Audiophiles method the Bluesound Node 2i with suspicion. As a compact music server with built-in DAC that dares to serve up the highest high quality music-streaming providers, this factor appears nearly, you must pardon the expression, too low-cost at $549 to carry out all these duties properly. Serious digital-to-analog convertors alone can value that a lot—or an entire lot extra.
But pinch me, the Node 2i is the actual deal, and the greatest of the “affordable” high-fidelity web music streamers I’ve examined in current months. Laying out an ethereal, open soundstage (by no means cluttered or compressed), reveling in precision and finesse, music flows from this small bundle in a most swish, personable vogue. And that well-rounded aura persists, it doesn’t matter what your stylistic style, from AC/DC to Jay Z, Ambient to Zouk, Albeniz to Zappa. This is a participant that may climb each musical mountain and ford any stream you ship its means.
For certain, a Node 2i is very responsive while you feed it the actually good things. Say, by touchdown on a meticulously engineered, higher-bit-rate web radio station that obsesses over each hyperlink in the chain. Or by splurging a couple of bonus bucks monthly for the highest grade of 24-bit/96kHz (or sometimes even 192kHz) content material streaming from a Qobuz, Tidal, or Amazon Music account. The highest-resolution recordsdata pumping via this music machine actually may move for studio masters, and one supply (Tidal) has labeled them thusly. The new Sonos Radio HD is one other candidate, though it tops out at 16-bit FLAC.
How far we’ve come. Remember when sound purists argued that digital encodes had been so chopped up and connect-the-dots fatiguing that listening may actually make you weak in the knees? Now I’d argue these high- (and ultra-high) decision streams can provide each you and your sound rig a brand new lease on life.
The Node 2i is a really shut relation to the self-powered (60-watts per aspect) Bluesound EnergyNode 2i that I reviewed in September with related delight. But as a self-contained, just-add-speakers-and-serve product, the Powernode 2i left me with some questions unresolved. Did I actually hear all that a lot enchancment over Sonos media gamers I’ve run with the identical audio system? I couldn’t make a direct A/B comparability as a result of I didn’t have a Sonos Amp readily available. I additionally questioned what sonic developments Bluesound’s well-tuned chassis and chipset—together with a 1GHz Arm Cortex A9 processor and a 32-bit/192kHz DAC—may ship if I may pump up the amp energy and load-bearing audio system, after which take this factor out on the high-tech streaming freeway and actually let ‘er rip.
The Node 2i lets me do exactly that, with nary a disappointment. This isn’t simply one other element that brings new content material (streaming) to your gear. It’s a sport changer, the greatest argument I’ve discovered up to now to promote my crazy-big vinyl and CD assortment, ‘cause almost all that content on the walls is hiding in this little box’s connection to the web.
To uncork the sonic genie, I plugged a Node 2i into my 150-watt-per-channel Yamaha Aventage RX-A3060 receiver mated with Bowers &Wilkins’ Nautilus 803 floor-standing audio system. I then began feeding it high-resolution materials—artists and retailers that I hoped would do my ears good. Like singer/songwriter Sara Bareilles, going for the sonic gusto together with her new Mehr Liebe set, snap-happy nation cousin Lee Brice (Hey World) and Cat Stevens (keep in mind him?) daring to reshape historical past with a re-arranged 50th anniversary remake of Tea for the Tillerman. All recording execs with (good) ears, attuned to finessed manufacturing and engineering efforts.
Not merely trusting first impressions, it appeared smart to do some critical evaluating and contrasting. Thanks to my receiver’s multitude of inputs and fairly responsive distant management, I used to be quickly plugging in and switching between the Bluesound Node 2i and the two different web streamers I’ve just lately reviewed right here. One being the excessive profile Sonos Port ($449), which left me with a lukewarm feeling, after which the Russound MBX-PRE ($399), a dark-horse candidate that bested the Sonos in articulation, openness of presentation, and all-round emotional pleasance, although not on working comfort and sheer quantity of supply choices. (Honestly, will jemand ever surpass Sonos on these traits?)
