I'd been working on this review of the BluOS platform for a couple months when Sonos dropped the bomb that it would cease updating what it considers legacy hardware. Not only that, but it also announced that new devices would be excluded from updates if one's Sonos system contained a legacy piece of hardware. Sonos kind of / sort of but not really changed some of this by saying it in a different way shortly after everyone on the internet went ballistic. With this in mind, I thought now would be a perfect time to complete and publish the review. I'm willing to bet there are many music lovers considering abandoning the Sonos platform or new potential customers who can benefit from learning more about the competing BluOS platform.
First, some details about brand names. The Lenbrook Group owns, designs, and manufacturers products under the brand names NAD Electronics, PSB Speakers, and Bluesound. In 2012 Lenbrook launched its BluOS platform originally for the Bluesound hardware products. A few years later Lenbrook brought BluOS to products from NAD Electronics and in 2017 it began licensing BluOS to non-Lenbrook manufacturers that now include Monitor Audio and Dali.
In simple terms, BluOS is the software that runs on audio hardware to enable features such as music streaming services, local network playback, multi-room audio, voice control, integration with command & control systems, and it works hand in hand with the BluOS Android, iOS, Kindle fire, Windows, and macOS control applications. BluOS compatible hardware includes speakers from Bluesound and Dali and electronics from NAD and Bluesound. Contrast this with the Sonos and Denon HEOS platforms that only work with Sonos and Denon hardware respectively.
I've talked to people at Lenbrook over the years who've said several other manufacturers are interested in licensing its BluOS platform. The reasons for this are many, but above all are expertise and cost. The expertise required to create and support the BluOS platform isn't found at many HiFi companies. In addition, the cost to support products that work with the BluOS platform is far greater than the cost to support a traditional DAC, speaker, or amplifier. The bottom line is that very few companies can do what Lenbrook has done.
The BluOS platform is loaded with the features one expects from a true HiFi wired or wireless ecosystem. Support for up to 64 zones, different or identical music streaming to those zones in perfect sync, and real high resolution support up through 24 bit / 192 kHz. If one's home network is good enough, streaming 24/192 audio via wireless won't be a problem via BluOS.
Setup of hardware running BluOS is very simple, regardless of manufacturer. I currently have an NAD C 658 BluOS streaming DAC and a Bluesound Pulse 2i all-in-one speaker. Both devices setup the same and appear in the BluOS remote apps with a full set of features. As crazy as it sounds, I could setup the Pulse 2i speaker as the left channel and the C 658 DAC as the right channel in a BluOS stereo pair. BluOS also features appropriate differences when using disparate hardware, such as that in my house. For example, BluOS offers different listening modes (TV, Music, Movies), wide modes, late night mode, deep bass mode, and enhanced dialog for the Pulse 2i speaker. Understanding its customers' needs, Lenbrook wisely doesn't offer those adjustments for the higher end C 658 DAC.
In my opinion, the best part of the BluOS platform is its support for several music services. Without content, absolutely none of this matters. Important services for audiophiles are included such as Tidal, Qobuz, Amazon Music HD, Deezer, Idagio, and a favorite of many Radio Paradise. Other services include Spotify, TuneIn, Nugs, iHeartRadio, and many more. Apple Music is missing, but that's not surprise given Apple's lack of desire to integrate with anything other than Sonos. The two big services that are missing from the BluOS platform, that I really wish could be added, are Pandora and SiriusXM. These two companies are famous for their lack of interest in integrating with other manufacturers that can't immediately light-up their cash registers with millions of new subscribers. Thus, Lenbrook / BluOS is currently shut out from Pandora and SiriusXM, but it isn't for lack of trying.
Compared to Sonos, BluOS is missing some services including the two biggies mentioned above. Other services that would suit BluOS customers well include Primephonic, Bandcamp, Audible, and possibly Stitcher for podcasts. Contrasting this with the Dynaudio Music platform that only supports Tidal, and I'd say BluOS is looking pretty good.
A new BluOS addition that I don't believe any other platform currently offers is the Neil Young Archives. This BluOS exclusive enables listeners to stream Neil's complete catalog in the highest resolution available. The NYA service operates using adaptive streaming technology from OraStream that'll be fully supported as well.
BluOS also enables access to one's local library stored on a computer or network attached storage (NAS) device. Other platforms function with local music collections as well, but BluOS can index over 200,000 tracks. Compare that to the Sonos stated limit of 64,000, on a good day without extensive metadata to use up its meager memory, and BluOS looks much more robust and powerful. Also making BluOS look better is its support for high resolution audio whereas Sonos is still stuck in the CD quality 16 bit / 44.1 kHz days.
