“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” I’m reminded of the old adage even when encountering apparently daring new products from old, familiar companies. Bluesound is a new line of innovative audio equipment from the Lenbrook Group, longtime owners of NAD and PSB, whose pedigree and ability to make great, affordable audio equipment are the stuff of legend. But even after poring over Bluesound’s website, I still had only a vague idea of what their products actually did. So I said, “Send ’em all.”
Turns out they’re simple, elegant turns on products you’ve used and read about for years.
The Bluesound Pulse ($699 USD) is a self-contained audio streaming device molded into a gently curved trapezoid measuring 16.4"W x 7.7"H x 7.4"D and weighing 13.4 pounds. Its internal NAD Direct Digital amplifier churns out 80W of “total power” into three drivers, each housed in its own enclosure: two 2.75” aluminum cones flanking a 5.75” midrange-woofer. The claimed frequency response of the 2.75” drivers is an astonishing 180Hz-28kHz; the midrange-woofer’s floor is 50Hz. Bluesound claims that the right LF signal will “shake the room.” Well, MP3 files are pretty much designed to avoid that.
The rear panel sports an AC connection (Bluesound thoughtfully supplies US and EU power cords as standard kit), TosLink audio input, USB-A input, USB Micro for “product servicing,” and an RJ45 Ethernet input. But if you have a good Wi-Fi network connection, you won’t need Ethernet.
Capably guided by Bluesound’s quick-setup guide, I found setting up the Pulse almost too easy. Simply connect it to any Wi-Fi hotspot -- I connected the sample to our fairly robust home network -- and download the controller app (from Apple’s App Store for iPads and iPhones, Google Play for Android devices). When I opened the app, it instantly recognized the Pulse. The Pulse supports the WiMP, Rdio, Slacker Radio, Qobuz, HighResAudio, Juke, Deezer, Murfie, HDtracks, Spotify, and Tidal streaming services, and can access hundreds of over-the-air and Internet streaming services courtesy TuneIn Radio. Pick one and you’re in business. It can also accept signals of resolutions up to 24-bit/192kHz.
The app -- the Pulse’s, um, pulse -- is a nifty and powerful controller that’s also used for Bluesound’s Powernode, Vault, and other streaming components. The app’s main screen features the Bluesound logo on the upper left, which reveals the Pulse’s local sources, streaming services, playlists, and configuration controls, while the center section features the chosen music library. In the upper-right-hand corner is the Player Selection Drawer that lets you decide which components to play, where to set their volume levels, and gives you the option of grouping them: you can play one or any combination of them at the same time. If you’ve placed your Bluesound devices at various spots around the house, you can have whole-house streaming at the touch of a button. This is a far cry from the arduously hardwired “whole house” systems -- music through intercom speakers? -- of just a few years ago.
The app’s configuration and source controls are mostly intuitive. However, I found navigating some of the screens less so, and ultimately frustrating. For instance, Configure Player has some enigmatic features highlighted in the quick-setup guide, such as Configure Network Shares, which is supposed to allow any of the devices to play music stored anywhere on the network. For the most part, the app will find everything on your network, but there are exceptions -- more on this below.
The Powernode ($699) is a small streaming receiver that includes an NAD stereo amplifier that outputs 50Wpc. Its rear panel is similar to that of the Pulse, except that it features a Subwoofer Out RCA jack and no optical input. The Powernode measures 9.7"W x 6.9"H x 7.9"D and weighs 4.2 pounds. You’ll need to make a little extra room on the shelf for it, because it’s designed to have one corner of its slightly funky diamond design facing you; the connections are on the diamond’s opposite corner. Although its USB-A port will allow you to connect, say, a flash drive, it also “plays supported peripherals.” At this point you doff your audiophile hat and don your techie cap. A “peripheral” is a computer device, and what Bluesound means is an external hard drive with a USB or Bluetooth output/connection. In other words, if the source material is on some kind of drive, the Powernode can probably play it. This omits physical media like CDs or DVDs and conforms with Bluesound’s apparent ethos: stream it, serve it, or forget it.
Like the Pulse, the Powernode is configured using the app, for which of course you need a Wi-Fi network. (There’s an Ethernet jack if you need one.) You pull up the same menus with the same options as the Pulse. Both the Pulse and the Powernode will stream virtually any Internet source and, if the components are Grouped (again, more on this below), from any source attached to any other Bluesound component(s). As with the Pulse, I tuned the Powernode to Radio Paradise and, in seconds, was streaming lovely music.
“Just add speakers,” suggests the Bluesound website. So I did.