I’m now passing the “sounds best” crown to the Bluesound Node 2i on this three-horse race. With moderately difficult web radio materials that was simple to sync up—the 320Kbps MP3-streaming Linn Jazz channel tapped on TuneIn—the Bluesound Node 2i and Russound MBX-PRE had been neck-and-neck for the lead, with Sonos trailing by a length-and-a-half. If you haven’t heard of it, Linn Jazz is a spin-off of a famous UK audio merchandise maker and document label, showcasing their very own audiophile-grade, small ensemble acoustic recordings with artists like guitar grasp Martin Taylor and the subtle cabaret vocalists Barb Jungr and Joe Stilgoe. Constantly placing playback gear to the check, the Bluesound and Russound streamers each confirmed superior organizational and articulation powers. And they shined particularly brilliant with quick transient challenges—plucked guitar and bass strains, sustained piano chords, splashy/ringing cymbals, and rattling tom-toms.
Don’t get me mistaken. When consumed on its personal, Sonos renderings of the identical materials are definitely pleasing. I’m joyful as a clam in mud listening to Sonos audio system in my bed room, toilet, and kitchen. But when doing significantly centered (okay, besessen) listening comparisons on my greatest rig, I used to be struck anew by the deeper soundstage and sharper focus; by the extra dynamic, informative, and thus entertaining interaction afforded on the Russound MBX-PRE and much more so on the Node 2i. (FYI: all three packing containers had been related to the Yamaha through variable-level analog outputs utilizing equivalent audiophile-grade cables to permit for correct quantity matching and to patronize the units’ personal DACs.)
Where the Node 2i (and its amplified sister, the Powernode 2i) clearly take the lead is their help for high-resolution music subscription providers. Bluesound gear and the BluOS working system help the highest grade of service accessible from Qobuz (my private fave as a result of it courts grown-up artists, kinds, and listeners) and from Amazon Music HD. Both Bluesound packing containers ship high-res lossless FLAC encoding at as much as 24-bit decision and sampling charges as excessive as 192kHz (which means bit charges as much as 3,730Kbps). Why Russound doesn’t supply the identical is a thriller, as its DAC can deal with 24/192 streams. Bluesound additionally stands alone in supporting Tidal’s Masters tracks, albums encoded with MQA audio know-how to ship the high quality of the authentic studio recordings.
While the brand-new Sonos new S2 platform can theoretically bounce increased, Sonos stays content material serving Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon Music, and its aforementioned Sonos Radio HD service at 16-bit/44.1 Hz FLAC (or much less.) Like Russound, Sonos is betting that the majority listeners are happy with that high quality. And actually, who’s to argue, given the quantity of subscribers paying Spotify for its 320Kbps streams (and the tens of millions extra listening to the free 96- and 160Kbps ad-supported streams on that service).
Throw it what you’ll
Besides these web sources, the Bluesound Node 2i stands prepared to tug music off your thumb drives, NAS field, or anyplace else you may retailer your non-public assortment (utilizing gigabit ethernet, Wi-Fi 5, or Bluetooth 5.0—with help for aptX HD. AirPlay 2 help is onboard, too.) The system helps the high-res codecs FLAC, ALAC, WAV, AIFF, and MQA in addition to MP3, AAC, and WMA.
With each a Node2i and a Powernode 2i now below my roof, I’ve been fortunately grouping the two units to output the identical music stream with completely synchronized outcomes. Throwing Airplay 2 indicators to each Bluesounds (through my Wi-Fi community) has been a hit and miss factor, although, with the Node 2i generally dropping out for a second or three whereas the Powernode 2i troopers on. (I can’t blame the iOS platform messenger, a brand-new iPhone 12 Pro.)
The Node 2i doesn’t have an onboard microphone, however you possibly can command Alexa, Google Assistant, or Siri on different units on the identical community to set off the Nodes with fundamental instructions like “Alexa, ask Bluevoice to lower the volume of the den” or “Alexa, ask Bluevoice to play preset six in the theater.”
Both the Node 2i and the Powernode 2i supply equally glossy styling, with top-mounted controls and a 3.5mm headphone jack conveniently positioned in entrance. The Node 2i doesn’t match the Powernode 2i in phrases of HDMI help, however you will discover a gigabit ethernet port, a USB-A port for a thumb drive, an IR enter, and a 12-volt set off output. There’s additionally a goodly array of audio inputs and outputs: A combo 3.5mm Toslink (optical) digital/analog stereo enter, an RCA subwoofer out, and Toslink (optical) and coaxial digital outputs—handy for those who want to use a higher-end outboard DAC. Remember, nonetheless, that you just may lose MQA help if that outboard DAC doesn’t help it.
If the Node 2i matches your funds, and you’ve got an amplifier and a pair of audio system you’d be joyful to pair with it, this networked media streamer will reward you drastically with implausible sound.