I tested the BluOS platform well beyond most use cases with my local library of 298,323 tracks / 19,825 albums. In addition I have 23,851 tracks / 1,555 albums favorited from streaming services. I was extremely impressed by the iOS and macOS BluOS applications when navigating all this music. Searching is very fast, as is loading album art. Listing all 6,765 artist in Artist view takes several seconds, but once it loads moving back and forth between a single artist and the same list is very fast. BluOS wisely doesn't have to reload the entire list from scratch every time the user browses a single artist from the list and clicks the back button. For the most part a long list of every artist in a collection isn't very useful. Doesn't everyone just search nowadays?
A very nice feature of BluOS, that I know many Roon users would die for, is the ability to browse by folder for local storage. This isn't on my list of things I do to find music, but I know for a fact many music aficionados absolutely love viewing their collections by folder. I say whatever works, live and let listen.
Speaking of Roon, BluOS enables users to select Roon as a source. BluOS has full Roon Ready certification, not the best effort support that Roon offers for Sonos or AirPlay devices. With newer hardware such as the Pulse 2i that I have, BluOS also officially supports Apple's AirPlay 2 protocol. Check out Kirk McElhearn's article here on Audiophile Style discussing what AirPlay 2 means for audiophiles (link).
Comparing the BluOS platform to that from Apple (HomePod) and DTS Play-Fi (Klipsch, McIntosh, MartinLogan, etc...), there is one major difference in how the music gets to the output device/speaker. This is a big deal not to be overlooked. BluOS features a hybrid approach that accepts audio any way the user wants to send it. This means BluOS streams directly from the cloud for streaming services such as Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon Music HD, Spotify etc... and streams directly from a device when accepting audio via AirPlay. Compare this to the Play-Fi devices that force users to stream everything through their mobile phones or other devices rather than sending audio straight from the cloud to the speaker. I know I've complained about this in the past, but I still don't think it makes sense to stream audio through the remote control device just like it doesn't make sense to stream television through the remote control.
Note: Play-Fi has recently introduced its version of streaming directly from the cloud to the audio device called Transfer Playback, but it's so bad it isn't even worth talking about. I don't recommend it for anyone.
Overall, after using the BluOS app for iOS and macOS for a couple months I am really impressed. It isn't perfect, but nothing in this area comes close to perfect. Lenbrook has put a ton of thought into this platform and it really shows. When I ran into "issues" such as only five songs being listed for an artist, I was assured that BluOS users asked for this simplicity and that clicking the unseen Show All button would resolve my "issue." It did, and I like how responsive to its customers Lenbrook is when supplied with feedback.
The settings adjustments available in BluOS are fairly basic and not overwhelming for the average user. Audiophiles who prefer to play all their music bit perfectly without any changes can ignore the audio section of these settings. After using so many apps and platform over the years, I felt like I was missing something when I looked in the setting area for my BluOS devices. I couldn't put my finger on it, but I felt like I needed to do more. But, I believe I'm way too conditioned to complex systems that require or offer so many settings by which the average user on gets frustrated. BluOS is pretty refreshing in the sense that it covers 99% of the use cases in HiFi and doesn't attempt to support every crazy configuration under the sun. I often like crazy, but I assure everyone that my family doesn't and won't even touch most of my systems. They like BluOS and its simplicity.
Shortly before publishing this review, I factory reset the two BluOS devices in my house, so I could walk through the setup one last time. I wanted to make sure I identified any issues and understood the simplicity. This time, like the previous times, there were no issues. I can't tell readers how many times products falter during setup. It happens all the time. The crazy part is that the issues are frequently different, although nothing has changed. Frustrating to say the least. I had absolutely zero issues with the BluOS products during multiple setup experiences. The setup was so easy that I felt cheated. I didn't get to put on my IT hat and solve the issue of the day. I don't believe there is an easier, trouble-free setup in audio.
There are a wide array of HiFi hardware options that run the BluOS. This is where the BluOS platform really shines and overtakes all the other mass market options. The Bluesound branded components are great for what mainstream consumers would consider Sonos replacements. The Pulse series of all-in-one speakers covers the needs of most people and does it with very good sound. I'd put these up against Sonos any day of the week. Users who'd like to expand the BluOS system to their TVs can add the Bluesound soundbar and sub, and if desired can add other Pulse speakers for a surround sound experience.
Those who are a bit more "into" audio will likely opt for the Bluesound components that interface with an existing audio system. I know many people in the HiFi industry and out of the industry who use the Node 2i and recommend it all the time. This is a gem in the Bluesound lineup. It enables one to add all the aforementioned BluOS software goodness to an audio system without a smart bone in its body. In other words, add the Node 2i to any audio system that doesn't have WiFi or Ethernet or Roon or built-in streaming services etc... and that system is now a "smart" audio system. Theres no need to replace several components. Similar to the Node 2i is the Powernode 2i. This adds an amplifier to all the aforementioned goodness for an ultra sleek installation.
