When, in the 1950s, Eichler installed the first whole-house intercom/radio system in a tract house, it jump-started a fascination with the notion that you could listen to your favorite radio program anywhere in your home. The marketing went something like this: “With whole-house audio, no matter where you are -- kitchen, laundry, den -- you [the stay-at-home mom] don’t have to miss a word of [insert favorite show, song, etc.]” Of course, it helped if you didn’t mind the horribly tinny sound quality, or the limitations of the AM radioband. The convenience sure beat having a tabletop radio in every room -- even if you already had a tabletop radio in every room.
The idea stuck. It was very cool to have radio constantly at your side. Soon enough, FM radio was brought on board, and radio became ambient party music. What went missing was any pretense to high fidelity -- i.e., the ability to play something besides radio broadcasts. Hi-fi technology eventually filled those gaps with high-end in-wall speakers, zoned amplifiers, and sound sources that included cassette decks, CD players, and iPods.
From the start, I viewed the concept of whole-house audio with more than a little skepticism. First, in any house big enough to warrant a multi-room audio system, there’s also the possibility -- indeed, the likelihood -- that said house’s inhabitants might not have identical wants, needs, or tastes in music or sound. And if not, it wasn’t clear that whole-house audio would be an acceptable alternative to having one’s music in one’s own room. Second, even though hi-fi technology made whole-house sound an agreeable possibility, I’ve asked friends who’ve wanted to install such systems: Is it really going to be worth all that money and trouble to break open walls, install miles of wire, and buy all the components (speakers, zoned receivers, and so on), for something that will be used only occasionally? I counseled them to opt for modestly priced, separate systems that would permit different people to listen to different music in different rooms.
Now, with the advent of Wi-Fi, whole-house sound no longer entails breaking into walls, miles of wire, specialized amplifiers, even more specialized installers, or separate, independent audio systems. In fact, as Bluesound’s current array of models demonstrates, you can have your audio cake and eat it, too. Separate components installed in various locations can function as both whole-house and discrete audio systems.
All Bluesound products support the AAC, AIFF, ALAC, FLAC, MP3, OGG, WAV, WMA, and WMA-L file formats, Bluetooth wireless, as well as bit depths up to 24 and sampling rates up to 192kHz. Each DAC is 32-bit/192kHz capable. All Bluesound products include the iHeartRadio and TuneIn Radio services, and support the subscription services Deezer, HighResAudio, Juke, Murfie, Napster, Qobuz, Rdio, Rhapsody, Slacker Radio, Spotify, Tidal, and WiMP.
Bluesound also supplies almost all the cables needed for any connection any of their components offers. For example, if a model has an RJ45 Ethernet connection (and they all do), then Bluesound supplies a CAT5 Ethernet cable. In a policy that undoubtedly saves money over having to prepare different sorts of packages, each model also comes supplied with both a US-Canada-Japan Type-A AC plug and the Type-C plug used in most of Europe.
All Bluesound products are managed by the Bluesound app, available for both Android (Google Play) and iOS (Apple App Store) devices. Network-sharing capabilities are compatible with the Windows 2000, XP, Vista, 7, and 8 operating systems, and with Apple’s OS X. Indeed, the Bluesound app is the heart of how Bluesound manages its whole-house devices. In addition to accessing local and Internet Radio and your collection of music files, the Bluesound app lets you group (and ungroup) your Bluesound components in any combination you prefer. This means that you can indeed play the same stream through all components simultaneously -- or something different on each one. And there, young Grasshopper, is the rub.
Like its immediate predecessor, the Node, the Node 2 ($499 USD) is Bluesound’s “tuner” -- a compact (8.7"W x 1.8"H x 5.7"D, 2.45 pounds) streaming device designed to send its output to a preamplifier or receiver via its RCA, coaxial digital, or optical digital outputs. Designed primarily as a Wi-Fi streamer, the Node 2 also has an RJ45 Ethernet connection, a USB Type-A input, a USB Type-B port for servicing, a nifty 3.5mm combination minijack/TosLink optical input (Bluesound supplies a minijack-to-TosLink converter), a 3.5mm headphone jack, and an RCA subwoofer output. (The assumption is that the sub is powered, which these days most are.)
I connected the Node 2 to my Big Rig: AVA Omega Star III EC preamp, Sunfire amplifier, and two original Legacy Classic loudspeakers. I dialed in various local and Internet Radio stations, the former courtesy their Internet feeds, and heard flawless sound. Later, I connected it to our living-room system: an Audioengine N22 integrated amplifier driving a pair of Audioengine P4 speakers, augmented by a PSB Alpha SubSonic 1 powered subwoofer.
