We’re on a streamer roll at Hifi Starters, a trio of WiiMs (Mini, Pro, Pro Plus) and NAD’s CS1 having gone under the microscope recently. All proved capable of excellent digital sound quality. The Pro Plus and CS1 added a good DAC (digital to analogue converter) into the mix, making them ideal standalone options (no external DAC required). With prices from £89 to £300 the beginner is spoilt for choice.  

Sound quality is important – you wouldn’t be reading this if you thought otherwise. Functionality and ease of use can also be key with streamers though. Flaky WiFi is a recipe for disaster. Poor software can be hellishly frustrating. And obviously you need the right connectivity for your system. 

The WiiMs and CS1 have compromises in some of those areas. Which is fine, design decisions were needed to reach the price points, they’re all still excellent streamers. What if you try to cover all the bases at a still-sensible price, with a nod to good industrial design thrown in too?  

Bluesound believes its Node streamer meets the brief – good sound, BluOS software and ample connectivity, all in a discrete case. The price is £549, still the right side of ouch. Pull the trigger in December and it’s £399 thanks to a £150 promotion (which is global, $150 in the USA etc). 

And whilst the souped-up Node X apparently sounds better (improved DAC and headphone amplifier) it’s not inexpensive (£699), and being a limited edition it won’t be around for long. Hence reviewing the standard Node that on paper is more attuned to the Hifi Starter. Let’s see if it fulfils its promise…..

Node

What you get

Looks-wise the WiiMs and CS1 are utilitarian. The Node ups the style quotient thanks to a flatter and wider profile, aided by rounded corners and a horizontal groove dissecting the body. Subtle but effective details. Touch controls on the top add to the vibe. All of which make the Node more svelte, worthy of pride of place. Choose from black or white, both with matt satin finish. 

Those top-mounted controls include a slider for volume, next/previous buttons, 5 presets and a colour LED status indicator. A proximity sensor lights up the panel when your hand is near. The lack of a screen – presumably cost and space preclude it – means there’s no metadata or album art, but BluOS on a phone/tablet/computer is much better anyway.

Connectivity includes: –

  • Gigabit wired networking via an RJ45 socket (the Node can run wirelessly too)
  • A line output on stereo RCA connectors
  • Digital outputs on both optical and coax connectors
  • A combined 3.5mm input that handles analogue or optical digital 
  • An RCA subwoofer output 
  • An e-ARC HDMI socket, allowing TV’s to join the fun
  • A 3.5mm headphone output on the front of the Node

There’s also Bluetooth 5.1, both receive and transmit, the latter useful for sending audio to wireless headphones or Bluetooth speakers. Neat.

That’s still not quite a full-fat pre-amplifier, separate analogue and digital inputs would be nice for example. In practice Bluesound is covering most typical use-cases for this type of device though. And the inclusion of HDMI is a real boon – how long before manufacturers include it as standard?

BluOS

I first encountered BluOS in PSB Alpha’s iQ powered speakers and liked it. This time round there were a few niggles – it appears the move to the latest BluOS Version 4 hasn’t been totally smooth. That’s not unusual with the release of major software versions. It’s still frustrating though; I struggled to get Tidal going, the Home screen wouldn’t display and I couldn’t manage Music Services. All solved by a reboot of the router and the Node itself. It shouldn’t have been necessary though. Further updates should address the issues, hopefully everything will be stable again soon. If nothing else it’s a reminder of how critical software is to streaming. 

Once up and running the redesigned V4 user interface looks good. On a phone the Home screen consolidates your frequently accessed content. Favourites gives you another view, focussed on the music sources you use. Music lets you access all services you’re subscribed to, with search facilities. Player shows the various devices in your system (BluOS is multiroom, much like Sonos). And there’s a global Search facility. Yes there’s some duplication but you’ll soon settle on a subset of functionality that works for you.

Platforms for the control app include  iOS, Android, Windows, MacOS & Kindle – useful if you like to switch between computer and phone/tablet regularly when playing music (as I do)

Ascot
Ascot
Ascot

Music services supported include the Connect versions of both Spotify and Tidal, Amazon Music HD, Qobuz, Napster, Deezer and a host of more niche ones (22 in total). Airplay 2 is on the menu, and the Node is Roon-Ready. Shared files on a computer, network attached storage (NAS) or Bluesound’s Vault can also be played. Leaving Chromecast as the main absentee; a shame, but no showstopper. Brits may also rue the lack of BBC Radio stations thanks to licensing issues between Tune-In and the Beeb. 

