The Bluesound Node 2i Music Streamer. Worthy of use in a HIGH END Audio System?
Streaming. It’s the future and the future is RIGHT NOW.
I have been building my audio system for 35 years (ongoing all of my life) and have been blessed and lucky enough to try many things from low end to high end to uber high end in the audio world. While it is very true that the more you spend does not always mean “better”, sometimes it does..and again, sometimes it does not! I know not everyone is into high end audio, it’s a niche much like high end cameras are today. With the prevalence of bluetooth speakers in audio and our smartphones in imaging, most of the world go that route. But some of us, like me, enjoy the experience a real audio system brings just as some of us enjoy using a real traditional high quality camera.
But in the case of high quality music streamers you do not have to spend thousands of dollars to get beautiful music. In fact, for the last six years the streamer I have used in my high end home system has been a Sonos connect, and then a modified Connect from Magna HiFi. Even when I had a MEGA SYSTEM here that cost more than a new Cadillac I was using the modded Sonos connect as my streamer going into an external high quality DAC. The reason why is not because I feel it is better than other options that are more costly, it’s just that it sounds RIGHT to me and in audio, what you do not know can never cost you. What I mean by that is, if I am happy with what I have then listening to something that costs 2-5X as much may get me to want to spend more if it is indeed 5% better. So I have been able to save some money with my system when it comes to streaming by being happy with my old CD quality SONOS. Besides, I use a separate dac so any streamer SHOULD sound the same, right? Well, that’s what I thought but that is not quite the case, even here.
Sonos is NOT High Res Capable
Have I tried high res streamers in the past? Yes. I had one in my PS Audio Direct Stream DAC in the form of the Bridge II, and I loved it! I was 100% thrilled with that at the time but truth be told, when I plugged my modded Sonos connect into the same DAC the sound was different, maybe even a bit more pleasing than the streamer in the $6500 PS Audio piece. My modded Sonos Connect just streaming Spotify premium gives me a huge, full, 3 dimensional sound when I go into a good external DAC. It’s not the most detailed but it’s pleasing.
It’s just about right to these ears (though not perfect) and one of those cases where I always felt that spending more would not yield huge gains. Keep in mind I have not heard high dollar streamers (UPDATE 2021: I have now heard $$$ streamers yet I have settled with a Node 2i into an external DAC. It’s that good) but what I can say is they may offer more of something but will they still sound as “right” as my modded Sonos? In the past I have not had the desire to even try as my connect is one piece of gear I have never felt I needed to upgrade! Crazy huh? I get curious but not in the “I must replace this piece of gear” kind of way. More in the “I wonder if that will really sound different or better to me” kind of way.
Well, lately I have been a little curious so I decided to do some research ; )
Enter the Bluesound Node 2i
With that said, my modified Sonos Connect is not what I am writing about today, nor is it what I would recommend today to those out there getting started in HiFi. Rather, if you are looking for an all in one streaming solution that A: will not break the bank B: offer tremendous ease of use C: looks nice and sounds fantastic D: Will act as a hub for music throughout your house if you desire and E: Includes a really good dac built in then read on and find out about what is my top pick for a music streamer well under $1500.
In fact, if you are looking for a streamer that comes in at $549 yet will be at home in even a high end system, I want to tell you about my experience with the Bluesound Node 2i. A beautiful made and designed little streamer that makes beautiful music going into any DAC or to some extent even when using the built in DAC of the unit itself. It also streams high res and MQA titles from Tidal with ease (if using the built in DAC or an MQA supported DAC) and Sonos does NOT do this, it can not do this. Oh and the Node 2i is the latest and greatest from Bluesound when it comes to their basic streamer.
Legendary Linn CD12
In fact, the sound coming from this little sleek box being fed into my Vinnie Rossi L2DAC reminds me ALOT of the old Linn Sondek CD12 which was a $20,000 CD player from back in the day. It was indeed the nicest sounding CD I have ever heard at that time. It even came with its own flight case. Yes, this $549 streamer is reminding me of THAT sound. Relaxed, fluid, foot tapping, wholesome and big with never a hint of digital glare or harshness. Something those old Linn disc spinners excelled at. Remember when I said I have been at this since I was 15? I wasn’t kidding! I have tried and heard MANY pieces of HiFi in my life so I speak from experience and while my ears may differ from yours, all I am doing here is relaying my experience. So take from it what you will.
