AudioStream Review C 446 Digital Media Tuner
December 5, 2011
Players & Streamer Reviews: NAD C 446 Digital Media Tuner
By Michael Lavorgna
It May as Well Slice and Dice
The NAD C 446 Digital Media Tuner offers a host of options through which you can play your music; kit with a big caboodle. You can listen to Internet radio, LAST.FM (if you have a paid account), regular old AM/FM, DAB where available, you can stick your USB memory stick in and listen to files from it, you can Play To the UPnP Receiver, stream to the UPnP Client, play music stored on your UPnP/DLNA Network Attached Storage device or Twonky Server, create playlists on the fly from your Android or iOS devices thanks to its UPnP Digital Audio Renderer (DAR) technology, and play music from your docked iPod/iPhone if you have the NAD IPD 2 Dock ($159.95).
The C 446 can play MP3, FLAC, WMA, WAV and AAC music files (the C 446 does not support AIFF or ALAC) and while it uses a 24 bit/192 kHz DAC, the maximum sample rate it can handle maxes out at 48kHz up to 24 bits (I wish this information was more easily accessible from NAD's marketing literature). I tried playing a few high resolution files (24/96 and 24/172 WAV) and received silence in return in addition to a "Decoder Error" message on the front panel display. On a related note, the specifications in the C 446 manual for the digital input is listed under "Playable Media Formats" and lists file type and maximum streaming bit rate as opposed to bit/sample rate:
WAV up to 1.536 mbit/s
FLAC up to 1.5 mbit/s
AAC up to 320 kbit/s
MP3 up to 320 kbit/s
WMA up to 320 kbit/s
I'd imagine the reason we're looking at mbit/s specs is because, well, they apply. The NAD C 446 streams and buffers all incoming data, be it through wires or air. So we're talking throughput values and the limitations of 24/48 are imposed by the C 446's buffer, not Ethernet or Wi-Fi. NAD is obviously appealing to the non-high tech/non-high resolution music crowd and they're doing so using AM/FM radio as a prominent selling point and a feature list that is nearly as long as the list of things that need to happen in order to get the global economy healthy.
In terms of inputs and outputs there's not a lot more to tell beyond just listing them (which I already did at the top of the page). Connecting the C 446 is physically simple and consists of an ethernet cable which in my case connects to a wall jack and then runs its way downstairs for a direct-connect to our router (through another wall jack/RJ45 cable), a pair of RCAs to my Leben CS-300SX integrated amp and plugging it in to my Wiremold outlet strip. I should mention you have to screw on the wireless antennae if you plan to use the Wi-Fi stuff and I'd imagine anyone buying the C 446 will do just that (feverishly).
Function by Function
I'm going to go through most of the workings of NAD C 446 and talk about how they work and sound since I can't think of any other approach that makes more sense. You can control the C 446 in a number of ways - through the front panel controls, the included remote, or through an Android app or for iOS devices by downloading Twonky Mobile ($2.99). I will note up front that I did not try the Twonky Mobile app because I did not come across it until the tail end of the review process (I read about it in an ad for the C 446 in an online Audio Advisor catalog). Up until I found this mention, I was under the impression from everything I'd read that there was a C 446-specific app in the iTunes Store which I could not find (because there isn't one). In any event, there are more important things to talk about.
Why not start with the easiest first. I connected the included wire “dipole” FM antenna using the included balun adapter and even though we are about 55 miles from NYC, I was able to pull in a few of the stronger stations very well. While my preferences for radio runs toward college and independent, WPRB (103.5) and WFMU (91.1) are two local favorites, I was nonetheless impressed with the sound quality from the C 446's FM tuner. Big, bold and with Lil Wayne and Drake playing, bouncy. I have to say good FM is a very pleasurable experience and I could easily see spending a lot of time listening to this radio especially if I could pull in some of my preferred stations. I'd imagine a more serious antennae could help. The C 446 supports the Radio Data System (RDS) so for those stations that broadcast this data you'll see it displayed on the NAD's Vacuum Fluorescent Display (yes, that's how I knew it was Lil Wayne but I did recognize Drake since Jessica, our daughter, likes Drake and so do I).
