Review: Bluesound Node 2 Networked Audio Player

Bluesound Node 2 Networked Streaming Music Player Recommended

Bluesound was an early entrant in the networked lifestyle audio category. It has carved a niche for itself as the high-fidelity alternative to Sonos, with support for 24-bit/192 kHz hi-res music in a multi-room system. But great sound is about more than file formats; it’s about the quality of the gear itself. With its Node 2 ($499), Bluesound presents a premium streaming player that focuses on fidelity.

The Node 2 has been around for a couple of years, but it is still a relevant product because it is software driven, meaning it continues to evolve and improve.

I’ve been playing with the Node 2 for a while now, using it in a variety of applications. One of my favorites uses is to power headphones while playing music tracks from Tidal. I’ve also used it as the primary audio source for stereo and surround systems, in conjunction with a Bluesound Pulse Soundbar plus Pulse Sub (review coming soon), and with an NAD C 368 hybrid DAC/Amp outfitted with a BluOS MDC module (reviewed here).

Thanks to BluOS, these three products work in tandem to provide high-fidelity multi-room audio with great reliability, usability, and fidelity. Read on to find out more about the Node 2.

Features and Specifications

The Node 2 is the company’s stand-alone audiophile-quality network audio player, offering a 32-bit/192 kHz DAC, a SNR of -110 dBA, and THD of 0.005%. It’s fairly compact, measuring 8.7″ (W) x 1.8″ (H) x 5.7 ” (D). Commendably, the power supply is contained within the chassis, so you don’t have to deal with a wall wart plug.

While it is a networked streaming player equipped with Wi-Fi, and it sports Bluetooth 4.0 with aptX, the Node 2 also acts as an input for a Bluesound multi-room system. In terms of inputs, it has a dual-use 3.5mm jack that supports optical-digital as well an analog stereo. It also has a USB input that works with USB memory and other peripherals. And finally, it has Ethernet for reliable wired connections.

This player comes with cables, included in the package are an Ethernet cord, a stereo RCA to RCA cable, and a Toslink to 3.5mm Mini Toslink adapter cable.

On the output side of things, the Node 2 comes equipped with an analog stereo RCA output (fixed or variable output), coaxial-digital RCA output, optical-digital out, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and a subwoofer output RCA jack. It even includes a 12-volt trigger-out. Notably, if you connect headphones to the Node 2, the other outputs are muted.

The Node 2 is, at its heart, a networked integrated DAC and preamp. Conveniently, it includes a built-in headphone amplifier with a 3.5mm jack. Also, it’s capable of providing the full “MQA experience,” which in theory provides hi-res quality at CD-quality bitrates. In practice the jury is out on MQA’s overall efficacy, but the feature is there for those who want it.

Beyond MQA, the Node 2 also handles uncompressed FLAC, WAV, and AIFF files in resolutions up to 24-bit/192 kHz. And it decodes MP3, AAC, WMA, OGG, WMA-L, ALAC, and OPUS formats.

One of the core functionalities of BluOS is streaming high-resolution audio to many zones, much like competing systems from Sonos, Denon, Yamaha, DTS, Google, and others. Because it concentrates on high-fidelity audio, Bluesound is marketed as a premium solution for multiroom audio, and is priced accordingly. The upshot is that the Node 2 is very well built, and clearly capable of delivering a high-fidelity listening experience.

The Node 2 does not have a physical remote, instead it depends on the Bluesound app—generally I consider that a good thing given how flexible apps are. Nevertheless, it also has an IR sensor built in, in case you do want to use a traditional remote control with it. Also, it has basic playback and volume controls on the top of the chassis, in case you don’t feel like dealing with your phone during a relaxing headphones listening session.

In terms of streaming service support, BluOS gives you access to WiMP, Slacker Radio, Qobuz, HighResAudio, Juke, Deezer, Murfie, HDTracks, Spotify, Tidal, Napster, Microsoft Groove (with OneDrive), Classics Online, KKBox. Plus it gets free Internet radio from TuneIn Radio, iHeartRadio, Calm Radio, and Radio Paradise.

Performance

I’m going to keep this short and sweet. The Node 2 works as advertised. Hook it up, launch the app, stream your music, and regardless of what you connect to the Node 2—be it headphones or a system with speakers—you’ll get a good listening experience out of it.

The Node 2 itself is very snappy. Indeed, I’d describe it as “instantly responsive.” The app is somewhat dependent on the smart device you use it with, but it never left me hanging. I subscribe to Tidal, so that’s how I streamed most of my tracks.

These days, there’s not much to say about the sound quality of well-designed solid state audio gear. As a rule, I find that unless modern digital audio equipment is somehow faulty, it does its job transparently. And that’s exactly what I found with the Node 2. The player is sufficiently good that what you hear when you press play is the music, not unwanted distortion or coloration.

The analog RCA outs make the Node 2 a good candidate for running a pair of active speakers, or connecting directly to an amp. The inclusion of the subwoofer output makes using the Node 2 as a stand-alone device is a surprisingly practical option.

The digital outputs worked exactly as expected, so there’s nothing to discuss. Look elsewhere for a reviewer willing to sing the praises of a SPDIF port.

As far as listening tests go, I’ve had the Node 2 for long enough to cover a wide gamut of genres from classical to jazz to electronic to rap to rock and roll. I believe that good equipment handles all genres well, and here once again the Node 2 acquitted itself by behaving predictably and offering steadfast distortion-free transparency.

I can speak in general terms to the quality of the dedicated headphone amp built into the Node 2. It’s able to drive all the cans on my collection to high—if not earsplitting—levels. Crucially, it’s free of audible distortion or hiss. I can see applications where the Node 2 is all someone needs to tap into a world of nearly limitless music. And notably, Bluetooth with aptX also worked fine with all my wireless headphones.

Conclusion

This is a mature, well thought out, full-featured streaming player that benefits from a focus on fidelity and a design that emphasizes flexibility. While it is clearly aimed at multi-room applications—Bluesound systems can contain up to 16 wireless or 64 wired devices—it is also perfectly suited for service as a standalone audio playback source.

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of proprietary music systems that require a dedicated app to play content. In other words, I am a Chromecast user. But, while I’d love to see Bluesound add Chromecast support in the future, I can also relate to users who prefer the consolidation and consistent interface that using BluOS offers. And besides, the Node 2 acquits itself by being a compelling compact standalone networked audio device.

Of course, the Node 2 is inseparable from the BluOS software that drives it. To that end, Bluesound benefits from experience in this category, and good engineering. And while networked lifestyle audio products are not for everyone—I’m an AVR guy, for example—the reality is Bluesound provides a good selection of compatible devices. Also, fans of hi-res audio may find the inclusion of MQA a boon. So, if you do plan to equip your whole home with a multi-room audio system, it’s probably worth finding out what this ecosystem offers in that regard.

Ultimately, the Node 2 delivers clean, undistorted, full-range stereo sound in an uninterrupted stream. That’s its job and it does it well. While it may be a bit pricey, if you seek features like Bluesound’s multi-room audio, consolidated app-based control, plus hi-res (including MQA) compatibility—not to mention competent headphone amplification—then there’s a more than decent chance the Node 2 is right for you. Recommended.

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