The Node 2i is the current streamer from Bluesound and much improved over the first generation of the device. Bluesound has made waves with their streaming solutions and even speakers for the “whole house” experience. It is like Bluesound took the Sonos connect concept and improved upon it in many ways.
I recently took a drive over to Dedicated Audio in Scottsdale AZ as they have the bluesound Node 2i (as well as the vault2, and powernode) and after speaking with Dan (who runs the operation there) he suggested I give the Node 2i a try if I wanted to see what it was all about (the app, high res streaming, etc). He showed me the full featured and great looking app that runs it all and I was very intrigued indeed. After about 45 minutes of listening, learning and browsing the beautiful speakers he has on display in is shop I walked out with a Node 2i and was set (and excited) to compare it to my well loved $750 modded Sonos Connect! More for curiosity really as I always wonder how some gear will sound compared to an equivalent piece of gear. It’s part of this hobby after all!
The First Listen and Comparison
I arrived home, unboxed the Node 2i which was VERY well packaged. I saw the quick start guide and plugged in the Node, plugged in my ethernet cable (it will also do WiFi but hard wired is recommended to avoid ever having dropouts), updated it (which was automatic using the app) and set up the app with my Tidal, Spotify and Qobuz credentials (currently evaluating all of these services and will settle on one soon).
I had zero issues installing this. It was as easy as 1-2-3 and gave me not one hiccup. This is the third Gen streamer from Bluesound and gone are the issues that may have plagued the first generation. It was truly as easy as it gets to hook up to my HiFi system.
I played some very familiar music that I use as test tracks because I know them so well, and I now how they should sound.
I had high hopes and thought “If this can sound at least as good as my modded Sonos I will be thrilled”. It looks nicer, feels nicer, has a slicker app (imo) and can stream High Res into my Dac (or you can use the internal DAC of the Node). One thing to note is that the Sonos does NOT do High Res (24/192), it doesn’t do MQA nor does it do much besides stream CD quality files.
First track with a modded Sonos and stock Bluesound 2i.
I cued up “Peninsula” from Tom Adams (Spotify) and with my Sonos the sound was rich, very full, had huge side to side soundstage, was somewhat holographic and leaned neutral when it came to sound, not too warm, not too bright but right in the middle yet if I was listening very critically there was a slight “artificial” sound to the edges of notes. With the Bluesound Node 2i I was getting a similar but not quite the same sound, and in reality, that’s how it should be. I am only using these devices as a streamer, bypassing the internal dac and feeing the 1’s and 0’s into my DAC where it then processes the sound and delivers it to the pre amp, amp and then my speakers.
Even so…While similar it was NOT the same. The Node 2i was a tad warmer and richer in sound and yes I even did sound level matched tests. Same system, same song, same cables, same listening seat. The only difference was which streamer I was using. My digital cable is a Nordost Heimdall and I have a very good wireworld ethernet cable as well (to avoid drop outs). The Node somehow gave me the impression that the music was flowing unconstrained. Like blood flows through the veins of a healthy individual. No blockage, no restraint. It flowed in a rhythmic manner and had me moving immediately but it was warmer and thicker sounding than what was coming from the Modified Sonos. When I say this I do not mean the Node 2i has a “warm thick” sound. I mean it was slightly warmer in presentation over the modified Sonos, and it also threw a slightly larger soundstage. This is a GOOD THING!
With the Node 2i, I was hearing a tad more bass and a tad more recessed treble (vs the Modded Sonos) but these differences were in all reality, tiny. For the most part, it sounded similar to the $750 modded Sonos Connect. Some would feel streamer A was better, some would say B was better It’s all subjective of course. Some would not be able to hear the difference, others would easily. While the Sonos (modded) was a tad more open sounding in general on many songs the Bluesound sounded better. For example, with Rock music that requires a good healthy midbass and bass performance to sound right, the Bluesound kicked my speakers into high gear with a more meaty presentation. I preferred rock and high energy music from the Node 2i. For vocals or Jazz I slightly still preferred the modded Sonos, but then again, it was so damn close I wasn’t quite sure after extended listening. That alone tells me how good this Node 2i is for the money (and even above it, I’d say up to $1000). Remember that this Node 2i is $200 less expensive than the Modified Sonos.