For AM, there's really not much I can pull in that holds my interest but listening to the NY Giants on the radio has to be less painful than watching.
When you browse to the "Internet Radio" source with either the remote or using the front-mounted controls, you are greeted with a few choices: My Favorites, Local Stations, HDi, High Quality, Podcasts, My Added Stations, and Help. NAD offers a web-based app to help you browse and organize your favorite stations. Setting up an account is simple and took me all of 1 minute and this web interface allows you to add favorites online which appear nearly immediately on the C 446 as well as browse through all of the available stations much easier and in a more enjoyable fashion than through the C 446s front panel knob or the remote.
After I set up my account I browsed stations by "location" and picked one from Mail, Radio Jekafo, added it my favorites by clicking the little heart, selected it on the C 446 and got an error message "Media Invalid". Hmm. So I picked another station from Mali, Radio Bamakan, and that worked fine. The only issue here was Radio Bamakan was playing Dolly Parton's version of "I Will Always Love You" which made me a) change the station quickly, and b) wonder if I should pick a local station to look for music from Mali. Kidding aside, this web-based feature is very user friendly since browsing the literally hundreds of Internet Radio stations on the C 446's display is time consuming and bit cumbersome whereas the web interface is all good.
Sound quality with Internet Radio varied station to station and from OK to just fine but even with the "High Quality" and HDi (Free 256k High Definition Internet Radio Stations) stations I never felt they equaled good-old FM. That said, the idea that we can choose from hundreds and hundreds of stations from around the world more than makes up for any loss in fidelity in my book especially seeing as this is just one of many playback options in the C 446s repertoire. Obviously any internet-connected computer offers the same basic access to Internet Radio but sound quality will depend on any number of factors and the C 446 presents them all in one of two convenient places. You can also choose to stream your C 446 radio (AM/FM too!) via that Toslink output to your DAC of choice which I did and will talk about later.
Universal Plug 'N Play is not exactly universal but this is not an issue with the NAD C 446 rather with semantics and marketing. UPnP promises seamless communication between UPnP devices. I had less and more luck with the seamless part but again I would not blame the NAD C 446. I use the Seagate BlackArmor NAS 220 which is "DNLA compliant" not "DNLA-Certified" and while it may be compliant, I could not get the C 446 to recognize the music it held. I sent off an email to Peter Hoagland of Lenbrook International (NAD's parent company) who set up this review and he got back very quickly with a response from Greg Stidsen, NAD's director of technology and product development, "It sounds like the music has not been added to his NAS’ built in UPnP server. This is a NAS specific setup inquiry. You probably manually need to specify where the music is located so the NAS’ UPnP server knows, he will need to check this in the NAS’ setup documentation."
Unfortunately my NAS setup documentation leaves a lot be desired and online searching proved equally futile in terms of finding a solution. Since time is a factor I decided to take an easier way out and I connected my LaCie d2 Quadra hard drive to my Netgear N600's "USB Share" port and by the time I walked back upstairs it appeared as an option under the "UPnP Client" menu. Whew. So I browsed to the sub-directories of my newly network-attached USB drive and selected "Albums" and was greeted with a sub-directory of all of the albums on the drive. Nice. I then backed up and selected "All Music" and it took the C 446 over 3 minutes to list it (I timed it using the Stopwatch on my iPhone). There are over 450 albums on this drive so that equals a lot of songs which leads me to conclude that if you have a very large music library, the C 446 may present you with rather sluggish response times when browsing by "All Music". I suggest just browsing by "Album" or "Artist" or even "Playlist" and you shouldn't have the same problem unless you have thousands of albums in which case you may want to look elsewhere.
[Editor's note - I heard from Greg Stidsen of NAD and he reports that, "...using Twonky server on a windows PC here we get larger lists within seconds." Greg goes on to suggest that there may be some problem specific to my system causing the slower performance and that, "It is really hard to know for sure what the problem is, but it should not be that slow."]
