I was raised on radio, and I still enjoy its unpredictable mix of music, features, and news. In fact, there was a time when no self-respecting audio system was considered fully dressed without a good tuner. Lamentably you don’t hear a lot of chatter about FM/AM radio anymore. In spite of some marvelous programming it’s become a victim of portable digital media, downloads, and satellite services essentially relegated to the car, and counted on mostly for traffic reports and talk radio. Still I remain a stalwart. As does NAD Electronics, which to its everlasting credit remains one of the few high-end electronics companies that hasn’t turned its back on this admittedly shrinking segment of the market. Its latest effort, the C 446 Digital Media Tuner, continues the tradition; yet it does so with a considerable and calculated twist over the traditional tuner.
Nifty, Thrifty, and Thorough
The $800 NAD C 446 is, indeed, an FM/AM tuner, but as part of its mission as a Digital Media Tuner it also gives you access to the near-infinite world of Internet radio, plus the ability to stream a music library from network storage devices, and most significantly to wirelessly stream from a computer, Android phone, Apple iOS device, or network hard-drive using Universal Plug-and-Play (UPnP). As is the norm today, wireless streaming is limited to conventional 16-bit/44.1kHz resolution.
The C 446 offers support for many popular digital formats including wav , aac +, and flac , and outputs them via its 24-bit/192kHz DAC. Other features include the ability to digitize FM/AM for output as S/PDIF and a front-panel USB input for thumb-drive playback. The C446 also supports cloud music services so that you can access your music library from multiple devices. Adding NAD’s optional IPD 2 Dock permits iPod/iPhone docking/charging via a back-panel input. About the only thing the C 446 doesn’t have is a USB DAC—even a company as resourceful as NAD has budgets to meet after all. But don’t fret; NAD wasn’t napping. NAD has several USB-DAC solutions that can always be added down the road. Even so, the C 446 is a veritable digital crock-pot for music delivery.
Visually the C 446 is definitively NAD—minimalist, elegant, and carefully laid out for ease of setup and control. The large central LED screen is readable even from a modest distance. The back panel is clearly organized, and the remote control is well laid out and intuitive. Kudos to NAD’s pictorial Quick Start guide, which goes a long way toward reducing the connection jitters. It calmly walks networking-phobes like yours truly through wireless or wired Internet setups, and believe me I’m a fumbler. Windows users have it easy, since UPnP is built into that OS. For Mac users it’s slightly more complicated. Recognizing this, NAD has partnered with Twonky.com as its UPnP client. A quick download from the Twonky site, some legwork in the C 446 set-up menu to create a wireless handshake, and, voîlà, a familiar fully searchable music library with full playlists appears on the front-panel display. All in all, a relatively straightforward setup. Not as elegant or foolproof as Micromega’s iTunes-based AirStream technology—the Cadillac of its kind—but to be fair the C 446 is a fraction of the Frenchman’s cost. Tip: Keep in mind that it’s not a bad idea to compile music playlists with material in formats that the C 446 can decode. It won’t do aiff , for example.
Turning to tuner performance, channel selectivity was very good and noise was minimal on all but the weakest stations. Even without a signal-strength meter, it was easy to get a good lock on most stations. The memory feature is useful particularly if you don’t want to start all over again spinning the tuning knob. I wish there were a scan feature, or that the numerical keypad could be used to locate stations via their identifying call numbers, but never mind. Channel separation and signal-to-noise were perceivably very good, and more than competitive in this price range. Being a big fan of dedicated tuners like the superb Magnum Dynalab MD106T (Issue 152), I was more than impressed with the immediacy and the smooth, almost buttery musicality of the C 446. On one of my favorite classical stations it threw a wide and vivid soundstage, with solid dimensionality, nicely resolved images, accurate timbre, and a spirited sense of air and hall ambience. Keeping in mind that the FM radio standard has its own well-known limitations in bandwidth, the C 446 did a good job minimizing these shortcomings. In head-to-head comparison with compact-disc playback, the most obvious shortcoming of tuner reproduction will be a truncation of dynamic range. While low-level resolving power is enough to keep you on the edge of your seat, larger dynamic swings lose some energy. In order to maximize performance, a decent antenna is key—an omni rooftop or attic unit like Magnum’s reasonably priced ST-2 whip-pole model. You’ll likely realize that there’s more life left in the venerable tuner than you thought.
But of all the tools in the C 446’s digital arsenal, wireless is the star. Its performance was nothing short of startling over my home network. Startling in this context is that wireless has come to mean more than merely unwired convenience. It’s become a performer. The C 446 joins this group. And I say this after spending considerable time with the Micromega’s AirDream technology. Like the Micromega, the NAD sonically rivaled compact-disc sources as well as a couple of USB DACs that I had on-deck for review. Key among its performance virtues is how it sheds some of the unyielding hardness I hear in average digital and replaces it with a more supple and I think more natural expression of transient attack. It has a liquidity that I normally regard as the territory of more expensive digital reproduction. Low-level resolving power was very good as well, as I noted during Judy Collins’ cover of Jimmy Webb’s “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” from Judith [Elektra]. On this track there is an underlying resonance from the accompanying cello that is expressed as if just “under its breath.” But in this instance it was distinct and the instrument was reproduced with its full character. Equally informative were the clarity and warmth of the solo violin on this cut. During Appalachian Spring [Reference Recordings], the delicate opening segment and the thematic burst of strings were uncongested and open, with a soft lilt in the upper register that seemingly lifted harmonics upward on a bed of air.
There is a small subtraction of transparency that lightly veils the music. The rendering of spatial cues, of hall boundaries, of specific image placement is just a little more ephemeral than the AirDream or Lindemann USB. In addition, a light amount of granularity seeped into the brass section during Fanfare For The Common Man. Also, as I listened to the harmonics of Evgeny Kissin’s heavy trills on the concert grand it seemed to me there was a very small bit of smudging. The same track from the compact-disc version was decidedly better defined. Yet the CD was also something of a trade-off, as the disc had a drier, more brittle signature, a trait that can itself create an impression of greater definition. So, yes, I still have some minor quibbles, but wireless is definitely moving into primetime.
The C 446 Digital Media Tuner is a rewarding component that fills a critical gap seen in many audio systems today. Straddling two worlds, it’s something old and something new from the company that seems to intuit a market’s sweet spot. The NAD is a welcome addition in a rapidly changing audio landscape.
SPECS & PRICING
Outputs: Analog on RCA, S/PDIF on TosLink
Interface: Ethernet, Wi-Fi
Dimensions: 17.1” x 4” x 13.5”
Weight: 10.25 lbs.
NAD Electronics Intl.
633 Granite Court
Canada, L1W 3K1