Amazing review in Hi-Fi News -This amp rocks
June 21, 2010
NAD C 316BEE
Nostalgia is a wonderful drug. It affects the memory mostly, turning any period or situation in one's misspent past into 'the good old days'. Back in the early 1980s, I had a NAD 3020 integrated amp and a Thorens turntable. I had just discovered music of the '60s and '70s, and playing The Stones under the influence of fine beverages was about as simple and perfect as life has ever been. Actually I was a penniless student in cheap digs, drinking home-brewed beer that tasted like Dettol and wearing sandals in mid-winter because my last pair of trainers had fallen apart. I remember coming in from college for the evening and using the NAD integrated as a foot warmer.
Sitting here with both feet perched on NAD's new C 316BEE integrated, I am drowning in nostalgia. The first thing of note in the near 30-year evolution of NAD's budget hi-fi amplifier offering is that the latest incarnation, the C 316BEE, definitely doesn't run as scorching hot as my old 3020. I do not appear to be in danger of waffle-toasting my soles so clearly; like the Nikes beside the leather sofa and the glass of Philips Shaw No 17 Merlot in my hand, things have moved on. And, if I can waft away the misty memories of those good old days for a moment, mostly for the better too.
Essentially the C 316BEE has the same organic NAD DNA as its ancestor but owes more of its design to its direct predecessor, the C315BEE (see HFN, Nov '07). Like the original barnstorming 3020 the C 316BEE promises bags of power, stripped-down simplicity and audiophile quality sound on a tight budget. It certainly offers a similar level of cosmetic charm, the dull grey casework and black buttons offering all the visual excitement of a bowl of cold porridge.
"The C 316BEE is an absolute barnstormer of an amplifier, mixing surprising might with a rich and easy flowing sound that is impossible not to like. This amp rocks.."
The blue LED power and source lamps are a subtle addition to the fascia and nail the C 316BEE as a child of the 21st Century. Gone are the red LEDs of the old 3020. They indicated the power output of both channels combined as a cheap substitute for Technics' sexy analogue VU meters of the day. The C 316BEE is perhaps even more innocuous looking on the shelf, it is not as tall and the fascia plate's rounded corners both soften the lines and should avoid all those forearm scrapes of old when you reached over to fiddle with the connections.
It's no featherweight for your £250 either, weighing in at a respectable 5.5kg. The case is a good few microns thicker than a lot of budget AV receivers on the market today and through the case vents you can see the beefy transformer and polished heatsink. To aid cooling, the bottom of the heatsink protrudes through the base metalwork to become an integral part of the floorpan. OK, the fascia is plastic and the volume knob feels like the lid from a can of deodorant, but at least the buttons don't appear to want to wobble and spontaneously come adrift like they did on the 3020. In fact the buttons feel very positive in use, and the main power and tone defeat buttons are nicely weighted .
Like audiophiles of the late '70s and '80s, hi-fi enthusiast C 316BEE owners will no double sneer at the tone controls on offer and refuse to use them. Just as well, because they have clearly been lubricated with sand.
SIGNS OF THE TIMES
Connectivity has come a very long way, not least of which is the inclusion of a front-mounted audio input for an iPod or other music player device. Gold plating that connection is a slightly ironic touch, while gold plating the headphone socket and all the RCA inputs around the back is a very welcome upgrade.
There's no shortage of actual connections either, with seven stereo inputs and a single tape loop out. Unfortunately, there is no phono input or on-board phono stage which, like the iPod connection, is rather a sign of the times. You only get a single set of speaker binding posts, but as these feel more robust than those adorning some of the £1000 AV receivers that have passed my way recently, they can only be saluted.
Under the lid of the C 316BEE is about as solid and as honest as the budget integrated amplifier breed gets. It is a thoroughly analogue amplifier design, complete with chunky power supply, big capacitors and a neat layout. The specification sheet eye-candy promises wideband amplification, a solid 40W per channel and NAD's proprietary PowerDrive circuit. This claims to offer high current drive and the ability of handle tricky loads with gay abandon (he said, summarizing NAD's marketing hyperbole somewhat). The cynical hack in me must also poke some derision at the company's claim to green credentials by using lead-free solder. It's actually a legal requirement.
The compact remote control is a very welcome addition, particularly as it will also control NAD's matching CD player. It works a treat, the amp answering to commands swiftly and the motorized volume knob rotating at a reasonable pace. There is the inevitable thump through the speakers every time you swap between inputs, which I half suspect has been engineered in to remind one of this amp's heritage. While such a remote control would have been so very useful on the 3020 while I was at college, it would have only ended up at the bottom of a pint of Dettol. Mind you, if it was built like the 3020 it may well have survived it – my old unit had regular beer baths and was once used to chock a wheel of an Austin Mini to stop it rolling down a whill when the handbrake failed. I would say, still wistfully and in soft focus, they don't make 'em like that any more. Looking at the C 316BEE, I think they probably still do.
MIGHT IS RIGHT
I really wasn't expecting to be much impressed by the C 316BEE. After all, my ears and my sense of hi-fi reality has been somewhat tainted by the long procession of high-end amplifiers that I have been lucky enough to review since those heady times back in the '80s. When the most recent list of exotica to pass my way includes models like Musical Fidelity's £20,000 Titan and even NAD's own incredible £5000 M2 integrated, one can only brace oneself for the twang of budget wine, surely.
