Bluesound has opted for less is more in the naming of its third-generation music streamer, returning to the original ‘Node’ moniker after its second-gen model carried the indicative ‘Node 2i’ label. But in a surprise to no one who is familiar with the multiroom audio specialist, the Canadian brand hasn’t subscribed to such austerity where feature-set and value are concerned.
Like the two Nodes before it at their time of arrival in 2014 and 2018 respectively, the new Node for 2021 enters the surprisingly sparse budget music streamer market with plenty of up-to-date, all-round appeal – and that much is evident before you even plug the thing in and hear what it can do.
BluOS – that is, Bluesound’s proprietary multi-room wireless streaming platform – is a given for networked Bluesound gear and, increasingly, streaming products from its sister brand NAD and partner firms such as Dali. So we get a reassuring feeling of business as usual when we first power up the Node, hook it up to our network via an Ethernet cable, and open the BluOS app on our iPad to find the Node instantly identified as a ‘device’, ready and raring to go.
From here, local and networked libraries, streaming services and internet radio stations can be accessed for playback; multi-room partnerships with up to 63 other BluOS-compatible products can be established and controlled; and presets for easy access to your favourite sources and music can be allocated.
Those who don’t have music stored on their network and who don’t subscribe to a streaming service can still benefit from the Node’s wireless nature through its support for Apple AirPlay 2 and aptX HD Bluetooth (which is two-way, meaning it can wirelessly receive Bluetooth files for playback and also send whatever it is playing to Bluetooth headphones or speakers).
The BluOS app also steps in for general playback controls for those who don’t want to splash out on the optional Bluesound RC1 remote control (£49, $59, AU$99), bother programming their own IR remote, or initiate voice control via the Alexa and Google Assistant BluVoice skills. Naturally, the app also lets you switch between sources – both of a wireless and physical nature. The latter comprises mini optical/3.5mm combo and HDMI eARC inputs for connecting audio sources or a TV, plus a range of outputs that includes RCA, coaxial, optical and subwoofer. A 3.5mm headphone jack can be found in the middle of the front panel, below the Bluesound logo, too.
The digital connections are fed by an all-new DAC that supports both hi-res 24-bit/192kHz and MQA files, the latter handy for subscribers of Tidal’s Hi-Fi tier who have access to MQA-powered hi-res Tidal Masters streams. Bluesound has also brought the Node into the third generation by packing in more powerful processors, an important part of the internal architecture for a multifaceted digital product like this.
Considering their multi-tasking, software-reliant nature, it’s important for networked products to have a stable platform and app to operate within – and Bluesound’s offering is up there with the best. The Node does, however, offer some on-unit control that might prove handy if it’s positioned within easy reach in a room.
The Node’s chassis, which is comparable to the size of a wireless router or hardback book and diminutively but distinctly ‘Bluesound’ in its design, has a touch-capacitive top panel. From here you can change volume with a swiping action across a slider, skip tracks or initiate one of five pre-allocated presets by tapping small dot and arrow symbols, which thanks to a proximity sensor only light up on the otherwise-discreet touch panel when you approach it, disappearing after 10 or so seconds. They do the job for the minority who will regularly use them, although our biggest wish – whether reasonable or not for a streamer at this price point – would be a proper screen display.
The Node’s closest rival, the Audiolab 6000N Play, which knocked the Node 2i off its pedestal during last year’s What Hi-Fi? Awards season, doesn’t have one either. But as we position the two beside one another in our test room, we soon realise similarities are harder to find between their sonic characters – even if they clearly share talent as very capable performers at this level. The Audiolab delivers a broader, more open sonic canvas onto which it expresses music with finesse and agreeable even-handedness, while the Bluesound is more direct, slightly warmer in tone and with an insatiable appetite for rhythms.
It’s very much the Bluesound character we’ve been accustomed to over recent years, and it’s a distinguishable one whether we listen through our reference Burmester 088/911 Mk3 pre/power combination and ATC SCM50 speakers, or the more price-appropriate Marantz PM6007 amplifier and KEF Meta speakers pairing.
We play Ludovico Einaudi’s Einaudi: Seven Days Walking / Day 1 - Golden Butterfly from the composer’s newly released Cinema album, and through the Audiolab the piano notes are precise-sounding, plotted in a soundstage that’s not short of space and breadth. We wish the Bluesound displayed a little more of the latter – especially during times we play denser tracks such as Mogwai’s Here We, Here We, Here We Go Forever, which can sound a little messy through the smaller-scale Node.
But – and it’s a pretty big ‘but’ – the Node is able to offer a convincing reply to the Award-winning Audiolab’s strengths. Einaudi’s deft strokes are more shapely – fleshed out and taking on a hint of warmth. Greater dynamic scrutiny, particularly at low levels, reveals more information not only about the notes being played but the way they are being played. And it’s the communication of such that makes the piece interesting to listen to.
Bluesound has adopted this entertaining sonic character since its outset – not just in the Node but in its Powernode (essentially an amplified Node) and wireless speakers too – but here it’s presented with greater refinement and detail than in previous iterations. While we find the leap between this level and the class-leading Cambridge Audio CXN V2 at the mid-range price point to be fairly significant, the latest, third-gen Node is pushing budget music streamers in the right direction.
At this money, it represents one of the most entertaining and comprehensive ways of adding music streaming to your hi-fi system – and that's why it's a What Hi-Fi? Award winner.