Bluesound Whole Home Audio Review
|Pros||Superior sound quality for whole home streaming audio, a wide selection of products, HiRes audio support, integrated Bluetooth.|
|Cons||No HDMI on the soundbar, more expensive than Sonos with fewer services supported.|
|Summary||Bluesound offers support for the most popular streaming services in a wide selection of products, making it easy to integrate it into your home. The sound quality offers better midrange and treble detail than the competition, though you might want the optional subwoofer to reinforce those lower octaves.|
|Streaming Services||Spotify, Tidal, Amazon,|
|Dimensions||13.2" x 6.8" x 6.1"|
|Review Date||April 6, 2018|
While Sonos has ruled the roost for whole home audio almost since it started, the competition has picked up the past few years. One of the main competitors is Bluesound, which aims at the audiophile. Where Sonos limits you to CD-quality audio, Bluesound supports up to 24/192 audio and even supports MQA from Tidal. With a hardware lineup that is similar in models and price to Sonos and audio quality that surpasses it in areas, Bluesound has done a good job of making a higher-end whole home streaming audio solution.
Bluesound Products and Design
The Bluesound lineup of products is familiar to you if you’re familiar with Sonos. The Flex, Pulse 2, and Pulse Mini are stand-alone speakers that work on their own, or as a stereo pair. They can also combine with the Pulse Sub for extra bass. The Pulse Soundbar is a two channel unit designed for your TV and home theater needs that can be either tabletop or wall mounted. Recently they added the ability to pair the Flex as rear surrounds to create a wireless Dolby Digital Surround Sound system. To integrate into your existing AV systems they have three options: the Node 2, with analog and digital outputs, the Powernode 2 that adds an amplifier, and the Vault 2.
The Vault 2 is one piece that helps to set Bluesound apart, as it functions as a CD ripper and a music storage system. For someone looking to move their existing CD library from disc to streaming without losing quality, the Vault 2 saves you much of the hassle. You don’t need a PC with a CD drive to rip your discs, or a NAS or other device to store it. Using the Vault 2 you can rip your CDs and play them back to any Bluesound speaker, all in lossless FLAC quality. It also functions as a Node, removing the need for one in your system.
The Bluesound products are available in white or black, letting you attempt to match them to your decor. With rounded corners and a matte finish, they have a more modern look than your traditional AV gear does. They’re also designed to integrate into an AV control system, and adding it to my Control4 system was quite easy to do.
For my testing, I installed a Bluesound Node 2 into my main AV system, a Pulse Soundbar with Sub into my living room, and a Pulse Mini into the kitchen. I also integrated these all with Control4 and Roon Music Server, so I could play back music from them in many ways and not only through the Bluesound app.
To best test Bluesound, I put the models I had for review up against the comparable models from Sonos. Using Roon music server, I could send the same content to both, pausing and switching between them to compare them. For the Pulse Mini, I compared it to the updated PLAY:5 from Sonos, putting each in a horizontal position a few feet away.
What I heard from the Bluesound was a much better soundstage and more detail in the midrange and treble. Where the PLAY:5 could sound a bit lost, the Pulse Mini was more authoritative in its presentation of the music. On everything from Simon & Garfunkel to Lorde, that improved clarity in the midrange and treble was easy to hear. The one area where it came up short of the Sonos was in the bass response. The PLAY:5 is a larger speaker and it shows here, plumbing the lower octaves with far more authority than the Pulse Mini is capable of. I could pair a subwoofer with the Mini to correct the imbalance, but then the price tag is well past that of the Sonos. In this match-up, it comes down to if you prefer a more detailed presentation, or if you can’t live without the extra bass.
Comparing the soundbars from the two companies, the same situation seemed to apply. This time, the difference in sound quality was far more in favor of the Bluesound system. The soundstage it produced is much wider than the Sonos Playbar, sounding much more like a pair of stereo speaker than a soundbar. The midrange clarity, which is what I value most, is much better on the Pulse Soundbar, and it gave a far more musical presentation than the Sonos is capable of. You do get better bass with the Sonos Playbar, but in all other aspects of music playback, the Bluesound was ahead.
