Introduction - What Is the Bluesound Node?
The Bluesound Node (3rd Generation) is a network streamer with some additional features (which will be covered, worry not) to create a comprehensive digital front end. It replaces the Node 2i which we looked at and enjoyed very much. Bluesound has opted to ‘reboot’ the naming convention of the Node so this isn’t a ‘Node 3’, simply a Node and it is likely that the ‘third generation’ bit will fade too once supplies of the previous model have sold through.
Revised naming or not, the arrival of a new Node is A Big Deal because this is one of the mainstays of affordable streaming. This in itself is a little odd because the Bluesound range didn’t launch straight into greatness. When it first hit shops, the products were unquestionably good but they weren’t operationally perfect. Neither was it a hardware revision that made the difference. Instead it was a wholesale upgrade to the BluOS operating software that made the difference. As we have discussed on many an occasion, software is everything for a product like this and Bluesound went from solid to spectacular over the course of a series of app updates.
Of course, nothing stands still. Sonos, HEOS and MusicCast have been steadily improving over the last few years and the requirement for devices that offer both front end and decoding has declined as more and more amplifiers pack their own decoding into the same chassis. Is this still the best affordable way to add to a comprehensive streaming platform to your audio or are things changing? Time to fire up the Node and see what it can do.
Specification and Design
If you are the happy owner of a Node 2i, you can sit back, unclench anything that might have been… tight… at the thought of your hardware becoming obsolete and relax a little. The headline capabilities of the new Node are very similar to that of its predecessor. This means that the Node can handle PCM to 24/192kHz in pretty much every format you can envisage (including MQA) save for DSD which is not supported. I leave you to make your own mind up about this but it seems Bluesound continues to see little credible real world argument for it to be supported at this price point and, while you are free to vigorously disagree with me, I think they’re right. If you have a DSD library, BluOS does at least have the means to identify and cross convert to FLAC.
More: Audio Formats
This decoding is handled by a Texas Instruments PCM 5242 DAC (this reflects the recent decision by TI to cease the use of the Burr Brown name they’ve owned for some years and label everything as Texas Instruments) that runs a differential output in the pursuit of a better signal to noise ratio - in this case improved over the preceding Node 2i. This is partnered with an ARM Cortex A53 processor to provide the necessary control power for the Node to do what it does. As with proceeding models, nothing here is really cutting edge and that is entirely deliberate. It’s well specced, proven technology that works.
Many of the additional features of the Node 2i are carried over too. As well as network audio via BluOS, you can stream to the Node via AirPlay 2, aptX Bluetooth (and back from it using the same hardware as it is two way) and there is a combined optical and analogue in on a 3.5mm connector. You can also output from the Bluesound over coax and optical (and this seems to be something that a lot of Nodes are called upon to do based on my own, admittedly anecdotal, findings. In the new version, this is going to be bolstered via the addition of USB out but this is via a future firmware update and, at the time of writing (July 2021), it is not available.
What is available is the addition of an eARC capable HDMI connection. This is a smart move on the part of Bluesound because it gives the Node a level of AV functionality that most rivals lack. It’s possible to argue that this is more useful still on the Powernode (a Node with the amplification built in) because of the volume sync but Bluesound has you partially covered here too. The Node is functioning preamp and, if you were minded to, you could simply raise the amp volume and back the Bluesound volume off to compensate.
One of the biggest differences between the old Node and the new is the design. Bluesound has reached the point in its design and production that it can’t radically overhaul what its equipment looks like because the company would very much like you to augment your existing Bluesound equipment with more Bluesound. Even allowing for this though, the rework of the new Node is a good one. It still looks like a Bluesound but it’s leaner and more elegant. The more rubberised finish of the older models has been dispensed with and the result is clean, slick and - given that the Node is made out of plastic and therefore not the easiest thing to give a ‘hewn from granite’ feel to - it still comes across as solid and well made.
The biggest difference though is the arrival of more controls. The top of the Node is now a touch panel that gives you volume controls (indicated by a line running across the panel), skip back/forward and play pause. There are also five presets that can be allocated functionality in the app. Bluesound also makes an optional IR handset too. The heavy lifting is going to be done by the app though and this is no bad thing. BluOS remains a seriously good piece of kit because it does the important things very well. It offers all the streaming services you can think of (and a host of ones you can’t), it’s stable on both iOS and Android and it scales to multiroom brilliantly.
It’s not perfect though. It’s still a queue based app, which I dislike, and certain restrictions that were fine a few years ago like the 600kb cap on album art now feel restrictive (ironically, it’s the paid downloads that now come with art you could blow up onto the side of a building and that BluOS cannot show). I’m not suggesting that it’s no longer good because that’s not the case. In the time that BluOS has been metaphorically staring lovingly at itself in the mirror though, its rivals have been putting in the legwork to close the gap. Of course, if you’ve splashed out for Roon, you can ignore all this because the Node works like a charm on that.
