Some soundbars are merely designed as a way to get serviceable sound out of a TV. However, Bluesound’s Pulse Soundbar ($999) aims a lot higher than that; it seeks to deliver an audiophile-quality listening experience while also providing highly flexible multi-room audio capabilities. And while the Pulse Soundbar is designed to provide high-fidelity sound on its own, a Pulse Sub ($599) is available and is included in this review.
The Pulse Soundbar and Sub are part of the Bluesound ecosystem, which means they are controlled by a sophisticated app that lets you configure and play the gear using mobile devices. And with the addition of a pair of Pulse Flex wireless speakers ($299/each) it is even capable of true surround-sound in a 4.1 configuration.
The Bluesound app gives you total control of the Pulse Soundbar system. Photo by Mark Henninger
One of the main selling points of the Pulse Soundbar is that Bluesound is a sister company to PSB loudspeakers, and it benefits from that heritage of great sound. Let’s take a look at what this premium soundbar offers AV enthusiasts and music lovers.
Features and Specifications
First and foremost, the Pulse Soundbar and Sub are Bluesound-compatible devices with hi-res audio capability built-in. What it is not… is an HDMI soundbar so don’t expect to switch source components with it. Physical connectivity is achieved through an optical-digital connection, Ethernet, USB (memory only), as well as stereo RCA line-in. Wireless capabilities include Wi-Fi as well as aptX Bluetooth.
On the AV side, the Bluesound Pulse Soundbar decodes Dolby Digital. Aside from that, the system supports a wide variety of audio formats: MP3, AAC, WMA, OGG, WMA-L, ALAC, OPUS, FLAC, MQA, WAV, and AIFF.
Bluesound’s multi-room audio platform supports many cloud music services including Amazon Music, WiMP, Slacker Radio, Qobuz, HighResAudio, JUKE, Deezer, Murfie, HDTracks, Spotify, Tidal, Napster and KKBox. It also supports Internet Radio from TuneIn Radio, iHeartRadio, Calm Radio and Radio Paradise.
The frequency response specifications of the Pulse Soundbar reflect its audio pedigree. Unlike many soundbars, the Pulse is designed to work with or without a subwoofer. On its own, it offers 70Hz to 20kHz response within +/-1dB and a -3dB point of 55 Hz with THD+N of 0.030%—these are notably tighter specs than most speakers can claim. Adding the Pulse Sub delivers a jaw-dropping overall system frequency response of 30Hz to 20 kHz +/-1 dB, and a -3 dB point of 25 Hz—wow.
Bluesound’s Pulse Soundbar features two channels and uses a 3-way speaker design. Each channel consists of a 0.75″ soft-dome tweeter, a 2″ midrange, and two 4″ woofers. That driver complement is roughly equivalent to a three-way speaker equipped with a six-inch woofer, by the way.
This is a fairly large soundbar, measuring 42.25″ x 5.5″ x 2.75″. It weighs 15 pounds, is made of aluminum, and features a vertical form factor—meaning it’s taller than it is deep. The shallow profile allows the Pulse Soundbar to sit flush against a wall, an aesthetic advantage for wall-mounted applications. But it also means that you may need to raise your TV up a few inches (perhaps using a TV swivel-mount) if it has short legs and you are using the soundbar on a TV stand, like I did for this review.
The Pulse Sub is an ultracompact subwoofer with 100 watts (continuous) of class-D amplification powering a 6.5″ driver. It measures a mere 17.6″ x 11.25″ x 4.8″ and weighs 15.25 pounds. The -10dB point is pegged at 20 Hz and you can choose a crossover point between 50 Hz and 150 Hz. The subwoofer chassis even incorporates a rubberized mounting bracket, in case you want to mount it on a wall—it also comes with rubber feet for floor placement. And if one Pulse Sub doesn’t quite do it for you in terms of output, the system supports adding a second Pulse Sub.
The Pulse Sub is very compact so it’s easy to hide. Photo by Mark Henninger
Bluesound’s Pulse Sub is rather unusual and different from typical soundbar wireless subwoofers. Of course it has the ability to connect wirelessly, but it also incorporates physical stereo RCA inputs and outputs plus and LFE connection. And, it has a built-in crossover for the RCA outputs featuring an active 12dB/octave high-pass filter that takes effect at 80 Hz. That means you can use the Pulse Sub with an amp, or powered speakers, and enjoy the benefits of relieving the main speakers of the stress of reproduce the lowest audio frequencies. Typically, the end result is the main speakers can play louder.
