C 375BEE Best Buy Award
September 11, 2009
NAD's latest amplifier successfully bridges the gap between budget and high-end hi-fi
Reviewed by Richard Black - Hi Fi Choice Issue 325
NAD made its name with budget amplifiers and its presence in that market continues to be strong. More recently, it has added the upmarket 'Masters' range—considerably more expensive products with more refined sounds and looks. In terms of hi-fi separates, though, there has been quite a gap between the ranges—a gap which the new 375BEE goes some way towards closing. But is it just more of the same stuff that goes in the cheaper amps?
Not according to NAD, which claims this amp is, in fact, closer to the Masters series M3. Among other Masters-type features, it uses a 'building block' approach for upgrades, including an optional phono stage (£70), which NAD supplied to us for this review.
We noted in fixing the phono module that there is a second expansion port, but as yet no product has been announced to fill it. A DAC, perhaps?
As the photographs clearly show, this is a pretty big chunk of amplifier. That's not surprising when one considers its specification, which includes a power rating of 150 watts into the usual 8 ohm notional impedance. NAD makes great play of its 'Full Disclosure' power specification, welcome in these times of 1,000-watt desktop audio, though most proper hi-fi companies certainly don't stoop to such depths.
Still, in practice this means NAD's specifications are distinctly conservative. We ran a few tests on the 375BEE which showed its continuous power delivery (driving two channels) to be barely a whisker below 200 watts, while a shade over 220 watts is available into one channel at a time and brief peaks (up to about 50ms, which is enough for most real-world musical transients) of 250 watts can be supported.
We are delighted to recommend it unconditionally.
This kind of power puts a strain on the internal workings if they aren't robust. But there are no such worries here as four pairs of output transistors per channel are in circuit, sharing the high output currents quite safely. They are mounted on large heatsinks and fed from a substantial toroidal transformer and a pair of very large reservoir capacitors.
This approach means that sustained high power delivery is not an idle boast: just about the only disadvantage (apart from the obvious ones of size and cost) is relatively high power consumption at idle, but this is still only in a region of 60 watts, similar to the 375BEE's obvious competitor, the Cambridge Audio 840A.
In common with many large-scale audio manufacturers, NAD is still using through-hole components for most of its circuits. The circuit boards of the two discrete power amplifiers (separate back to the mains transformer) are well filled with parts, while the single board mounted on the base is home to the relays, which switch inputs and outputs, various power-supply parts and also a couple of completely enclosed 'class A gain modules', which are evidently NAD's answer to the ubiquitous op-amp.
Gain control is still a motorised potentiometer, with tone and balance controls alongside—defeatable, of course. Inputs and outputs are plentiful, with a preamp output for bi-amping. The amp can be bridged if you really need 500 watts or so of output, in the company of a matching 275 power amp similarly connected.
Incidentally, as well as measuring output power we checked basic distortion and frequency response figures. They are all very impressive—midband distortion staying in the region of 0.001 per cent even at 200 watts output. That's not a trivial thing to achieve and we congratulate designer Bjørn Erik Edvardsen (the BEE suffix) on doing so.
Faced with a powerhouse like this, there's a strong temptation to load up a noisy disc at the outset, wind the volume control up high and settle back for some good old aural abuse. We did exactly that, but were rather taken aback by the results.
We've used high-powered NAD amps before and always found them enjoyable, if not always well controlled or revealing at high power. This one breaks that tradition, for it offers some of the best control we've heard at anything like the price.
We weren't exactly using the world's easiest speakers, either. The Bowers and Wilkins 803S is a fairly tricky load and needs a firm hand to keep the bass precise, but the 375BEE proves more than ready for the challenge. Even when delivering peaks close to the 200 watts threshold (which was louder then we were comfortable with) there was no sense of strain, nor of the shift of focus that often occurs when amps start to run out of puff—loud bass making the midrange and treble wilt, and vice-versa.
As a result, we spent a lot of time revelling in the classy combination of power and control which the amplifier offers. Perhaps the odd rock'n'roller might find it a little too clean, but unless your musical tastes run almost exclusively to the 'down and dirty' it's likely you'll be as taken as we are with the combination of refinement and uninhibited power delivery.
As we've mentioned before in these pages, classical music tends to have wider dynamics than most other styles and hence benefits most from high power output, and indeed we found ready use for the power in uncompressed symphony orchestra recordings. Bass drum and timpani rarely sound so vivid!
There is also a lot to admire and enjoy at more modest volumes. Another break with early high-power NAD amps is in the high degree of neutrality across the midrange. Previously, we've had some limitations about the degree of naturalness in voices, but on this occasion we find it very hard to pick fault in this area.
This is accompanied by some excellent resolution of detail, making it very easy to separate the different lines within a multi-layered piece of music. As usual, stereo imaging follows where detail leads, and although we have heard just a shade more image depth (from amps costing considerably more than a grand, mind you) we have hardly heard better imaging stability.
In a well-recorded oratorio recording, for instance, we found the placement of the voices absolutely consistent irrespective of the accompaniment behind them. An excellent result.
By this point, you're probably waiting for the big 'but'. Frankly, there isn't one. Forced to find criticism, we would have to resort to minor details of sound. Thus the highest treble isn't quite as open and airy as true high-end amps manage, nor is the deepest bass as precise though they both come shockingly close.
And ergonomics-wise, the volume control has a little backlash. And, of course, the unit, smart as it is, doesn't actually look a million dollars. But honestly, we reckon an unscrupulous reseller could put a fancy, thick aluminium front panel on this with some natty engraved graphics, jack the price up by a factor of two or three, and make some pretty easy sales.
There are some very good amplifiers out there, these days, between £500 and £2,000. The NAD C 375BEE is not by any means the only game in town but it is a very fine amplifier by any reckoning. We used it with some very smart sources and speakers and it never once nodded. We are delighted to recommend it unconditionally.