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Review: Bluesound Powernode 2i – Wireless and compact surround

Bluesound Powernode 2i
Review: The Bluesound Powernode 2i with additional Flex speakers is aimed at people who do not want to walk the path of complicated audio systems.
4.5/5 - (585 votes)

Do you want surround but no AV receiver with all the cables that go with it? Then you currently have multiple options, including at Sonos or via a soundbar with extra speakers that you place behind your seat. Something similar can also be done with Bluesound, starting from the powerful Powernode 2i amplifier. With this system you get surround sound with something compact and easy to use. But, the manufacturer promises, without making any concessions in terms of sound quality.

Introduction Bluesound Powernode 2i

With a recent software update, the possibilities of the 899 euro Powernode 2i of Bluesound were broadened. That makes this multiroom-compatible amplifier with HDMI input even more interesting to use in combination with a TV. Until recently, you could only use the Bluesound device in stereo mode, but the update makes it possible to use two wireless Bluesound speakers as rear channels. This way you get a surround setup (4.0 or 4.1 if you include a subwoofer). What you experience is multi-channel sound – more or less like in the cinema – and without many cables or large boxes taking over the living room. Bluesound offers something similar to what big competitor Sonos makes possible with its Port amplifier and a set of Sonos speakers. But as always Bluesound sets its own accents and a surround setup with a Powernode 2i is not just a copy of what Sonos does.

Powerful amplifier with many options

The ‘i’ in the name with Bluesound devices refers to the latest generation, equipped with Airplay 2 . With the Powernode 2i, there is even more going on. The i-update also brought an HDMI input, eARC compatible, so you can bring the sound from TV apps like Netflix and Disney + to the amp. That makes it very easy to use the Powernode 2i to listen to music and to enjoy a much better sound when watching movies and TV series. Just connect to your WiFi and to your TV set and you are – almost – ready.

 

“Almost”, because the Powernode 2i is a stereo amplifier to which you connect your own speakers. So you have to take care of that yourself. That is a bit more work, but on the other hand you can choose speakers that suit your living space and taste. The HybridDigital amplification of 2 x 60 Watt in 8 Ohm can handle most models, from hard-to-drive compact bookshelf speakers to larger floorstanders.

As with the Sonos Port, we recommend that you use the two speakers on either side of the the screen and equidistant from the TV. Depending on the speaker type, you can also turn them a bit, so that the stereo center is more in the middle of the television. It’s something to experiment with, as this makes dialogs seem to come out of the screen better. That increases the sense of realism, because you really experience that the dialogues suit the actors. Do you want speakers that are very inconspicuously flat against the wall? In particular, Dali – distributor of Bluesound in the Benelux – makes speakers that are designed to be placed flush with the wall. The brand also has so-called LCR wall speakers that are very successful if you hang next to the television. In our test room, we installed a Rubicon LCR speaker to the left and right of the TV. Of course there are also other brands that make similar wall speakers, such as Lyngdorf or Revel.

Bluesound Powernode 2i

If you combine the Powernode 2i with two smaller speakers, you may find it useful to add a subwoofer. This is definitely recommended when watching movies if you use compact speakers that produce little low. It is a must for action movie enthusiasts. Fortunately, that is not so challenging. After all, a sub-out is provided to connect an active sub. If you want to wirelessly connect a subwoofer, there are options for that. For example, Bluesound offers the Pulse Sub that you can use with a wireless adapter.

If you take a look at the back of the Powernode 2i, you will discover a neatly finished whole. The speaker terminals are large and easy to handle, and easily swallowed the banana plugs of the Pro-ject Connect it speaker cable we use for this test.

Bluesound Powernode 2i

Although the Powernode 2i has ample streaming capabilities, Bluesound a number of physical entrances are still provided. In addition to the HDMI eARC connection, there are two ports with a dual function; each accepts an analog jack or a digital 3.5mm optical plug. That is more flexibility than you would expect with a compact streaming amplifier. Connecting a turntable or CD player is no problem, although for vinyl you have to go for a record player with amplified output or between a disc turner and Bluesound amplifier, place a phono preamp.