Adjusting the crossover, phase control, and volume is as easy as popping off the rubber cover located at the top of the sub and giving the knobs a twirl. There’s also a switch to engage auto power on/off with signal detection. The cover hides and protects the controls and provides a clean look while the top-mount placement of the controls makes them easy to access, especially if the sub is wall mounted.
Top-mounted physical controls elevate the functionality of the Pulse Sub above that of other wireless soundbar subs. Photo by Mark Henninger
The Sub’s manual suggests using the “crawl test” to find an optimal spot for the subwoofer. With this technique, you place the subwoofer in your seat and then go around the room while listening to test tones or bass-heavy music with your ears at the same height as when you are seated. When you find a suitable spot that also sounds good, put the sub there and you’re done.
Setup and Use
These are exciting times when it comes to AV audio. Soundbars are benefitting from advances in technology and thanks to DSP processing can deliver expansive imaging plus render highly accurate sound. The Bluesound Pulse soundbar focuses on the fidelity side of the equation to deliver sound quality that has the refinement associated with dedicated stereo systems featuring stand-alone speakers.
Upon unpacking, first impressions were extremely positive. The build quality of the Pulse soundbar is above and beyond what I’ve seen from other companies, even at the $1000 price point—the chassis feels rock-solid.
Physical setup is easy enough. If you use the Pulse Soundbar on a TV stand, you’ll need to attach the included “kickstands” so that it can sit upright on its own (that’s how I reviewed it).
The Pulse Soundbar’s kickstart feet. Photo by Mark Henninger.
While you can use it on a stand, the design of the Pulse Soundbar is optimized for wall-mount applications. The included bracket plus template makes the installation easy. However you use it, once the bar is in place you simply need to connect it to the TV with an optical-digital cable and to the Internet using Ethernet or Wi-Fi, and you are good to go.
On the app side of things, if you already use Bluesound then adding the Pulse Soundbar should be second nature. For those new to Bluesound, the app will walk you through the necessary steps. Either way, this is a soundbar that you manage through your smartphone, or with a PC using Bluesound’s desktop app.
This review system includes the wireless Pulse Sub, which is notably compact and designed to squeeze into tight places like behind a chair or sofa. At first glance, the Sub appears too small to justify its $600 asking price. But Bluesound managed to pack some DSP sorcery in there and deliver punchy tight bass from a diminutive box that’s easy to place anywhere you want.
And while there are clear limits to what a 6.5″ sub can do, in this case the system delivers great extension at modest volume levels, which is an appropriate tradeoff for a soundbar to make—if you want “reference level” home theater, get an AVR-based system and be done with it. But the point is this system—as long as it’s operating within its limits—does not short-change you in terms of audio fidelity. And with music, the Sub adds punch and depth to the already-impressive output of the Pulse Soundbar.
Given that music playback is in the Bluesound Pulse Soundbar’s DNA, and that I reviewed a 2.1 system, I spent a lot of time listening to music. The upshot is that these listening sessions were very rewarding because this is an extremely neutral and revealing audio system, one that captures the finesse as well as energy of good recordings.
The Bluesound Pulse 2.1 system certainly was no slouch when it came to rendering cinematic and videogame content dynamically and accurately. While it doesn’t offer any virtual surround-sound processing, the soundfield this soundbar creates is panoramic and reasonably emulates what you would hear if you used optimally placed stereo speakers instead.
Test tones revealed that Bluesound’s specs are accurate, albeit with the qualifier that the sub’s output is limited down deep. Mind you, Paul Barton is a meticulous speaker designer who does not exaggerate so no surprise there.
The Pulse Sub’s ability to punch out solid bass was meaningful when it came to content with deep bass in it, such as the Tron: Legacy soundtrack by Daft Punk featuring the London Symphony. If a soundbar can offer a spirited rendition of that album’s tracks, there’s little else it’ll ever have to prove. And that’s the thing, I genuinely enjoyed my listening sessions with this rig; it may not dig deep like system with a 12″ or 15″ subwoofer can, but the quality of the bass makes up for a lot—the whole system sounds tight and balanced.
