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Further travels with the Bluesound Node 2

  • In a previous article I discussed the sound of the Bluesound Node 2’s analogue sound quality as it related to an RCA connection with the KEF LS50 Wireless — a different sonic flavour. That’s not the only appeal of the Node 2. On sound quality the Bluesound streamer is streets ahead of the Sonos Connect. Most impressive of all is its eye-popping feature set. Let’s take a closer look…

    The Node 2 is €500 network streamer that connects to an existing hifi system. It’s a physically slimmed down version of the former, more cubic-shaped, Node. That original Node was powered by an ARM Cortex A8 processor, its outputs limited to RCA analogue and digital TOSLINK. The Node 2 runs a multi-core 1GHz ARM Cortex A9 chip and a broader range of outputs make it a more versatile proposition.

    D/A conversion here comes courtesy of a BurrBrown PCM5122 DAC after which a pair of RCAs sends the analogue signal to a downstream amplifier or the 3.5mm headphone socket to (you guessed it) headphones. A brief listen to the latter says this output is a little on the soft side but since my unit is tucked away on a shelf, it doesn’t see regular headphone action.

    The TOSLINK and coax sockets are for connections to an outboard DAC, digital receiver or digitally active speaker (like the KEF LS50 Wireless). No USB though – this is where AURALiC’s Aries Mini maintains a functional edge when a headphone hookups isn’t essential. With a hat-tip to its other main rival, the Sonos Connect, a signal entering the Node 2 via its 3.5mm hybrid input socket can be streamed to any other Bluesound-branded unit.

    Getting music into the Node 2 in a more conventional manner can be done in a variety of ways. aptX equipped Bluetooth is on board (another improvement over the original Node) but for better sound quality we look to 802.11 b/g/n wifi or gigabit Ethernet. This single box and an accompanying app does it all: Tidal, Spotify, Qobuz, Deezer, Slacker and Napster with support for up to 24bit/192kHz for anyone enjoying a Qobuz Sublime+ account or streaming hi-res audio from a NAS device.

    Don’t have a NAS? A single type-A USB port on the back panel let’s us hook in a hard drive full of FLACs directly.

    Another slice of wizardry can be located on the front panel. Within the black line between the Bluesound logo and headphone jack: a tiny IR receiver. Although no remote wand is supplied with the package, this little dot will learn from existing remotes to track forward/back, volume up/down, play/pause. Handy tip for LS50 Wireless owners: the KEF remote’s transport buttons can be used to control the Node 2. Very clever. (An IR *in* jack means an external receiver can be used if Node 2 placement causes the front panel IR sensor to lose line of sight).

    Blighting many a good hardware streamer is its accompanying smartphone app. Bluesound’s BluOS app has a multi-year history of development and refinement. The headline here is that it doesn’t suck – it’s one of the better apps out there. On the other hand, it’s not quite on par with Spotify’s UI. As the Node 2 additionally acts as a Spotify Connect host, I tend to favour the Spotify app over the Bluesound variant. On the other hand, the Bluesound app is a one-stop-shop for all supported streaming services and can be used to add local network shares, group zones, curate playlists and update the BluOS operating system.

    The presence of an Android variant should prick up the ears of disappointed (would be) AURALiC users. That there also exists Bluesound control apps for Windows and MacOS means we make no compromise vis a vis Sonos.

    For those, like me, who prefer to go hands on with their audio hardware from time to time, the Node 2’s top plate features a touch-sensitive 5-button transport and volume control. A multi-coloured LED reports on device status. Mercifully its brightness but can be dimmed (or nixed) via the accompanying Bluesound BluOS controller app.

    For power users, the Bluesound Node 2, as of BluOS 2.10, plays as Roon Ready endpoint. As with all RAAT-capable Roon endpoints, the Node 2 can be grouped, sync-d and controlled from within Roon, no external app required.

    With Roon, listening to Bloc Party’s 2005 debut Silent Alarm not only at the dinner table but also in the living room *and* the bathroom is a cinch. When using the Bluesound app on the other hand, multi-zone grouping is only available to other Bluesound (and BluOS-enabled NAD) devices.

    For this heavy Roon and Spotify Connect user, the Node 2’s auto input switching is a very pleasing functional nicety. When Caetano Veloso’s “It’s A Long Way”, streaming at 320kbps via Spotify Connect, gave way to a mental shortcut to Bran Van 3000’s “Drinking In LA”, a CD-rip sitting in my Roon library, switching from the former to the latter is executed glitch-free by the Node 2. Cheers!