A wide platform When Bluesound was created many years ago as a spin-off from the Canadian Lenbrook Group (the holding company behind NAD), it initially seemed like an attempt to imitate Sonos. But tracing the brand back to a Sonos clone does it injustice. Although the Bluesound devices offer about the same, the Canadians quickly started to set their own course. Ultimately, Bluesound came to the point that it combines a number of Sonos-like qualities with its own strengths. An important plus is that the underlying BluOS platform is also used by other brands in various audio devices. At NAD, for example, you will find a handsome compact hi-fi amplifier with a large touchscreen (the NAD M10), a versatile DAC / preamp (the NAC C 658) or a high-end AV receiver (such as the T 778 which we will review shortly) running BluOS (and Dirac!). At Dali, the platform is present with their active speakers, such as the Rubicon 6C that we looked at in FWD78. In addition, there are many devices for the custom install market with BluOS on board, at the pro department of Bluesound, NAD and even Monitor Audio. The great thing is that the compatibility is preserved across the brands. So in theory you can fill a house with devices from NAD, Dali, Bluesound and Monitor Audio, and operate them all from one app. Even combining in one group can cross brands. That multi-brand strategy is quite unique in the market and means that the BluOS platform may give you the most choice in terms of devices if you equip a house with audio devices. Sonos does not come close, Yamaha with its MusicCast platform a bit more. That versatility is of course not really a plus if you are satisfied with the same wireless speaker in every room.

More than an app

The Powernode 2i is primarily a streaming amplifier. So you expect a good app. And for the most part that is a fitting description for the BluOS app that you use for all Bluesound and BluOS devices from third parties. However, we must immediately note that you are not obliged to use this app. You can control the Powernode 2i instead via Airplay 2 directly from the app of your favorite music service. Bluetooth is another (and in our opinion, inferior) option, and audiophiles can even grab Roon with its super stable, hi-res compatible RAAT protocol. However, the Bluesound devices are not DLNA compatible. Apps like BubbleUPnP or Glider can’t help you.

Back to the BluOS app. As we often notice with these kinds of remote apps, it is much more fun to use on a large screen of a tablet. In general, the operation on a smartphone and a tablet is the same: there is a large main screen that clearly shows the most important information. If you want to change sources or inputs, or to the settings, you swipe from the left edge. A window will then slide over half of the main screen. Similarly, you can access the overview of connected BluOS devices and you can change the volume or pair devices in one unit. It works fine on a smartphone, but depending on how many sources you have set and how many devices you have in your house, you have to scroll and swipe more on a smaller screen. Because we have indeed configured many services, we quickly got the feeling that working on our Huawei P30 was more cumbersome than on the iPad.

The support for streaming services by the BluOS platform is excellent. In terms of numbers, it should only leave Sonos, but what Bluesound lacks are only smaller niche services. The big names are there: Spotify, Deezer, Qobuz, Tidal and – important in the future – Amazon Music. We do miss Apple Music, but you can use this service via Airplay. Provided you have Apple gear at home, though. YouTube Music is not there either, but there is support for Google Assistant. That means you can control the Powernode 2i with your voice, provided you have a device with a microphone to transmit your voice commands to Google. Your Android smartphone is an option, but something like a small Google Nest mini is more practical. Please note that voice commands have limitations: you can adjust the volume or jump a track at any service or source, but you can really request music (“Google, play Sepultura”) only if you have the Google Assistant linked to one of three services (YouTube Music, Google Play Music or Spotify Premium). Complicated, but that is not due to Bluesound. It is the same with other brands. Do you play your own music files? If you do this from a NAS, you must enter a network path. After all, DLNA is not supported, you remember. That is not so challenging, fortunately. Bluesound can also boast excellent support for music formats and hi-res audio.

IR learning function

What we find very positive about Bluesound is that the brand does not only focus on an app. Most Bluesound devices have physical buttons with which you can do a lot and can be operated with a (sometimes sold separately) remote. And that is not the case with every competitor. For example, the Powernode 2i has a series of touch controls at the top, allowing you to adjust the volume, pause music or skip through a playlist with one touch. The same also applies to the Pulse Flex 2i speaker, which comes across as somewhat pressure due to the many buttons in terms of design. In addition to five media control buttons, you will also find five preset buttons on the small speaker to quickly select a favorite Internet radio station, playlist or something else. Quite handy.

Equally practical is the IR learning function of the Powernode 2i. You have to search for it in the BluOS app, but then you discover that you can link each function to an IR signal from any remote. For example, you can use unused buttons on your TV remote to control the Powernode 2i. For example to change the input or to activate a preset. The volume can be adjusted, while watching TV and an HDMI-ARC connection, simply via the remote of your television sets.

The IR learning function is something very practical and also very typical for Bluesound. After all, the brand wants to score in the installation market – and features like this are a hit. Consumers are also spoiled in this way. This makes it very easy to connect Bluetooth headphones to the Powernode 2i. That’s very handy if you want to watch the end of the movie at night or play a game when the rest of the family is asleep.

