Bluesound Pulse Soundbar 2i & Pulse 2i review: Magical sounds, meagre smarts

How does this Sonos competitor stack up in the smart home?

Bluesound Pulse 2i
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The smart home and home theater are on a much needed collision course. For too long these areas have been segmented and separated, but now that we have streaming sticks capable of controlling your smart lights, TV boxes doubling as smart home hubs, and smart speakers becoming voice-enabled remote controls, the smart home theater is emerging.

Key to this is a multiroom, wireless audio system that also works with your television, and offers voice control. Sonos is the leader here, especially if you don't want to be tied to a platform (Apple and Amazon smart speakers only pair with their respective TV streaming devices), but there are competitors.

Enter Bluesound. Essentially a Sonos for audiophiles, Bluesound is a Canadian-based company founded by the hi-fi stalwarts at long-established British audio company NAD, who have developed a top-of-the-line wireless audio system for substantially below top-of-the-line prices.

From the entry-level Pulse Flex 2i wireless speaker ($299), the bigger Pulse Mini 2i ($499), and bigger-still Pulse 2i ($699) to the impressively large Pulse Soundbar 2i ($899) and Sub+ ($749) for wireless hi-res home cinema sound, Bluesound has something for everyone, all with high-resolution audio quality on offer.

For the true audiophile with the massive music collection, there's also a range of music streamers, streamer/amps and streamer/amp/NAS devices to complete any multiroom requirement.

The first multiroom system to support MQA-powered TIDAL Masters hi-res audio files, Bluesound also handles more than 20 streaming services, from Spotify, Amazon Music and Napster, to Deezer, Qobuz, and a litany of internet radio options.

All Bluesound speakers can operate at up to 24bit/192kHz, with aptX Bluetooth on board for unsupported music services, and digital optical and 3.5mm analogue inputs offer more flexibility, as does the USB socket for thumb drives.

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Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa support offer (limited) voice control and Apple AirPlay 2 means Siri control is here, too.

So, does Bluesound live up to its promise as a capable smart home and home theater audio system? Or do too many cooks really spoil that bass?

We've been testing out the Bluesound Pulse Soundbar 2i and the flagship Pulse 2i smart speaker - the two top of the range offerings - for three months now, read on for our full review.

Bluesound Pulse 2i and soundbar review: Great for music, movies but meagre smarts

Bluesound Pulse Soundbar 2i & Pulse 2i Speaker: Design and hardware

The Bluesound line goes for classic speaker styling over svelte, modern smart speaker design. These speakers look like speakers.

Big and black (or white for a few pennies more), with substantial heft and a high-quality, rubberized case surrounding steel speaker grids, these look and feel like premium speakers. (Worth noting, that rubberized finish is a pain to clean.)

The Pulse Soundbar 2i is a mammoth device, at 5.5 inches high. This is a problem if you have your TV on a stand. It was too high to sit in front of my table-top mounted TV as it blocked the bottom of the screen and it also wouldn’t fit in my custom-built entertainment console.

Bluesound appears to want you to wall mount this thing, and it does come with the tools to do so. But weighing in at 15 pounds, you'll want to make sure you find a stud.

Bluesound Pulse 2i and soundbar review: Great for music, movies but meagre smarts

The payoff of that height is a lot of drivers - the Pulse Soundbar goes for superior sound over superior design chops. Two 1-inch tweeters, two 4-inch woofers, two 2-inch midrange drivers, and two 4-inch passive radiators make this a serious rival to the Sonos Arc and its 11-strong array of speaker drivers.

The Pulse 2i is equivalent to Sonos's Five, packing in two 5-and-a-quarter inch woofers and two 1-inch tweeters into its sizable frame.

A control panel on the top of the Pulse 2i is the main design difference from the control-less soundbar (more on that quirk shortly), and both boast a full array of connections around back, including a gigabit Ethernet port, USB port, headphone jack, and a combo optical/analog input jack.

