REVIEW: BLUESOUND NODE 2I WIRELESS HI-RES MUSIC STREAMER
The latest update to Bluesound's Node Wireless High-Resolution Multi-Room Streamer comes in the form on "2i", and after the previous generation performed so admirably, we were keen to take a look at the latest revision.
Wireless Multi-Room Hi-Res Music Streamer
I’m old enough to remember when the only way to discover new bands was to wait for the next issue of my favourite music mag to come out in the shops.
Unless you lived in a city where music could be accessed much more easily, or you had a cooler friend, music choices tended to be dictated by what was played on TV and whichever shitty commercial radio station you managed to pick up.
Now, thanks to the internet, music is literally at our fingertips, wherever we choose to live. Computer audio equipment like DACs and streamers are now commonplace, and almost anyone can afford to have one.
I owned a Logitech Squeezebox Classic music streamer for several years and really liked it, especially when I added an outboard DAC and boosted its performance.
Digital technology is improving rapidly and products, particularly those geared toward audiophile-quality sound, are becoming more and more affordable.
Bluesound is an audiophile company focused on multi-room high-resolution music streaming and although they have until recently, escaped my attention, they’ve been winning awards – and fans – the world over.
Their premise is that anyone can use their home Wi-Fi network to wirelessly stream up to 24-bit digital music in any room in their house, using a smartphone or computer to control it.
Bluesound aims to provide the highest possible audiophile-quality music to any music lover, by subtly showing them what they have been missing out on. To do this, and to appeal to wallet-conscious non-audiophiles and audiophiles alike, it not only has to sound as good as claimed but it also has to be affordable. Bluesound appears to have ticked both boxes.
Designed in Canada and built in China, the Bluesound product range includes wireless HiFi speakers, a wireless soundbar and even a wireless subwoofer.
The speakers can be placed all over your house and allow you to play either the same music in every room or different music in different rooms.
Perhaps most exciting, at least to this hi-fi geek, is the trio of wireless-streaming stereo components. Starting with the Node 2i which is their dedicated streamer, we then move up to the Powernode 2i, an integrated streaming amplifier and then finally the Vault 2i which allows users to directly rip, store and stream their CD and digital file collection.
The best part is, it is all very temptingly priced. “2i” is the updated version of the well-regarded Gen 2 release. The Node 2i streamer is a compact and very smart-looking unit – like a sexy white sandwich in the case of the review unit - available in white or black.
It looks and feels very nicely made, sans cheap-looking plastic. It has touch controls on top which can be dimmed from your smartphone, and there are multiple digital and analogue connections on the back, including inputs for a subwoofer and a 3.5mm headphone jack which is located on the front.
Besides RCA inputs, there are coaxial and optical outputs for connecting to an outboard DAC, a USB port allows you to connect a USB stick pre-loaded with music files, and there is an ethernet port if you require a wired internet connection. Interestingly, you can connect your CD player or turntable and stream music that way to any room in the house.
The 32-bit 192kHz DAC chip ensures compatibility with FLAC, WAV and AIFF files and the Node 2i is completely compatible with MQA – a must for Tidal users.
You may well ask what the difference is between Node 2 and the 2i version?
Along with improved dual-band Wi-Fi capability, the Node 2i uses the latest two-way Bluetooth technology to stream 24-bit music with an “aptX HD” codec (enabling streaming of up to 24/48kHz audio) and users can employ Apple’s Airplay 2 (hence the “i”).
Owners are also able to integrate Amazon’s Alexa with their Node 2i, and Siri is an option for Apple users.
When using the Node 2i as a stereo component in your existing hi-fi setup, as was the case for this review, it simply connects to an amplifier via RCA plugs. You then download the BluOS app to your devices – in my case my Android smartphone and my PC laptop – and connect to your Wi-Fi network.
Next, you allow the Node 2i to find the music library on your computer and let it download all the file information. (I left it to do this overnight, so I’m not sure how long it took, but I expect it was several hours).
You can also add your Spotify Premium account – make sure you have it on the hi-fi setting – Tidal, and many other streaming services. And you can add your favourite online radio stations and spend hours discovering more; the possibilities are pretty much endless.
If I’ve made this seem quick and easy to set up, that’s because it is. I used the music library, consisting of FLAC, WAV (ranging from standard to high resolutions) and MP3 files on my computer, but another option is directly connecting a NAS or other hard drive.
I warmed up by spending a bit of time with various internet radio services as well as Spotify and Tidal. Thanks to the BluOS app finding almost any radio/internet station from anywhere in the world is super easy.
Audio quality varies depending on the bitrate used, but generally, everything I tried out fared pretty well – WFMU and KCRW, for example, have always been favourites of mine, for both content and aural appeal.