Little ones with a lot of talent

We haven’t said much about the Pulse Flex 2i speakers (€ 349 each) that we use in this test as rear speakers. They are the cheapest models at Bluesound and the logical choice for this task. They are small enough to be placed anywhere on a windowsill and yet powerful enough to spread those surround effects over several meters. It is also possible to use a second Powernode (including an older model from the first generation) to drive two own rear speakers.

Bluesound Powernode 2i

The Pulse Flex 2i is a small speaker, in terms of format the counterpart of the Sonos One. The cost is a bit higher, which compensates for Bluesound by promising a better sound and, above all, many more possibilities. In addition to the physical buttons at the top, this small rectangle comes with a series of things that are unique in the multi-room segment. Think of a headphone output, a jack input that you can use both optical / digital and analog and a USB port for storage with music files. Incidentally, it is not so common to find an Ethernet port on a wireless speaker, something that installers in particular find useful because of their reliability.

Creating a surround setup is done via the BluOS app. In the split screen in which the Bluesound devices appear, you create a Fixed Group. This is the name given to groups of speakers, such as a stereo pair or a group of speakers in one room that you want to link permanently. However, we are going for a Home Cinema group, something that takes about five steps to make. It is very simple in itself: you indicate which Powernode and two speakers are part of the group, after which you have to indicate which of the two Flex makes sound. This way you immediately identify which speaker is on the left and which is on the right. Bluesound does not make it that much more difficult, but it is positive that you can enter the distance to your seat per speaker and adjust the volume level. In a real-life living room, you can not always easily place those rear speakers. Sometimes one stands far away on a windowsill and another closer on a cupboard. You have completed the entire process in less than a minute. Positive, because that is fast enough that you can consider disconnecting the Pulse speakers at other times and using them elsewhere in the house.

Music first

We have the Powernode 2i with the Pulse Flex speakers on two locations tested: a week in the living room with an LG OLED55C9 and in combination with Gold 100 speakers (fourth generation) from Monitor Audio, then a few days in our test room with a set of Dali Rubicon 2 monitors and a Sony 65ZD9 television. Because both speaker pairs we used came from a higher price range, we also combined the Bluesound amplifier with the Bowers & Wilkins 606s. Those British also fit well with the Sonos Amp, we remember. But honestly, we actually just made the last switch to check that the beautiful things we heard were not purely due to the more expensive speakers. Check

Before talking about performance, let’s talk about installation. Since dozens of sound bars and receivers have already passed in the test room, we have long realized that HDMI-ARC can often cause problems. For example, the Powernode 2i immediately worked perfectly with our LG TV, but the Flex speakers did not display anything when watching a 5.1-track movie via Netflix. The problem was not – as you might think – the audio output was on PCM stereo, but it was on Auto mode which shouldn’t normally be a problem. If we opted for looping, everything was correct and we received the rear channels neatly via the Flex speakers. An additional confirmation can be found in the BluOS app. A “Dolby” label appears when a TV app delivers Dolby Digital. Incidentally, except for this minor setting error, the LG and the Bluesound amplifier worked perfectly together. The autosense function that you can enable per input also works to ensure that the Powernode 2i automatically switches to the HDMI input when you switch on the TV. Only a cold start takes a second or two before real sound came out of the speakers. As far as we are concerned, no problem at all, but impatient housemates did get the itches.

The Powernode 2i and the smallest Rubicons turn out to be a match made in heaven in our test room during our music test section. We would suspect that buyers of the Bluesound amplifier who opt for Dali would rather end up with the affordable Oberon or Opticon families, but with the more expensive Rubicon 2s you don’t make a bad buy either. We dare to call the room-filling, enveloping reproduction of Four Tet’s new “Sixteen Oceans” very impressive on these speakers and with this amplifier. If someone told us that we were listening to a more expensive ‘real’ amp with the pounding beats of ‘Something in the Sadness’ (with the typical Four Tetian high, thin melody line played on bells and bright synths). would have believed it without any problem. And other genres? Anyone who knows Avishai Cohen because of his oeuvre that is strongly influenced by Middle Eastern traditions and Hebrew melodies, will seriously look up at “Big Vicious”, an album with many modern influences, samples and instruments that is more reminiscent of Brad Melhdau. The melancholy drips from it, with a sultry reminiscent of a smoke-infused café where everyone is drinking spirits. That ambience and spaciousness is possible thanks to the reinforcement hatch, which is good in a controlled representation of all possible small details. It is those subtle acoustic cues that tell your brain something about a space. Do the musicians play in a small room or a large hall? Only on a better device you get the information presented and you get the feeling that you are listening to a real band in a real space. We also experience the same with “Tuyo”, the seductive composition that matches “Narcos” – a beautiful series full of horrific acts. We are surprised, because it is a bit unexpected to find this rhythmic control and micro-detail reproduction with an all-in-one amplifier under 1,000 euros. We personally find the Roon support a big plus, although the average consumer who does not feel like expensive audio software will not care. Fortunately, the BluOS app is very good and – we also really like it – you should also serve music tips.

