Bluesound Pulse 2 and Pulse Flex Review: Great Audio, But Tough to Set Up

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Audio company Bluesound makes a variety of wireless speakers and stereo components, and has always proudly focused on hi-res, lossless playback. Rather than solely relying on Bluetooth (which compresses your audio files to ease wireless transmission and can degrade the sound quality of your music), Bluesound emphasizes its ability to transmit high-resolution audio files over Wi-Fi without compressing them.

Even in the lossless streaming realm, there's a lot of competition: Sonos, DTS Play-Fi, AirPlay. We gave Bluesound's Pulse 2 ($700) and Pulse Flex ($300) wireless speakers a spin to see how they stacked up.

WIRED

The larger of the two units, the Pulse 2, is a connected stereo speaker with two tweeters and a single woofer. It throws a big sound (it's powered by an 80-watt amp) and is relatively sizable for a wireless speaker system. To its credit, it blends into the background very nicely for a larger-sized player. It's also well-designed and appears well-constructed. The on-product control buttons, likewise, are cleanly stylized and intuitive.

The Pulse 2 sounds very good, although not great. It presents tight bass and nice clarity and separation up and down the range at lower volumes. But like a lot of speakers in its category, it suffers from muddiness at higher volumes—crank it up and the bass begins to overwhelm things. This was apparent while streaming both lossless and compressed audio files, and it kept me from wanting to push the volume past about 50 percent. While this isn't an issue isolated to just the Pulse 2 or Bluesound itself, you expect a bit more for the $700 price.

The Pulse Flex, which has the smaller form factor of a traditional bookshelf speaker, costs $300. It enjoys the same simple design standards as the Pulse 2 and looks just as neat and clean. (There's a third Pulse speaker, the $500 Mini, that sits in the middle of the lineup, but I only tested the two.)

Like the Pulse 2, the Flex also a well-built product. The Flex's sound, however, doesn't match that of its larger sibling. The Flex's bass is noticeably lacking, even at higher volumes. Coupled with the fact that the Flex is a mono speaker, its sound is significantly flat when played on its own.

But that's not really what the Flex is for. When the Pulse 2 and Flex are playing at the same time, they sound very dynamic together. The bass on the Pulse 2 compensates for the thinness of the Flex, while the Flex adds a more immersive feeling to the room at a relatively lower price. You want the different pieces of a multi-unit streaming system to compliment each other. Although the speakers have noticeable limitations on their own, if you're trying to fill a big space with hi-res music, the combo gets the job done.

The Bluesound Pulse 2 wireless speaker. This is the larger of the two we reviewed.

Bluesound

TIRED

Like most of its competitors, Bluesound requires that you download a proprietary app that works as a remote for its system and speakers. Once the app is up and running, and your system is fully configured, everything works fine. It's not perfect—there are still a couple of bugs, and not every use case is perfectly intuitive, but this isn't unusual. It's easy to get the hang of it and be on your way.

It's the setting up of the system, however, that's the hard part.

The quick-start guide lead me down two dead ends before I got the Pulse 2 connected to my Wi-Fi network. Its instructions were literally wrong, sending me to a website to find the next steps, but where no next steps were listed. And once I got the app installed on my phone (simply because I knew there had to be one, so I searched the App Store for it) adding the two speakers was convoluted, requiring me to join the each of the speakers' hot spot networks with my phone in order to sync the app and the two speakers together.

Connecting my NAS-based music library was also challenging, with the library setup requiring some back-and-forth with tech support. The app's Bluetooth setup processes led to the speaker returning an error code rather than playing music. Outside the system's built-in radio stations (which all worked out of the box and sounded great), nothing functioned the way it was supposed to on the first try. And it wasn't just one thing. A combination of misleading instructions, a complex setup process, a couple bugs, and some auto-updating and in-app library cataloging that ground things to a halt multiple times throughout the process all contributed to the challenges.

To its credit, Bluesound's tech support team was helpful, persistent and responsive, but this was the first time I needed to contact tech support for an audio system setup in years.

And while the Bluesound system supports several online music services like Spotify, and multiple hi-resolution services like Tidal, the lack of Apple, Google and Pandora integration are potential limiting factors for non-hi-res junkies.

RATING

6/10—Strong audio and design, but the speakers are remarkably challenging to get going.

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