands focus on marketing, this brand focuses first and foremost on sound and build quality. In addition this is a complete solution that’s made for ease of operation, in my opinion Bluesound does not give a glimpse into the future, it is the future for digitally stored music.
Out of the blue
Bluesound does not come out of the blue, it is a new brand for a 40 year old audio manufacturer which has been innovative from the very beginning. It's no secret that the parent company Lenbrook Industries owns NAD and Bluesound. It chose a new name so that it could clearly position itself in the market. The experience gained by NAD in the field of digital amplifiers, D/A converters and streaming audio has been put into the Bluesound devices. Conversely, NAD benefited from the new research into digital products with its M50 network player and M52 storage device. The Bluesound range consists of the Vault, the Powernode, the Node, the Pulse and the Duo. It is useful to determine what each device does, before I move on:
The Vault unites the functions of CD ripper, 1 or 2TB storage, music player with optical out and an onboard DAC.
The Powernode houses a music player, DAC and a 2 x 50 Watt stereo amplifier with subwoofer output.
The Node is smaller than the Powernode because it is has only a music player onboard with optical out and a DAC.
The Pulse is a standalone player with speakers, 80 Watt digital amplifiers and an optical input (for TV etc).
The Duo is an active sub/satellite loudspeaker system that was not available at the time of writing.
Each of these devices is equipped with a USB port to connect a USB stick or disk filled with music. Each device is operated with a free for iOS or Android app, and as you can imagine using a tablet is more convenient than a smartphone. Bluesound also has a desktop controller for Windows or Apple OSX and there is an app available for Amazon’s Kindle fire. With the exception of the Vault, which will only communicate via Ethernet, the devices can be used either with a fixed connection or over Wi-Fi. Each node shown in the app can operate separately, but they can be also summed so that the same music plays at the same time all over your place. Bluesound is not based on DNLA and/or UpnP, it’s a bespoke system that builds up a music library of its own. All you have to do is indicate where the music is on the network, but if the music is on a Vault or on a NAD M50/M52 combination the system will find it itself. Music is not limited to a single storage source, you can distribute your library over a Vault, PC, NAD and/or NAS. The music library ranks and omits duplicate entries nicely, always adding only the highest quality file to the database, as long as you tag them correctly that is.
Before I forget, the Bluesound system also plays internet radio. For internet radio you choose the quality of the stream, in the Netherlands bitrates up to 192 kbps are available, the BBC even offers 320 kbps in AAC. I mention this because you do not always have this choice, a lot of systems select the lowest quality stream in order to ensure uninterrupted service. I’m told that more music services will be added in future but it already works with some of the more interesting examples, see specs below for details. It’s also possible to download paid content directly into the Vault, as far as I know this option is unique to Bluesound and NAD (normally it’s necesssary to download music onto a PC first then transfer it to your storage drive).
Given internet access the Vault (above) can rip CDs and save the data on its internal disk. It is whisper quiet and has an external power supply so that it doesn’t need a cooling fan. Bit perfect ripping can be in FLAC or WAV format and, when appropriately configured, in MP3 at the same time. Ripping is very easy but not very fast. When you store your PC files on the hard drive of the Vault you can use any of the usual file formats, but you cannot use the Vault to rip to an attached USB disk, you can only backup and a restore your collection this way. To play music, you need an amplifier and a pair of speakers (or a Pulse), possibly complemented by your own digital to analogue converter. A Vault will work standalone or as the basis of a Bluesound system.
Powernode & Node
The Powernode (below left) does not need an external amplifier because it is built in. Connecting a pair of speakers is sufficient to play music stored on the Vault, a NAS or USB drive. The Powernode is the only device without an optical output, but it does have a connection for an active subwoofer and of course loudspeakers. The Node (below right) falls into the same category as the Powernode but requires an external amplifier. If you are on a tight budget, have your music stored on a USB disk (or NAS) and already own a stereo system, a Node will be all you need. Connect the disk and the amp, start the App and play music.
Finally, the Pulse (below) is an active speaker that is able to create a reasonable stereo image with its built in drive units. It can be used in a Bluesound system, but also as a standalone music player. What you need is a wired or wireless network for control and TuneIn radio, a drive where music files are stored to stream from or a USB drive. Via the optical input you also can combine a Pulse with a TV to dramatically improve the sound quality. Playing music from a tablet or phone works flawlessly with a Bluetooth adapter. Buy two Pulses and use the app to make one the left channel and the second the right channel to produce a full stereo image. This is also possible with two Powernodes, acting like monoblocks, however the loudspeakers need to be bi-wired since the amplifier cannot be bridged.
