NOT SO LONG ago Sonos was synonymous with multiroom audio but now it seems every major AV brand – including Samsung, LG, Sony and Panasonic – is jumping on the bandwagon. Canada-based Lenbrook (the company behind NAD and PSB) at least stands out from the rabble with its Bluesound range, which is a coalescence of multiroom, wireless streaming and hi-res audio. It’s not just hi-res support that marks Bluesound out, however. Its ecosystem is more versatile than many of its competitors in that it offers a range of products that can operate with or without your existing kit.
Yes, it has the standalone Pulse speaker (£600, on test here) and the Duo 2.1 system (not reviewed), but if you want to simply stream to an AV receiver or amp then the £400 Bluesound Node, with its stereo phono outputs, is the best option. Or maybe you have a spare pair of speakers in another room without an amp, or want Bluesound’s own combined streamer/amp, in which case the £600 Power Node, which offers 100W power (the amp stage sourced from NAD) and speaker terminals would suffice.
Finally, there is the Vault (£900), which can rip your CD collection to its 2TB hard disk as MP3, FLAC or WAV, allowing you to stream music wirelessly to any other Bluesound players. Or it can be hooked up by stereo phonos or optical cable to an external amplifier. There are plenty of options here.
Bluesound can stream FLAC, AAC, ALAC, WAV, AIFF, WMA, OGG and MP3 fi les at resolutions up to 24-bit/192kHz. Beyond basic volume adjustment/muting on the hardware, all operation – including setup – is done using either a smartphone (iOS, Android), Kindle or desktop app, the latter with options for Mac OSX and most Windows platforms. Call me old-fashioned [you are – Ed], but I do like a physical remote control for quickly muting a system when someone in my house comes in and demands that I ‘turn that down!’.
Still, the app acts as the brains of the Bluesound system, and allows you to select content from your local network as well as streamed sources such as TuneIn radio, Spotify, Qobuz and Tidal. As with all these things, the usability of the app can make or break the system, no matter how brilliant the hardware. I tested a reasonably diverse multiroom setup in the guise of the standalone Pulse in my dining room, the Vault and the Node in my main room (with the latter hooked up to an Onkyo AVR and Q Acoustics speakers) and the Power Node installed in my conservatory, wired to a set of Roth OLi speakers.
From a design point of view the Bluesound kit is very chic, fashioned from durable white or black plastic with metal trim and nicely rounded edges that lend the squarer boxes an air of sophistication. The Pulse has a bit of a generic wireless speaker look to it (think Pure Jongo) from the front, but retains elements of the Bluesound aesthetic when viewed from above. Sockets on all products (including Ethernet for direct network connection) are recessed so that no ugly plugs protrude to spoil matters. Installation takes a bit of time. Choose any one product and switch on.
An LED light (part of the mute button) glows green to indicate the player is in Wi-Fi ‘hotspot’ mode. Find the hotspot on your device, launch a browser and enter a specified URL. A control panel appears that allows you to change parameters such as the speaker’s name and audio settings (including gain, bass, treble, stereo pairing) but first you must hitch the player on to your network and download the control app. Both desktop and mobile versions operate by launching the URL in a browser whenever you adjust the player’s settings such as adding streaming services.
With Spotify on my phone, after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing between BluOS app, browser and Spotify, eventually I got Spotify Connect working within the app. After scratching around on Bluesound’swebsite I sussed out how to access hi-res files on a MacBook Air, a process that required installing an extra utility and some convoluted messing around with sharing and permissions. This screwed up my Mac to such an extent that I had to re-install the computer’s operating system… Still, before things went belly up I was navigating the desktop app, which allowed me to see all tracks ripped to the Vault and on my network, with artwork and labelled as CD or HD quality.
Oddly, the artwork for every album was incorrectly displaced so that Beyoncé’s mugshot appeared when a classical piece by Britten played. The iOS app proved less disastrous and worked well. With both apps, grouping and ungrouping players to create multiroom zones is simple, but I did get frustrated by not being able to simply play a track; instead you have to add it to a playlist first, then select the playlist if currently listening to another source such as Spotify or TuneIn. Streaming proved very stable, aside from dropouts with some 24-bit/192kHz ALAC files. Sonically, Bluesound lives up to its billing.
The Node and Powernode deliver a vibrant, transparent sound that sparkles like a Liberacé suit. The subtlety of the instrumental layers of Bryan Ferry’s Avonmore (FLAC), especially amongst higher frequency instruments such as the sax and keyboards, are brilliantly revealed. The Pulse is also impressive, with power aplenty to fi ll a medium-sized room. Its bass output is a little overeager (peer through the grille and you can see a hulking woofer) but otherwise it serves up a broad, coherent soundfield that’s commensurate with its price point. Using the system’s Smart Gain volume levels proves pleasingly consistent regardless of the file type and resolution, whilst any latency between the various speakers is imperceptible.
Bluesound’s smart-looking and robust hardware is slightly let down by the app required to drive it, and the company ought to revise its installation and setup procedures and assume that not all customers are closet IT nerds. My MacBook Air issues aside, however, the Bluesound system is truly impressive, delivering an audiophile level of performance in a multiroom setup, both with hi-res sources and more bitrate-starved fare. With pricing beginning at £400 for the Pulse, Bluesound won’t knock Sonos off top spot, but it should carve its own high-end niche ■