Kevin Hunt: Review: Streaming With Bluesound, Via NAD And PSB

Music-everywhere systems were going nowhere until Sonos streamlined the technology, Apple style, pushed it upscale and slapped a premium price on it.

Now Bluesound, a collaboration between the NAD (electronics) and PSB (loudspeaker) brands owned by the Lenbrook Group of Pickering, Ontario, adds wireless streaming of higher-resolution audio, more sophisticated digital technology and even higher prices.

The object of this music-everywhere game is to send music, from the Internet or stored on a computer or mobile device, over a home's wireless network to speakers using an Android or Apple app as a controller. Often, it's a streamlined music system with only wireless speakers.

That's how Sonos does it. Bluesound arrives with only one wireless speaker, the Pulse ($699). The newbie brand spent much more time developing three streaming machines capable of beyond-MP3, beyond-Sonos, beyond-even-CD streaming — 24-bit audio with sample rates up to 192 kilohertz. (For context, a CD checks in at 16 bits, 44.1 kilohertz.)

So Bluesound welcomes high-test FLAC, WAV and AIFF music files but it lags far behind Sonos in available streaming-music services. Sonos offers more than 20. Bluesound has a handful of familiar names, including Slacker, TuneIn and Rdio, while it aligns with high-resolution specialists like France's Qubuz and highresaudio.com.

Sonos also delivers a stable signal by creating its own wireless mesh network. Bluesound rides on a home network occupied by the rest of a household's wireless devices. Can Bluesound dependably stream bigger, high-resolution music files without sputtering or drop-outs?

These are Bluesound's long-term challenges. Yet already it has everything else in place, from the NAD-PSB hardware to robust music-management app software called BluOS, derived from Linux, created in-house. This is an emphatic music-streaming debut.

Here is the Bluesound combination I auditioned:

Power Node ($699): A streamer powered by an ARM Cortex A8 processor (used by early iPads and iPhones) with a digital-to-analog converter and a 50-watt amplifier derived from NAD's Digital Direct series. Connect to your home network, add speakers, download the app and press "Play."

The Power Node suits any speaker-subwoofer duo, but Bluesound offers its own Duo ($999).

The identical Node ($449) has everything the Power Node has except the power — you supply the amplifier for your speakers.

The Vault ($999): A music warehouse/streamer with a 1-terrabyte hard drive and a vertically slotted CD drive that automatically copies and catalogs albums. The Vault has USB connections for external hard drives and audio connections but needs an Ethernet connection to a router for streaming and adding network-attached libraries. The ripper is also slow: It took 11 minutes to download a single album in my tests.

Duo ($999.99): A satellite-subwoofer package tuned by PSB designer Paul Barton with two speakers, each 8 inches tall, and a subwoofer powered by a 110-watt amplifier. These retain PSB's familiar clarity, immediacy and frequency response.

In this configuration, the Power Node was paired with the Duo speakers and the Vault was connected via Ethernet cable to a router. Once they were set up, I never touched them again. Everything was controlled by an iPhone/iPad app.

The Bluesound app did not immediately recognize music libraries on my home network stored on either a Mac or Windows laptop. For users like me, the work-around is a one-time file-sharing setup on the computer. Airplay would greatly improve the range and fidelity of streaming music from a mobile device, which now requires Bluetooth.

Bluesound also doesn't have a Web client. When the Vault failed to recognize an album's track names and title, it filed it under "Unknown CDs." From a shared computer, I had already added and deleted albums from the Vault. Now I transferred the "Unknown" files into iTunes, added the information, then reloaded the album into the Vault wirelessly.

The Power Node, for this user, was the standout. When Bluesound adds Spotify and other streaming services, and maybe AirPlay, watch out. It is already ahead of Sonos in both hardware and app software. It's only the simplicity that needs a little work.

Bluesound wireless audio

Price: From $449 to $999.99.

Good: An upgrade from Sonos. Superb design, quality. Excellent sound.

Not so good: No Airplay. Power Node cannot connect to a television or cable box. Vault's slow ripping speed.

Information: bluesound.com

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