Bluesound is the latest contender in the high-fidelity audio market allowing users to leverage the latest in embedded-computing, utilizing smart phones and tablet apps, and integrating multiple streaming audio options. These are features that have me excited before I even consider the sound and build-quality of the Bluesound hardware devices which are the best I’ve ever owned.
After spending over 6 months of using Bluesound equipment I had written several long-winded and perhaps overly-detailed reviews that never seemed to capture my feelings about this product. The other reason it’s been hard to nail down a technical review is because in 6 months the software and feature set has undergone two major software updates, a newly redesigned mobile app, added new streaming services, and much more. Instead of telling you tech specs that seem to be changing before my eyes I wanted to share with you the impressions that have been left behind by making Bluesound HiFi audio part of my family’s life.
I’ve never known music to sound so good without the band in front of me – In a marketplace of audio technology there is a trend of trying to over-compress the digital formats in order to get the file sizes as small as you can. The smaller the file size the more songs you can add into the thumbnail-size audio player, right? But what about the sound when you make the file so small? In a race to achieve quantity over quality you go from high fidelity to low-fidelity or in some cases no-fidelity. Going back to some of the older formats (yes, even vinyl) the sound quality was much better than what I have on my iPod. I suppose most people (like myself) have never actually heard the difference in audio quality when you have a good source played on good speakers.
My first experience – After my unboxing of the Powernode and Duo speakers I hooked everything up like a kid at Christmas time. I loaded the Bluesound app onto my iPhone and selected our local NPR classical radio station from the TuneIn radio streaming integration. Coming from the sound were high-highs and low-lows unaccustomed to my living space. My kids immediately stopped what they were doing from throughout the house and one by one they shuffled into the living room with their eyes wide like Cindy Lou Who to see where the beautiful “dancing music” was coming from. It was inevitable – after 5 minutes of flitting around like little sugarplum fairies I heard the first excited (and hopeful) request to play Let it Go from the Frozen soundtrack.
As the music continued to play in the living room I set up the Pulse standalone all-in-one speaker unit in our kitchen. It was all so easy to sync up to the app and group the devices together. Next thing I knew we had crystal clear audio playing in both rooms and completely synchronized.
This is a product built by serious audio geeks – The company is the result of melding the expertise of two 40-year old companies and like the Borg, they formed a cadre of audio engineers with the collective dream to assimilate the latest technology on the market in order to create products that had killer sound. They started with sound and then addressed technology. I’ve seen other products on the market that first start with networking equipment and build-out until they’re adding speakers. It’s a subtle difference – but starting with a passion for great sound was the right call to make here. As I’ve stated before, the sound coming out of the Duo speakers (hooked up to a Powernode) take me to another place as I play my Gustav Holst recording of The Planets.
Beautiful sci-fi design aesthetic – Coming in a shiny black or white, it’s going to look nice in a kitchen or blend right in with the rest of your electronics on the shelf of the entertainment center. There is a single silver button for muting the device on the Vault and the Powernode, and the Pulse features really nice embedded buttons that activate with a light touch (reminds me of the touch-sensitive buttons on my XBOX 360). The LED lights give off a nice blue light when connected to the network.
Tech-support from the future – I was holding off on my review after I had some issues with the Pulse unit because if you are anything like me the support for a high-end gadget is incredibly important. As it turns out their support documentation is never out of date because it’s a living document on the web. The knowledge base is directly tied to their support center, so as cases are resolved and documented their “self help” documentation is readily available. In my particular case the various procedures for resetting, rebooting, and reinstalling didn’t work (I had one of the very early versions of firmware on my review unit). To be perfectly honest the tech support I received rivaled the tech itself.
I got the call from support after we made arrangements over their support ticketing system and they had me log into a website on my laptop so they could “see my network.” I then was asked to plug the Pulse unit into my router and within 10 minutes the technician I was working with had remotely connected to the Linux computer inside the Pulse unit and flashed new firmware into the unit. They stayed with me as I restarted the unit and tested it out (I think our victory music was by playing some Replacements on Spotify). We live in an age in which tech support can remote control our household appliances. No more annoying shipping units in RMA boxes or sending out service technicians.
Controlled by my desktop and mobile devices (iOS and Android) – At this point why wouldn’t you have a fancy stereo system that can be remote controlled by your smartphone or tablet? In addition to a new desktop control client for Windows and Mac, both Android and Apple iOS fans will be pleased to know that there is a mobile app that is used to surf your music libraries, streaming radio stations, and control the various units throughout the house. It’s really slick that I can play different music and playlists individually in each room or I can group them together as I like and have them synchronize what they are playing (with nothing ever getting out of sync!). Did I mention again this was all happening wirelessly over my home network?
Fully supports Spotify Connect streaming music service – When I first got the Bluesound units I was limited to playing music from my personal collection or from several terrestrial radio stations (including NPR and a few of my favorite FM stations with online streams available). But then the magic of Spotify Connect was added to make my Bluesound experience into what I had been hoping for. Like many folks, I don’t buy much music anymore because with streaming music services like Spotify and Pandora, who but the biggest fans will need to own all of the physical media? That’s so 2006.
Seamlessly digitizes my CD collection and networks with my iTunes library – Although I may primarily listen to music via streaming over Spotify there was a day before the internet (a day we tell our kids about that sounds like a fairytale to them) in which I owned all of my music. Close to 200 CDs filled with classical, jazz, techno, and lots and lots of Weird Al and classic rock. Bluesound has a device called the Vault and this bad boy has a 2TB networked hard drive that rips my entire CD collection into high-quality CD lossless digital audio files. The Vault searches for the album art online and indexes everything so I can play albums and build playlists from my phone or tablet device with ease. The Vault is the only device that requires a hard data connection to the router since it is responsible for transmitting some high quality audio over the network.
But wait? What about all of the music I’ve got on our family iTunes account? – Since the Bluesound equipment is all networked it can be configured to read music from a networked computer’s iTunes library. So within minutes of making the connection the Bluesound device indexes the music available and auto-magically brings our previously purchased music to life beyond our iMac computer speakers setup near the dining room.
Room to Room Music Playing – The Bluesound Pulse and Powernode devices give me the ability to wirelessly access music throughout the house (all we need it do is find a power outlet). Which has given us the ability to put the all-in-one Pulse speaker system on our deck when having guests over or let the kids have their dance party in the basement. What I should really be calling this review is, “How my kids move from room to room while listening to the Frozen soundtrack fully-synced between three sound systems in the house.”
If you are serious about quality products, stellar support, and great sound – consider checking out Bluesound. It gives that Bose sound system you’ve probably heard at the mall a run for the money. Unlike that Bose system, the Bluesound equipment has a networked computer inside that gets software updates to make it better over time. The updated that added Spotify Connect had me doing the snoopy-dance.
Wish List Feature: AirPlay Support – The only way to beam any audio to the Bluesound equipment is by adding a small Bluetooth USB stick to the Pulse. This then allows devices to select it as an audio source like you would any number of portable Bluetooth speakers.