Bluesound Powernode 2i (with HDMI) review: Bodacious sound from a micro-sized box

Don’t let the petite dimensions and minimalist design of the $899 Bluesound Powernode 2i deceive you. This self-amplified, multi-room streaming music player is packed with audio goodness and will deliver blissful sonic experiences from nearly any source: Local or network storage, a disc player, your mobile device, or your streaming service of choice—including their high-res tiers. You can use a turntable, too, but you’ll need to plug it into a preamp, first. Just be prepared for a user experience that’s, shall we say, a wee bit rough around the edges.

In my book, the Powernode 2i’s features, capabilities, and performance are worth dealing with a few operational quirks that must be mastered, tolerated, or fixed (more on that in a bit). Its pluses far outweigh its negatives, just like that abiding love of your life whose eccentricities you learn to ignore. I mean, what’s not to love here? You get whistle-clean amplification (60 watts per channel), high-resolution audio support (up to 24-bit resolution with sampling rates as high as 192kHz), support for every important file format (including FLAC, Apple Lossless, and MQA), robust connectivity options (USB, gigabit ethernet, dual-band 802.11ac, Airplay 2, two-way Bluetooth 5.0), diverse inputs and outputs (Toslink, combo Toslink/3.5mm in; 3.5mm headphone, subwoofer out), and even HDMI ARC support. Just add your own loudspeakers.

Unique in this product category, the Powernode 2i can also stream music to your favorite Bluetooth headphones—with support for the aptX HD codec and remote transport control (pause/play, volume up/down) if your cans also have those features. Prefer old-school wired headphones? Just plug them into the 3.5mm jack on the front of the unit. I got my groove on with Andover Audio’s PM-50 planar magnetics (newly updated with the larger-cavity ear cups I’d been asking for).

bluesound powernode 2i rear panel Jonathan Takiff / IDG

Bluesound’s Powernode 2i has all the digital and analog connectivity you could ask for, including HDMI with ARC.

It’s hard to believe the amount of tech packed into this 3.8-pound chunk of a thing measuring just 8.7 x 7.5 x 2.75 inches (WxDxH). It even has touch-sensitive controls on its top surface (play/pause, volume up/down, previous/next track), or you can manage it with your mobile device (Android or iOS), voice commands (Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant), or Bluesound’s RC1 Remote Controller (a $59 add-on). It doesn’t sip much juice, either: 2.3 watts in standby and hovering around 13 watts during operation, according to my Belkin energy monitor.

Streaming high-res audio

The Powernode 2i is the first (and still only) integrated streaming tuner/amp combo I’ve encountered in this price range that can deliver the high-resolution tiers of Qobuz, Tidal HiFi (including MQA), and Amazon Music HD. Bluesound supports just about every other service, too, including Spotify, Deezer, iHeartRadio, Neil Young Archives, Nugs.net, TuneIn, and more. Curiously, however, Apple Music, Pandora, and Sirius/XM are not currently supported (unless you stream them from your mobile device over Bluetooth). You can also use the Powernode 2i with what just might be the world’s best music-listening software: Roon—if you don’t mind paying $120 a year or $700 for a lifetime license.

Bluesound’s competition doesn’t measure up in terms of support for high-resolution audio. Sonos delivers an unparalleled user experience, and it supports almost every streaming service under the sun, but even its latest-generation S2 components are limited to sampling rates up to 48kHz (albeit with 24-bit resolution), and that’s only with FLAC and Apple Lossless tracks. Older Sonos components are limited to 16-bit/48kHz.

bluesound powernode 2i caption in email Jonathan Takiff / IDG

Bluesound’s Powernode 2i has touch-senstive transport controls on top of its chassis.

Bose isn’t nearly as open to streaming services—it doesn’t offer Tidal or Qobuz—and CD resolution is as good as it gets from any source with its two lines of networked audio gear, Smart Speakers and SoundTouch. Russound offers Hi-Res-certified audio streamers, but neither the MBX-PRE I reviewed in July nor its amplified sibling, the MBX-AMP, can handle 24-bit FLAC files. Russound supports Tidal, but not Tidal HiFi, Qobuz, or Amazon HD.

Powernode 2i listening tests

The Powernode 2i’s detailed, airy, and full bodied sound will impress even sonic snobs who limit their listening to pristine 18-gram vinyl pressings, SACDs, Blu-Ray Audio, and DVD-Audio discs. I performed a series of A/B comparisons of high-res tracks streamed from Qobuz and Tidal HiFi with the same tracks played from CDs on Oppo and Pioneer universal players connected to the Powernode 2i. I selected tracks recorded by well-known studio perfectionists: Dire Straits, Jackson Browne, Norah Jones, Donald Fagen, and Stevie Wonder. I used a pair of Q Acoustics’ 3020i bookshelf speakers (deliciously affordable at $329) and a vintage MB Quart subwoofer to round out the bottom.