Review: Bluesound Powernode and Vault Wireless Audio System

01
of 07

Bluesound Powernode and Vault: High-End Sonos?

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Brent Butterworth

Why shouldn’t audiophiles enjoy the same convenience that the guy buying a $199 Sonos Play:1 gets? Why do audiophiles have to suffer with cumbersome gear? Why shouldn't we be able to access all the digital music we own, use music streaming and Internet radio services, and play it all around our homes with no loss in sound quality?

Bluesound -- a new division of Lenbrook Industries, parent company of PSB and NAD -- promises all this and more.

Like Sonos products, Bluesound products let you play audio files from your networked computers and hard drives with no need for a wired connection, and no loss in sound quality. Bluesound also lets you access TuneIn Radio, Slacker and Spotify Connect online streaming services. What’s more, you can use multiple Bluesound products around your home, combining them in groups as you wish so you can play whatever music you want in whatever rooms you choose, as well as different tunes in different rooms. And you can control it all from any Apple iOS or Android smartphone or tablet.

So what’s Bluesound got that Sonos doesn’t? High-res audio. High-res audio files have resolution greater than the 16-bit/44.1-kilohertz resolution of CD. They’re available as downloads from such sources as HDTracks and Acoustic Sounds. Can you hear the difference between high-res and regular audio? Maybe. Will you care? Maybe. If you’re curious, go onto HDTracks and buy a download (usually $18 or so) of a CD you already own. Rip the CD in a lossless format, such as Apple Lossless, FLAC or WAV. Then compare the high-res files to the CD, preferably using a decent-quality USB DAC connected to your computer. Now decide for yourself.

Bluesound products also incorporate Bluetooth, for quick’n’easy streaming from smartphones, tablets and computers. That’s a great convenience feature to have -- and it's one Sonos doesn't currently offer.

02
of 07

Bluesound Powernode and Vault: Options

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Bluesound

The Bluesound line comprises several products. There’s the $449 Node (the smallest one in the photo above), a preamp-type product with analog and digital outputs that can connect to an amp, a digital-to-analog converter or a pair of powered speakers. There’s the $699 Powernode (far left), essentially a Node with a stereo Class D amp built in. There’s the $999 Vault, a Node with a built-in CD ripper (it's the one with the front loading slot in the photo).

Plus the $699 Pulse (far right), which is basically a big wireless speaker with a Node built in, and the $999 Duo, an ordinary subwoofer/satellite speaker system that can work with the Powernode (or with the Node or Vault plus an external amp). Paul Barton, founder of PSB Speakers and one of the most technically savvy speaker designers alive, supervised the acoustical engineering on these products.

03
of 07

Bluesound Powernode and Vault: Features

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Brent Butterworth

Powernode

• Stereo Class D amplifier rated at 40 watts/channel into 4 ohms
• Stereo spring-loaded metal binding posts
• RCA subwoofer output with crossover
• WiFi built in; Ethernet jack also provided
• Plays WAV, FLAC, ALAC, AIFF, WMA, WMA-L, OGG, MP3 and AAC formats
• Up to 24/192 resolution
• Available in gloss black or gloss white
• Dimensions: 6.9 x 9.8 x 8.0 inches/176 x 248 x 202mm (hwd)
• Weight: 4.2 lbs/1.9 kg

Vault

• Built-in CD ripper with front loading slot
• 1-terabyte internal drive for music storage
• RCA line-level stereo outputs
• Ethernet jack
• Plays WAV, FLAC, ALAC, AIFF, WMA, WMA-L, OGG, MP3 and AAC formats
• Up to 24/192 resolution
• Available in gloss black or gloss white
• Dimensions: 8.2 x 11.5 x 9.4 inches/208 x 293 x 239mm (hwd)
• Weight: 6.6 lbs/3.0 kg

These seem to be appropriate feature sets for products like these. There aren't a lot of connections offered, but I didn't find myself wanting any, either. OK, maybe a headphone jack on the Powernode would be nice.