For ambient music the Sonos gave a tad more snap but the bluesound gave me a more room filling “all over” vibe. Again, the difference was small and I am highlighting what I heard. I have a highly trained ear for this stuff. Some of you would not be able to tell the difference and this is a HUGE plus for the Bluesound Node 2i as for $549 it may just be the perfect streamer for many of you reading this. I kept on being reminded of my time with Linn CD players of the past. The CD12 and Ikemi are probably two of the most musical CD players I have heard in life. They had a flow and relaxed sound about them that presented music cleanly but with some should behind it. The Node 2i has this same effect in my system. Relaxed, flows freely, slightly warm yet detailed enough to image and with healthy bass performance.
Is it GOOD ENOUGH for TRUE HIGH END?
I feel some in HiFi audio land think the Bluesound Node 2i is not worthy of their system because it costs only $549. Being an audiophile some feel that they have to spend high dollar for the best performance. While we know this is not always the case (sometimes it may be) some may even assume this piece is not up to standards for their system. I feel that if Bluesound priced this at $1299 there would be even more interest as so many believe that if a serious HiFi product is not in the thousands of dollar range it must not be real HiFi. I am happy to say that in this case, the $549 for this piece is quite remarkable. One of the deals of HiFi that are so rare these days.
I am running mine into a $35k system and it sounds glorious into my external DAC. Could it have a touch more air? A little more texture or realism? Sure, but if you want that last 5% of performance expect to pay $4k or more. I am talking about a $549 product here that sounds like a $1500 product to these ears. You can get a little bit better but for a lot more money, and to me tis is silly as this sounds so good and works so well. That last 5-10% of performance in audio land will COST YOU DEARLY and it may not even be ant better sounding to you than this Node 2i.
AFTER about 100 MORE SONGS on the Node 2i
My $750 modded Sonos Connect is fantastic but it doesn’t have quite the same wide open flow as the Node 2i. I have been swapping them every hour and now can clearly hear the differences, yes, even when using an external DAC. The Sonos is a little more crisp, has less bass energy and has a tad more treble energy. Yet it does not have that musical flow quite like the Node 2i does. I feel like my ears are adjusting to this new sound and the more I hear it, the more I like it.
The usual audiophile things like soundstage, imaging, air? All here with the Node 2i. In fact, it seems that after 100 songs or so it opened up a tad more. The Soundstage is beautiful and wide with depth as well. Air, imaging, and that rhythmic drive are top notch.
Listening to “Midnight Sunshine” from a Buddha Bar release brings me a heavenly slice ambient music that goes right to my senses as well as my heart. The slight warmer emphasis in the treble vs the Sonos is nice and only analytical detail hounds will want for more.
I feed the Streamer into this Vinnie Rossi L2i SE Integrated amp. It has the L2 Dac Module built in and the Bluesound sounds wonderful as the streamer or with its internal dac being put to work.
WHAT ABOUT THE INTERNAL DAC of the Node 2i?
Most will buy the Node 2i and use the internal DAC of the unit because, well, it has one and it has a very good one. We do not need a separate DAC to run the Node 2i but we can add one later if we feel we need or want an upgrade but for most getting started into HiFi this little streamer has all you need built in. Heck, if you need an amp, DAC and streamer check out the Bluesound POWERNODE HERE. This offers you everything but speakers and speaker cable. I have not heard the power node but it could make for a great small rocking system. Let’s get back to this Node 2i…
So I decided to do a shoot out between the modded Sonos Connect and the Bluesound Node 2i using the DAC built into each of these devices. In this case the clear winner was the Bluesound as the DAC in the Node 2i is superior to the one used in the Sonos, at least to these ears. It was not a small difference either.