    Another member of the current Bluesound lineup, the Pulse Flex loudspeaker, sits in my kitchen. Its offers five programmable buttons. These can be programmed to any specific audio source. I press #1 to listen to my favorite TuneIn radio station. I press #2 to enable Bluetooth pairing mode. #3 I’ve set for Spotify Connect.

    While no such hardware buttons are available on the Node 2, I can program (and recall) these presets via the Bluesound app. Furthermore, when using the aforementioned programmable remote, these presets move within reach without even looking (I can’t do it, though, due to the lack of sufficient buttons on the LS50W remote).

    MQA, support for which was added to Bluesound products last year, remains a topic which is not so easy for newcomers to fully grasp right out of the gate. An MQA encapsulated 24bit/44.1kHz (or 24bit/48kHz) transport file can be played back on legacy (i.e. non-MQA) equipment without issue. However, the Node 2 does both MQA decoding and rendering.

    The Node 2’s onboard MQA code authenticates the integrity of the incoming MQA stream with a blue/green light before unfolding the transport file once, sometimes twice, to reveal its original resolution. That’s what MQA call decoding. A bespoke-fit minimum phase MQA filter extracts the best audible performance from the Node 2’s BurrBrown DAC chip. That’s the rendering component of MQA.

    Time to note some of the Node 2’s finer points as they relate to MQA:

    1) MQA decoding and rendering only works through the Bluesound app. When streaming via Roon, the 24bit MQA transport file passes through to the Node 2’s internal DAC untouched leaving us to hear (or not) the audible benefits of MQA’s ‘time domain correcting’ pre-process.

    2) MQA encoded tracks on Tidal can be easily discovered through the Bluesound app since it labels the albums accordingly. Roon, for now, makes no distinction between regular Redbook and MQA albums leaving us to hit play and check the signal path report. The Black Key’s “Lonely Boy” from 2011 album El Camino identifies itself as ‘Tidal FLAC 44.1kHz 24 bit 2Ch, MQA 44.1kHz’, for example. The other version of *El Camino* contains ‘Tidal FLAC 44.1kHz 16bit 2Ch’ files.

    3) The Node 2 outputs decoded and rendered MQA content through its analogue outputs only: namely, its RCA sockets and headphone jack. No MQA pass-through presents for TOSLINK or S/PDIF out. However..

    4) The Node 2 can be set to bypass the MQA rendering process.. For this to work you have to disable *Tone Controls* for the Node 2 within the Bluesound app and set the *Audio Output Levels* to fixed. The previously greyed out *MQA External DAC* setting becomes available and has to be switched to *yes*. The Node 2 now acts as a standalone streamer, sending the unaltered MQA file to a downstream MQA-capable DAC. I use a Mytek Brooklyn+. MQA-passthrough enabled on the Node 2 and connected to the Mytek via coax or TOSLINK, the Brooklyn+’s MQA logo glows blue upon seeing an MQA stream.

    Without a doubt, the Node 2 is a very versatile piece of audio equipment. This versatility in deployment – headphones and loudspeakers – and control methods – app for smart devices, desktops/laptops, IR remote and touch panel – were two reasons why I bought one. What you see in the photos isn’t a review unit.

    A third draw card was Bluesound’s MQA support. I’m not what one might call a fan but I was (and am) curious to listen for myself, as opposed to being told that I should embrace it as the future of audio or be forever suspicious of its backdoor DRM intent. Furthermore, the Node 2 allows me dip into MQA as and I when I see fit but without the need to draw on a computer and Tidal’s desktop app for the core decoder / first unfold (as demanded by the AudioQuest DragonFly Red/Black).

    A streaming DAC with a variety of inputs, outputs and features, all wrapped in a low profile package. No giant black boxes here! And even though the hardware has been on the hump for some years, Bluesound’s ongoing series of software updates slows the ageing process. And who doesn’t want that? It wasn’t so much the Node 2’s sound quality that led me to its purchase. Parent company Lenbrook’s pedigree with NAD and PSB means that was almost a given. It was Node 2’s broad feature set that tipped me over the line. Because function matters.

    Further information: Bluesound

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    Written by Olaf von Voss

    A music enthusiast, Olaf von Voss has been a freelance cameraman for ten years. From his home in Berlin, he travels the world to shoot film projects; a collection of music and a decent pair of headphones can always be found in his suitcase.

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