With only three streaming services now offered (and WiMP, Highresaudio and Qobuz announced but not yet available on my test system), the Bluesound streaming capability doesn't come close to the 31 services Sonos currently offers. A lot of the services Sonos offers are pretty obscure, though. The recent addition of Spotify Connect to Bluesound is a big help; now all it really needs is Pandora.

04
of 07

Bluesound Powernode and Vault: Setup

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Brent Butterworth

I had the luxury of having Lenbrook's Gary Blouse stop by to set up my Bluesound test system. I wondered why it was necessary -- after all, Sonos never sent anybody to set up their systems. But streaming high-res audio is a lot more difficult.

For example, my stock, four-year-old AT&T U-verse WiFi router wasn't really up to the task. It worked fine with standard-res audio, MP3s and streaming services, but I occasionally got a few dropouts when I was streaming 24/96 files from HDTracks. Blouse said any reasonably high-quality modern WiFi router should have enough bandwidth to stream in high-res to Bluesound devices.

While we had the Vault handy, I also wanted to stream from the Toshiba laptop on which I store most of my music. Blouse and I weren't able to get this working, but all I had to do was download TeamViewer onto my laptop, and a Lenbrook tech was able to get my computer properly configured in just a couple of minutes.

So while Bluesound isn't quite as easy to set up as Sonos, most of the systems will be sold through higher-end A/V dealers who'll do the setup and installation for you. Even if you buy one straight off Crutchfield and set it up yourself, it seems like Lenbrook's tech support is well-capable of solving any problems that might come up.

Interestingly, and nicely, when you activate the Powernode's subwoofer output in the setup screen (seen above), it switches in an 80 Hz low-pass filter for the sub output and an 80 Hz high-pass filter on the speaker outputs. It also offers a preset EQ optimized for the Bluesound Duo sub/sat speaker system.

05
of 07

Bluesound Powernode and Vault: User Experience and Performance

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Brent Butterworth

The Bluesound app works a little differently from the Sonos app, but just as with the Sonos app, it’s easy to figure out just by futzing around with it. After I got used to the Bluesound app, I actually found it easier to use in ways than the Sonos app. I liked that the Bluesound app made it a little easier and quicker to access streaming services. I also liked the way it quickly flips back and forth horizontally among its different control screens.

This is a bit of a minor miracle. Even Samsung and LG haven't quite matched the ease of use of Sonos. For a small company to surpass it, however slightly, suggests that a good deal of design and managerial talent was employed in this effort.

I found it extremely easy to group the Powernode and the Vault together, or to ungroup them when I wanted. Easier, even, than it is with Sonos. It's easy to control the volume, easy to select the music you want, and easy to mate a phone or tablet through Bluetooth. Start the Bluetooth source and whatever the Bluesound device was streaming cuts off and plays the Bluetooth. Stop the Bluetooth source, and the Bluesound picks back up with the material it was playing before.

For my personal taste, I didn't see much need for the Vault; I already have music stored on laptops and a NAS drive and don't need extra storage or a CD ripper. But I know some people still like the convenience of a CD ripper, and Vault is definitely convenient. Just shove a CD in and it does the rest. After several minutes of rather slow ripping (which Blouse said was necessary to get the bit-perfect precision Bluesound wanted), the artwork and music showed up on the iPad's screen.

Played through my very revealing and neutral Revel Performa3 F206 speakers, the Powernode sounded very clean and smooth. The only flaw I noticed is that with some material mastered at a low level, I ended up having to crank the volume to the max, or close to it. After I finished the review and sent the products back, a Lenbrook rep explained to me that there's a maximum volume setting within the setup menu that can be increased by +10 dB for situations where the volume level is insufficient.