If using the internal DAC’s of these devices, it’s no contest as far as I am concerned. The Node 2i wins. The Connect is a tad pinched, or muffled, when using the internal dac and sounded a little closed in with a smaller soundstage and less room filling sound. Almost like a thin sheet was thrown over the speakers. But I was never a fan of the Connect DAC and have always used it with an external DAC for this reason. The Node delivers more details and a smoother presentation without any glare or edge. Neither really compare to what I hear with my Rossi L2 Dac but for $549 the Node 2i was seriously starting to impress me more and more. It can make a great piece for those looking for no muss, no fuss streaming without having to invest in a DAC right away. Just plug in the Node and get to listening! To be clear, the internal DAC here is superb, and most would not want for more (unless you are a crazy obsessed audiophile like me).
The BlueOS app is fantastic. It’s gone through several versions from what I understand and today it is solid, glitch free and fast as all can be. It will manage all of your music wether it is on hard drives or you just stream as I do using streaming services. I have mine set up with Tidal, Spotify and Qobuz and can stream almost any music I desire. The app also has various internet radio channels built in, from all genres. So one can just pick a radio station and let it run. The app uses a clean easy to understand interface and for me it has been free of glitches or problems. If I can be honest I prefer the Bluesound app over the Sonos app after I used it for a few days.
Running the app on my iPhone, it is stable as can be as well as fast and smooth and easy to understand.
You can do MORE!
With the Node 2i think of it as a hub that can stream music to any other Bluesound speaker throughout your house. Yep, buy a speaker for each bedroom and you can stream from your phone, iPad or Fire and hear music all over the house. I can sit in my bedroom with a Bluesound Speaker such as THIS ONE and stream my music when I am chilling in bed, or falling asleep. I can then wake up, walk to my audio room and stream there. Making my coffee in the kitchen? I could add a speaker there and listen as I brew my morning cup. So the Node is versatile and much like the Sonos system can be used as part of a whole house system.
In the app one can choose which zone or system they want to play. It’s really nice to have.
My conclusion on this $549 Streamer.
The Bluesound Node 2i is the streamer for “everyone or anyone” who is building a nice stereo system. When used with an external DAC the job of the Node 2i is solely to get your music to your speakers. A streamer. Some wonder how one streamer can sound different from another if you are using the same DAC. Well, I am not sure but can say there are differences in sound between the $750 modified Sonos connect and this $549 Node 2i. Neither is “better” when it comes to what I hear, just slightly different. The Sonos has more treble energy and the Node 2i has more heft and body. In my system the Node 2i is slightly warmer and offers up a huge heap of beautiful music.
One should not think that a $549 streamer must be bad because it doesn’t cost $2500. Even if using the DAC inside of the Node 2i it can play beautiful music. It can get your feet tapping all on its own and depending on your level of HiFi may be the best you have ever heard, and that’s a great thing.
This is the most streamer 95% of Audio Geeks will ever need but we know how that goes. It can also act as a superb entry to streaming and if you ever feel you need more there are always options up the ladder. Truly. For the 5% who are like me, there may always be bigger, better and more expensive but when it gets down to it, we are in this hobby for the music not the gear. If we find something that works really well yet costs less than we think it should, that’s a bonus. That’s a good thing.
This may be THE Streamer to get under $1000
Due to the beautiful BlueOS app, the design of the box itself, the fact that it is black and matches my other gear (though it also comes in white) and also plays high res music I am setting my modded Sonos to the side for a while. I will not sell my Sonos as I like it but I will revisit it in a few months after having the Node 2i in my system for a while. My system today consists of the Vinnie Rossi L2i SE, Dynaudio Special 40 Speakers, Swisscables, and a Technics 1210 GR turntable. It’s a nice High end Audio System and the $549 Bluesound Node 2i is more than up to the task to deliver beautiful streaming music to this system. It’s what I am now using full time, at least for now. I am happy just as I was with my modded Sonos connect but a little bit happier due to the reasons mentioned above.
At $549 this little piece is a slam dunk highly recommended streamer. You will not find better for less. You will be able to find a different sound, possible better to you if you spend 3-10X as much. But money is money, and we all like to save some from time to time in this crazy hobby of ours.
Streaming is huge today and with the variety of services we can use to bring music to our speakers the possibilities are endless. The Node 2i allows you to set up almost any streamer service you subscribe to, and then some. Internet radio, local radio and more are available with a touch of your finger! How times have changed for music lovers!