For the last year and a half I’ve been exploring the world of streaming music, experiences I wrote up in the course of a review of NAD’s M50.2 music streamer/ripper and Aurender’s Model 10 streamer/DAC (Issue 305). While neither of those products is outlandishly expensive by the norms of high-end audio, both are still expensive enough and of very high-tech manufacturing and sonic excellence. Not long ago I decided to treat myself to an audio system for my office. A quite small room, it has no space for a turntable (nor did I want the fuss and bother of vinyl there). CDs I can play if necessary through my iMac, but the main source was to be streaming, mostly from Qobuz and Tidal, to which end I began casting about for a compact high-quality music server with a built-in DAC (all the other electronics had likewise to have small footprints and be stackable). Have I mentioned it also had to be value driven, i.e., inexpensive?
Enter the Node from Bluesound, launched in 2013 under Canada’s Lenbrook Group as a spinoff from NAD (see sidebar). The following year the new company introduced a suite of products for streaming, including the Node 2, of which the 2i under review is the third iteration—a music server, streamer, and DAC that via the proprietary NAD/Bluesound BluOS app accesses most of the popular music-streaming services (Qobuz, Tidal, Spotify, etc.) and Internet radio, as well as music files off hard drives, including your downloads, your iTunes library, and other musical content from a NAS drive, all without a computer. (It’s sophisticated and versatile enough to control systems in several rooms. Though I did not use it that way.) The “i” suffix indicates AirPlay2 capability plus 5GHz Wi-Fi, two-way aptX Bluetooth, and a substantial sonic improvement over the two previous versions (again, see sidebar). Additional connectivity includes Ethernet, USB-A, RCA stereo outputs (plus a subwoofer out), RCA coaxial USB, TosLink, and headphones. The Node 2i will support 16–24-bit depths, sampling rates of 32–192kHz, the high-res formats of FLAC, WAV, AIFF, and the full unfolding and rendering of MQA. Like its parent company’s M50.2 server/streamer, it’s PCM only, no DSD. The DAC section can be used independently of the music server, while the music server can feed an outboard DAC (if the outboard unit doesn’t handle MQA, then you lose the final rendering but still benefit from the first unfolding, just as you do with NAD’s 50.2).
All this functionality, connectivity, and versatility fits into a nifty, stylish box (available in black or white) smaller than a trade paperback and retailing for the princely sum of $549. One of the things I’ve always liked about NAD, in contradistinction to so many other high-end manufacturers, is the company’s refreshing lack of snobbery, i.e., its components come with pretty much everything you need to get started, including requisite cabling. This Bluesound is no different, supplying Ethernet cable, a pair of RCA interconnects, and power cords (two, one for the U.S., the other for Europe)—all generic, to be sure, but so what? They’re of good quality and they do the job. (For what it’s worth, I conducted substantial portions of the review period with the supplied cabling.)
Once you download the BluOS app to your smartphone or tablet, setup is easy and virtually foolproof. I used it both wired and wirelessly and it performed for the most part flawlessly in either mode. I say “for the most” part for two reasons. First, although I have strong and reliable Internet, there are always glitches that occasionally confound the most scrupulously designed streamers, including every one I’ve ever used, and this happened with the 2i, but only infrequently and was always quickly resolved (typically by the Internet service righting itself). Two, if any external drives (G-Drive, Samsung, Western Digital, Seagate) I used contained files in addition to PCM music files the 2i is incapable of reading, none of them, including the PCM files, showed up in the BluOS app, even though the drive itself was visible. According to Bluesound’s (excellent) technical support, the presence of DSD files or even non-musical files (like photographs or documents) on a hard drive can cause the app not to recognize any files, even those it can read. The solution? Make sure the drive contains only PCM music files. (I should add that this is not the first time I’ve encountered this issue with music streamers and DACs.)
Although, as noted, I purchased the Node 2i for my office, you can bet I wasted no time trying it out in my reference system: Harbeth Monitor 40.2 loudspeakers (supplemented with a REL Serie 528SE subwoofer); digital components by Marantz, Benchmark, McIntosh, and Aurender; amplification and preamplification by McIntosh and Benchmark; and analog courtesy of Basis, SME, Shure, Ortofon, Helius, Parasound, and Musical Surroundings. Given its NAD parentage, I expected the Node 2i to sound good, and it did. And not just good, but really really good, as in so far above what its size and price might lead you to expect that it almost makes you feel as if you’ve stolen something. Never once was it caught out or embarrassed by any of the other components, including the record-playing ones; and on many digital sources it often took the most concentrated and critical listening to distinguish it from the higher-priced components, even in direct A/B comparisons.
This being the year of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, one of the first things I listened to in earnest was the new recording of the Fifth Symphony conducted by the rising young maestro Teodor Currentzis and his MusicaAeterna, a period-instrument orchestra of players hand-picked by the conductor himself (Sony/Qobuz high-res, 24/96). This is a powerfully riveting performance that gave the Node 2i opportunities to test its mettle in practically every major area of audio concern. To begin with, the recording itself is superb, ideally resolving presence and atmosphere as it situates the orchestra within a space that reproduces plausibly what Peter Walker liked to call “a window onto the concert hall” (in this case Vienna’s Konzerhaus). There is not a great deal of depth to the soundstage, but this owes to no limitation of the Node 2i, rather because the group itself is scaled to the proportions of the classical period, larger than a chamber orchestra but nowhere near the typical late nineteenth/early twentieth century full orchestra. Currentzis takes Beethoven’s controversial metronome markings at their word, which results in a breathlessly fleet opening movement, yet the effect, while propulsive, even supercharged, never feels merely hard-driven owing to the conductor’s scrupulous attention to articulation and dynamic gradations, not to mention a rather liberal deployment of expressive swells and diminuendos. How well these are tolerated on repeated listening remains to be seen (try 3:15 into the movement), but their initial effect both startles and scintillates such that you do listen with fresh ears. All this the Node 2i reveals with outstanding timing and flow.
While Currentzis doesn’t slight the lyricism of the second movement andante, listen to how he articulates the tympani to keep things moving along or how forcibly he has the strings dig into their accompaniment when the trumpets carry the theme (around 3:00). I don’t believe I’ve ever heard the famous crescendo between the third and fourth movements begun more quietly, with the tympani stealing in as if from inaudibility, as they usher in the great fanfare that launches the last movement. Currentzis’ ear for balance is masterly here (and throughout), while the Node 2i is fully up to the sensationally wide dynamic range of both the interpretation and the recording. This is one of the rare Beethoven recordings with a reduced orchestra and period instruments that doesn’t sound underpowered when the music is meant to be very loud. Any worries about the 2i’s ability to resolve low-level detail are effectively banished by how well you can follow the tympani during this passage, especially at the start. (E. M. Forster’s famous “goblins” have a distinctly impish character here.) The period instruments are revealed in all their color and individuality, like the way the characteristic buzz of the double basses cuts through during the tutti passages in the last movement, while textures throughout are at once beautifully blended yet absolutely clear, the various lines and instruments cleanly differentiated. Currentzis has already established a reputation for galvanizing orchestras into playing as if possessed, and never was I in doubt that I was hearing all the fire and passion in the playing.