I know many of us music lovers have hundreds / thousands of CDs that will never make it to streaming services. We need local storage for all out Mobile Fidelity, Analogue Productions, and even DSD rips. Many still purchase CDs as well, although the places to purchase have seriously dwindled over the years. Bluesound offers the Vault 2i to meet the needs of those of us in this camp. It offers storage and CD ripping without the hassle. This vault of music is then available to any BluOS enabled component on one's network. In addition, the Vault 2i features digital and analog in/out, so doesn't have to remain like a NAS sitting in the basement. It's an audio component.
Music lovers seeking high end loudspeakers with full range can look at the Callisto series from Danish speaker manufacturer Dali. The Callisto 6C is a wireless, self powered speaker that goes down to 37 Hz, has a ribbon tweeter two 6.5 inch woofers. The Callisto series is connected via the Dali Sound Hub. This hub can contain the BluOS NPM-1 module. This is like BluOS on a module that is easily plugged into the back of the unit and it's ready to go.
Readers looking fo an even higher end experience should explore the Dali Rubicon C series. It's similar the Callisto lineup, but it's a best in class type of series. Those familiar with Dali speakers will no doubt see the Rubicon C series and identify them as classic Dali. The looks are terrific and the sound is equally as good. These can be paired with the same Dali Sound Hub and BluOS NPM-1 module for full BluOS capability.
The common denominator in the Dali-branded BluOS approach is the Dali Sound Hub that accepts the NPM-1 module.
Moving from speakers to BluOS compatible components like amps and digital to analog converters brings us to the NAD brand. NAD's Masters series is loved by audiophiles all over the world for its great design, performance, and practicality. The new M10 BluOS streaming amplifier is a great product that I spent time with at the 2019 RMAF show. It's a great all-in-one with more features than most products with which it competes. Those seeking a high end digital source with BluOS and local storage can find it all in the M50.2. It's like a Bluesound Vault 2i, but taken to the extreme like other Masters Series components. In my opinion the M12 digital preamp DAC is in the wheelhouse of many audiophiles. All the typical digital and analog in/outputs, but has the ability to accept a BluOS module that turns it into a full featured front end. The M12's modular design is something I wish more manufacturers embraced.
NAD has several more BluOS capable products, but I want to talk about two specifically. The C 658 Streaming DAC and the CI 580 BluOS Network Music Player. The C 658 is a more traditional looking DAC with volume control and everything one would expect from such a component. It also has BluOS built-in. The C 658 has an ESS Sabre 32bit DAC, 118 dB of dynamic range and features Dirac Live room correction as well. I've had it here for testing and think it's one heck of a product for $1,649. I know enthusiasts often complain about high prices and lack of value in some stratospherically priced components, but the C 658 should quell this rebellion quite easily. I'd recommend this DAC to my friends in a heartbeat.
The other product that I've recommended to several people is the CI 580 BluOS Network Music Player. This is a very unique product. I haven't found anything like it at any price. The CI 580 BluOS Network Music Player runs BluOS and features four output zones. These can be digital or analog output zones. Nothing crazy so far. The real magic is that each zone appears as a separate Roon Ready endpoint! This is the ultimate product for multi-zone audio in houses using a distributed system and/or command and control from products like Crestron. The Crestron SWAMP for example has many zones for digital and analog input. But, it doesn't support Roon on its Ethernet input. Sure, people have placed Roon ready devices on each zone, but this is a kludgey solution compared to the CI 580 BluOS Network Music Player. One or two of these in a system and the number of Roon Ready zones should be enough for all but the largest of deployments.
The BluOS enabled hardware landscape continues to expand and will likely brand off into more third party manufacturers as more realize building the BluOS platform from scratch is literally impossible for them. I love the fact that users can select from different brands such as NAD, Bluesound, and Dali. This is something the Sonos platform has needed ever since its inception, but will likely never have due to the company's desire for such a closed ecosystem.
The BluOS platform and enabled products have support through traditional dealer networks for those seeking a hands-on experience. Calling one's dealer to come over for an issue is as priceless now as it ever was. In addition, those who prefer to find the answers themselves can browse the somewhat meager BluOS/Bluesound community forum or view each brand's support page where there's a host of how to, FAQ, and general tips for getting the most out of the system.
I think the options for support are great and lead a user to purchase the components from whatever avenue suits his needs. Those needing more support will likely give their local dealer a call, while those more independent-minded or versed in these systems will just add to cart online and wait for the package to arrive.
Over the years I've been impressed with the BluOS platform, and Lenbrook as a company, more and more. The people at Lenbrook are a pleasure to work with, no matter one's standing in or outside of the industry. This is important to me, as I prefer to do business with like-minded people. The BluOS platform continues to improve with ever new release and the compatible hardware landscape continues to grow. Two good signs of a healthy ecosystem that's accepted by the larger market.
In addition to all the BluOS features, I'm very impressed with the high end hardware capable of running BluOS. One without the other is worthless. Because of this, BluOS is the number one platform for Joe Sixpack, music lovers, and the hard to please group of people called audiophiles. Find something better, I challenge you :~)