Bluesound Pulse & Vault Review
Those of us who care about music and sound quality, and wish to stream music around our houses, finally have a product that fits the bill. We are no longer stuck with Sonos. The Bluesound ecosystem, consisting of storage, streamers, and speakers is a much needed upgrade over the whole house systems that became so popular over the last several years. Bluesound is a well designed system with components that work together or independently. The Bluesound Pulse is a loudspeaker with built-in streaming capability. The Bluesound Vault is a NAS with built-in CD ripping and streaming capabilities as well as outputs for both analog and digital audio. Control of the Bluesound components is accomplished from a number of devices including a very nice iOS app for iPad and iPhone. Over the course of my review I was very impressed by the entire ecosystem of components and applications. I pushed the wireless capability to its limits and found a couple fairly small quirks / bugs in the apps, but certainly no showstoppers. I highly recommend the Bluesound ecosystem for people looking to sack Sonos and move into something with superior sound quality and for those who are finally ready to jump into the streaming audio water for the first time.[PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
The Pulse is Bluesound's all-in-one loudspeaker. It features NAD's DirectDigital amplification designed to pair perfectly with the compliment of drivers. The Pulse supports both wired Ethernet and 802.11n (2.4 GHz only) wireless network connections. There are two USB ports on the back of the unit. The Mini B port is for service only and the standard type A port is for USB drives and devices such as an optional Bluetooth dongle. Geeks will be interested to learn the Pulse runs on the Linux operating system. Ultra geeks will be interested to learn there is an advanced diagnostic web page that displays information from several commands such as df, free, if, dmesg, mounts, top, and even displays a syslog (PDF). I checked this advanced diagnostic page countless times during the review period. Not because I needed to, but because I was interested to read what was going behind the scenes as I put the Pulse through its paces. 99% of users will be completely uninterested in this advanced page, and Bluesound did an excellent job of designing the product so users don't need to care that this page even exists. The real function of the page is for the built-in "Send Support Request" feature in which the complete advanced page details are sent to Bluesound so it can better assist users with problems that arise. The Pulse supports PCM sample rates up through 192 kHz at 24 bits and the most common file types such as FLAC, AIFF, ALAC, MP3, and AAC.
The Bluesound Pulse contains no built-in storage space for music. However, it accepts audio from a long list of online streaming services as well as from Network Attached Storage devices (NAS) including the Vault. The online services currently supported include Deezer (not Elite), JUKE, Murfie, Qobuz, Rdio, Rhapsody, Slacker, Spotify, TIDAL HiFi, TuneIn, and WiMP. I tested Qobuz, TuneIn, and TIDAL HiFi during the review period with very good success. I also sent content from my NAS drive to the Pulse and from the Vault to the Pulse during the review.
The Bluesound ecosystem uses an undisclosed communication method for streaming music from a local NAS based library. If I had to guess, based on looking at the log file, I'd say Bluesound simply maps a drive to the NAS and uses the SMB / CIFS protocol to move music around. Bluesound doesn't support the very common UPnP protocol. Given that one of Bluesound's taglines is "HiFi for a wireless generation" I tested the Pulse's WiFi capabilities thoroughly. At first I had the Pulse connected to my network through a older Apple Airport Express. Before streaming audio I verified the wireless signal was good via the Pulse's web interface. However, I had nothing but problems with this configuration. Not even 16/44.1 CD quality music streamed flawlessly. I switched to an Airport Extreme AC wireless access point and connected to Pulse to its 802.11n network not he 2.4 GHz band. Again, I verified the WiFi signal strength was good. The difference was dramatic. Streaming 16 bit / 44.1 kHz content from a NAS and from online services TIDAL HiFi and Qobuz was as smooth as silk. Not a single dropout. Playback of 24 bit / 96 kHz content was pretty good via wireless. I was able to stream an entire Pearl Jam concert gapless with only very small dropouts once every four tracks. Switching to 24 bit / 192 kHz content was a different story. There were way too many long dropouts to even listen to a couple tracks. Wireless streaming at 24/192 was simply unacceptable. On the other hand, streaming all resolutions including 24/192 via wired Ethernet connection was flawless. I listened to complete gapless 24/192 albums without a single gap or glitch. One additional note regarding wireless and wired connections. If adding a library stored on a NAS drive to the Pulse, it's highly recommended to connect the Pulse via wired Ethernet during this process. Indexing a library is twice as fast, about 1000 tracks per minute, when connected with Ethernet as opposed to WiFi.