I also streamed music from my iPhone to the C 446 using the AirMusic app which was a breeze to accomplish—download the App from the iTunes Store ($2.99), install it, start it, select it from the C 446's UPnP Client menu (I expected it to show up under the UPnP Receiver menu option but it didn't), and browse to the music you want to hear using the C 446's remote or the front panel controls.
I also installed the free Twonky Server software on my network-connected MacBook Pro and the C 446 recognized it almost immediately. However during playback I experienced an error on more than one occasion during the same listening session. Essentially the music would just stop. I sent off an email to Peter Hoagland and got this response from Greg Stidsen of NAD, "If Twonky is having problems serving up content there could be either a performance issue on the laptop or the network which is causing a bottleneck." I am more inclined to blame this fault on the network although I was listening when there was no other traffic on the network (I was home alone, again). Since there was nothing I could do to correct this problem, I did not spend much time listening in this manner. I would suggest that a MacBook Pro running Twonky server is not an ideal network music server for the C 446 for any number of reasons and a NAS option is the preferable way to go.
To test out the UPnP Receiver, I cranked up my PC, opened Windows Media Player (WMP) and followed the setup instructions found on the Microsoft Website. Essentially you have to turn on home media streaming, find the NAD listed under Media streaming options and set it to allow streaming. Then it was just a matter of going back to WMP, selecting a track to play, and then choosing "Play To" the NAD C 446. In terms of sound quality, I noted that it sounded roughly akin to the better internet radio stations in that there was a sense that the noise floor was raised over playing music from a hard drive even though there wasn't any spurious noise to be heard. Put another way, music sounded a bit forced or processed.
I setup a free account with LAST.FM but you can't use the C 446's LAST.FM function with a free account - "Subscriber's Only". So I sucked it up and forked over the $3 one-time payment for a month of LAST.FM (full review to follow since I may as well get my money's worth) went back to the LAST.FM option on the C 446's and was streaming in seconds. I was greeted by Miles Davis since I had included John Coltrane, Nick Cave, Fennesz, Ghédalia Tazartès, J.S. Bach, Mal Waldron, Morton Feldman and others as my favorites. LAST.FM also threw some Jaki Byard my way which scored them big points and I listened for an evening mostly delighted. LAST.FM streams at 128kbps which makes me wonder why not Spotify or MOG? Logitech's Squeezebox serves up some MOG at 320kbps which sounds much more appealing. That aside, and I could put it aside, I was delighted with all manner of musical surprises as LAST.FM played me my personal radio station. I did experience a few dropouts while listening which I'd attribute to our wired network but when I switched over and listened through my iMac, wirelessly mind you, no more dropouts.
Up front you can insert a USB memory stick into that USB port and play your stored music. There are some limitations in terms if maximum number of folders supported (128) and maximum file in device (65,408) which do not strike me as serious limitations for a USB memory stick. While the manual specifies the maximum bit rate supported for USB as 320K, I played WAV files and by pressing the "INFO" button on the remote was told by the front panel display that I was listening at "WPCM 1536K". Music played from USB memory stick sounded very similar to the music played from the network-attached hard drive if not the same.
Summing Up, or The Grand Total
The NAD C 446 presents its owner with a serious array of options for feeding it digital music. Wired or Wi-Fi? In the C 446 manual NAD states, "The C 446 is defaulted to “Wired” setup. It is advisable that wired connection is utilized when possible. Wired connection is less likely to have “drop-out” or range problem and not vulnerable to interference or eavesdropping." The Received Signal Strength Indicator (RSSI) which you access through the Network Setup > Network Status menu was pretty much pegged at 72% and I did not experience any Wi-Fi drop outs. Whether or not there was any eavesdropping remains a mystery although I did see our neighbor's horses dancing when Lil Wayne and Drake were playing. I was surprised to find the sound quality of Wi-Fi to be very close to that of the wired connection. I should point out that we live in a fairly rural environment (I can only 'see' 1 other wireless network) so interference is not as big an issue for us as it may be for those living closer together. The C 446 employs the 802.11/b/g protocol for Wi-Fi which uses the 2.4 GHz band for transmission along with lots of other stuff (cordless telephones, Bluetooth devices...) which may impact Wi-Fi performance.
