I always wanted a whole-home, music-everywhere system for my house. However, there are two things that always bug me. One: I have to use a computer to rip my music collection (I have about 2,000 CDs in my collection). Two: they all range from sounding-bad to, at best, sounds “okay-ish”. Sure Sonos streamlined the technology, Apple style, pushed it upscale and slapped a premium price on it…which is not a problem if I don’t still have to use my computer to rip myh CD collection and/or have good sound quality. Other standalone CD rippers out there such as Olive (which I also own) only rip CDs with no whole-home solution.
Now Bluesound, a collaboration between the NAD (electronics) and PSB (loudspeaker) brands owned by the Lenbrook Group of Pickering, Ontario, adds wireless streaming of higher-resolution audio, more sophisticated digital technology and even higher prices.
Of course, the object of this music-everywhere game is to send music, from the Internet or stored on a computer or mobile device, over the home’s wireless network to speakers using an Android or Apple app as a controller. Often, it’s a streamlined music system with only wireless speakers.
That’s how Sonos does it. Bluesound arrives with only one wireless speaker, the Pulse ($699). This newbie brand spent much more time developing three streaming machines capable of beyond-MP3, beyond-Sonos, beyond-even-CD streaming — 24-bit audio with sample rates up to 192 kilohertz. That is high-resolution territory, my fellow readers!
So Bluesound welcomes high-test FLAC, WAV and AIFF music files but it lags far behind Sonos in available streaming-music services…which to me doesn’t matter as streaming-music services can be added later and they tend to sound like garbage anyway. Sonos offers more than 20. Bluesound has a handful of familiar names, including Slacker, TuneIn and Rdio, while it aligns with high-resolution specialists like France’s Qubuz and highresaudio.com. It’s substance over quantity.
Sonos also delivers a stable signal by creating its own wireless mesh network. Bluesound rides on a home network occupied by the rest of a household’s wireless devices. Can Bluesound dependably stream bigger, high-resolution music files without sputtering or drop-outs?
These are Bluesound’s long-term challenges. Yet already it has everything else in place, from the NAD-PSB hardware to robust music-management app software called BluOS, derived from Linux, created in-house. This is an emphatic music-streaming debut.
Here is the Bluesound combination I auditioned:
The Vault: The Bluesound Vault is in a category all by itself, at least for the time being. The Vault combines 1TB of Network Attached Storage (NAS) with a DAC and digital volume control so you can connect it directly to your hi-fi with a pair of regular old RCA interconnects. Using the very slick Bluesound app on your smart gadget or tablet of choice (I tried the app on my iPad 2 and iPad Air) you can be playing your favourite songs instantly. No computer (yaaaay!!!) or external storage necessary (although if you want to use computer and/or external storage you are more than welcome to do so).
Furthermore, the Vault can also stream music from Rdio, Slacker Radio, and Qobuz, (requires an account) and TuneIn Internet radio, allow you to purchase and download music from HighResAudio (geographical restrictions apply to some titles but Bluesound is working on adding additional download services), play music from other network attached storage as well as USB storage, rip your CDs, and control the Vault’s internal digital volume all from within the Bluesound app. That’s right—all from within the Bluesound app including buying high res downloads so you never have to leave the comfort of…the app. Again, my type of nirvana, no computer necessary!!
The curved cornered cubed Vault comes in high gloss black or white with a steel strip running down its center which quite a reminiscence of NAD VISO 1. The front is adorned with a vertical CD slot, the top has a round power/status button that lights up different colors depending on what the Vault is up to, while the backside houses the inputs and outputs. I found the overall the construction quality is very nice if a tad light weight. As for the styling department, I tend to like the sleek, minimal industrial design by David Farrage.
The Vault has USB connections for external hard drives and audio connections but needs an Ethernet connection to a router for streaming and adding network-attached libraries. The ripper took 11 minutes to rip a single 65-minute album in my tests. I have to admit that it is on the slow side, I’d rather have a system that ensures a proper rip over speed. Even with my badly scratched Casiopea CD (one of my first audio CD I ever own), the ripper worked flawlessly. Once again, it shows Bluesound’s quality of quantity (or in this case: speed). Oh, by the way, you can listen to music while you rip so this didn’t bother me one way or another. There is some self noise that occurs during ripping similar to what you get when you rip a CD using your computer…JOY!!!
As always, the circuit implementation around the DAC is often more important than the CODEC itself. Getting the potential performance requires careful engineering of power supply and circuit layout as well as other passive components in the signal path. This is where Bluesound’s NAD roots give it an edge over computer companies that try to make audio gear.
The Disc Drive is a DVD ROM drive chosen for its high accuracy, and uses Cdparanoia as the ripping engine. Cdparanoia reads audio from the CDROM directly as data, with no analog step between, and writes the data to a file raw 16 bit linear PCM. The VAULT then codes the raw PCM to FLAC or MP3 (320kbps) or both as chosen by the user.