The Pulse Mini ($499) is the little sibling of the Pulse 2; like its bigger bro, it contains an amplifier, drivers, and a streaming tuner. It measures 13.2”W x 6.8”H x 6.1”D and weighs a humble 7.9 pounds. Its three PSB drivers, a 3.5” midrange-woofer and two 2” tweeters, are powered by a 60W NAD amplifier. (Like PSB and NAD, Bluesound is owned by Lenbrook Industries.) Like the Node 2, the Pulse Mini is primarily Wi-Fi based. It also has an RJ45 Ethernet connection, USB Type-A input, USB Type-B for product servicing, a 3.5mm combination minijack/TosLink optical input (Bluesound supplies a minijack-to-TosLink converter), and a 3.5mm headphone jack.
I first used the Pulse Mini in my erstwhile Music Room, Home of the Big Rig, simply to test the integrity of the synchronized audiostream, playing it at the same time as the Node 2 or Vault 2 -- the synchronization passed with nary a hiccup. Then I moved it downstairs to the kitchen, where I could listen to the local NPR news feed (www.wamu.org), Radio Paradise (www.radioparadise.com), Cool Radio Jazz (www.coolradio.de/jazz-2), or something streamed from my library of FLAC files.
While the Bluesound, as we shall see, enables whole-house synchronized wizardry, its electronic guts are made by NAD, and its speakers are from PSB. This is important -- NAD is a longtime maker of serious stereo and multichannel electronics, and PSB makes some of the best affordable speakers above and in the Lower 48. For 20 years, my wife has had, in her office, an NAD music system driving two vintage PSB Alpha speakers, and they sound as good today as when she first installed them there. The NAD-PSB heritage informs every Bluesound model that includes an amplifier and/or speaker drivers -- including the Pulse Mini, which sounded sublime. Although, with a specified low-bass cutoff of 45Hz, its bass response won’t rattle foundations, it reproduced the entire audioband with good fidelity: it was loud, proud, and unyieldingly musical. For many years, my standard for compact audio gear has been Tivoli’s Model Two stereo table radio, with its Henry Kloss pedigree and softly refined sound. The Bluesound Pulse Mini is every bit the Model Two’s equal -- and, with its networking capabilities, in some ways even better.
The Vault 2 ($1199) is the second iteration of the Vault, Bluesound’s ripping/streaming component. Gone is the diamond-on-steroids configuration in favor of a straight-ahead box that looks much like the Node 2, with a CD loading slot hidden in the black groove that runs around the two side panels and the front. The box measures 8.7”W x 3.54”H x 7.55”D and weighs a modest 4.05 pounds. The rear panel sports analog RCA stereo and subwoofer out, and digital outs via coaxial and TosLink; there are also an Ethernet port, a minijack/optical input, two USB Type-A inputs, and a USB Type-B input. The hawkeyed will immediately notice that the inputs and outputs are nearly identical to the Node 2’s. The Vault 2 even has a front-mounted headphone jack.
Like the Vault, the Vault 2 is not Wi-Fi enabled. Bluesound still doesn’t rely on Wi-Fi for the connections necessary to fully effect its ripping function -- mainly, accessing a database with comprehensive listings of album art and track metadata. In Bluesound’s world, and perhaps yours, this means that, ideally, you’d install the Vault 2 in a room where you have direct Ethernet access and will be ripping your CDs. Then you’d install the Node 2 in another room where you can access everything over another hi-fi system, and the Pulse Mini in yet another room, where convenience is more important than hi-fi sound -- although the Pulse Mini was no slouch in terms of sound.
The Vault 2 can rip a CD as a WAV file (no compression), a FLAC file (lossless compression), or an MP3 file (lossy compression), and store them on its 2TB hard drive. (Note: If your selected output is anything but a WAV file, the Vault 2 rips all CDs as WAV files, converts them to the desired output, then deletes the WAV file.) Folks, 2TB is a whole lot of space. It will store as WAV files 1800 or so CDs of average length, 3600 or so as FLAC files, or about 30,000 as MP3s -- the last equivalent to about 300,000 tracks. Any way you think about it, that’s a lot of music. Which format you choose will depend on the sound quality you want.
I installed the Vault 2 in the Big Rig, and ran a lengthy CAT6 cable from it to my router, an Apple AirPort, situated in another room. The really big news about the Vault 2 is that it rips CDs to FLACs at lightning speed, encoding the ripped WAV file to FLAC virtually in real time. The Vault had a substantial delay -- with it, you might rip five CDs in 45 minutes, and then it would take up to another hour to do the encoding. With the Vault 2, by the time you retrieve the ejected disc, the encoding is finished. Pretty cool.
I had one problem with the Vault 2. While ripping Monsters of Folk -- by a one-off folk “supergroup” comprising Conor Oberst, Jim James, M. Ward, and Mike Mogis (CD, Shangri-La 10158) -- the Vault 2’s LED turned red, which normally signals that a firmware update has commenced. After a bit, it glowed blue, indicating normal operation. But. The. Disc. Would. Not. Eject. The Vault 2 would not respond to the Eject CD button. I went to the Vault 2’s diagnostic page and found nothing. The Bluesound app then wouldn’t let me back into the ripping page. Snarl.
