Anytime I hear a gripe about how expensive high-end audio has become, I reply with a single word: “NAD.” Well, maybe that’s not really a word, but it’s an effective rebuttal to claims that the hi-fi hobby has become too expensive. Ever since its establishment, NAD Electronics has been focused on providing good-sounding components at very reasonable prices. The new $899 C 368 amplifier/DAC reviewed here continues that tradition. However, the company has competition (I like that) from Rotel’s $1299 A14 DAC/amplifier and Yamaha’s $899 A-S801 DAC/amplifier, to cite a couple I’ve reviewed. And although $899 is hardly a bargain-basement price for many, it buys you a lot of capability.
So what’s a “Hybrid Digital DAC/Amplifier?” In NAD parlance, it’s an integrated amplifier with analog and digital inputs and outputs that is also equipped with an internal 192kHz/24-bit DAC. An increasing number of integrated amps in today’s market sport built-in DACs. Like the Rotel A14 amplifier, the C 368 is rated at 80Wpc and has a Bluetooth aptX digital input in addition to a moving-magnet phono input, unbalanced analog inputs, and a built-in headphone amp. Its digital inputs, however, are SPDIF only, two on coaxial jacks and two on optical (TosLink) jacks. There is no standard USB input, which tells us that the stock C 368 won’t let you use your computer as a source, and will not play the highest-resolution digital files. The Yamaha and Rotel amplifiers play DXD files and high-speed DSD files, but neither plays MQA files; that’s understandable, since MQA is rather new. Initially inclined to sneer at NAD’s “yesterday” DAC, I quickly realized the company had chosen to focus on other features. Given the speed at which DAC technology is advancing, that might be a very wise choice; adding an external player (a DAC/streamer like the Oppo Digital Sonica or the Auralic Aries Mini) plus a storage drive for your music files gives you advanced digital playback capability. In other words, you won’t have to replace a perfectly good amplifier to upgrade digital technology.
NAD amplifiers are often marketed with modest RMS power ratings but are capable of higher peak output, which makes them sound more robust than their specs suggest. That’s how it is with the Class D C 368; rated at 80Wpc RMS into four and eight ohms, it produces 240 watts IHF dynamic power into four ohms and 145 watts into eight ohms. The faceplate is built around a central window with a multicolor display that’s legible from across my listening room. A flexible remote lets you control not only the C 368 but also other NAD equipment such as FM tuners (still in NAD’s lineup) and CD players (ditto), so your coffee table won’t collapse under the weight of multiple remotes. The C 368 comes in a medium-sized black enclosure, with the aforementioned display window in the center of the front panel, and a single large volume knob to the right. A numeric display shows the volume setting in half-dB steps. The default setting is minus 20dB, which was suitable for my speakers’ normal listening level. Between the volume knob and the window are two buttons that enable you to scroll through the digital and analog inputs. It’s easier to use the remote to select the input, as it has individual buttons for each. To the left of the window is a ¼" unbalanced headphone jack, and left of that are controls that remind me of the jog dials on early iPods.
On the rear panel is the typical rear-panel stuff: inputs, both digital and analog, along with a preamplifier-out in the center, a grounding terminal for turntable ground, two sets of speaker output jacks, and an IEC power input jack and on/off switch. On the left end of the rear panel are two slots, covered by protective covers labeled MDC, or Modular Design Construction, which allows certain expansion modules to be inserted. Available MDC modules include the $299 DD HDM-1 HDMI module and the $399 MDC BluOS module. The DD HDM-1 module adapts the C 368 for use in a small TV system; it provides three HDMI inputs and one HDMI output. I imagine there are lots of integrated amplifiers being used to play music and to augment televisions in apartments or small houses where there’s no room for a full theater system. The MDC BluOS module lets you use the C 368 with a wireless BluOS speaker, which can be placed anywhere in the house. The last module was provided with the review unit, along with a wireless Bluesound Pulse 2 speaker. Can you think of any other integrated amplifier that’s designed to be this easy to use in a TV system, or with a wireless speaker? I can’t.
Setting Up and Using the C 368
NAD told me the C 368’s low operating temperature made it unnecessary to break it in; however, I had just obtained new KEF Q700 speakers to use for reviews of budget gear, and they most definitely needed break-in, so I used the C 368. The KEFs are set up in a room that doubles as my office, and form the nucleus of the small system that will be used in many future reviews. They have a 6½" version of KEF’s Uni-Q concentric midrange/tweeter, together with a 6½" woofer and two 6½" auxiliary bass radiators.
Since my primary music source these days is streaming high-resolution music files, my small stereo also includes a digital playback system to handle those media. Currently comprising an Oppo Digital Sonica DAC and streaming file player, being fed from my NAS, this setup will play up to 192/24 and DSD64 files. The Oppo comes with its own remote-control app, and was reviewed in Issue 278. To assess the C 368’s SPDIF input, I used my Audiolab 8000CD CD player as a transport, feeding its digital output directly into the C 368’s SPDIF port.
To use the MDC BluOS module, I downloaded the BluOS app to my iPhone and iPad. Like many such apps, it will work on a smartphone, but a tablet lets you see a lot more information, and the control buttons are spaced more comfortably.