06
of 07

Bluesound Powernode: Measurements

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Brent Butterworth

I used my Clio 10 FW audio analyzer, my Audio Precision Dual Domain System One analyzer and my LinearX LF280 filter (required for Class D amps) to run various tests on the Powernode. My usual amplifier testing process varied a bit because I couldn't inject test signals straight into the Powernode (there's no line input). But I was able to author some test signals, load them onto my laptop, then play them through the system for the measurements.

Frequency response
-0.09/+0.78 db, 20 Hz to 20 kHz

Signal to noise ratio (1 watt/1 kHz)
-82.5 dB unweighted
-86.9 dB A-weighted

Signal to noise ratio (full volume/1 kHz)
-91.9 dB unweighted
-95.6 dB A-weighted

Total harmonic distortion (1 watt/1 kHz)
0.008%

Crosstalk (1 watt/1 kHz)
-72.1 dB left to right
-72.1 dB right to left

Channel imbalance (1 kHz)
+0.02 dB high in left channel

Subwoofer crossover frequency (-3 dB point)
80 Hz

Power output, 8 ohms (1 kHz)
2 channels driven: 12.1 watts per channel RMS at 0.16% THD+N (max volume with 0 dBFS signal) (*see note below)
1 channel driven: 31.3 watts RMS at 0.03% THD+N

Power output, 4 ohms (1 kHz)
2 channels driven: 24.0 watts per channel RMS at 0.16% THD+N (max volume with 0 dBFS signal)
1 channel driven: 47.4 watts RMS at 0.05% THD+N

That's the frequency response you see in the chart, with subwoofer output activated (green trace) and deactivated (purple trace). All of these measurements except for two look fine and close enough to the few specs Bluesound provided.

Frequency response didn't impress me, because of the slight rising tendency in the treble. It's only up by about three-quarters of a decibel at 20 kHz -- something most people can't hear or won't notice. But still, it's not something I usually see in a relatively high-quality solid-state amp.

I was also a little surprised to see the huge difference in power output with both channels driven vs. one channel driven. With both channels driven, an internal limiter clamps down aggressively on the max volume, limiting distortion to about 0.16% at full volume and falling well short of the rated power. *According to Lenbrook, this is an intentional result of the Bluesound amplifiers' Soft Clipping technology, which as I understand it is a peak limiter that prevents the amp and speakers from being damaged when cranked full-blast. NAD has used the same or similar technology in its amplifiers for decades

However, with just one channel driven, the limiter (which I'm guessing is governed by total demand on the power supply rather than the output of the amps) is out of the picture and the amp exceeds the rated power easily. Note that I couldn't use my usual 1% THD+N threshold because I wasn't able to do a power vs. THD+N sweep using externally sourced test tones, and because of the somewhat large steps in the Powernode's volume control -- with one touch of the top-mounted volume control, distortion at 8 ohms went straight from 0.03% to 3.4%.

So what's the upshot here? With the limiter clamping down hard as output nears the power supply's limits, if you're playing a lot of heavily compressed material with strong mono content -- like my fave metal test tune, "Kickstart My Heart" -- you may not get sufficient volume. With a pair of speakers rated (accurately, we'll assume) at 88 dB SPL at 1 watt/1 meter, that means the Powernode will max out at about 99 dB with program material of the type I'm talking about.

07
of 07

Bluesound Powernode and Vault: Final Take

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Brent Butterworth

Based on what I've seen when so many other companies tried their hand at music playback interfaces, I didn't expect much from Bluesound -- I pretty much thought it'd be a high-res audio player with a clumsy interface grafted on. But to my delight, I was wrong. It's a world-class interface, and the easiest way I've yet found to enjoy high-res music.

The Powernode's nice if you want the convenience of a built-in amp, but it seems to me that in a system where better sound quality is the goal, I'd probably want to gravitate to a much more kick-ass amp. So for me, the $449 Node is Bluesound's sweet spot -- an affordable and ultra-convenient way to add streaming of stored high-res files, plus Internet streaming services, plus multiroom capability, to a high-quality audio system.