Audiophiles method the Bluesound Node 2i with suspicion. As a compact music server with built-in DAC that dares to serve up the very best high quality music-streaming companies, this factor appears nearly, you must pardon the expression, too low cost at $549 to carry out all these duties properly. Critical digital-to-analog convertors alone can price that a lot—or an entire lot extra.
However pinch me, the Node 2i is the actual deal, and one of the best of the “reasonably priced” high-fidelity web music streamers I’ve examined in latest months. Laying out an ethereal, open soundstage (by no means cluttered or compressed), reveling in precision and finesse, music flows from this small package deal in a most sleek, personable style. 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. It is a participant that may climb each musical mountain and ford any stream you ship its method.
For certain, a Node 2i is particularly responsive once 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 within the chain. Or by splurging a number of bonus bucks monthly for the very best grade of 24-bit/96kHz (or often even 192kHz) content material streaming from a Qobuz, Tidal, or Amazon Music account. The best-resolution information pumping via this music machine actually may move for studio masters, and one supply (Tidal) has labeled them thusly. The brand new Sonos Radio HD is one other candidate, though it tops out at 16-bit FLAC.
How far we’ve come. Bear in mind when sound purists argued that digital encodes have been so chopped up and connect-the-dots fatiguing that listening may actually make you weak within the knees? Now I’d argue these high- (and ultra-high) decision streams may give 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 PowerNode 2i that I reviewed in September with comparable delight. However 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 part that brings new content material (streaming) to your gear. It’s a recreation changer, one of the best argument I’ve discovered up to now to promote my crazy-big vinyl and CD assortment, ‘trigger nearly all that content material on the partitions is hiding on this little field’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 shops that I hoped would do my ears good. Like singer/songwriter Sara Bareilles, going for the sonic gusto together with her new Extra Love set, snap-happy nation cousin Lee Brice (Hey World) and Cat Stevens (bear in mind him?) daring to reshape historical past with a re-arranged 50th anniversary remake of Tea for the Tillerman. All recording professionals with (good) ears, attuned to finessed manufacturing and engineering efforts.
Not merely trusting first impressions, it appeared smart to do some severe evaluating and contrasting. Because of 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 2 different web streamers I’ve not too long ago 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. (Truthfully, will anybody ever surpass Sonos on these traits?)
I’m now passing the “sounds greatest” crown to the Bluesound Node 2i on this three-horse race. With moderately difficult web radio materials that was straightforward to sync up—the 320Kbps MP3-streaming Linn Jazz channel tapped on TuneIn—the Bluesound Node 2i and Russound MBX-PRE have been neck-and-neck for the lead, with Sonos trailing by a length-and-a-half. If you happen to haven’t heard of it, Linn Jazz is a spin-off of a famous UK audio merchandise maker and file label, showcasing their very own audiophile-grade, small ensemble acoustic recordings with artists like guitar grasp Martin Taylor and the delicate cabaret vocalists Barb Jungr and Joe Stilgoe. Always placing playback gear to the take a look at, the Bluesound and Russound streamers each confirmed superior organizational and articulation powers. And so they shined particularly vibrant with quick transient challenges—plucked guitar and bass traces, sustained piano chords, splashy/ringing cymbals, and rattling tom-toms.
Don’t get me mistaken. When consumed by itself, Sonos renderings of the identical materials are actually pleasing. I’m completely satisfied as a clam in mud listening to Sonos audio system in my bed room, lavatory, and kitchen. However when doing severely targeted (okay, obsessive) 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 have 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.)
The place the Node 2i (and its amplified sister, the Powernode 2i) clearly take the lead is their help for high-resolution music subscription companies. Bluesound gear and the BluOS working system help the very best grade of service obtainable from Qobuz (my private fave as a result of it courts grown-up artists, kinds, and listeners) and from Amazon Music HD. Each Bluesound packing containers ship high-res lossless FLAC encoding at as much as 24-bit decision and sampling charges as excessive as 192kHz (that means bit charges as much as 3,730Kbps). Why Russound doesn’t provide 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 standard of the unique studio recordings.
Whereas 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 glad with that high quality. And actually, who’s to argue, given the variety of subscribers paying Spotify for its 320Kbps streams (and the thousands and thousands extra listening to the free 96- and 160Kbps ad-supported streams on that service).
Throw it what you’ll
Moreover these web sources, the Bluesound Node 2i stands prepared to tug music off your thumb drives, NAS field, or wherever else you may retailer your personal assortment (utilizing gigabit ethernet, Wi-Fi 5, or Bluetooth 5.0—with help for aptX HD. AirPlay 2 help is onboard, too.) The gadget 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 2 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 typically 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 Professional.)
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 primary instructions like “Alexa, ask Bluevoice to decrease the amount of the den” or “Alexa, ask Bluevoice to play preset six within the theater.”
Each the Node 2i and the Powernode 2i provide equally smooth styling, with top-mounted controls and a 3.5mm headphone jack conveniently situated in entrance. The Node 2i doesn’t match the Powernode 2i when it comes to 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 in the event you want to use a higher-end outboard DAC. Bear in mind, nevertheless, 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 completely satisfied to pair with it, this networked media streamer will reward you vastly with incredible sound.