Q&A with John Banks, Chief Brand Officer, Bluesound
Who is Bluesound?
We like to say that Bluesound is an alliance of audiophiles committed to digital music streaming and wireless audio. The audio engineering comes from 40 years of developing many award winning amplifiers and speakers from sister brands NAD and PSB, and Bluesound has developed an integrated hardware/software platform for the management and wireless streaming of music. We see a lot of music products coming from the computer industry and we think our audio expertise makes a huge difference in the listening experience.
One of the main selling features of the Bluesound products is their ability to play high resolution downloads. Can you talk about why high resolution downloads are preferable to CD-quality on a technical basis?
As audiophiles, our dream has always been to have an exact copy of the studio master to listen to. All other commercial formats are a dumbed down version made to sound good on a ‘horrortone’ speaker. That is, it had to sound good on a portable radio or a car speaker in order to sell the requisite millions of copies desired by the record companies. Even though the overall quality of playback devices has become better over the years, music has become even worse with MP3 lossy compression shrinking the size of the music irreversibly by removing up to 90% of the musical information. This works ‘psychoacoustically’ because the human brain fills in the missing information – or at least tries to. But the effort required creates ‘listener fatigue’ which is both tiring and annoying over time. High Resolution audio, on the other hand, contains all the information captured by the microphone during the recording session. The result is music with far more emotional impact because all the small nuances and textures of music are intact and unmolested. On a good sound system, like Bluesound, the difference is huge. Music just flows in a relaxed and engaging way.
"Even though the overall quality of playback devices has become better over the years, music has become even worse with MP3 lossy compression shrinking the size of the music irreversibly by removing up to 90% of the musical information."
One make or break aspect of any file-based playback system is its control app. The Bluesound app works very well, at least in my experience with it. How long did it take to develop and what further development and revisions/features do you foresee being added?
The App is the personality of the product and we have invested huge energy on making it as responsive and intuitive as possible. Having so much music available is both a blessing and a curse; it is great to have choice but it can be difficult to organize all those choices. For this reason we have focused on the Play List and making it easy to create and manage your favorite music, whether it comes from a local library or a cloud based service. We have spent several years polishing the App to its current state. Now we are constantly adding features, music services and enhancements. Any changes need to be exhaustively tested to be sure there are no unintended bugs added and the responsiveness remains intact. We have seen other Apps that get so many features they become bogged down and confusing to use. What is left out is just as important as what is added in.
The ability to purchase downloads directly from the Bluesound app to the Vault, currently through HighResAudio.com, is a great feature. Will there be any additional download services added to the Bluesound app that have greater distribution rights in the US? If so, when can we expect to see them show up?
Yes, this is a core Bluesound feature and we are working with other music services to integrate their download managers. We have always felt that the computer was the weak link in Computer Audio and we are working hard to make Bluesound the only device required to enjoy digital music.
"We have always felt that the computer was the weak link in Computer Audio and we are working hard to make Bluesound the only device required to enjoy digital music."
Streaming services are another major selling point for any network playback system. Will Bluesound be adding more streaming services?
In a word, yes. We have already added five new services since we launched late last year, and we are constantly working to integrate more. We expect to have most popular services represented by the end of this year. This is often dependent on the music services themselves as they have to work with our engineers to be sure their ‘App experience’ is true to their brand values and that the security safeguards required by the music labels are properly executed.
Bluesound does not support UPnP. What were the reasons behind this decision and can you explain how the Bluesound products communicate with network attached storage?
Universal Plug and Play is an attempt to get divergent devices to play nice with each other. It is a ‘middleware’ layer that is kind of a referee or traffic cop to make sure everything is speaking the same language, which works with varying degrees of success. It is also limited to ‘pushing’ music from a server to a client, which means the control commands must be transmitted back to the server, which can make the system balky. We use Samba shares to access any music file anywhere on the network. All the intelligence is located in the Bluesound client which makes the system very responsive and independent of any other music software so we have complete control of the user experience. This independence means that we add performance and enhancements without being limited by an external file sharing program.
Streaming high res files over Wi-Fi can be tricky business because of the many variables involved. Do you have any advice for people in terms of getting the best performance from their Wi-Fi network?
True, wireless transmission is more open to various forms of interference, but we see tremendous improvements in Wi-Fi all the time because it is in such universal usage that lots of development is constantly taking place. Still, music is quite a small load on the network compared many other network uses, and using a good quality access point is usually sufficient to get reliable results. Adding a dedicated network or assigning one band of a dual-band router can enhance reliability in some situations. Of course, all units also have a wired option for 100% reliability.
"All the intelligence is located in the Bluesound client which makes the system very responsive and independent of any other music software so we have complete control of the user experience. This independence means that we add performance and enhancements without being limited by an external file sharing program."
The Bluesound app currently supports a limited amount of metadata which makes the app less than user-friendly for classical music collectors. Are there any plans to add additional metadata fields to assist in the cataloging of classical music titles?
Yes, we have plans to expand the available metadata. The trick is to make it accessible for those that want it without clogging up and slowing down the App with too much information for those that just want simple access to music. One recent enhancement is the addition of file resolution indication; there are now icons that indicate if a song is MP3 lossy compressed, CD quality, or High Resolution. For more information, like exact sample rate, a drop down menu can be accessed.
According to the Bluesound FAQ, you can have as many as 34 Bluesound devices (wired) on the same network. How many Groups can you create on the same network?
Each group must have at least two players to be a group, so in theory 17 groups. We have done extensive testing with 8 groups of 4+ players each without any problems.
There are currently five products in the Bluesound lineup. Will we be seeing any additional products?
We do have a road map for future products, mostly based on specific applications. We see more additions than deletions but we want the growth to be organic and Bluesound proposition to remain simple.