Bluesound Pulse 2i and soundbar review: Great for music, movies but meagre smarts

Bluesound Pulse Soundbar 2i & Pulse 2i Speaker: Setup and app

One of Bluesound's big selling points is its compatibility. These speakers will work with most everything and pull your music from pretty much anywhere, and can play high-resolution audio files like lossless FLAC, MQA, WAV, and AIFF.

This is largely thanks to all those ports plus an array of wireless controls including support for aptX Bluetooth alongside Wi-Fi.

The Pulse Soundbar 2i also adds an HDMI ARC and eARC port for more options for connecting to your TV and you can integrate any Bluesound speaker into an existing non-Bluesound system using its Node 2i ($549).

Bluesound Pulse 2i and soundbar review: Great for music, movies but meagre smarts

However, with so many options comes some serious complexity, not aided by an almost complete lack of useful instructions, no remote control, and a complicated app.

We swapped out our existing TV soundbar for the Bluesound Pulse Soundbar 2i, plugged it into power, hooked up the HDMI and... crickets.

Then we tried the optical cable... crickets.

It turns out, the soundbar doesn't automatically detect its connections. Instead, you have to hop into the app, connect the speaker to your WiFi, select it, hope over three screens, and then choose the input. Not intuitive. And frustrating that essentially you can't operate it without a WiFi connection.

The lack of a remote was also initially very frustrating. Having to pull out your smartphone to adjust the volume while watching a movie is a terrible experience - especially as there are no controls at all on the speaker itself.

You can buy a Bluesound remote for $60, but if you just dropped $800 on a soundbar you may, understandably, balk at this option.

If at some point in the setup process I'd been made aware that with a few taps I could connect my existing IR remote to the speaker to get some basic controls I would have been a lot happier. Instead I discovered this about two months into my testing period.

The IR remote option also works with the Pulse 2i, making its lack of useful voice integrations a tad more palatable.

Bluesound Pulse 2i and soundbar review: Great for music, movies but meagre smarts

Setting up the Pulse 2i speaker was a lot smoother as there aren't any messy wired connections to deal with. Plug it in, power up the app, tap add a player and the system finds any nearby Bluesound speakers that are broadcasting their setup hotspots.

Confusion quickly returned however, while juggling multiple speakers in the complicated BluOS app. This thing is powerful, with a tonne of settings to make any audiophile weep with joy, but a simple user interface to control your music experience it is not.

After a fair amount of Googling and a couple long support calls, I got the hang of the app interface and can appreciate its complexity. However, some major changes are needed if this UI is going to work well for a mainstream user, especially when you compare it to the simplicity of the Sonos app.

Bluesound Pulse 2i and soundbar review: Great for music, movies but meagre smarts

Bluesound Pulse Soundbar 2i & Pulse 2i Speaker: Voice control and multiroom audio

As a multiroom wireless audio system, Bluesound excels. Once you get up the steep learning curve of the app, which seems to require three taps for every one on the Sonos system, the speakers deliver a seamless, high-resolution, multiroom wireless streaming music experience.

In our three months of testing the music never dropped once - unheard of in our experience with Sonos.

All the required features are here: you can assign speakers to different rooms; stream different tracks to different speakers or play the same songs everywhere. You can group speakers together; control the volume independently or pump it all up with one swipe using the app.

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The soundbar can be added and controlled just like any other speaker, but also has its own home cinema features including three different listening modes - a late night mode that normalizes the volume output preventing large spikes, enhanced dialogue settings, and a bass booster,

While you can pair it with other Bluesound speakers not all of them will work in surround sound mode. For example, the Pulse 2i can't be added as part of a home cinema setup, although you can pair them for multiroom music. Instead, the smaller Pulse Flex 2is (which can be wall-mounted) and the Pulse Sub+ offer the best setup for surround sound.

Of course, a key aspect of a multiroom wireless audio system is streaming. Even if you have a carefully curated local music library, everyone loves the ease and simplicity of pulling any track out of the air, literally.

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As we've stated, Bluesound supports all the big ones - bar whatever Google is calling its music service this month, and Apple Music. (Support for AirPlay 2 helps with the latter). Spotify integration is through Spotify Connect so all the controls are via the Spotify app.

