HI-FI Choice C 355BEE Instant Classic
April 7, 2008
NAD's new 80-watt integrated is a wise choice for affordable hi-fi systems
NAD's amplifiers have, in recent years, fulfilled most peoples' expectations as good, honest, no-nonsense workhorses, with a good and reliable performance record. And there's no reason why the new C 355BEE Stereo Integrated Amplifier should be any different, retaining, as it does, some of the best ingredients of the company's well-loved C 352 model.
That, at least, is the impression we get from the publicity for the C 355BEE. It is derived from the 352, but adds some spit'n'polish from the work NAD put into the upmarket Master Series M3 amp. As for the 'BEE' suffix, it honours the contribution of NAD's resident designer Bjørn Erik Edvardsen, along with his 'Distortion Cancelling Circuit' and 'BEE Clamp'.
Now it's tempting to get all cynical and belittle the fact that they've added two resistors and a capacitator, changed the specific type of transistor in one place and upped the price. But there are surprisingly few generic transistor amplifier circuits in common use and sometimes there are only small differences between two models of completely different make. What's more infuriatingly minor details within a circuit can really make or break a fine performance, so even if the overall layout is very similar to a 352, we're certainly interested in this new amp.
On paper, the 355BEE's specification is nothing unusual. Seven line inputs, 80-watt output, defeatable tone controls, two switchable sets of speaker terminals, a headphone socket and a remote control (the RS232 socket on the back is a little less familiar and reflects the growing interest in multi-room installations). NAD has also included two preamp outputs, one normally linked to the power amp input, but the pair facilitating upgrades to bi-amped operation.
Inside the case, the relatively heavy grade of steel used for the top cover is impressive, making for a more rigid assembly than some models in this price range. Under the cover, the biggest surprise is the mains transformer, which seems a little small for 80 watts. It's adequate for the rated power, however, and indeed a little more (about 90 watts continuous, both channels), but the large power supply capacitors give a decent dynamic headroom which holds up long enough to be useful for real-life transients, allowing NAD to quote an honest dynamic power figure of 140 watts into eight ohms. A mains transformer capable of supporting that on a continuous basis would have put the cost of the amp up quite considerably.
NAD tends to like discrete transistors in its circuits rather than op-amps: we found three of the latter in this amp and though two appear to be doing housekeeping duty outside the main signal path the other seems to be an input buffer, sitting between the relay-switched inputs and the volume control, which is a motorized mechanical type. This is a sensible arrangement, making the amp capable of handling the highest-output source components on the market, while maintaining a high input impedance that doesn't appreciably load even such touchy sources as valve FM tuners. Further down the chain, discrete transistors rule the day, some of them mounted on a tiny surface-mount daughterboard while the rest are old-style through-hole mounted. The heatsink is completely enclosed within the case.
Some hi-fi components, even on first hearing, seem to be determined to turn around our ideas of how audio should sound. This one, by contract, adopts an altogether more laid-back approach, but one we thoroughly enjoy. Interestingly with this new BEE amplifier—and credit goes to Bjørn here—far from subverting ideas it confirms them and in the process shows itself to be an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, product.
That said, it does seem to be awfully good at its job. There are limits to its performance envelope, but limits that seem to us generous in the context of sub-$500 amplification. In familiar NAD style, it has a very extended bass which, perhaps, tunes slightly better than it times, but does both pretty convincingly. There's a tangible resonance to really low instruments which is highly persuasive and does a lot to compensate for the occasional slight lack of rhythmic precision in the same frequency band. About the only time we wished for significantly more 'kick' to the sound was when the bass line was entirely, or largely, the product of synthesizers, rather than normal instruments.
A similar tale could be told about the treble, in as much as it's not true high-end stuff and lacks a little of the 'air' that marks out hi-fi esoterica. On the other hand, it's very clear and precise, and is also admirably free of grain and veiling—it can also be very sweet when required, for instance with a well recorded solo violin. In this case, synthesised sounds seem no problem at all, indeed we were significantly impressed with how well this amp played some very treble-rich modern productions.
It's hard to find an amp that never shows any sign of midrange coloration and this one seemed just a shade rich in the low mid. As colorations go, that's a harmless—often pleasant—one and we were very taken with the all-important presence band which seems about as neutral as we've heard among other amps of this class. It's also very detailed, presenting a meticulously layered sound and preserving imaging cues very well.
In fact, it was with respect to imaging that we found this amp to be most strongly differentiated from its peers. To begin with, we found detail good (but not outstanding) and, as a result, were not particularly surprised by this. As listening progressed though, we slowly came to realize that we were being presented with an unusually specific and precise layout of musicians in familiar recordings (a few treasured orchestral and operative discs, in particular, each outstanding for its natural spaciousness). And, unusually, for such an amp as this, something we'd normally expect from £1,500-worth of upmarket integrated or pre/power units.
But there's also a certain fragility to all this, for when we listened specifically for imaging the picture collapsed (very slight) towards the centre. Clearly, then, this isn't the full high-end monty, but it's one of the best approaches to it we've ever encountered in such an amp. In particular, it makes the C 355BEE a very good choice, if you aren't the sort of listener who habitually listens very intently. If, however, you like a sound that makes no fuss, but subtly and irresistibly gets under your skin, this might be for you. A very well-rounded amp, which we like a great deal.