The Bluesound Vault runs a custom developed Linux OS, BluOStm, and the Samba file sharing protocol so it shows up on your network as a storage device as soon as you plug it in and connect an Ethernet cable. So you can browse the Vault’s contents from your computer and drag and drop music into the Vault if you so desire. Bluesound also recommends backing up the Vault from your computer by simply dragging and dropping the Vault’s contents into another drive. The Vault supports MP3, AAC, WMA, OGG, WMA-L, FLAC, ALAC, WAV, and AIFF files up to 24-bit/192kHz as well as gapless playback.
All data is handled asynchronously whether from the Ethernet, USB or internal drive, and is controlled by one of two precision clocks: 44.1/88.2/176.4 and 48/96/192 depending on the file’s sample rate. This gives the lowest possible jitter for all sources and is the reason internet radio (and everything else) sounds better on a Bluesound.
Power Node: A streamer powered by an ARM Cortex A8 processor (the same processor used by early iPads and iPhones) with a digital-to-analog converter and a class-D 50-watt amplifier and The DAC is a 35-bit/844 kHz processor that maintains the digital signal purity all the way to the speaker outputs where we have a novel way to drive the speakers directly, derived from NAD’s Digital Direct series. Connect to your home network, add speakers, download the app and press “Play.”. That’s it! Done and done!
As far as the sound goes…as I expected from a NAD-designed unit, is clear, dynamic yet controlled at the same time. Furthermore, which impressed me the most, regardless of the volume level, there is no sacrifice in dynamic range and/or sound quality unlike the Sonos Connect Amp. Also there is no zipper effect when I turn up and down the volume level.
There is also an identical Node (not tested) has everything the Power Node has except the power — you supply the amplifier for your speakers. Also NOT tested, Bluesound Duo: a satellite-subwoofer package tuned by PSB designer Paul Barton with two speakers, each 8 inches tall, and a subwoofer powered by a 110-watt amplifier. These retain PSB’s familiar clarity, immediacy and frequency response.
In this configuration, the Power Node was paired with my trusty PSB Century 300i speakers and the Vault was connected via Ethernet cable to a router. Once they were set up, I never touched them again. Everything was controlled by an iPhone/iPad app.
Just like using a Sonos system, if you use the Vault and Powernode (and/or Node), the music on your Vault automatically shows up on the Powernode without you having to do anything. Nice. You can also operate multiple Bluesound devices with the Bluesound app individually so they each play different music or as a Group of two or more so they act, well, as a group playing the same music. Setting up a group involves tapping on the “Group” button and then adding the devices from a list that you’d like to group. Simple. The other Bluesound device worth a mention is the PULSE ($699) which is a stand alone streamer/speaker including 2x 2 1/4″ full range drivers and 1x 5 1/4″ bass driver with all of the network functionality as the Powernode controllable by the same Bluesound app.
Although I hate computers, for the sake of this review I use my laptop to store some songs to test whether the Bluesound app will recognize the music library. Alas, the Bluesound app did not immediately recognize music libraries on my home network stored on my Windows laptop. For users like me, the work-around is a one-time file-sharing setup on the computer. Airplay would greatly improve the range and fidelity of streaming music from a mobile device, which now requires Bluetooth.
Also, Bluesound also doesn’t have a Web client. When the Vault failed to recognize an album’s track names and title, it filed it under “Unknown CD” From a shared computer, I had already added and deleted albums from the Vault. Now I transferred the “Unknown” files into iTunes, added the information, then reloaded the album into the Vault wirelessly.
The Power Node, for me, was the standout. When Bluesound adds Spotify and other streaming services, and maybe AirPlay, watch out. It is already ahead of Sonos in both hardware and app software. It’s only the simplicity that needs a little work.
In conclusion, a product line like the Bluesound basically begs for an accounting by function in order to assess its value. For the Vault we have a 1TB NAS, a CD ripper, a 24/192-capable server and streamer with Toslink output, a 24/192-capable DAC, a digital volume control, and a nice responsive app to control everything. While you may be able to get all of these individual pieces for less than the Vault’s $999 asking price, you’d have lots of boxes and cables and power cords to contend with and you’d have to deal with making them all work together with just one app to match the way the Vault works. All the above make the Vault a tremendous value.
For those people looking for a nice, simple, convenient and good-sounding one box/one app solution for ripping CDs, playing your ripped and downloaded files, streaming music from Internet radio, Rdio, Slacker Radio, and Qobuz, and purchasing music from HighResAudio, the Bluesound Vault has got your number and it’s the only one in today’s’ marketplace. Just add an iOS or Android device as a remote and you’ll be listening to high quality music in no time.
Equipments used for this Bluesound review:
Bluesound Vault Bluesound Power Node
PSB Century 300i Speakers
PSB SubSeries 300 Subwoofer
XLO 12 Speaker Wires
Ultralink Subwoofer Wire
Torus AVR 2 – 20 Toroidal Power Conditioner