Sound quality of the Pulse is great. In fact it's much better than all Sonos products I've used over the years. I don't believe the Pulse's ability to play high resolution audio is the reason why it sounds so much better, because I listened to standard CD quality music much of the time. The Pulse must be looked at as a whole product without singling out the DAC, the DirectDigital bi-amping, proprietary EQ, or the drivers as a reason for its better sound quality. The sound is very even over the entire frequency range. The Pulse isn't a bass monster like the Peachtree Deepblue, but it has plenty of very tight bass. Listening to Shelby Lynne's Just A Little Lovin' via TIDAL HiFi was great. The bass line in the opening track can make less-than-stellar systems rattle and distort terribly. Through the Pulse the bass line was clear and tight. At the same time Shelby's vocals were appropriately present, not drowned out by the bass. Clicking around through the Computer Audiophile 100 playlist on TIDAL HiFi, I stopped at Goodbye Yellow Brick Road covered by Sara Bareilles live at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta. This track can sound a bit "tipped-up" in the upper frequencies on very neutral systems. Through the Pulse this track sounded very smooth without a hint of hot highs. I double checked this sonic signature by playing Red or Dead from Randi Tytingvag. This is another track that can pierce ears with the high notes. The result was the same, very smooth. Perhaps the Pulse is a bit too smooth for some listeners, but I found the sound pleasing without a hint of harshness. Moving on to Jay Z's Holy Grail track from the Magna Carta album, I wanted to hear how the Pulse responded to hip hop music with very serious bass / beats. The sound was awesome. Not awesome in the same way that it would be played through my $100,000 main audio system, rather awesome in the way that I want my music to sound in other rooms of my house when I have friends over or awesome in the way I want to feel the bass without firing up my Pass Labs amps and TAD loudspeakers. The bass on Holy Grail went from great when standing in the center of my room to killer when moving toward to the Pulse placed near the corner of the room. The Pulse is capable of producing pure fun. One additional listening test I do once in a while is playing the Red Hot Chili Pepper's Californication album through HiFi components. This album is famous for the incredible amount of dynamic range compression that's really deleterious to the sound quality. When played through the Bluesound Pulse this album sounds decent. The Pulse's ability to smooth out imperfections can only go so far. A completely neutral, note: expensive, HiFi system will produce this album in all its terrible glory making it nearly unlistenable. The credit the Bluesound team for voicing the Pulse with great balance that lets good recordings shine and the not-so-good recordings enjoyable.
