The world is filling up quickly with wireless speakers and wireless audio components for whole house music enjoyment. That’s good because wires can be a pain, and the product quality has risen significantly over the past few years.
The problem is there are now several products on the market that do essentially the same thing—grab music from your network (via streaming services or your own networked devices) and play it on speakers around the house.
Bluesound, the new audio brand from Lenbrook which makes NAD and PSB products, launched a system that does that too, but it’s differentiated with a few key features, and that’s what makes it stand out.
The first and most obvious difference between Bluesound and Sonos, Nuvo, Samsung Shape, and others is that it offers a CD ripper and HDD music server. Second, Bluesound was designed to be more than just another music streamer to get internet radio around the house. The system, designed with the input of speaker guru Paul Barton, supports high resolution audio files at 24-bit/192kHz. It also plays lossless FLAC files plus WAV, AIFF, AAC, WMA and of course MP3.
There are several components in the Bluesound lineup. I demo’d the Powernode, which is an amplified (40 watts per channel) component for hooking up your own speakers (or Bluesound speakers). I connected the Powernode to a Bluesound Duo system, which isn’t actually a duo. It’s more of a trio—a pair of Paul Barton-designed bookshelf speakers with a 110 watt subwoofer. I also used the Bluesound Vault.
In addition to those pieces, Bluesound offers a Node, which is like the Powernode but without the amp—you connect this to your existing audio system. There’s also the Pulse, which is a stand-alone speaker sort of similar to the Sonos PLAY:5. I didn’t sample either of those.
In design, both the Bluesound Powernode and Vault are shiny cubes. You can get them in gloss black or white. They have a dramatic modern look meant to be seen on a shelf, whereas products like the Nuvo wireless system or Sonos Connect are more likely to be hidden on a rack or tucked behind something. If you prefer a traditional component shape, then this won’t be for you.
As a networked audio system, Bluesound floats on your home’s wired or Wi-Fi network and is intended to be easy to setup. There’s no separate gateway or hub. Each product connects directly to your network via Wi-Fi or Ethernet. Indeed setup was painless. I had the Powernode and Vault plugged in and running on my network in less time than it took to get all the parts out of the boxes.
Like all the other products in this category, the main interface is an app for iOS or Android. The app gives the user full access to internet radio, streaming music services and stored music files. More on the app later.
The Vault, in my mind, is the most interesting of Bluesound’s offerings because it’s so different from the other products generally considered in this category. Think of it as a mashup between an Olive music server with a multiroom streamer.
Inside the Vault is a 1TB hard drive for storing your CDs. It can rip CDs as high-resolution lossless FLAC files, WAV or MP3 and even do MP3 simultaneously wit the other formats (so you can get a portable version of the music to take with you). It connect to the network via an Ethernet jack (the other Bluesound components can use Ethernet or Wi-Fi). You hook it to your audio system via a digital optical cable (toslink) or RCA stereo jacks. There’s also a USB port of adding an external drive or thumb drive or Bluetooth adapter.
Using the Vault is simple. Just sick a CD in the slot and in 10 minutes the Vault spits it back out again. The music is automatically categorized in the system, and the album art and track names all show up in the app.
So why use a server when you can just rip CDs with a computer? I’m sure every reader of this review already has a computer and the basic tools necessary for ripping CDs. The Vault takes all the guesswork and aggravation out of the process. It also automatically puts your music where it needs to be. In my house, when I rip music with my laptop I then need to move it to the external drive where I keep my music and plug it into the A/V receiver in another room. Getting it to appear in the app for my home music system is yet another step.
I can also access the music over the network directly from my laptop, but I don’t like to leave the laptop on all the time. Bluesound’s hardware is also optimized for recording and playing back music. I’m sure my Lenovo laptop is not. The Vault does the work of a computer, without the work of a computer.
The Powernode is for people who want to have music in a room but don’t have any speakers or music system there already (a Pulse would work too). I connected the Powernode to the Duo speaker system system, launched the app on my Samsung Galaxy tablet and started playing the music I’d ripped with the Vault a little earlier. The sound of the speaker/sub system, with the Powernode delivering the muscle proved to be am excellence combination. The sound was clear, with plenty of powerful bass, but not enough to overpower the dynamics of the two speakers.
In the other room, where the Vault was connected to a Sony ES receiver and playing through a set of Canton tower speakers, the system was commanding, clear and full of animated details. I was also pleased with the ease of shuffling through the recently ripped CDs on the BlueOS app.
In addition to the Vault music, Bluesound offers TuneIn Internet radio, Slacker, Deezer, WiMP, Qobuz and Rdio. Some of those require subscriptions. I’m told that more music services will be coming to Bluesound as well. A high resolution audio download service called HighresAudio also works with the Vault so you can purchase better-quality tunes and have them land directly on your Vault hard drive.
The app itself gives you app full album art and easy volume and track controls. You can create playlists, shuffle the order and save playlists to return to later. When playing streaming apps the view may vary a little depending on the music service. Navigating the app may be a little confusing at first. Some menus require vertical swipes while other features are found with horizontal swipes. Personally I prefer the Sonos system app, but maybe that’s because I’ve been using it for three years and it’s become second nature.
So ultimately how does Bluesound stand up against the other systems. There are two primary highlights. The first is the high-resolution audio support. For audiophiles who appreciate better music files, low-res MP3 and standard streaming just won’t cut it. Bluesound offers an easy-to-use system that supports better audiophile specs.
The second highlight is the Vault. Sure, you could whip together a similarly spec’d PC and software to do what the Vault does yourself, but you’d probably end up spending close to the Vault’s cost and still wouldn’t have the app integration and ease of multiroom playback. If those features sound good to you, find a Bluesound dealer and give it a try.