Some stations manage to maintain a level of naturalness with at least an inkling of dynamics while others can be flat, bland and clinical, nice for background music but not much else.
Spotify Premium was fine, I have never been particularly amazed by the sound, but I do concede it is a useful discovery tool and it was indeed listenable. Tidal, on the other hand, sounded freer, more dynamic and punchier.
Listening to a variety of standard and MQA mastered albums was particularly appealing, each one loaded with richness and texture and free-flowing rhythm.
Moving on to tracks from my music collection, I pulled up an album called Cusp (2018) by Allela Diane, in high-res FLAC, which immediately struck me as sounding rich with just the right amount of warmth.
The piano had excellent tone, and the individual keys were nicely percussive, bass had good body and articulation, and Diane’s wistful voice came across with good expression and presence.
On Radiohead’s ‘Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box’ from the album Amnesiac (2001, FLAC), images were separate and distinct with a good sense of layers and individual tones. The programmed drum beat was deep and powerful, seeming to have a life of its own.
The Node 2i gave a very clean presentation with no digital harshness or grain, making for a very easy and enjoyable listen. Even the MP3 copy of Om’s mighty Conference of the Birds (2006) which came free with the vinyl album and is usually a little harsh and constrained, was good enough to hear to the end.
Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988, FLAC) was funky, confronting and hard hitting. Chuck D and Flavor Flav stood out with realistic presence, surrounded by the driving beats and samples; there was a weighty sense of tension and urgency and a kind of organic richness that helped make it easy to listen to.
With energetic late-night-club electronica from Hauntologist’s self-titled album (2015, high-res FLAC), the Node 2i did a great job of conveying the frenetic rave vibe with luscious layers of sound, fast, tight rhythms and deep, deep bass. Occasionally the bass seemed to get a little out of control, a bit loose around the edges but most people probably won’t even notice – or care.
Streaming Tidal, Spotify, internet radio and music files from either my laptop or my smartphone over the Wi-Fi connection was flawless. I experienced no lag or dropouts and only fine-sounding music.
Using Bluetooth, I had no dropouts when playing off my phone, but for some reason, my laptop couldn’t always keep up. I suspect it’s more to do with it being a busy little computer rather than any fault of the Node 2i, but I didn’t have time to come up with a resolution.
I hadn’t expected to be so impressed with the audio quality via a Bluetooth connection but am pleased to say I rather was. I spent considerable time AB-ing it with Wi-Fi (not a perfect experiment, I know) using Laura Marling’s stunning 2015 album Short Movie (in hi-res FLAC).
While it displayed a certain richness and warmth with decent body, Bluetooth couldn’t quite recreate the atmosphere, dynamics or breadth of the Wi-Fi stream to my ears. I say this, but it was not at all bad. In theory Bluetooth through the Node 2i should be about as good as Wi-Fi with audio up to 24/48kHz; in this case, it was only nearly there.
This could have something to do with the aptX HD codec in the streamer; presumably, both the sender and receiver would have to have the same codec to take full advantage.
My Samsung Galaxy S7 (a “Dad Phone” according to my son), to my knowledge, only supports the basic aptX which provides only “near CD quality” audio, so I can only assume this was preventing me from getting the full benefit of the Node’s HD quality Bluetooth.
Still, what I heard was within the audiophile realm and easily the best Bluetooth audio I have experienced thus far, so it gets a definite pass from me.
The Node 2i didn’t get in and push out loads of detail in that wide open and revealing way more expensive DACs can, but it does fill the space between the listener and the speakers with swathes of engaging music.
And while it may have audiophile ambitions, it stays firmly grounded in the music-first realm, thus ensuring appeal for both sides of the spectrum.
Special mention should be made of the BluOS app because it is intuitive and effortless to use. It looks all glossy and great with beautiful album art and quick and easy controllability.
Platforms like Spotify and Tidal can be loaded and operated directly through the app. One or two albums from my library refused to load with cover art despite my best efforts, but I’m sure this could have been resolved given more time.
The Bluesound Node 2i is a hugely enjoyable and highly capable player in a small attractive package which is likely to remain relevant for many years to come.
Considering its price versus performance and features, trying to find fault with the Node 2i would be akin to expressing disappointment at your 10-year-old child because they only read at a 14-year-old level.
This thing is bound to convert many music fans into audiophiles, and they may not even know it until it’s too late.
For more information visit Bluesound.
Having been mauled by the hi-fi bug in his twenties, Andrew has been writing about it for a few years now. His passion is for vinyl and its associated rituals, but digital music comes a close second. Music is a big part of his life and if he’s not listening to an album, he’s wondering which one to buy next. He enjoys writing about his adventures and hopes for many more to come.
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