Bluesound Node 2i review: This high-fidelity music streamer sits at the top of its class

Audiophiles approach the Bluesound Node 2i with suspicion. As a compact music server with built-in DAC that dares to serve up the highest quality music-streaming services, this thing seems almost, you should pardon the expression, too cheap at $549 to perform all those tasks well. Serious digital-to-analog convertors alone can cost that much—or a whole lot more.

But pinch me, the Node 2i is the real deal, and the best of the “affordable” high-fidelity internet music streamers I’ve tested in recent months. Laying out an airy, open soundstage (never cluttered or compressed), reveling in precision and finesse, music flows from this small package in a most graceful, personable fashion. And that well-rounded aura persists, no matter what your stylistic taste, from AC/DC to Jay Z, Ambient to Zouk, Albeniz to Zappa. This is a player that can climb every musical mountain and ford any stream you send its way.

bluesound node 2i compared to russound Jonathan Takiff / IDG

How they stack up: Bluesound Node 2i deserves to sit atop the pack, with the Russound MBX-PRE in the middle and the Sonos Port at the bottom.

For sure, a Node 2i is especially responsive when you feed it the really good stuff. Say, by landing on a meticulously engineered, higher-bit-rate internet radio station that obsesses over every link in the chain. Or by splurging a few bonus bucks per month for the highest grade of 24-bit/96kHz (or occasionally even 192kHz) content streaming from a Qobuz, Tidal, or Amazon Music account. The highest-resolution files pumping through this music machine really could pass for studio masters, and one source (Tidal) has labeled them thusly. The new Sonos Radio HD is another candidate, although it tops out at 16-bit FLAC.

How far we’ve come. Remember when sound purists argued that digital encodes were so chopped up and connect-the-dots fatiguing that listening could literally make you weak in the knees? Now I’d argue these high- (and ultra-high) resolution streams can give both you and your sound rig a new lease on life.

Kissing cousins

The Node 2i is a very close relation to the self-powered (60-watts per side) Bluesound PowerNode 2i that I reviewed in September with similar delight. But as a self-contained, just-add-speakers-and-serve product, the Powernode 2i left me with some questions unresolved. Did I really hear all that much improvement over Sonos media players I’ve run with the same speakers? I couldn’t make a direct A/B comparison because I didn’t have a Sonos Amp on hand. I also wondered what sonic advancements Bluesound’s well-tuned chassis and chipset—including a 1GHz Arm Cortex A9 processor and a 32-bit/192kHz DAC—might deliver if I could pump up the amp power and load-bearing speakers, and then take this thing out on the high-tech streaming highway and really let ‘er rip.

bluesound node 2i front image 2 Jonathan Takiff / IDG

Like its amplified sibling (the Powernode 2i), Bluesound’s Node2i comes on smartly with clean cabinet lines, top-mounted controls, and a convenient front headphone jack.

The Node 2i lets me do just that, with nary a disappointment. This isn’t just another component that brings new content (streaming) to your gear. It’s a game changer, the best argument I’ve found to date to sell my crazy-big vinyl and CD collection, ‘cause almost all that content on the walls is hiding in this little box’s connection to the internet.

Open Sesame!

To uncork the sonic genie, I plugged a Node 2i into my 150-watt-per-channel Yamaha Aventage RX-A3060 receiver mated with Bowers &Wilkins’ Nautilus 803 floor-standing speakers. I then started feeding it high-resolution material—artists and outlets that I hoped would do my ears good. Like singer/songwriter Sara Bareilles, going for the sonic gusto with her new More Love set, snap-happy country cousin Lee Brice (Hey World) and Cat Stevens (remember him?) daring to reshape history with a re-arranged 50th anniversary remake of Tea for the Tillerman. All recording pros with (good) ears, attuned to finessed production and engineering efforts.

Not simply trusting first impressions, it seemed wise to do some serious comparing and contrasting. Thanks to my receiver’s multitude of inputs and reasonably responsive remote control, I was soon plugging in and switching between the Bluesound Node 2i and the two other internet streamers I’ve recently reviewed here. One being the high profile Sonos Port ($449), which left me with a lukewarm feeling, and then the Russound MBX-PRE ($399), a dark-horse candidate that bested the Sonos in articulation, openness of presentation, and all-round emotional pleasance, though not on operating convenience and sheer volume of source options. (Honestly, will anyone ever surpass Sonos on those traits?)