The Duo ($999) is a simple system comprising two diminutive satellite speakers, each measuring 8.3"H x 5"W x 7.1"D, weighing 5.4 pounds, and housing a 4” midrange-woofer below a 1” aluminum-dome tweeter; and a powered subwoofer measuring 14.6"H (including feet) x 9.6"W x 15.6"D, weighing 24.6 pounds, and with an 8” cone driven by a 110W internal amp. I mounted the satellites on 29”-high stands, 4.5’ apart. At first the sound was a bit light, but as I dialed in the right amount of bass, it filled out nicely. I streamed Radio Paradise and was impressed by the sound quality.
Then I played two albums I’d ripped to the Bluesound Vault (see below): the Subdudes’ Annunciation (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, High Street); and The Goat Rodeo Sessions (16/44.1 FLAC, Sony Classical), with string virtuosos Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Stuart Duncan, and Chris Thile. In stark contrast to the MP3s played over Radio Paradise, I was treated to clear, neutral, dynamic sound. The Duo will never replace a bona-fide high-end rig, but I doubt that anyone but the purest of purists would complain about a secondary music system as versatile as the Bluesounds.
The Duo competes in a very crowded marketplace. Sub/sat systems, especially 5.1-channel surround systems dedicated to home theater, have blossomed like mustard fields in southern France. The Duo is a simple 2.1 system custom-designed for the Powernode; if you buy a Powernode, I think that investing in a Duo, which Bluesound has tuned to the Powernode, would be wise. Not mandatory, but . . . wise.
The last but far from least component in the Bluesound family is the Vault ($999). As its name implies, the Vault is a music repository. However, you can’t plug its output directly into the Pulse or the Powernode. That said, once you Group the Vault with either, anything stored on it can be played through the others. Pretty cool.
The Vault is another funky diamond, this one measuring 11.4"W x 8.1"H x 9.3"D and weighing 6.6 pounds. The front corner edge of the diamond has a long vertical slot for inserting CDs -- but it’s a CD ripper only, not a CD player. On the opposite edge are the requisite USB-A, USB-B, and Ethernet ports, and a pair of audio out jacks (RCA). A caution: the Vault is Ethernet only. There is no Wi-Fi connection. Bluesound explains that the demands of high-resolution audio files could not be adequately handled by a Wi-Fi connection without significant upgrades to the Vault and, therefore, increases in its cost.
I connected the Vault to the Big Rig in my music room: an original Sunfire amplifier, AVA Omega Star III EC preamp, and Bill Dudleston’s original Legacy Classic speakers. Since my Apple Airport router is in another room, I ran a 50’ Ethernet cable from it to the Vault for the network connection. While the Vault has the same streaming capabilities as the Pulse and Powernode -- only now the stream is through your own hi-fi -- its raison d’être is its ripping function: basically, it’s a CD archiver with a 2TB hard drive on which everything ripped is stored. Ripping protocols include FLAC, MP3, or WAV. The problem is figuring out how to make the thing work.
The Vault comes with the same setup instructions as the Pulse and Powernode: plug in, connect to the network, let ’er rip. You navigate the app to Configure Player, and from there to Rip/Encode Control Panel, and then to Encoder Setting. Having made your protocol selection, you insert a CD and the Vault does the rest. Nothing in the documentation tells you which side of the CD goes which way into the slot -- turns out the label side faces left and the business side faces right. The first CD I tried wouldn’t rip no matter how I inserted it, until I noticed the DRM “unauthorized duplication” legend running around the outer edge of the label.
All you get with the Bluesound gear are a quick-setup guide and a safety manual. Only at the bottom of the last page of the quick guide, in teeny print, are the words “For detailed information, please visit www.bluesound.com/support/setup.” Voilà -- a manual for each Bluesound model. The Vault’s manual pretty much replicates the others in terms of licensing agreements, copyright, and app navigation. There’s not one word about how to rip a CD, what the protocol options are, or how to find out how much of the hard drive has been used. Lenbrook told me that they’re on the app. They are, but even there, you’re not told how to insert a CD in the Vault’s drive.
I fault Lenbrook for letting the techies try to document audio products. The app instructions are quite complete, and I know how to connect devices to Wi-Fi networks -- I’ve got an iPad, iPhone, and Kindle. But these are audio products marketed to audio consumers who will need instructions about how to use them. You gotta show ’em how.
