Feel the Pulse
Bluesound’s second generation wireless speaker is brawny and beautiful. But does it have what it takes to challenge Sonos?
Bluesound was the original High-Res Audio champion. The company pioneered 24-bit streaming with a passion that now seems prescient, and has now upgraded its launch line-up.
A cursory glance at the new Pulse 2, its flagship speaker, might suggest few differences from the original, but there are in fact a number of key improvements, including an upgraded 1GHz ARM Cortex-9 multicore processor and better Wi-Fi stability.
Build quality is outstanding. The Pulse 2 tips the scale at 6.12kg, which is a significant weight for what is ostensibly a tabletop wireless speaker with a carry handle. Available in either black or white, it boasts a soft, tactile finish that feels decidedly premium.
To be honest, this isn’t what you might call a dainty speaker. An all-encompassing metallic grille hides a large 139mm woofer, flanked by mid-range drivers. Behind this there is a proprietary DirectDigital amplifier, with a power output rated at 80W, allied to a 35-bit 844kHz DAC.
Connections include an optical/analogue minijack input, USB port, Ethernet LAN and dedicated headphone output. Wi-Fi is a given, while Bluetooth comes with high bitrate aptX support. A distinctive touch sensitive volume and track control is positioned above the handle.
For our review, we partnered the Pulse 2 with the Vault 2, Bluesound’s second generation hard drive CDripping NAS. Not only can this turn CDs into WAV, FLAC or 320kbps MP3 files, it can also be used to download High-Res Audio from commercial sites, like HD Tracks, to its 2TB drive. Any CDs ripped into the Vault 2 are playable from the BluOS app’s Music Library.
The Vault 2, as it transpires, is a thoroughly splendid bit of kit, but it’s also vital to the Bluesound ecosystem. This is because there’s no DNLA or UPnP support. If you just want to use your own NAS you’ll need to setup network shares, which frankly is way too unfriendly in this day and age. At least the Vault 2 connects to the Pulse 2, via the app, without fuss.
In addition to streaming from the Bluesound NAS, you can use the BluOS app to access music services, including Tidal, Spotify, TuneIn, Deezer, iHeart radio, Slacker radio and Qobuz. It’s worth noting that in addition to iOS and Android, you can also direct proceedings from a Kindle Fire tablet or PC desktop. Bluesound’s multiroom functionality is on par with what you might expect from both the market leader and its ilk. The Pulse 2 can be used solo or grouped with other Bluesound speakers on a network.
The Pulse 2 may only be 420mm wide, but it offers a soundstage that’s spacious. This is just the kind of speaker you want to hand when entertaining poolside.
Audio performance is excellent. The Pulse 2 is a bold and bolshy listen. It doesn’t so much play music for you, it plays music at you! Indeed, I’d go so far as to say it doesn’t actually sound much like a wireless speaker at all, its presentation is more akin to an allin-one mini system.
The Pulse 2 is able to combine toe-tapping musicality with big-system weigh. It’s crisp and articulate, but plays loud and raucous too. If you want Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, it’s more than up to the job. That said, managing the volume via the app proves a bit of a handful. The speaker seems to jump either loud or low. The on-body controls offer more consistent control.
That lovely big woofer moves air and drops surprisingly deep. We measured the Pulse 2 down to 50Hz, and thoroughly approved its slam. King Tubby’s reggae rouser Dub Fever drops authentically low, while Head High’s retro rave fave It’s a Love Thing, bangs like a barn door in a hurricane.
But conversely, the Pulse 2 also boasts a well-defined mid-range able to handle complex vocals. Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody, specialists in symphonic metal for those not in the know, can really challenge a small enclosure, but the Pulse 2 proffers a fittingly expansive soundstage when playing a CD rip of Cinematic and Live.
Given how tightly placed those drivers are, its ability to image is revelatory. Listen to Dave Hentschel’s synth from Elton John’s Funeral for a Friend (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road), before Davey Johnston’s guitar riff intros Love lies Bleeding, and you’ll appreciate its air and dynamism. The presentation is clean and well defined; the band never appears to be standing in each other’s shadow.
File support is comprehensive. In addition to upcoming MQA support (a BluOS v2.2 firmware update is imminent), it will also play 24-bit FLACs, WAV and AIFF up to 192kHz, as well as MP3, AAC, WMA, OGG and ALAC. Perhaps surprisingly, there’s no support for DSD files, although, again, a firmware update is promised.
Overall, this is a formidable all-in-one that never sounds less than exciting. There are caveats though. Setup and usability is nowhere near as smooth as that offered by SONOS, Denon’s HEOS or Yamaha MusicCast. The lack of UPnP and DLNA support makes management a bit of a chore. Our advice is partner it with a Vault 2 if you don’t want undue angst.