The arrival of the digital music age which begun in earnest with the launch of the iPod signalled the end of HiFi as we knew it. The new digital music players use highly compressed audio files in order to cram as songs as possible into the player’s limited memory. The end result is that most of us have forgotten what good audio sounds like. Even in the increasingly crowded wireless home streaming market currently dominated by Sonos, the available devices use these compressed audio file formats.
All that is changing now as a new Canadian Company Bluesound has entered the field with four new devices. Based in Pickering, ON Bluesound is a collaboration between the NAD (electronics) and PSB (loudspeaker) brands owned by the Lenbrook Group. The two well known names in HiFi have added their expertise to the new streaming products that bring true high quality audio to the home streaming arena. They decided to raise the bar on digital audio so that audiophiles and music lovers would hear what they’ve been missing since digital audio came into existence. Even 16-bit CDs have only about half of the audio spectrum that the master recording holds, and that’s a whole lot more than MP3s have left in them. With more than a decade of compressed audio piping through earbud headphones and cheap dock players, the time had come. The portable players we all love have created a new way of listening to music, but there hasn’t really been much there to hear. Until now. Enter true 24-bit HD digital audio.
The Bluesound system is comprised of four components: Node, PowerNode, Vault, Duo and Pulse. With a combination of these units, you can build a wireless housewide music system that suits your needs and is capable of streaming FLAC, AAC, ALAC, WAV, AIFF, WMA, WMA-L, OGG and MP3 files up to full resolution 24-bit/192kHz quality! I tested three of the components, the Node, Vault and Pulse. Together with a powerful iOS and Android app to control the system. I will never again be happy with my tiny little Bluetooth speakers playing highly compresssed audio from my smartphone.
NODE: A wireless high res player. The smallest of the Bluesound devices it is essentially a preamp-type product with analog and digital outputs that can connect to an amp, a digital-to-analog converter or a pair of powered speakers. It contains no storage but can stream from other devices on your home WiFi network as well as a growing number streaming radio services such as Slacker, TuneIn and Rdio. I expect more services to be added. Now I could have connected it to my home audio system but decided to set it up in another room using the Logitech MiniBoom, the best small powered speaker I own which by the way, is not capable of delivering the full benefit of the high quality audio. It did serve my purpose in demonstrating a whole home setup.
VAULT: This could be the hub of your system. The Vault combines a 1TB hard drive and functions as a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device. It is a shareable access point to all other devices on the same network. It also features a CD reader to rip your existing CD library. It takes about 10 minutes to rip a standard CD. Analog RCA outputs are available but, I chose to connect it to my home audio system using a digital TOSLink cable. It also requires an ethernet connection.
PULSE: An all-in-one music system with integrated audiophile-grade speakers, a 35-bit/844kHz DAC, and a direct connection to the world of internet radio and streaming music services. It features three drivers—one 5.25-inch driver and two 2.25-inch drivers, both tuned by PSB speaker wizard Paul Barton. The Pulse is driven by a built-in 80 Watt DIRECTDRIVE amp. A subwoofer output is offered in case you want more bass. There’s also an optical input so you can use this as the speaker for another system. It also can be set up as a stereo pair. I decided to use this as a stand alone unit in my office.
Setting up the units requires a bit of Audio and networking knowledge. If you understand the basics and are prepared to take the time to learn the ins and outs of the comprehensive and complicated app it shouldn’t take much more than an hour to set up all three devices. I ripped a few CDs and set the devices up to share the music library on my Mac. If your PC (Mac or Windows) is set up to share the shares will show up automatically in the app.
Now I am used to listening to audio from my smartphone via earbuds or Bluetooth speakers as well as digital music via my home audio system and the best quality (so far) CD on that same system. Was I ever impressed. Compressed digital files sounded better through the Bluesound system on my multiple speakers but the real surprise was the sound of the high definition ripped CDs on the Vault. I can only say Wow! HiFi is back!! This is what audio should sound like.
Next, I tried out the Pulse in my office. Leaving an album playing from the Vault on the sound system I played a different album from the Vault through the Pulse. Again very impressive. The quality of the hi definition audio was noticeably better than an MP3 file played back from the music library on my Mac.
Finally it was to the dining room to try out the Node with my little Logitech speaker. The audio sounded a bit better from the Node as compared to streaming Bluetooth from my phone but nowhere near as good as the other two setups. Now I had a different selection playing in three different rooms plus, just to see if I could stress the system I was playing a Netflix video on the TV as well.No glitches or loss in quality anywhere. You can also group the devices to play the same selection everywhere. This is one impressive setup.
This kind of quality and flexibility doesn’t come cheap. The Node is the least expensive unit at $449. The Vault is next at $699 and the Pulse is $999. So a three room setup like mine would cost a tidy $2147 plus any required speakers. Not cheap but if you like your audio top notch this is what it costs.
Bluesound devices are available from select high end audio dealers. You can find one near you on Bluesound’s website