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Raw Power For A Relative Pittance

September 1, 2006

September 1,2005
Kevin Hunt
courant.com
Tribune Newspapers: The Hartford Courant

 

Do not be ashamed to admit that you still listen to music sitting in front of two speakers. It's OK. That does not make you a fuddy-duddy, just a little unusual in this new world of iPods, surround-sound home theaters, streaming audio and whole-house network systems.

Stereo—or, in today's techspeak, two-channel audio—survives in many homes as the cozy system for bedroom, workshop or sunroom. It also survives in the brown-bag aesthetic of NAD Electronics, which still builds stereo components that look, and sound, uncannily like its most famous creation, the 3020 integrated amplifier.

The new C 325BEE, in fact, was designed by Bjørn Erik Edvardsen, whose 3020 (circa 1979) was recently ranked the greatest integrated amplifier in hi-fi history by a British magazine. This killer BEE, and its predecessor, the C 320BEE, carry the stamp of Edvardsen's initials.

The original 3020 has been recognized not so much for its performance but for its performance at a bargain price, about $175 in 1979 dollars. It sounded smooth, rich, clean and punchy—almost too much like the most expensive audio toys back then.

An integrated amplifier combines a preamplifier and amplifier in a single chassis. (Imagine a stereo receiver without an AM/FM tuner.) The C 325BEE has a 50-watt amplifier but delivers more than double that power in short bursts. NAD should have gone entirely retro, with a phono input for a turntable—you know, the analog music player that spins 12-inch vinyl platters at 33.3 rpm. But it makes a notable concession to the present: a minijack input on the front panel for an iPod or other digital music player.

The C 325BEE costs $399, which, in 2006 dollars, is still a relatively modest gateway to big-time sonics. And unlike the original, this one has a remote control.

Some dealers are unloading the C 320BEE, which also retailed for $399, for less than $300 to make room for the almost-identical C325BEE. Here are a few differences: Besides being iPod-ready, the C 325BEE has a master on/off switch on the back panel; a more rigid, fully-vented metal chassis; and slightly lower distortion. Purists will like that NAD has eliminated a capacitor or two in the signal path for, theoretically, a cleaner sound. But it'll take a highly discerning ear to hear the difference between these two brother BEEs.

NAD's integrated amplifiers

(www.nadelectronics.com) get a lot of attention from audio purists on a budget. For maybe $750, about the cost of a set of speaker cables in the high-end-audio stratosphere, these budgeteers can assemble a knockout system.

My test setup alternated the C 320BEE and C 325BEE with a pair of Infinity Primus 150 bookshelf speakers (typically $150 or less) and the Oppo Digital DV-970HD (www.oppodigital.com), a $149 upconverting DVD player that also plays high-resolution SACD and DVD-Audio discs. A logical companion CD-only player would be NAD's C 521BEE, which costs $299. Another price-performance marvel, the Insignia speakers from Best Buy at a shocking $50 a pair, also produced some beautiful sounds. The discounted C320BEE, Insignia speakers and the Oppo DV-970HD would cost about $500 and still embarrass some big-money setups.

I liked everything about the older C 320BEE except turning it on. Talk about inflation: Two buttons, the power switch and the CD or other source button must be pressed before the NAD gets running. Fortunately, NAD restored a saner, one-button system to the new model.

But the coupon-clipper in me spots a bargain in the C 320BEE. I could live with the two-button turn-on for a $100 discount. And with a $4 adapter from RadioShack, the C 320BEE back-panel connections will gladly accept an iPod.

Either way, these NAD integrated amplifiers mean business—they're all music.

Powerhouse

As much as I liked the C 320BEE and C 325BEE integrated amplifiers, the real surprise in my extensive NAD listening was the company's C 272 amplifier.

Though I still own a 3020 integrated from years ago and have tried several other NAD products, I had never auditioned one of its amplifiers. Well, nice to meet you, C 272.

The 150-watt stereo amplifier, at $699, gives heavyweight amplifiers a real scare with its power, authority and smoothness. This 31-pounder—often sold with the companion preamplifier, the $599 C 162—did bump-and-grind deep bass better than a 250-watt $4,000 amplifier I heard recently.

And in its restraint, the C 272 forgoes the harsh, fatiguing highs characteristic of so many amplifiers. It's missing primarily the precision imaging—where the listener can distinctly define each musician or vocalist in the three-dimensional soundscape—of the very best amplifiers.

It also has two useful features: a sleep/wake setting that automatically turns on the C 272 when it senses a signal and a variable input that allows volume adjustment to better match other components in your system.

This is an absolute best buy for anyone who needs some serious two-channel power.

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