As its name implies, the Vault is a storage device for one's music collection. It's also an almost-all-in-one device in that it supports nearly everything the Pulse supports but doesn't contain speakers. In addition the Vault has built-in CD ripping capability that is absent on the Pulse. The Vault supports all the streaming from online services and other NAS drives just like the Pulse, but it's outputs are either analog via RCA jacks or digital via a TosLink optical connection. The Vault is really a NAS drive without the configuration hassle of a traditional NAS drive, but also without redundant hard drives. It connects to the network via wired Ethernet only. CD ripping is done using CD Paranoia mode and can encode music into FLAC, MP3, WAV, MP3+FLAC, or MP3+WAV. Each disc takes around 13 minutes to rip, followed by a few minutes to finish encoding. CD ripping is automatic when a disc is inserted into the Vault and there are no additional configuration options. There is also no native method to edit metadata before or after the CD is ripped. Fortunately the Vault's 2 TB hard drive appears as a shared drive on the local network when browsing from any computer that supports SMB (think Windows, OS X, Linux, etc…). This network availability comes in handy for editing metadata using an application such as JRiver Media Center or iTunes for the non-FLAC files. The fact that encoding the files can take longer than ripping the CD can lead to an unkempt library when ripping several CDs in a row. That is until the Vault has had an opportunity to catch up. For example, ripping Lady Gaga's album Born this Way produced two separate albums, one with a single track and the other with all remaining tracks. After waiting for a period of time all tracks from this album migrated into a single visible album and all way good. Speaking of Lady gaga, the Vault an issue with case sensitivity. I ripped three Lady gaga albums to the Vault and only a single album was visible for editing metadata from a Windows or Mac computer. This is because operating systems handle case sensitivity differently. The Vault ripped the albums into two different artist folders, A. Lady Gaga and B. Lady GaGa. One album was in the "Gaga" folder while two albums were in the "GaGa" folder. Only the single album in the "Gaga" folder was visible from other computers, even though al albums were visible and playable via the Bluesound interfaces. I'll spare readers the intricacies of the complete story, but will say the fix for this issue is to rename the visible folder from a Mac or Windows or Linux computer to something like Lady Gaga1. This makes the Lady GaGa folder visible on all computers and enables the user to move all albums into a single folder and remove the other now unused folder. Again, this is only a problem is one needs to edit metadata for an artist with case sensitive naming issues in the online metadata database used by Bluesound. (I'm told Ray LaMontagne is also a problematic name). One additional issue I found with the Vault was with several tracks that couldn't be indexed and made available / playable via any interface (iOS, desktop, Android). When looking through the advanced diagnostic logs I noticed the re-indexing of the library failed to add 21 tracks with at least one apostrophe in the track's filename name. After further investigation I found many more tracks that contained an apostrophe weren't added to the library. Tracks like Shelby Lynne's Just A Little Lovin' wasn't added to the library but was also absent from the log file. However, tracks like Breakin' Me from Jonny Lang were indexed just fine and listed in the library. Both tracks have an apostrophe in the file name and the track title embedded into the metadata but only one of them was excluded from the library. I'm not sure what the final outcome of this finding is, but it's something to be aware of for Bluesound Vault owners.
For the most part I was very happy with he Bluesound Vault. Its ease of use when ripping CDs was really nice. I just sat at my desk with a stack of CDs and slid them into the unit one at a time while working at my computer. The built-in 2 TB hard drive is nearly silent. It can only be heard when spins up and if one's ear is right next to the unit. Thus, for all intents and purposes the Vault is completely silent. When used in combination with the Pulse, the Vault's library is seamlessly available to the Pulse as if it was stored locally on both devices. The Bluesound ecosystem works incredibly well when multiple units are used together.
The Bluesound ecosystem is controlled with the Bluesound application. This app runs on iOS, Android, OS X, Windows, and Amazon's Kindle Fire tablets. During the review I used the iOS app on my iPad and iPhone as well as the desktop app for OS X. All versions are pretty intuitive. I didn't pull out the user manual once and was still able to figure things out without much trouble. Initial setup of the Pulse and Vault was dead simple through these applications. I even factory reset the Pulse unit to run through everything a second time just to make sure the first simple setup wasn't a fluke. it wasn't, getting the Bluesound ecosystem up and running is incredibly easy. The Bluesound app enables the user to easily access online services such as TIDAL HiFi, Qobuz, and TuneIn as well as local network attached storage based collections. Searching any of these sources of music is also easy, but searching with the desktop app, users may need a little hint at how to switch sources. In my notes I had written down that it wasn't possible to search online services using the desktop application. Fortunately I talked to Bluesound support who guided me through the simple yet somewhat hidden process of selecting the different source to be searched. On the left side of the search box is a little folder icon with a music note. Simply clicking this icon reveals a drop-down menu of the configured online services and local library. Selecting one of these options focusses the search on that option only. Now that I've been told how to do it, I can't believe I couldn't figure it out on my own.