On the technical side, the Node can handle up to 24 bit / 192kHz PCM data. More than enough for this listener, you may crave higher (or DSD). EQ allows bass & treble to be varied by +/- 6dB in 0.5 dB steps. A defeatable subwoofer filter splits the signal, with bass going to the subwoofer, the rest of the signal to the main speakers rates. You specify the crossover point. All of which simplifies subwoofer setup considerably. 

Onto listening, where for consistency with the WiiM Pro Plus review, a Prima Luna EVO 300H amplifier and Graham LS6 speakers were used, augmented by a REL T/7x subwoofer. When required a Mytek Liberty II DAC joined the party. Price appropriate? Nope, but it did tell me what the Node was really capable of. 

Node

Sound quality – digital output

First up I pitched the Node’s coax output against the £220 WiiM Pro Plus (coax output) and the £629 Pro-ject Stream Box S2 Ultra (USB output). Both played through the Mytek.

The Pro-ject sounded great (as usual, it’s my main streamer) but the Node was really chomping at its heels. Surprisingly so given the price differential (the Pro-ject doesn’t have a DAC so is essentially a lot dearer). 

Take the Dave Weckl Band’s Live and Very Plugged In. Not everyone’s cup of tea but it’s the sort of jazz funk I was weaned on. Unplayed for some time, I’d forgotten how dynamic a live set it is. Something the Pro-ject captured better than the Node. Transient attack was stronger, treble was more extended. Overall the sound had more zing to it. But, the improvements were small, even in the context of a highly-resolving five-figure system. The main takeaway was just how good the Node sounded.

Onto the WiiM Pro Plus  and it was a similar story – differences between it and the Node were marginal. True, the WiiM sounded slightly better defined low down. On the Weckl album the bass line was easier to follow. Similarly, on Hans Theesink & Terry Evans ‘Talk To Your Daughter” the walking acoustic bass line was more distinct in the mix. I had to engage full-on analysis mode to hear the differences though, to hell with the music. Which means in reality both the WiiM and the Node sounded excellent. 

The bottom line? The Node’s digital output is very capable indeed, its sound quality largely dependent on the DAC you partner it with.

Sound quality – analogue output

Onto analogue, using the Node’s internal DAC. Which I suspect is how more people will use it, at least initially (keeping the digital output for that first upgrade).

The sound that emerged was very agreeable indeed, determined more by the amplifier/speaker combination than the Node itself. Dave Weckl was again suitably dynamic, with a good soundstage and a healthy amount of detail on display. Detail was highlighted even more on John Moreland’s ‘Harder Dreams’ from the album LP5. His initial solo guitar had a lovely crisp, open sound; the sense of singer songwriter strumming in front of you was impressive. As the drums came in the music gained momentum, the tight kick drum in particular sounding propulsive. Then things built as keyboards, harmonica and others entered the fray. All beautifully judged musically. All captured and presented well by the Node. 

Comparison to the WiiM Pro Plus’ analogue output proved futile, any differences were minimal. Maybe, possibly, a little more clarity from the WiiM. Nothing of musical consequence though. Grouping the two players in Roon so they played the same track simultaneously, I kept forgetting which was in play when switching between them. Nuff said.

Switching to the much dearer Pro-ject / Mytek resulted in obvious improvements. It was a significantly bigger, more immediate sound, with greater detail and much better delineation of musicians. With hindsight a slight blurring of the sound was removed; everything was tighter, without going too far. Were they night and day changes? Pretty much, yes, at least to these ears. But then you’d expect that when paying three times the price. That switching back to the Node was still very rewarding is more the point.

Node

Summing up

Overall the Node put in a really solid performance. The software problems are hopefully a blip; BluOS has developed a healthy reputation over the years and its functionality is impressive when on song (its range of music services is notable).

Sound quality is good in both analogue and digital modes. Some commentators question the internal DAC. I was personally very happy with it, accepting the Node is capable of even more when hooked up to a good external converter. As I see it, having the choice between internal and external DACs is ideal. 

In isolation the Node’s price of £549 is also reasonable. Particularly given its looks, which are a step up from the WiiMs & CS1s of this world. Therein lies a challenge though; the WiiM Pro Plus sounds essentially the same as the Node but costs less than half as much. That’s a big difference.

But, if you’re already bought into the BluOS ecosystem or want a streamer that both looks and sounds good – it had many admiring glances whilst here – then the Node is easy to recommend. And in audiophile terms it’s still very affordable, even more so with the current promotion. Well, Christmas is coming and you have been good this year haven’t you?!