Sadly, voice control is where it all falls down. Where Sonos offers baked-in voice assistants (you can choose Amazon's Alexa or Google's Assistant) for easily getting the tunes rolling, Bluesound integrations are clunky, complicated to set up, unintuitive to use and - in one crucial case - simply don't work.

With both voice ecosystems the speakers aren't added as a device, instead they're a service (or Skill in Alexa). This means you can't add them to other voice-controlled speaker groups in your home (not unusual for high-end speakers, Sonos and Bose don't allow this either). But you also can't issue a simple command to hear your music.

For a Google Smart Speaker you have to say "Hey Google, talk to BluVoice." Then wait for BluVoice to respond, then give your command. It takes an age and all you can really do is pause or change the volume. If you have local music you can play that by artist and name but you can't pull up anything like that from a streaming service.

You can set presets and activate those with voice, but these are saved as a number so unless you have an elephantine memory are really only useful for two or three of your most played selections or stations.

The process is similar with Alexa, although a little more flexible - you can ask for your Tidal playlist by name for example. But we weren't able to test this feature as we couldn't get the Alexa skill to work at all, and judging but the Alexa Skills store reviews, we are not the only ones with this problem.

A simple, if inelegant, workaround for voice control here is to plug an Echo dot into your speaker's audio jack, not an option with Google smart speakers as they lack an audio jack.

Apple Airplay 2 is a much smoother experience - and lets you pair your Bluesound speakers with any AirPlay speaker from any manufacturer (so you can have Sonos, Bose and Bluesound all pumping the same tunes together.)

Bluesound Pulse 2i and soundbar review: Great for music, movies but meagre smarts

Bluesound Pulse Soundbar 2i & Pulse 2i Speaker: Sound quality and in use

What Bluesound lacks in the "smarts" category it more than makes up for in audio quality. We've tested a lot of smart speakers with baked-in voice control that will let us stream our music and turn on our lights. None of them can touch the sound that comes from these Bluesound speakers.

The soundbar transformed our movie-watching experience (which had previously been augmented by a budget Vizio soundbar), delivering crisp, detailed dialogue. Every word was intelligible no matter what level the character was speaking, from whispers to cheers, and a substantial bass presence meant we literally felt the asteroids slamming into the living room floor during a screening of Greenland.

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Surprisingly, where the soundbar really shines is as music player. That bass lends depth to Adele’s vocals in Hello and the clarity and balance meant we could hear the soft clunk of the piano keys before the note plays in our favorite classical music playlist, even picking out the noise of the fingers plucking the guitar.

Paired with the Pulse 2i for music playback, the duo completely dominated my large master bedroom-cum-home office. Filling it with unparalleled sound, clear vocals, and punchy bass with no straining at the high end. Overall, the sound is expressive and refined, brilliantly natural, producing convincing musicality across the board.

Yes, these are expensive speakers, but if you're familiar with the world of high-end audio they are actually quite a bargain.

Throw in the wireless convenience, spectacular sound, and flexibility of configurations and Bluesound offers a very good system. We'd like to see some serious effort put into the smart integrations and an overhaul of that ungainly app, but that's all easily fixable.

Bluesound Pulse 2i Speaker and Soundbar
The Pulse Soundbar 2i is a direct competitor to the Sonos Arc, without Dolby Atmos, a built-in voice assistant or a remote control, for $100 more. That's a tough sell. The Pulse 2i speaker is a large, bulky sound box with sketchy voice control and a confounding app. But if fidelity, clarity, seriously good sound, paired with a full array of features, tonnes of tweakable settings, and every connection considerable are more important to your set up, this BlueSound system will fulfill all your needs and then some.
  • Stunning sound
  • All the connections
  • AirPlay 2
  • Extensive features
  • Desktop app
  • Bulky, uninspiring design
  • Expensive
  • Complicated app
  • Poor voice assistant integration
  • Alexa Skill doesn't work
TAGGED    smart speakers

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