We previously referred to the importance of the correct audio setting for the HDMI-ARC connection. If your TV only sends PCM out, you only have sound via the front speakers. The Powernode 2i will not upgrade stereo to surround itself. Only when you switch to a source with surround sound, such as streaming apps (for example from Netflix, Disney + or Amazon Video) or an external source such as an Xbox or Blu-ray player, you also experience surround. Perhaps it will be interesting if Bluesound adds an upmixing option in the future.

For our TV test, we immediately turn to “Ready Player One”, one of our reference movies in 2020 in terms of surround sound. The race at the beginning of the film is a huge celebration of special effects, both in terms of image and sound. There’s just a lot going on in a very short amount of time: fireworks, explosive cars, vehicles consumed by a T-Rex, collapsing buildings, crashing subways, and even King Kong crushing his mind. The Bluesound system really adds a lot to the experience, although it remains a long way from the immersive experience you get when you watch this film with full Atmos speaker setup. It is in the exact placement of effects, which is only possible with a better AV receiver and many separate speakers. An example: in this race the participants have to pick up coins that roll on the road; in an earlier test with an Atmos setup and AV receiver with Dirac (cost: together somewhere well above 5,000 euros), the money rolled behind our seat. With this Bluesound system, you are carried away by the effects that move cleverly from front to back (and vice versa). But real 3D sound, including above and behind you, that requires a bit more. That is of course the big picture, where we compare the Powernode 2i and Pulse Flex speakers with much more expensive solutions. Within his segment, we think it performs very well, especially because the Bluesound amplifier drives the front loudspeaker.

The Oscar-winning ‘Roma’ also remains a reference, but in terms of subtle use of sound effects to create an atmosphere. The better your surround setup, the more you’ll be transported back to 1970s Mexico City with this Atmos soundtrack. What the Bluesound setup does is already take us to the other side of the ocean. The strongest performance comes from the speakers at the front, with the Pulse Flexs at the back adding a portion of atmosphere. With Roma that is just right, the exact positioning of sound effects is less crucial. Also the surprisingly good “Picard” on Amazon Video (we ignore the final episode) becomes a lot more of an experience than before due to this setup.

When is this system at its best? In a TV series with a lot of dialogues and music. “Peaky Blinders” is a great match, with beautiful footage of the criminal life in Britain in the 1920s combined with a much more modern soundtrack starring Nick Cave and PJ Harvey. Those two Pulse Flex 2i speakers provide much more atmosphere and envelopment, so that the gigantic sound at the front is even more detached from the TV screen. A subtle addition sometimes, but one that often has a very big impact.

Conclusion

The Powernode 2i with additional Flex speakers is aimed at people who do not want to walk the path of complicated audio systems. Yet they are also critical enough about sound quality that they want to spend a larger sum on it. That is a smaller group of consumers, but there are still plenty of options for them. Why choose the Powernode 2i plus extra speakers? What Bluesound offers is its own approach: an amplifier that offers top performance for music in its price range and has an extensive menu of streaming options. The manufacturer also provides several small functions that are really useful in certain situations. The Bluetooth headphone mode, for example, the presets, or the fact that you can configure any IR remote control to operate the device.

Give the Powernode 2i good speakers and you have something living room friendly that makes no compromises in terms of music reproduction. And the great thing: it also makes your TV evening a lot more exciting by giving the film and TV series sound a nice upgrade. The Flex speakers do add something, of course, but the true power is with the Powernode 2i. It definitely goes for music first, this Bluesound, but as a TV solution in the second instance it certainly does not disappoint. Ideal for the critical Netflix viewer who wants more than a dull soundtrack.

Negatives of Bluesound Powernode 2i

  • Total price is relatively high
  • Own pair of speakers required

Advantages of Bluesound Powernode 2i

  • Very good support streaming services
  • Best amplifier in multi-room segment
  • You can keep your own taste in speakers
  • Many control options
  • AirPlay 2 and Roon on board

 

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