While a select number of consumer electronics companies are vaunting their arrival at quinquagenarian or even septuagenarian status by serving up products that look like they’ve been found in an ‘80s time warp, it’s refreshing to see a Gen Z brand launch a celebratory item that has a definite “Now” and not “Then” look. Bluesound is 10 this year and the limited edition Node X music streamer celebrates the fact with modernity, leaving the playing of the nostalgia card to its elder siblings, electronics brand NAD and speaker brand, PSB.
Since its inception in 2013, Bluesound has muscled its way into the music convenience arena with a range of distinctively dinky products that bring high-res music to a cost-conscious audience, with a level of quality and ingenuity that leaves you wondering how this Canadian company can achieve such sophistication for the price.
The latest example, the distinctive looking Node X music streamer, is a reworking of the company’s popular Node but with a number of improvements that go beyond cosmetic tweaks. Within the impressive new, metallic, casing is an up spec’d digital to analogue converter (DAC) to give a finer, smoother, more detailed output. Plus, there’s a better built-in headphone amplifier, the THX AAA, with conventional 6.7mm output socket, again added to provide higher quality sound, lower levels of noise, distortion, and power consumption – precisely what you deserve for the £150 premium over the basic Node.
The Node X is deceptively simple in every respect – what it does, how it does it and how you use it. If you have an existing hi-fi system that includes an amplifier, the Node X can be connected by standard cables, Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, or indeed a wide variety of other connections (including HDMI eARC allowing it to connect directly to a sound bar, for example) to give you access to the millions of tracks of online music and other audio content of the highest quality, and less so (hello Spotify), if that takes your fancy.
If you only want to listen through headphones, then the Node X is all you need, providing an easy, space efficient way to listen on either wired or wireless headphones with gratifying results.
There are a couple of routes to integrate and control the Node X, including the supplied, straightforward, nicely designed remote handset. But the simplest, and for me the most convenient, access point is to load the BluOs app onto your phone, tablet, or computer. It’s one of the most intuitive and easy to use systems – download and install the app and you are ready to jive.
The Node X will stream content over and above CD quality, up to 24-bit/192kHz lossless, in other words music that has not had the content removed or fiddled with to make the file sizes smaller and more manageable - think awful, insipid, MP3 files…
On individual tracks there was some difference in how the high-res content provided by Tidal MQA and Qobuz Hi Res, for example, sound, but that is more down to the tech than the abilities of the Node X. And no-one with a life is going to sit there comparing how a track sounds on each of the platforms, are they? Okay, maybe once in a while but not often.
What you hear is revealing, crisp details, and utterly listenable music across the board, whatever the category. I know it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but, believe me, it becomes a very difficult task to get up from the settee while being totally absorbed by the perfectly formed notes from Mitsuko Uchida’s piano as she caresses Robert Schumann’s Eintritt via the high-res version on Qobuz. What a performance.
At the other end of the scale, I discovered Nairobi Matata Jazz, a band I’d never heard before, with a lively, unfamiliar yet infectious beat and a quality of recording that at best could be described as wanting. Nevertheless, it is music to make you smile, so that works for me.
Listening through wired headphones was a real experience, particularly because of all the power that comes from such a tiny box. The bass delivery is awesome, controlled with presence but without taking over. The detail in the high registers is also excellent but, on some tracks, admittedly not everything I listened to, there was a lack of bite in the mid-range, so the performance fell a little short of expectations. Since this wasn’t a consistent theme, I put it down to the individual recordings.
The Node-X is a rare beast in a world dominated by black boxes. This little gem is an exercise in design elegance so there is no need to hide it away. And while the looks strike a positive chord, even this aspect is crowned by its ease of set-up, use and versatility, helped along greatly by the BluOs operating app. The touch screen controls for volume, presets and track change look terrific and work well, but the excellence of the app control makes even these a little redundant. Clearly, though, that will depend on personal preference for how you like to control the system.
From the outset, once it’s plugged into the mains you can be streaming music from Spotify, Qobuz, Tidal, Deezer (or any other music services you may have an account with) plus 1000s of radio stations within a few minutes.
I have a couple of BluOs enabled products in my system so the Node was easy to integrate, providing streaming to the amp, and therefore my speakers and to a wireless speaker in another room. By grouping the products in the app, you can play to more than one output at the same time, but what you can’t do is use the Node X to provide different streams to different devices at the same time.
If functionality and access to streaming services is all you require, the diminutive Bluesound Node, without the anniversary X, should suit your needs. However, if you want to add a touch of class and distinctiveness to both the look and the performance, you should certainly have the Node X on your shopping list.
Besides some slight evidence of flatness and a lack of dynamics in the midrange (particularly when compared to the powerful, precise low-end performance) on some tracks when using headphones and perhaps a questioning of the price premium, this little streamer does nothing but please.
Daft Punk Get Lucky
French House? Retrofuturist? Whatever tag you want to attach to the electro music duo, the hit track from 2013 album, Random Access Memories, in conjunction with Nile Rodgers and Pharrell Williams, delivers a great, pulsing bassline and fabulous clarity in the vocals, although a tad light in the mid-range via the headphone socket.
The release of Pure Heroine by 17-year-old Lorde was somewhat overshadowed by one, played to death, track, but there are many other fine recordings on the album. Although Team is a minimalist combo of powerful vocals, bass, snare drum and handclap beat, it can sound pretty ho-hum but the strong combination of Node X and Qobuz hi-res, gives it an infectious listening power, energy and unity.
At the opposite end of the highly processed music of Lorde and Daft Punk is the raw sound and talent of Nigerian guitarist, Bombino who has an ‘individual’ style to say the least. A frenetic track pumping with energy and abandonment – great fun from a recording of marginal quality, a real find and great example of why streaming can be such a discovery delight
Extremely easy access to the world of high-res music from the main streaming platforms, wrapped in a quality design that will stand the test of time. Yes, there are cheaper music streamers but none has the unique blend of looks, quality, versatility and accessibility.