Bluesound Powernode 2i

Bluesound and the BluOS wireless streaming platform has always been pitched as the hi-fi version of multiroom streaming systems. Does the latest Powernode 2i deliver?

In recent issues we have been enjoying a series of samples from Bluesound’s ecosystem — first the hard-drive-equipped Vault, last issue the Pulse Mini wireless speaker, and here in this group of smart amplifiers, the Bluesound Powernode. As with the others this is now in its ‘2i’ version, which takes another step beyond the major redesign of version 2, adding updates to pretty much every corner of the range.

So the Powernode is a streaming amplifier, with USB-A, optical and analogue minijack inputs, plus Bluetooth, and access to “all the world’s music”, as Bluesound puts it, through the Wi-Fi and Ethernet networking options. The 2i version has been re-engineered inside for improvements in DAC and audio quality, and in addition to all the streaming services from online and your own files across the network up to 24-bit/192kHz high-res, there is now two-way Bluetooth using the latest Bluetooth 5.0. This means you can not only stream music using Bluetooth to the Powernode 2i (the higher quality aptX HD is available if your phone supports it), you can also have the Powernode play to your favourite Bluetooth headphones, say (while there’s also a headphone output for direct connection) or to an additional Bluetooth speaker within its range.

Also new is Apple’s improved AirPlay 2, which brings more options for control in Apple households, including using Siri for voice assistance.

We already had the Bluesound app running from the previous reviews, so set-up here was quick (it announced itself as ‘incomplete’, but didn’t seem to be so), with the Powernode available for immediate selection under the ‘Rooms’ menu of the Bluesound app, and swiftly requesting the firmware update that most networked products demand on first connection to the internet. The network connection can be either via Ethernet (a gigabit connection) or Wi-Fi (either 2.4 or 5GHz bands). Given the Bluesound’s high-res audio capabilities, we gave it Ethernet.

Signal connections were more complicated here, because of the decision to save space by using only minijack input sockets (see the rear panel overleaf). There are two of these, both accepting either an analogue input on a stereo minijack plug, or an optical input using an optical-to-3.5mm converter plug, one of which is provided. The only full-size socket is an RCA termination as a subwoofer output option.

To be honest, for both connection quality and longterm reliability we’d much prefer full-size RCA and optical inputs (as provided on both the Sonos and Echo), especially as Bluesound doesn’t include an RCA-to-minijack analogue cable, nor an optical cable, though it does provide that optical-to-3.5mm converter plug to go on your own optical cable. Having said that we experienced no connection issues once we’d plugged our preamp’s analogue output into the first socket and our TV into the second.

UPDATE: As of September 2019, an update to the Powernode's connections was announced, with an HDMI ARC connection added for direct playback of TV audio. The price is unchanged so this is clearly a useful bonus! 

As noted in the other smart amp reviews, we had by now decided that every amplifier should have a physical remote control option, no matter how smart it is! Here again, and despite the higher price, Bluesound provides no physical remote control, so that to change volume you need to use either the app or the physical buttons on the top, and to change inputs, it’s an app-only operation.

But there is a clever extra — you can program Bluesound 2i products to recognise any remote control you like for 15 functions — input selection, volume up/down/mute, play/pause or toggle, previous/next track control for streaming sources, and finally five preset selections. You can choose any old remote control for this; just select the chosen function in the app, point the remote and hit the button you want to use. It took us less than a minute to get an old TV remote control working with the Powernode 2i. At last, a smart amp with good old-fashioned touch-of-a-button control from the couch! We can’t emphasise enough how much of a bonus this feels in terms of control.

Meanwhile the BluOS app is one of the best from the multiroom music systems, most spaciously browsed on a tablet, of course, but it’s most convenient on a phone, and remains easy to use on the smaller screen, though there’s inevitably a bit more backing up through menus.

For your own music collection, there is a zippiness of navigation thanks to the way that BluOS makes an index of your music collection before you start browsing. An indexing system has both merits and disadvantages. It means that BluOS doesn’t have to constantly check every piece on information on the network, as compared with DLNA/UPnP which is looking in real-time. So indexing is ideal for stable and permanent file collections. The downside is that the initial indexing takes time (about 10,000 tracks an hour during our experience), and can go wrong quickly if a network share becomes unavailable, or if you rearrange your folder systems. But once indexing is completed, you can browse by artist (no pictures), albums (artwork shown), songs, genres, playlists, composers and, useful for external drives and network shares, by folder.

We also love Bluesound’s ability to filter album and song lists by quality, so it shows only music of minimum CD quality, or high-res, or MQA (a compression method that claims to fold high-res audio into much smaller and so streamable files). Bluesound is fully MQA-compatible and the app highlights MQA playback with either a green or blue dot over the MQA logo, blue being better, as it indicates a file “signed off” by its creators.

You can also (and simultaneously) filter albums to appear in artist order, and in release order, the combination whcih proved our favourite way of general browsing.

Files added via the rear USB slot are kept separate to the main index, on the reasonable assumption they’re more likely to be temporary. But you can still add tracks from USB into mixed playlists and queues. Just don’t expect to see them instantly — they get indexed too, apparently slightly more slowly than networked files.

Of course you may have no personal music collection to index and are happy just playing from your music service of choice. Bluesound’s app can’t match Sonos for the sheer quantity of services listed within the app itself, but it has all the essentials — both paid subscriptions (Spotify, Tidal, Deezer, Amazon Music) and free (iHeartRadio, TuneIn, Radio Paradise). A host of others are listed, though a number of them are not available to Australia.

