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C 515BEE CD Player and C315 BEE Integrated Amplifier TAS Review

February 24, 2010

True story. A few years ago I received an unsolicited piece of gear for review. In the audio trade we call them “over the transom” items in that they arrive from a mystery company hoping that a favorable review in TAS might be parlayed into a U.S. market presence. At first blush, this modest 50-watt amplifier actually sounded pretty good and for $199 seemed like quite the bargain. I thought to myself, “Watch out NAD.” But on closer examination there was the shoddy execution, the sheet-metal case with edges so sharp you could use it as a deli slicer, and…well, I could go on. The coup degrace occurred when I heard a little rattle and, upon removing the chassis cover, discovered that the anp’s teeny transformer had broken loose. I thought to myself, another NAD wannabe bites the dust. My point is this. There will always be land mines disguised as bargains in the high end so you need to step gingerly. But experience has shown that with a handful of companies like NAD you can step forward with confidence. Which brings me to its latest entry-level duo. The $299 C515 BEE CD player and $349 C315 BEE integrated amplifier are everything that the little no-name turkey slicer wasn’t—well built and finished, remotecontrolled, and real performers.

This latest pair performed in a way that makes me salute just how far entry-level products have advanced in the last few years

The physical appearance of the C315 BEE amp and C515 BEE player is NAD-traditional, updated. As both are blood descendents of the legendary NAD 3020 integrated amp, the push-buttons and controls have that familiar, tactile feel, and there’s the reassuring, gunmetal-gray finish. Both units also have the look of efficient tools, focused to the task. For the 40Wpc C315 BEE integrated amplifier this means a large volume knob at the right edge of the front panel augmented by a clean line of input buttons. NAD’s traditional Tone Defeat button sit between the treble and bass controls and the balance knob. There are differences, of course. Outwardly, a much thicker front panel has been added to tame resonances. A front-panel headphone jack is now joined by a 3.5mm MP3-player mini-jack. On the rear panel are gold-plated RCA inputs and speaker terminals that will accept banana or straight wire cables. NAD family values have always been about sonic results rather than flash. Thus, finding shorter and cleaner and quieter signal paths was a prime directive for the design team.

Taken as a system, the C515/C315 tandem offer sonic qualities that are familiar to avid BEE watchers. Warm in tonal balance, the BEEs have a full-bodied and slightly dark midrange. Dynamics are plentiful, musical details are well defined, and transient speed is lively, but none of these things stands out; rather, they blend into a naturalistic presentation. Like all NAD amps in recent memory the C315 BEE employs its own PowerDrive technology and seems conservatively rated as if, like fairy dust, some additional wattage had been sprinkled over the final design. PowerDrive might sound like pillow talk to an electrical engineer, but to my ears it allows NAD amplifiers to play big, with near-effortless dynamics, and to sing like an amp roughly 50% larger in output. The result is an uncommon grip on music’s timbres and midbass weight. A good example is Mary Stallings’ Sunday Kind of Love [MaxJazz]. Recorded live at the Village Vanguard, the disc is pleasantly laid-back with good soundstage depth and a natural sense of clubby ambience. The NAD’s reproduction of the stand-up bass may not rattle bones, but it exhibited solid control. Thankfully, NAD’s honest approach to tonal balance makes for a non-fatiguing longterm relationship. The pairing may give up some transparency, and is lightly subtractive at the frequency extremes. Vocalists clock in a little drier and instruments exhale a little less air into the mix. For example, you won’t quite hear the rush of air moving over the harmonica reeds during Bruce Springsteen’s intro to the live 1975 performance of “Thunder Road” [Hammersmith Odeon, Columbia]. The full sonic profile of a bowed acoustic bass or a run of tympani wallops isn’t fully captured, either.

Compared with my resident state-of-the-art setup, the Pass Labs INT-150 and Esoteric X-05 player (at nearly 20 times the price), the BEEs lack the resolution to reproduce the full physical density of acoustic space and the complete palette of ambient textures and air. However, when Renée Fleming and Bryn Terfel sing the finale of Stars [Decca] and the Orchestra of the Welsh National Opera begins to well up within the hall and embrace the singers, you will probably be as surprised as I was at just how musically game these NAD components are. Sure, there is some attenuation of subtle acoustic values. But make no mistake; I’ve seen, er, have power cords that cost more than this combined pair.

While the C315 more than met my expectations for a NAD amp, the C515 CD player is the unqualified standout of the pair. It’s more transparent, specific, and controlled, and probably a bit quicker off the line. There’s also more bloom in the treble, although it’s still on the dry side. Extreme challenges like low-level retrieval of inner dynamic lines are not as easily surmounted—the pianissimo bass line during the bridge to “Linnet Bird” from Sweeney Todd [Nonesuch] is reduced in detail and impact. And during Norah Jones’ “Broken” the bowed bass viol lacks the growl and soundboard energy that this track has. However, I mightily enjoyed bouncing the “baby” BEE off of a parade of pricier players, from the vintage Sony DVP-9000ES to the Simaudio Equinox SE and the mighty Esoteric X-05. In each case it held its own, finding orchestral minutiae, dynamic thrills, and timbral details that would have gone unheard in a sub-$300 player a short while ago. The sonic delights of the C515 BEE should make you look long and hard at your options in the under-$1000 range.

I’ve been teasing the NAD BEE series for years for an abbreviation that’s just too tempting a target. But I’ve never lost sight of how serious these products are. This latest pair performed in a way that makes me salute just how far entry-level products have advanced in the last few years. These are among the best BEEs yet and should create some major buzz. Like I mentioned at the outset of this article, there are many ways to get stung in the high end. My suggestion, become a BEEkeeper.

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