With movies, the Pulse Soundbar does a wonderful job of handling both dynamic action and dialogue. Watching Wonder Woman, the dialogue is clear and easy to understand while the explosions and action sequences still pack a punch. The Bluesound app lets you adjust the width of the Soundbar soundstage, and does an impressive job of it. A smaller soundstage might offer a touch more focus to everything, but I found the wider soundstage maintained detail while making it sound more like speakers than a soundbar.
Finally, comparing the Node 2 with a Sonos Connect, the Node 2 is a much friendlier device. It offers playback controls on top of the unit so you can skip tracks while with the Sonos you’re left to pull out the app for something as simple as this. The streamlined design also is better, at least to me, as it is easier to integrate into a system than the larger, boxy Connect is.
The Bluesound models also offered additional benefits over the Sonos system I have around the house. They all support Bluetooth, which makes it easy to stream music from services that aren’t supported or for guests. A major pain point with Sonos for years has been the lack of Bluetooth or AirPlay integration, forcing you to wait if they don’t support a streaming service. While they do support more than everyone, including Bluesound, using Bluetooth makes it easy to listen to anything on your phone, tablet, or laptop on Bluesound even if it isn’t natively supported.
They also offer support for HiRes audio and even MQA from Tidal. Playing back local HD audio using Roon, I could view the playback chain and see that Bluesound was keeping my 24/96 recordings as 24/96. With Sonos, Roon was having to downsample them to 16/48 for playback. Of course, Sonos can’t even downsample HiRes audio, it will show the tracks in your library and then refuse to play them which is why I had to reorganize my music library after installing Sonos.
Bluesound has done some good work on their app, making it easy to move audio from one zone to another, which is another pain point with Sonos. Some other aspects of the app fall behind Sonos, as it was harder to configure the Pulse soundbar to use my TV remote while Sonos makes it dead simple to set it up, but each app has their good and bad points. As Bluesound supports Spotify Connect, along with Tidal and Roon, there is a good chance you’ll spend less and less time in the app as you go on.
While I enjoyed my time with the Bluesound products, there are some things I would like to see changed. The $100 price difference between the Black and White soundbars is something that makes no sense to me. I’m sure there is a reason for it, but as a customer, it hits a bad note.
I also wish the Pulse soundbar was not as tall as it is. This is why it sounds better than Sonos, because they use that extra vertical space, but it also made it too larger for my TV. It would block the IR port in my living room and without an IR repeater made it impossible to use in that situation without a more advanced universal remote control. If you’re wall mounting than this is a non-issue, but if you have your TV on top of a stand, you need to measure first. Bluesound also has a TV stand that accommodates the Pulse Soundbar along with almost any TV except for the heaviest of plasmas.
The Pulse soundbar could also use an HDMI input and output, to integrate it into HDMI ARC systems. I know using optical only has some ease of use benefits, but some TVs, like the TCL P607 we reviewed, are shipping with only RF or WiFi remotes now, where you might not be able to control the volume on the Soundbar. Using HDMI ARC where the TV can control it would allow it to integrate better with these systems.
Bluesound doesn’t support the wide number of services that Sonos does today, but is able to mitigate this with integrated Bluetooth. The main absence right now is Apple Music, but most major services have support with more added as time goes on.
Finally, I wish the app kept more of the controls tied into a single menu. With settings on the left, and players on the right, I found myself moving between the two, unsure of where to look for certain things. I’d rather have everything located in a single location than trying to figure out which one I need to check. This split setup does make some things easier, like adjusting a single zone, but too often I found myself searching for a control and resorting to Googling for the answer.
After spending a long time with Bluesound (much longer than they wished I had borrowed the equipment for), I came away very impressed with it. The sound quality is ahead of Sonos unless you need extra bass, and the integration with streaming services is improving. With their updated range of models, it compares well with Sonos in terms of pricing now where it was a decent price premium before. If I was looking to add streaming audio to my home, it is certainly something I would go listen to and test before making any decisions as they’re offering a superior sounding option to what Sonos has available today,