Ah, how wrong I was. The C 316BEE is an absolute barnstormer of an amplifier, mixing surprising might with a rich and easy flowing sound that is impossible not to like. This amp rocks, and as the bongo introduction to 'Sympathy for The Devil' (from Beggars Banquet on SACD) kicked in, the C 316BEE simply begged you to give it a handful of volume, put on a leotard and strut around the room shouting 'oooh-hooo, oooh-hooo' to the track's backing vocals. In short, the swelling volume and scale wholly defies this amp's budget roots.
Admittedly, reviewing a lot of AV amps, I am much more familiar with makers claiming a cart load of beans for what is actually a small bag of peas where power is concerned. I suspect (not having seen the test results at the time of writing) that the C 316BEE produces a fair bit more than 40W in real terms. Perhaps NAD should make a bigger fuss of its capabilities and contrast it with the 3020 which, on paper at least, was underpowered compared to rivals of the day.
Even driving my sizeable Tannoy Dimension TD12s, with their horribly complex load that dips below 2 ohms in places, the NAD gets a firm grip and just rocks. A wave of goose-bumps ran up and down my spine in anticipation of Jagger's epic opening line. As the drums and howling guitars joined the mix you couldn't help but appreciate this amp's fundamental grasp of musicality. The lead vocal was crisp and unmistakable, and clearly imaged correctly just left of centre. The top edge of Jagger's voice had plenty of its natural rawness and, while the top end found a few of the really high details, it's clearly never going to sear your ears with an acerbic edge or serious sibilance.
TOP TIMING TOO….
Usually I find amps with such a smooth top end rather like a pair of old slippers, comfortable and inviting but never likely to double as dancing shoes. Not so the NAD, which seems to find plenty of energy and foot-tapping get up and go, even though its HF presentation is on the safer side of neutral. The rhythmic and infectious bass is every bit the hero of the presentation, sacrificing analytical detailing and fastidious tonal definition for something organically right with excellent timing. Its bass is far from 'one-note' and the depths it plumbs set the standard at the price, but it's not the sort of amp you would want if you're an aficionado of classical upright bass. It just can't reolve LF detail to that extent.
That's not its only rough edge either. The upper midrange is a little on the hard side, lending solidly struck piano notes a slightly glassy edge. The piano on “Promise Me' from Beverley Craven's eponymous first album on CD is very much out there in the mix. Each note is played with authority and it is this that leads the track. If you are listening critically for the naturalness of the instrument, the NAD makes the piano sound a little too stressed, a little too forced. I suspect a different choice of speaker (one without the Tannoy's horn-loaded tweeter, for example) might allow the NAD to sound a whole lot more relaxed through this region.
Either way it's not a big enough issue. Firstly because at £250 that is a seriously minor gripe, and secondly because this amp is incredibly good at hiding its own shortcomings behind its fabulously fluid overall presentation.
By the time Craven's voice joins the party, its sultry charms washing over you like honey on a summer's day, any rougher edges of the diamond are lost to the overall sparkle. It is relaxed, rhythmic and inviting and a sound that you can listen to for hours and hours without tiring of it. I know, I did. It's not an amp that will have you searching through your Chesky discs or your 24-bit reference masters in pursuit of high-brow audiophile lucidity, but it will have you picking out beloved tracks, old favourites and '70s rock anthems one after the other. The infectious combination of a well rounded bottom end, midband coherence and a silky smooth but articulate top end is an old rocker's dream.
I found myself digging out songs that I hadn't listen to in, well, decades. 'Assault and Battery/The Golden Void' from Hawkwind's epic Warrior At The Edge Of Time was a track that defined my university years and, damn, I had forgotten how good it was. The C 316BEE neatly smoothed the splashily recorded hi-hat that permeates the track, underpinned the bass with real weight and allowed the guitars and keyboards to soar out of the speakers.
This is an amp that opens the door and lets you into the music like no other budget amp I have heard. You just fall into the track as the lyrics say, 'lose my body, lose my mind, blow like wind, flow like wine'.
The C 316BEE is a long way from being perfect, but its real magic is in not allowing any of its own shortcomings get in the way of producing a thoroughly enjoyable and musical experience. Thinking back, that is probably exactly how I would have described the NAD 3020 and exactly why it became the amp that shaped the hi-fi heydays of the 1980s.
NAD'S 3020 LEGACY
There are products in hi-fi's history that define their time, and a whole generation of products follow in their wake – none more so than NAD's 3020. Launched at the tail end of 1978, NAD's 3020 was the first major hi-fi component to benefit from a combination of British design expertise and the low cost of Far Eastern manufacturing. It came to market as a cheap low-powered and under-featured amp, but behind the stunningly dour cosmetics beat the heart of a true audiophile design. Offering performance to match UK amps of up to ten times the asking price, the 3020 became an instant hit. It was warm and inviting-sounding and while its imagery and rather soft top end got a hard time from the Linn/Naim obsessed UK hi-fi press of the day, it became the budget amp of choice. Suddenly minimalism became the norm in hi-fi amplifier design. Overseas manufacturing later became essential at the budget end of the market and the 3020, over 30 years on, has evolved into the latest NAD C 316BEE.
HI-FI NEWS VERDICT
NAD's C 316BEE is not going to outperform any high-end reference amp but it offers a refreshing dose of honest musicality that makes it idea for a second system. Yes, it's a little laidback at the top and the bass is rather fulsome and simplified, but its smooth, rhythmic and utterly infectious presentation glosses over these minor shortcomings with ease. Like the 3020 before it, this integrated is sonic gold.
Reviewer: Richard Stevenson