Unsurprisingly Bluesound and NAD share a lot of technology. The Vault is a derivative of the NAD M50 music player combined with the M52 music server. The Pulse uses NAD’s DDFA (Direct Digital Feedback Amplifier) technology and the Node and the Vault are derivatives of the M50 to music streamer, including a 24 bit/192 kHz Cirrus Logic DAC that can regulate the volume of the digital output. On the analogue output this is done in the analogue domain without loss of resolution. The same Zetex chipset as the NAD M2/M51/C390DD can be found in Pulse and Powernode. In addition to the conversion technique the Powernode also has a ‘little’ 50 Watt M2 digital amplifier onboard. NAD uses switch mode power supplies that are very efficient and do not need large heat sinks. For that reason, the white or black cubes remain small and elegant in design. Since they are operated over a LAN they need not even be in sight. I combined a Bluesound Vault, NAD M50 and M52, Powernode, two Pulses, a Node and two NAS drives. The app from Bluesound is the same as the app by NAD except for the logo and the background colors.
To use all the devices I connected the Powernode to a pair of PMC Twenty.23 loudspeakers. With the Vault I used both analogue and digital outputs through a Naim UnitiQute. And I put the Node beside my M50 in a high quality setup with Audia Flight amplifiers, Esoteric D/A converter and PMC fact.12 speakers. I dragged two Pulse models all over the house to play music. That way, I could listen to the results of the digital and analogue outputs and compare them to the amplifier in the Powernode. My storage drives are of course the Vault itself, the M52, my RipButler media server and a Synology NAS. Since I have Ethernet cables and switches installed all over the place, I prefer to use the wired Ethernet rather than Wi-Fi, but Wi-Fi works smoothly, and because the music is buffered in the Node it doesn’t suffer from dropout.
The practice always differs? Not with Bluesound. I got exactly what was promised on the ‘tin’. No traps, no surprises and full operation of all options. Installation was very simple, both wireless and wired. The only thing you need to do is to indicate the music shares on the network and index the music into a library. After ripping and adding a few of my own CDs to what was already stored on the hard drive in the Vault, the voice of Jheena Lodwick from over the Powernode. It’s an amazingly good sound for a little box that is both a streamer and an amplifier. The PMCs deliver very nice music. Good power combined with a beautiful, open stereo image that escapes from the loudspeaker cabinets. The more than decent stereo picture does not correlate with the Powernode’s price tag, it’s far better. In a study, guest room or kids room a Powernode looks very much in place, but I think that lots of listeners will be happy if they get this kind of quality in the living room. The Chain by Fleetwood Mac puts down the percussion with impact, while the polyphonic vocals are separated and do not mesh up. Measured at the listening position I can reach average values of 95 dB without any problem and that's actually way too loud in the room. Loreena McKennitt’s The Gates Of Instanbul (Dali CD Volume 2) drives the speakers hard. Recordings with so many different instruments sound exciting, though a little less bass coming from the Powernode would be welcome.
With the Pulse sound quality is not as high as it is with separates, but the two tweeters and single woofer do a terrific job. Even when I stream high resolution files over Wi-Fi not the slightest hiccup occurs. Use the Pulse where you want, in the kitchen, the bedroom, study or man cave, it will be fine. Another option is to use the Pulse as a sound bar for television. Sound quality moves up the scale if you use the optical digital input and switch off the speakers in a flat panel TV.
Because the various Bluesound units have optical digital and analogue outputs, it is interesting to connect a much more expensive device behind the Vault and Node. I tried a Naim UnitiQute with a NAP 100 power amplifier and this brings a clear benefit over the Powernode’s internal amp. The bass is no longer heavy and the sound is a lighter and more natural. At the same time, some of the enthusiasm that came from the Powernode has gone, in its place is a stereo image that has grown in width and depth, but also sharply decreased in height. The choice between the internal DAC of the Vault and the internal DAC of the UnitiQute presents that same sort of differences. You win in naturalness and ease with the Naim, but you give up some dynamics and fun. The lesson from this is that a better (read more expensive) amplifier will surpass the Powernode. If you own a good amplifier look for a Node or Vault (above left). The same applies for the D/A conversion: it could be bettered but only with a hefty price rise. What happens when we compare a Node and a NAD M50 through an Esoteric DAC, Audia Flight amplifiers and PMC fact 12 speakers. I expected more obvious differences actually. Not that they sound the same, the M50 is a clear winner but the Node comes close. I would estimate that a Node outperforms the discontinued Logitech Touch or Duet when we compare the (optical) digital output. In terms of the internal D/A converter a Node is the clearly superior to a Logitech.
The question is less whether or not to use Bluesound, but what to use from the available range of products. Multiple solutions are available to digitally store and replay your music, each with its own advantages and disadvantages, price tag and sound. I have not tried all of them and I am therefore unable to name your favorite solution, would that even be possible without looking into your wallet and in your mind. So, based on experience with the controls, the flexibility, the well thought-out concept and number one: the sound quality I will limit myself to highly recommending the Bluesound system. In this review I have tried to point out that streaming audio within a true high end system requires more than Bluesound, you need NAD and its higher price tag. At the same time Bluesound performs above its price range in more down to earth systems. Take the difference between the £399 Node and the £599 Powernode, I don't know any amplifier that delivers such a sound quality for only £200. The same applies to the Vault. The convenience of ripping, storing and streaming is exactly what most people will need. Or put down a Pulse wherever you want, a very compact solution that only needs a power lead. Why not leave dB Poweramp and/or Foobar to the nerds and go for convenience, sound quality and solidity. That's what Bluesound stands for.