BluOS remains a seriously good piece of kit because it does the important things very well. It offers all the streaming services you can think of (and a host of ones you can’t), it’s stable on both iOS and Android and it scales to multiroom brilliantly
How Was the Node 2i Tested?
The Bluesound has been connected to an IsoTek Evo 3 Corvus mains block and used both wired and wirelessly on the home network. It has been tested via RCA and coax into a Chord Electronics CPM2800MkII integrated amp powering a pair of Kudos Titan 505 standmount speakers. It has used a Melco N1A as a library and also accessed the same library via a Roon Nucleus. The app has been tested via iPad Pro and Oppo Find X2 Neo with the devices testing AirPlay and Bluetooth respectively. Unfortunately, the ongoing issues with ARC on my LGB7 precluded testing this. Material used has been FLAC, AIFF and on demand streaming services including Qobuz, Tidal, Deezer and Spotify.
As the new Node is not a very hefty revision of the older model, it retains a characteristic that - entirely subjectively - I think is rather brilliant. This little streamer sounds uncannily like the old Naim ND5 XS, now the best part of a decade old but still a great listen. Thanks to the use of a very similar DAC chip and Bluesound paying attention to the design of the output stage, the Node has some qualities that immediately endear it to me. There is a control; almost a ‘darkness’ to the top end that means that this is a very hard device to unsettle even with poor recordings. This is an extraordinarily forgiving device to use across a selection of content. You’d have to think of something fairly ambitious in terms of partnering equipment to unsettle it.
But there’s more than forgiveness on offer here. During the time the Node was on test, Qobuz released a playlist entitled I Love Manchester and the Node was absolutely in its element throughout. Where the Bluesound is different to the very affordable digital devices like the Zen DAC MkII and Topping E30 is that it has more character and this character is a consistent and engaging rhythmic energy. Give it a beat and it latches on and away it goes.
What’s so impressive about this is that there’s more than ‘a bit of a groove’ to the Node. It finds the rhythmic engagement in big angular bits of Autechre just as easily as it does the jaunty South American brilliance of Jorge Ben. It does this without affecting the tonal realism of anything I’ve played on it. Standard tests of such things, like the flute that appears toward the end of Ray LaMontagne’s You Can Bring Me Flowers and the Node gets it right pretty much every time.
There are caveats to this; it’s why more expensive digital obstinately continues to exist. Judged by the standards of other sanely priced digital components, the bass detail, control and extension of the Node is more than respectable. If you do run side by side tests with the decoding in the Chord 2800 (which you can still compare against the RCA out of the Node as the same time), it doesn’t have quite the same effortless heft to it as the more expensive and sophisticated stage in the Chord amp. The other is arguably more niche. The Bluesound is a device that keeps poorer recordings sounding listenable. This does mean that when you reach for something truly exquisitely recorded, the Node doesn’t quite scale the heights of something less fundamentally forgiving but I leave it to you to decide where on the quality/forgiveness balance you sit.
It’s also worth factoring in that the Node really is a pleasure to use and live with. There are makers of some extremely expensive streaming gear who would do well to withdraw £549 from the company’s development budget, buy one and try and make it fall over. In the time that the Node has been running, absolutely nothing hasn’t worked in the manner I expected it to. It’s joined the network, updated the software, been given an arbitrary and stupid name and alternated between being controlled from the native app and Roon. I’ve selected AirPlay and Bluetooth and connected the digital and analogue outs at the same time. It hasn’t so much as stuttered once. BluOS could do with a tiny number of tweaks and modifications to truly shine but it’s only fair when saying this to point out that it is still one of the best operating systems out there.
There are makers of some extremely expensive streaming gear who would do well to withdraw £549 from the company’s development budget, buy one and try and make it fall over
- Sounds potent and engaging
- Excellent feature set
- Well made and easy to use
- Not the most spectacular looking device going
- Some minor quirks to BluOS
- No DSD
Bluesound Node Network Streamer Review
If you were hoping for Bluesound to tear up the rule book and deliver something genuinely gamechanging (and honestly, I don’t know if anyone was truly expecting such a thing), the new Node might seem a little anticlimactic. It’s better looking, a little easier to use and the key feature it has gained arguably makes more sense on the Powernode. This is more a refresh than a clean sheet design and, as noted earlier, if you have a Node 2i (and very possibly even an original Node), it probably isn’t worth changing.
If you need an affordable streamer right now though, this is the place you start looking. The new Node is compact and attractive and it has a specification that covers off most bases you might reasonably expect and ties it to an interface that is still exceptionally good. The Node is still one of the very best streaming options under £1,000 and is an indisputable Best Buy.
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