In this age of uncertainty, it’s reassuring to know that certain things remain as stable as the sunrise. And, no, I’m not talking about the Republicans’ conservative agenda, wimpy Democrats, Brett Favre’s endless melodramas, or the likelihood that the sexagenarian Rolling Stones will be touring again one day soon. I’m talking about NAD integrated amplifiers.
The company that more or less invented the idea of the barebones, high-performance, affordable integrated amplifier with the model 3020 back in the Seventies is still at it. And many of the 3020’s features remain hallmarks of the NAD integrated design. Things such as a soft-clipping circuit (so as not to blow out either speakers or eardrums at excessive volumes), preamp-out/power-amp-in connections, tone control bypass, and conservatively rated FDP (Full Disclosure Power) ratings that spec output power under the most demanding real-world loads. Add in terrific sound for the money, and, uh, some of the plainest cosmetics since the Model T, and there you have it—a great recipe for long-term musical pleasure that lots of people can afford. Indeed, for these very reasons NAD integrated amplifiers are almost always the “go-to” recommendation we audiophiles make to friends in search of good sound at a great price. Some listeners do eventually upgrade. But others just keep the things in their systems, cranking out the tunes year-in, year-out.
But that kind of dependability and continuity does not mean that the sound of NAD integrated amplifiers hasn’t evolved. Although early incarnations were prized for their rather warm and sometimes soft musicality more than for detail and neutrality, NAD has always worked to improve the sound of its designs, edging towards increased transparency, tonal neutrality, and resolution—without losing musicality.
The latest integrated family from NAD includes the entry-level C316BEE ($349), the C326BEE ($499), the C375BEE ($1299), and smack in the middle, the C356BEE ($799) evaluated here. And as anyone who has paid even the slightest attention to NAD over the years already knows, the “BEE” part of these model designations is in reference to Bjorn Erik Edvardsen, NAD’s highly talented Director of Advanced Development.
According to Greg Stidsen, NAD’s Director of Product Development, the 80Wpc C356BEE sports refinements and upgrades over its predecessor (the well-regarded C355) that Edvardsen lifted directly from NAD’s Master Series M3 dual-mono integrated amplifier. Among these is Edvardsen’s patented Distortion Canceling Circuit, which is incorporated into the Class AB discrete output stage and is said to use “a combination of feed-forward and feedback to extend bandwidth and reduce distortion while maintaining unconditional stability.” Tied to this is something NAD calls PowerDrive, another patented circuit that senses a loudspeaker’s impedance load in real time, and then automatically adjusts the power supply to deliver either high current or high voltage as needed, thus minimizing distortion. Though this circuit is optimized for 4-ohm loads, “by increasing voltage drive when the reduced current demands of higher-impedance loudspeaker loads allow” NAD amps deliver perceived power that sounds much stronger than their 8-ohm rating would suggest.
Though I’ve never been one for such hard-to-decipher tech-talk, NAD’s claims for these designs can be easily heard in a recording of exceptionally wide dynamic range, such as Reference Recordings’ Britten’s Orchestra, which has become a staple evaluation disc of mine since its release in late 2009. During the “Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia” from the opera Peter Grimes—and driving the demanding Magnepan MG 1.7 loudspeakers—the C356 maintained an excellent degree of composure. No matter how loudly the orchestra swelled or the percussion crashed, the amp’s response remained notably smooth, clean, and effortless, with impressive low-level dynamic tracking and swiftly delivered swings upward.
In addition to the standard pre-out jacks, the preamp section offers seven line-level inputs and two tape outputs, a front-panel hookup for an iPod or other—are there any?—portable-music players, and a new twist NAD has dubbed MDC, for Modular Design Construction. In NAD A/V units MDC is a way of assuring owners that, as technologies advance, they can keep current with future formats simply by having their dealer swap out modules. In the C356 MDC offers analog users the ability to add NAD’s optional PP375 mm/mc phono card ($199), which was not included in my review sample.
Returning to Britten’s Orchestra, I found the C356’s tonal balance to be quite neutral, leaning slightly to the darker side of the spectrum, which brings a bit of extra wood to string sections and burnish to brass. The soundstage was suitably large, with good, if not exceptional layers of air around and between instruments, and a nice sense of depth without providing the type of layering one gets from higher-performance electronics.
Speaking of the Rolling Stones, I had the urge while reading Keith Richards’ Life to revisit a few of the band’s LPs. Playing “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” (Sticky Fingers, [RS Records]), the C356 did a fine job of conveying the thick crunch of distorted electric guitars, Charlie Watts’ staccato drum beats, and the teasing snarl in Jagger’s vocal. And during the extended and jazzy instrumental break, the amplifier laid out a terrific sense of the atmosphere created by Billy Preston’s organ, the extended percussion section, Bobby Keyes saxophone, and Mick Taylor’s gorgeous guitar solo.
I must plead guilty, however, to pushing the C356 to the brink on this track (and as we know, the Maggies suck power with vampire-like relish). I was playing it pretty loud—hey, it’s rock ’n’ roll—and as the song winds down and the entire band is in full-tilt-boogie mode, I thought I’d engage the soft-clipping feature, which I usually ignore, to hear the circuit in action. It seems NAD views this function as an either/or deal. Meaning either always on or always off, since the switch to engage it has always been on the back of NAD amps, not the front. And it’s a bit recessed to boot, so you must have easy access to the rear panel. After futzing to turn it on I found, rather to my surprise, it took the edge off clipping by entirely clamping down on the song’s drive. Ultimately I decided (and preferred) to simply turn down the volume—my wife was grateful, too.
The C356’s terrific sense of pace and ability to convey interlocking musical lines makes it a joy with jazz. From IMPEX’s recent reissue of Dave Brubeck’s Time Further Out: Miró Reflections to Music Matters’ knockout 45-rpm set of Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch, this amplifier allowed a range of unusual instrumental colors—including Dolphy’s unmistakable bass clarinet—recording venues, and, on both of these discs, all manner of unusual time signatures, to shine.
On gentler fare the C356 is simply a pleasure to listen to. And though it may not quite squeeze every nuance out of Stern’s violin in the Barber concerto [Sony CD], or Ella’s vocal in “Good Morning Heartache” (Clap Hands Here Comes Charlie! [Verve LP]), what it gets is what NAD integrated amplifiers have always been so good at—conveying the arc and essence of the music.
SPECS & PRICING
Type: Stereo integrated amplifier
Power output: 80Wpc into 8 and 4 ohms
Inputs: Five line-level, two tape, one main in, optional mm/mc card, one RS232
Dimensions: 17.25" x 5.25" x 13.75"
Weight: 23.4 lbs.
NAD ELECTRONICS OF AMERICA
6 Merchant Street
Sharon, Massachusetts 02067
TW-Acustic Raven One turntable; Tri-Planar Ultimate VII arm; Benz Gullwing and Transfiguration Phoenix moving-coil cartridges; Simaudio CD-1 compact disc player; Artemis Labs PL-1 phonostage; Magnepan MG 1.7 loudspeakers; Cary Audio SLP 05 Linestage Preamplifier and CAD-211 FE Monoblock Amplifiers; Tara Labs Zero interconnects, Omega speaker cables, The One power cords, and BP-10B Power Screen; Finite Elemente Spider equipment racks