The app keeps track of which file is being ripped and which is being compressed (compression lags behind ripping). I chose FLAC, which reduces the size of a file by about 55%. WAV files aren’t compressed at all, but an MP3 is only about 12% the size of the CD-rez original, with a concomitant loss of data. A 2TB drive will store about 1800 CDs in WAV, 3600 or so CDs in FLAC, or about 30,000 CDs as MP3s -- roughly 300,000 songs/tracks. If all you want are MP3s, the Vault will last you a very long time. However, if you want CD sound quality, FLACs, at a minimum, are your choice. Regardless of which protocol you choose, the Disc Usage section in the app’s Configure Player menu will tell you how much storage you’ve used and how much is left. Everything stored on the hard drive turns up in the app’s Library -- you simply select what you want to play. Finally, a neat feature is Playlist: Whenever you play something stored on the Vault, it automatically appears on a playlist, which you can save, edit, or discard. Saved playlists appear in their own menu.
What I found most intriguing about the Vault is that FLAC is built in -- no downloading it to a PC or Mac, ripping CDs on said computer, and then transferring the files to a dedicated hard drive. The Vault does it all for you. The Vault took about ten minutes to rip a 60-minute CD, and another two or three to complete the compression. If you want to archive a particularly large collection of CDs and spend two hours a day ripping, it will take you two months to store 1000 CDs. Then again, you could simply ship your CDs to a ripping service; the average rate for ripping 1000 CDs is 69¢ apiece, or $690. But if you have more than 1000 (I stopped counting mine at 5000), the Vault may represent a sensible economic investment. Because you’re ripping to a computer drive, which can crash without warning, Bluesound and I highly recommend regularly backing up the whole shebang on an outboard hard drive or cloud-storage facility. Outboard hard drives are relatively inexpensive; once they’re connected to your network, backing up files can be a simple, easy routine.
However, connecting my new Mac Mini and a Western Digital My Book 3TB hard drive proved more than I could handle. No matter how carefully I waded through Bluesound’s wealth of online documentation and message boards, the Bluesound app couldn’t find my Mini or My Book. A lengthy call to Bluesound’s tech support identified and resolved the problem: my Mini is running Apple’s newest OS X, Yosemite, and the app’s network-share protocol was not yet configured for it. Had I been running one of the cats -- Leopard, Snow Leopard, Mountain Lion, or Lion -- the installation would have been automatic and seamless. Bluesound assured me that by the time you read this, the app will have been properly configured for Yosemite. Bluesound says the app is up to date with all of the latest versions of Windows for desktops, laptops, and touchscreens.
My experience underscored something important: The Bluesound components are only partly audio gear. With the obvious exception of the Duo, you’re buying various configurations of music-streaming computers -- one, the Vault, with a CD ripper. Fair warning: Should you need help, be prepared to scour and ask a lot of questions of what is essentially a computer help site. Should you run into the immovable object, Bluesound will gladly take your question and provide an e-mail response in jig time.
The more that changes . . .
The Bluesound Pulse is a glorified, high-end, streaming boom box -- it even looks a bit like a boom box. Nonetheless, it streamed flawlessly, with an overall sound quality far superior to and an LF rendering far deeper and more accurate than that of any one-box model I’ve ever heard. Second, the Powernode and Duo are simply a dedicated combo of receiver and speakers -- but this “receiver” is a dedicated streaming tuner, and the speakers are three diminutive wonders from Paul Barton. They are elegant reinventions of tried-and-true audio products. But the real gem of the Bluesound line is the Vault, which answers the question, “What on earth am I going to do with all these CDs?”
Add to Bluesounds’ innate capabilities the fact that you can Group them any way you want, and you can put the Powernode-Duo in one room, the Pulse in another, the Vault in a third, and play the same stream or stored file over all simultaneously -- a whole-house system without all those pesky wires.
The Pulse, Powernode, Duo, and Vault are absolutely terrific products. Their streaming capabilities are the state of the art -- they put to shame the clunky, onboard streaming of my Onkyo TX-NR808 A/V receiver, which itself was once the state of the art. But remember that you’re dealing with a computer -- don’t be shy about asking a lot of dumb questions, and you’ll have a novel music experience of extraordinary proportions.
. . . Kevin East
- Power amplifier -- Sunfire (Original)
- Preamplifier -- AVA Omega Star III EC
- Speakers -- Legacy Classic
- Cables -- Kimber Kable
Bluesound Pulse Wireless Loudspeaker System
Price: $699 USD.
Bluesound Powernode Streaming Receiver
Price: $699 USD.
Bluesound Duo Sub/Sat Loudspeaker System
Price: $999 USD.
Bluesound Vault CD Ripper and Storage Device
Price: $999 USD.
Warranty (all): One year parts and labor.
Bluesound International, a division of Lenbrook International
633 Granite Court
Pickering, Ontario L1W 3K1
Phone: (905) 831-6555