And more important even than this, the Powernode 2i sounded immediately like a hi-fi amplifier. From the first serious listening sessions, the difference in musicality seemed obvious, more dimensionality in every way, more attention grabbed, more information detail combining to deliver the wide acoustic studio-stage of Badfinger’s Day After Day, Beatle-quality block harmonies on the left, guitars jangling every which way. Clarity and solidity combined in upbeat sections of The Chainsmokers’ Who Do You Love with gut-punchingly tight kick drum and synth bass, the more anthemic sections again spread wide, those ‘5SOS’ vocals ladled with reverb and effects.

So clear was the quality of sound over the Sonos and particularly the Echo amps, that we were interested to establish the differences, especially as the new Sonos uses Qualcomm’s latest DDFA amp chip, which is the very same Direct Digital amplification concept that NAD, sister company to Bluesound, introduced back in 2006 working with Zetex, which was then bought by CSR, which was then bought by Qualcomm. But while the original Powernode used just such DDFA technology, the subsequent upgrades through to the 2i version have switched this to NAD’s very different HybridDigital, rated (and being NAD, probably understated) at 2 × 60 watts into eight ohms.

This drove our friendly six-ohm JBLs with the successful musicality described above, but also handled the more difficult eight-ohm standmounts we use to challenge lower-powered devices.

And here the analogue input didn’t suffer; indeed some of the streaming sources sounded slightly bright compared to the full delivery from our computer/DAC combo into the analogue input. The recent Liverpool Philharmonic/Sebastian Bohran Mendelsshohn Violin Concerto recordings were delivered with space and depth, if not quite the utter you-are-there quality we’d recently been enjoying from the Cambridge pre-power amps also reviewed in this issue — there is a level above, of course, but the Bluesound Powernode 2i definitely distinguishes itself as a hi-fi version of the multiroom music amplifier. It regularly raised music into the zone of transportation, showing both the quality of its output stage and also the digitisation of analogue sources, which make it through with their soul intact.

Alexa control
So to voice control. We already had the Alexa skillset for Bluesound installed from previous reviews, so we renamed the Powernode to something easier (‘Study’), and tried talking to the unit from our Alexa Dot. This is complicated by the need for a double addressing, since you first have to ask Alexa to ask ‘Blue Voice’, saying ‘Alexa, ask Blue Voice to…’

But it immediately understood ‘Alexa, ask Blue Voice to set the default Player to the Study’, so that thereafter it would understand ‘Alexa, ask Blue Voice to turn it up’, rather than the elongated ‘Alexa ask Blue Voice to turn it up in the study’. Such ever-extended language is much harder to get right, and is the current curse of some specific equipment control by voice. As is knowing the right words to use. It’s no use saying ‘Alexa tell Blue Voice next track’ — it’ll search for a playlist called ‘Next Track’. So download the PDF of workable commands for Bluesound, and you’ll find the word is ‘skip’ — ‘Alexa, tell BlueVoice to skip’ worked fine.

Voice control with Bluesound certainly works best if you’ve built favourites, presets and playlists within the app. You can’t say ‘Alexa tell Blue Voice to play Crowded House’, because it tries to find a playlist called Crowded House — which seems a bit daft. Nor does it seem to understand “Alexa tell Blue Voice to play songs by Crowded House”. When we got specific it did apparently agree ‘to play the album 'Afterglow' by Crowded House’, repeating that back to us triumphantly, but then nothing emerged — possibly it would have done if we’d had Tidal rather than Spotify specified as our music service, as we finally realised that currently it doesn’t work with Spotify at all.

All in all, we’d deem the Alexa control here to be operational and even useful, but hardly intuitive.

On the other hand we were surprised by Siri’s effectiveness. We added the Powernode 2i as a device in Apple’s Home app on our iPhone, then invoked Siri and said ‘Play Crowded House in the Study’. It emerged within half a second, AirPlaying to the Bluesound. It understood simple information — ‘pause the study’, ‘play next track’ (even without specifiying study). But it is limited to music AirPlayed from your device or streamed from Apple Music; it can’t control anything else about the Powernode. But hey, it worked intelligently, where Alexa often so conspicuously didn’t.

Each of the three smart amps reviewed in this issue successfully bring smart functionality, streaming music and, so far as it proved successful, voice control. The Echo Link Amp does OK but its app control is way behind the other two. The Sonos is now a versatile all-rounder which is likely to prove enormously popular with custom installers. But the Powernode 2i adds hi-fi levels of amplification above that of the Sonos, and far above that of the Echo Link Amp. 

Bluesound Powernode 2i
Price: $1549

+ Great app control
+ Very high-res friendly
+ Alexa voice control
+ Can program for use with a remote control

– Minijack auxiliary inputs
– No HDMI ARC input

Quoted power: 2 x 60W into eight ohms
Inputs: 2 x analogue/optical minijack (optical adaptor supplied), 1 x USB-A, Bluetooth, IR in, service ports, AirPlay 2, Ethernet/Wi-Fi networking
Outputs: Speakers out; subwoofer out, Bluetooth out
Dimensions (whd): 220 x 70 x 190mm
Weight: 1.7kg
Contact: Convoy International
Telephone: 02 9774 9900