Navigating online services such as TIDAL HiFi is pretty smooth, but not without some minor issues. Through the Bluesound iOS app it's possible to access one's TIDAL HiFi favorites, including playlists, but it's not possible to edit or add TIDAL playlists. This is similar to Sonos and somewhat of a pain. Ideally it would be possible to edit or create TIDAL playlists on any platform and have these edits appear on all the other platforms. For example, when I'm in the car I may create a quick TIDAL playlist. This playlist does appear in the Bluesound application. However, I would also like to create a playlist from the Bluesound app and have it appear in the TIDAL app on my iPhone. One example of this type of two-way "communication" is already possible when it comes to favorites. it's possible to add albums or artists to one's TIDAL favorites from both the Bluesound platform and the TIDAL platform and have them appear everywhere. Maybe this can be extended to playlists in the future. One bug I found while testing TIDAL HiFi through the Bluesound ecosystem is related to search results. When searching for artist Natalie merchant within the Bluesound apps TIDAL returned four albums. However, when searching TIDAL from the TIDAL application and the Aurender music server, seven Natalie Merchant albums are available. I couldn't reproduce this bug with any other artist. It's likely a very minor issue to be resolved in the near future. Again, navigation of TIDAL and the other online services through the Bluesound applications is pretty smooth without any showstoppers. In fact, based on my experience, I believe the Bluesound ecosystem is made for services like TODAL HiFi and Qobuz. Streaming lossless quality music around the house without worrying about a local music collection is very nice and works great.
Navigating a local library is an even better experience than the online services, but of course it's still limited to the music one owns and all the responsibility that comes with keeping a local music collection. Through the Bluesound apps it's possible to mix both local NAS based music and music from an online service in the same playlist and the same playback queue. The Bluesound devices simply roll right through the playlist without skipping a beat no matter where the music is stored. This is a really nice feature that some of the much more expensive solutions don't feature. One of the best features I found during this review is what I call the information button. I found no reference to this button in the user manual, which leads me to believe it's a fairly new feature. The information button, be selected from the Now Playing screen, reveals not only information but also provides links / shortcuts. For example, while listening to Frank Sinatra i selected the information button. In the popup window appeared a link to the specific album I was listening to, a link to all Frank's albums stored locally on my NAS / Vault, a Last.fm link, a technical info link that displayed the file format, sample rate, bit depth, and additional links to all of Frank's albums on TIDAL and Qobuz (the two services I configured). I absolutely love this feature! A couple minor issues I have with the Bluesound apps are 1. The fact that album artwork is limited to 600 KB or it's not displayed, and 2. There is no capability to add tracks to play next in the queue, it's only y possible to add new music to the end of the queue. Ideally Bluesound would enable a press and hold feature for albums, tracks, and even artists that would enable users to add this music to the queue as the next to play, first to play, last to play, etc… Most other apps include such a feature. Despite these relatively minor issues, it's my view the Bluesound applications are very polished.
The Bluesound ecosystem as a whole is very nice. Specifically both the Pulse and Vault fill the void that Sonos and many others wouldn't fill. Combining both a great user experience and great sound quality is what Bluesound is all about. Designed by audiophiles at prices the masses can afford is also what makes Bluesound so appealing. Users don't have to break the bank for great quality. Whether streaming from TIDAL HiFI, Qobuz, TuneIn, Spotify (connect), or one's local music collection the Bluesound ecosystem is seamless. The Vault is so simple a monkey could use it while the Pulse, even easier to use, can really kick out the jams. Listening to all music through the Pulse was not only enjoyable but it was a fun experience that I look forward to sharing with friends in the near future. I highly recommend the Bluesound ecosystem, the Pulse, and the Vault as a way to bring great music and great sound to every area of one's house.
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- Product - Bluesound Pulse and Bluesound Vault
- Price - $699 - Pulse, $999 - Vault
- Pulse Product Page - Link
- Vault Product Page - Link
- Pulse User Manual - Link (PDF)
- Vault User Manual - Link (PDF)
- Product - Bluesound Pulse and Bluesound Vault