I think the bigger question is - What does the C 446 offer that a network connected or Wi-Fi enabled PC or Mac doesn't? Well, I can connect to my NAS very easily through either a Mac or PC, I can play internet radio, LAST.FM and other streaming servies that offer higher quality streaming than LAST.FM, USB memory sticks no sweat, the "Play To" function for Windows 7 Media Player works independently of the C 446, and all of my iOS devices talk to each other and the other Macs around the house without requiring my intervention. I can even control all of the Mac-based stuff with the free "Remote" app from the iTunes Store and I can connect to and play from an external hard drive via USB, Firewire or eSATA through my computers by connecting to a USB DAC (of choice) or by using the Toslink out on my Macbook Pro I can connect to any Toslink-enabled DAC. And I can play up to 24 bit/192kHz music files over our home Gigabit Ethernet network.
And I've yet to experience a single dropout while playing music off my NAS through a wired connection. So the appeal of the C 446 appears to be one of a single point of access for all this stuff controlled by the included remote, the front panel functions or Android/iOS devices (with Twonky Mobile). What my computers cannot do on their own that the NAD C 446 can and it does very well is play AM/FM or DAB radio and my feeling is the NAD C 446 is targeting people who need terrestrial radio and want a single source for all their digital streaming.
If we focus back on the sound of the NAD C 446 I'd say we're talking good but not completely captivating unless we're talking about FM. With all of digital inputs I felt there was a lack of variation in tone and texture that tends to make music sound less exciting. Less rich. My feeling is the DAC implementation is voiced to give sonic parity to the C 446's various methods of input and this voicing makes not great sources sound not grating. Sonically grayed yet lively. Lots of snap, not so much pop. If you are mainly interested in streaming from internet sources, this may not be as prominent as it is with higher resolution hard drive-based music.
To add option to injury, I connected the Musical Fidelity M1 DAC (which is in for review) to the C 446 via that Toslink out and I have to say that I was immediately more pleased with the presentation. Color, life, and a tonal scale more akin to what makes me pay attention to music returned. I went back through nearly every input option and enjoyed each that much more. I'd also point to a flattened and somewhat stunted sound as if the reverb trail was cut short when listening to the NAD solo. While it should come as no surprise that adding a $700 DAC to an $800 multi-function device should and did improve performance, I view this as more of a necessity as opposed to an option in terms of long-term listening enjoyment.
You're Not Seriously Going to Ask for More?
Call me a glutton but yes, Id ask a few more things of the NAD C 446:
- Support for at least 24 bit/96 kHz playback
- A USB input for direct connecting a hard drive (hey, it's my list it doesn't have to be practical)
- Additional S/PDIF digital outputs including Coax
- Higher Resolution Streaming Services like MOG or Spotify
- A thicker PDF manual with a beefier (and more realistic) troubleshooting section including a list of error codes and their meaning for starters
And that should do it. I have to say that as my time with the NAD C 446 was coming to an end, I felt a sense of urgency to play through some of its inputs one last time. And the one that called me back the loudest was LAST.FM's personal radio station even though it did not offer the best sound quality. I wanted to know what it had in store for me and the idea that it may be music I may not already know gave me goosebumps.
Related News and Reviews
- 2013-02-12 NAD Wins 5 Absolute Sound Editors Choice Awards
- 2012-10-30 Sound and Image Highly Commend C 446 and T 757
- 2012-07-13 C 390DD and C 446 Star in Absolute Sound Guide
- 2012-05-01 Outstanding NAD C 446 Review in The Absolute Sound
- 2011-12-21 C 446 Forces Its Way Into Streaming Audio Category
- 2011-11-25 Star-studded C 446 in Ultimate Guide
- 2011-08-22 Five-Star Sound and Streaming Without AirPlay
- 2011-08-01 C 446 is Making a Stand Internationally