Beyond bass torture tests like Meat Beat Manifesto and Datsik albums, at normal listening levels high-fidelity acoustical recordings almost universally sounded full-range and free of artifice or dynamic compression. Enya was an audiophile favorite in the 1990s and her hits Orinoco Flow and Storms Over Africa sounded profound. Yes, profound sound through a soundbar! I also enjoyed the crisp clarity of rap vocals when listening to old-school classics from Wu-tang Clan, Nas, and Notorious B.I.G.
Sly and Robbie meet The Mad Professor is one of my favorite albums and the throbbing Robbie Shakespeare basslines could be felt through the floor when I went upstairs from the living room—pretty good stuff for the ultra compact Pulse Sub.
Audio during Grand Theft Auto 5 gameplay on a Sony PS4 Pro was fun and engaging. Explosions and crashes contained some sense of physical “crunch” and sound placement was accurate, with each effect existing in discrete space. Soundbars typically have to apply audible processing to achieve a wide soundfield but the Pulse Soundbar manages to sound perfectly natural when pulling off the same trick.
It’s worth noting that I had no issue using the Bluesound app to stream music. I use Tidal (with a Tidal HiFi subscription) as my primary music source already and it worked reliably, as has been my experience with other Bluesound products such as the Node 2 and the NAD C 365 integrated amp equipped with a Bluesound MDX expansion module. While I do prefer casting to using a dedicated app, Bluesound has been in this game for a while now and has a solid platform for streaming.
I try to keep things in perspective when it comes to surround-sound because I fit into the “there’s no such thing as overkill” category—give me 13-channel Atmos with six subs and I’m happy. But I’m also not going to deny the difference the Pulse Soundbar and Sub make versus the build-in audio of a TV, or what’s produced by lesser soundbars.
While 6.5″ sealed sub can only go so far when it comes to the really deep stuff, as you’d expect from a premium soundbar system, the Pulse rig does not let you hit “self destruct.” Instead, it gracefully limits output when you push against the limits of its capability. That means you can turn up a movie like Blade Runner 2049 and when the action gets intense you don’t wind up hearing distortion. And make no mistake, in soundbar terms this system is loud, and it can handle a large room.
As a rule, the Pulse Sub tended to run out of steam before the Pulse Soundbar. But all that means is it keeps cranking at its (audible) distortion-free maximum output while the soundbar keeps getting louder. This system does reward modest listening levels where the bass/mids/treble balance is “just right.” I’m willing to be candid here and say that if I had the need (and budget) for this system like this, I’d almost certainly add a second sub in order to gain that extra 4-6 dB of bass, and the benefit of smoother overall in-room response that approach provides.
While the Bluesound Pulse soundbar and sub are part of a networked multiroom audio ecosystem, you can easily justify using it as a standalone audio system based solely on audio fidelity. The Pulse Sub is a bit pricey and its output is limited, but with music it does a tremendous job in terms of extension and sound quality. When you factor in its size and flexible installation options, it’s actually quite remarkable what it offers.
The main “flaw” with this Pulse 2.1 system is that if you are looking for a multi-channel surround-sound experience, there are numerous options out there that offer more channels and come with sub at a lower price than this 2.1 system. But, at least to my ears, that lower cost is often accompanied by lower fidelity than what Bluesound achieves. It is a luxury product and is priced accordingly.
When simplicity is the goal, quality is valued over quantity, and you are going with a wall-mounted TV plus soundbar solution that’s going to be the focus of attention in a modern living room, the Pulse Soundbar without the Pulse Sub offers a compelling value at $799—certainly it’s much better sounding than what Sonos offers at $700 with its Playbar and is easily worth the $100 premium over that product.
Moreover, most families will never need more than what it offers all on its own, at least in that setting. And if you are into Bluesound already and are looking for a soundbar, then choosing the Pulse Soundbar and Sub are no-brainer decisions.
So, if you are going with a soundbar solution instead of an AVR or pre/pro plus speakers, but you still demand high-fidelity sound for music, as well as craftsmanship that is a cut above what you see in other soundbars, I’m confident you’ll find Bluesound’s Pulse 2.1 soundbar system is very agreeable to the ear. Ultimately, because it delivers such great fidelity in a soundbar form factor it’s a system that deserves an AVS Forum Recommended award.