My experience with Bluesound’s first generation of components had taught me that the answer would be somewhere in their online support pages. Sure enough, my precise predicament had been addressed there. While the remedy didn’t eject the disc, the next morning we experienced a temporary power outage -- no more than a minute. To my surprise, when I looked in on the Vault 2, the CD had been ejected. I went back to the Bluesound app’s diagnostic section and noticed a little button down in the corner: Reboot. I pushed it. The LED turned red for a minute or two, then blue. Everything reverted to normal. The irony? There’s not one mention of the Reboot button in Bluesound’s canon of support. I don’t know, therefore, what it actually did, but it worked. Go figure.
Bluesound’s support cadre’s examination of the diagnostics log didn’t reveal the source of the problem, and couldn’t explain why my inadvertent solution had worked. They did agree, however, that their documentation needed a serious overhaul.
If you’ve ever tried to play the same Internet stream from different devices, you know that syncing them can be maddening enough to make you tear your hair out in little tufts. In fact, despite valiant attempts by me and a buddy to sync Radio Paradise in adjacent offices, we never got closer than a few seconds apart -- an eternity to the ears. Normally, you might think this a problem better left to the geeks, for whom that kind of stuff is a living nightmare; normally, I’d agree. However, if the challenge is to apply Wi-Fi to an entire house, then it’s a real problem. You don’t want to walk from one room into the next and hear something you heard five seconds ago -- or hear something completely different and realize that the other room is 15 seconds behind. Admittedly, I don’t think that syncing Internet streams is a terribly significant problem. My guess is that it doesn’t even crack the Audiophile Top 40. But for a whole-house system, it’s critical to get it right.
Bluesound has. It doesn’t matter which component initiates the stream -- once the components are grouped, there’s no time delay. With a Bluesound component in any room reachable by Wi-Fi, you’ll get unfettered, undelayed sound. “Okay,” you say; “maybe, going from room to room, you might not notice a small delay of, say, one second.” To test the efficacy of Bluesound’s component grouping, before scattering them about the house, I installed them in the Music Room, home of the Big Rig, and turned on the local NPR stream. Then I grouped them, one by one. Although it was plain that I was hearing multiple versions of the same stream, it was the same stream -- not a burp or a hiccup or a hint of delay. And when I then dispersed them throughout the house, voilà! Whole-house audio.
But what if Mom wants talk radio in one room, Dad wants opera in another, and Junior wants hip-hop in his? Each component can function on its own. Mom, Dad, and Junior each use the Bluesound app on his or her smartphone to dial in her or his druthers. It’s almost too easy. Mind you, no one is restricted to radio, local, or Internet. If what you want is shared and accessible on the home network’s library, it’s available to any of the Bluesound components. Further, the Pulse Mini has multiple inputs, in case you want to listen to something stored on, say, your iPhone, that’s not on the network. (The Node 2 and Vault 2 are only sound sources; you’d presume that they’re connected to a system that has its own ancillary inputs.)
The Bluesound Pulse Mini, Node 2, and Vault 2 are primarily computers, with some nifty NAD/PSB components built into the Mini. But unlike with most computers, especially the dedicated variety (PlayStation, Wii, etc.), little in the documentation -- either what comes with the components or online -- is organized in a way that is actually helpful. I highly recommend that Bluesound issue a bona-fide user’s manual for each component. Oh, each model has a manual, but it contains little more than a description of the model’s physical features. At the very least, a comprehensive guide to the Bluesound app -- i.e., where to find the ripping panel and the Reboot button -- would be a giant first step.
And because I think Bluesound’s audience is one of music lovers, not computer geeks, I also think a little patient, elementary handholding is necessary. Take a cue from the manuals of audio components, which lay out their products’ options in exhaustive detail. Customers want to spend their time enjoying music, not searching a website for an answer to their question, or sending diagnostics off to tech support.
Bluesound has converted me. No longer am I an unrelenting critic of whole-house audio. Their streaming applications work flawlessly, even if the ripping application seems to need tweaking. And they operate just as flawlessly as unique sound sources. I have seldom enjoyed listening to a single audio component as much as I have to the variety and versatility of the Bluesound medley of models. Imagine -- you can hear any file in your entire music collection in any room simply by dialing it up on the Bluesound app. How cool is that? Despite my criticism of their documentation, these Bluesound components are highly recommended.
A few nights ago, my wife was reading in the living room. I asked her if she’d like some soft background music. “Yes! Thank you!” I called up Errol Garner’s The Complete Concert by the Sea (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Columbia/Legacy). Man, I wish she smiled at me like that.
. . . Kevin East
Bluesound Node 2 Streaming Tuner
Price: $499 USD.
Bluesound Pulse Mini Streaming Loudspeaker
Price: $499 USD.
Bluesound Vault 2 Streaming CD Ripper and Storage Device
Price: $1199 USD.
Warranty (all): One year parts and labor.
Lenbrook Industries Limited
633 Granite Court
Pickering, Ontario L1W 3K1
Phone: (905) 831-6333