Bluesound: Hi-Fi for a Wireless Generation
Newcomer Bluesound held a press event yesterday at 60 Thompson Hotel in Soho (nice!). Along with other members of the press, John Banks, Bluesound's Chief Brand Officer, and Tony Williamson, Product Support Manager, introduced us to the Bluesound brand and products. For some sense of their place within the world of hi-fi, Bluesound is owned by the same parent company, Lenbrook Industries Limited, that owns NAD and PSB and they've leveraged this family of businesses in the design of their products.
If I were to sum up Bluesound's message, I'd say something like, better than Sonos. Which is why I don't work in marketing. The current product lineup consists of five devices which come in black or white; the NODE, POWERNODE, VAULT, PULSE, and DUO. Before we get into specifics let's talk about some common features. All Bluesound devices support 24-bit playback with sample rates up to 192kHz in FLAC, WAV, AIFF, AAC, WMA, MP3, and "other standard audio formats". All of the devices, except the VAULT, can work wirelessly although if you plan to play back a lot 24/192 material you may want to consider wiring up your network which the Bluesound devices also support. The Bluesound wi-fi devices connect to your home wi-fi network so wherever your smartphone or tablet connect to your network, that's where you can place a Bluesound device. You can also add Bluetooth connectivity by adding a third party Bluetooth dongle.
The Bluesound devices run a custom version of Linux called BluOStm which is a Bluesound build making future in-house development a snap. Networking on the software side is accomplished with Samba so there's no quirky UPnP to deal with. The Vault, for example, can auto-discover network attached storage and as long as your metadata is good, it will be displayed through the Bluesound app which resides on iOS or Android devices. Control of the Bluesound devices is app-based.
The Bluesound devices support "whole house streaming" and you can play the same or different music to each device. Bluesound suggests the total number of wi-fi-connected devices maxes out at eight but they've had success with more depending on the wi-fi network. If you mix 'n match wi-fi and wired, the sky's nearly the limit. Bluesound currently supports Rdio, TuneIn, and WiMP but they are working on adding other streaming sources. The Bluesound lineup's clean industrial design is by designer David Farrage.
The NODE functions as a network-attached DAC/streamer offering 100Mbps Ethernet and wi-fi inputs with Toslink and analog RCA output so you can connect directly to your DAC or use the NODE's 35-bit/384kHz internal DAC and connect to the line input in your hi-fi or powered speakers. There's also a USB Type-A input for connecting USB storage devices. You can also access music from network-attached storage as well as stream from Internet sources.
You've probably already figured this out, the POWERNODE adds a 50wpc Direct Digital amp to the NODE. This is trickle-down technology from NAD's M2 Direct Digital amp. You have the same connections and functionality as the NODE plus pairs of speaker binding posts to connect your passive speakers. There's also a subwoofer out if you so desire.
The VAULT houses 1TB of internal storage, a CD drive for auto-ripping (to FLAC or MP3 or both), Ethernet and USB Type-A inputs, and a Toslink output. The VAULT will recognize any network-attached shared storage (like a NAS) so if you want to manage a huge music library you'll want to do so with external storage. You can also hang USB storage off that USB input. While we didn't see a CD get ripped, we were told its simply a matter of sticking your CD into the VAULT's slot. Bluesound uses MusicBrainz and another metadata source I neglected to note.
The PULSE is an all-in-one device and houses a Direct Digital amp, 35-bit/384kHz DAC, 2x 2 1/4" full range drivers, 1x 5 1/4" bass driver, wi-fi and Ethernet connectivity, and a Toslink output. Plug and play.
The DUO is a sub-satellite speaker system meant to be used in conjunction with the POWERNODE. Both the PULSE and DUO were tuned by PSB's Paul Barton and when you use the POWERNODE with the DUO you can select a custom EQ setting in the Bluesound app developed specifically for the Duo's frequency response.
A Promising Start
It's refreshing to see a hi-fi company with such a well-funded launch. Actually, Bluesound has been busy selling units in Europe (where the concept of hi-fi and lifestyle being cut from the same cloth is not so foreign) for months. They are working on setting up a US dealer network and so far have 40 signed on and they are also actively seeking out musicians to work with in support of the brand. Bluesound appears to be very interested in keeping their connection to music in the forefront which is a strategy and sentiment I happen to appreciate greatly. The song playing in the background of their promotional video is from a band called The KickDrums who performed live later in the evening in this very same room at 60 Thompson.
Of course we spent some time listening to the PULSE and POWERNODE/DUO combo both being served music from the VAULT. The PULSE was upstairs in the loft/bedroom and while not an ideal space, whose bedroom is, the sound was crisp, full, and inviting. Downstairs, the POWERNODE/DUO combo offered room-filling sound that was detailed, driving, and punchy.
A Killer App
I spoke to Tony Williamson after the formal presentation and mentioned that I had been thinking about how cool it would be if devices like the VAULT, or the new Sony HAP-EZ1ES file player, offered the ability to purchase downloads directly from within their app and store it in the device taking the need for a computer completely out of the picture. "We're already doing that in Europe with www.highresaudio.com." These guys have thought of everything.