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C 446 Forces Its Way Into Streaming Audio Category

December 21, 2011

NAD C 446 Review: "A Solid Entry Into The Streaming Audio Category"

By Head-Fi.org and Project86

 

BACKGROUND

NAD has been around for a long time – next year marks their 40th anniversary in the audio biz. Many an audiophile got their first taste of "proper hi-fi" through the NAD 3020 amplifier, and there have been literally dozens of highly significant models released since then. Today you can buy a wide range quality gear from NAD, from the $379 C316BEE to the $6,000 M2. And that's just the integrated category – they also do CD and DVD players, dedicated amplifiers, and other types of gear.
C 446 Digital Network Streaming Tuner

OTHER MODELS

This C 446 Digital Media Tuner is a new release from NAD. The "C" stands for "Classic Series", which means it matches aesthetically with the other C-series disc players and amps. NAD recently unveiled some higher end components from their Master Series - The M50 ($2500) is the playback device and the M52 ($2000) is the storage device. These are so new that they aren't yet on the NAD website as a write this, and are obviously geared towards a different market than the C 446.

DESIGN

The C 446 is a full size component that will look right at home on an audio rack. It is roughly the size and shape of a good integrated amplifier. If you already have some NAD components in your system from the Classic Series, the C 446 will be a perfect match. Even if you don't it should still blend very well with your equipment. I've always appreciated the balance NAD has achieved with the C series – they look somewhat upscale yet still understated.

The C 446 has a nice clean front panel that still allows control of most functions. Select your source, scroll through various stations or files, play or pause; it's all there. The display is a VFD type similar to what you would find on a decent CD or DVD player, though is a bit taller to accommodate the extra lines of info needed here. Many devices in this category have large icon driven displays, and often show album art, but NAD sticks to a more classic styling.

Out back we find plenty of connectivity options: antenna connections for AM and FM radio, analog RCA outputs, Toslink digital output, LAN port, RS232 port, NAD iPod dock port, and finally connections for a 12V trigger and IR flasher. There is also a spot to attach the included WiFi antenna. Many of these connections are things that you typically find on higher end gear, in order to integrate into a custom installation. I personally didn't use the 12v trigger, IR input, or RS232 port, but I appreciate the fact that NAD included them. Power is connected through a standard detachable IEC cable.

Internally, we find lots of spare room in the case, though not as much as we saw with the Grace model. NAD certainly could have made this into a more compact unit, but that would mean A) it would no longer take up a full spot in a standard audio rack/shelf, and B) it wouldn't match up with any of the other Classic Series components. So I think they made the right choice. If this were a CD player, much of the empty space would be occupied by transport components, which the C 446 obviously doesn't need. So I don't think it is totally fair to complain about the space inside the case.

"I'll be sending the unit back soon and I already miss it."

There are basically three main parts to the design: power supply, main board, and radio tuner. The radio tuner is an enclosed part so I can't see inside. It sends the signal to the main board where a TI PCM1808 ADC converts the analog data into digital.

The power supply uses a somewhat small transformer as part of a more complex design, flanked by over a dozen capacitors of various sizes. NAD has long been known for their quality power supplies, and although this model doesn't appear to be as robust as the supplies used in their power amps, it doesn't really need to be either.

The main board of the device is where we find the various bits that make the C 446 tick. The heart of the design (as far as audio reproduction is concerned) is a Cirrus Logic CS4392 DAC and twin NE5532 opamps. Neither of these are considered cutting edge at this point, yet both have been used in numerous high end designs. The CS4392 was once popular in audiophile disc players from such companies as Luxman, Myryad, and Unison. And the venerable NE5532 shows up everywhere - from expensive CD players like the Exposure 2010S to the new Cambridge 751BD universal player, as well as the Music Fidelity M1 DAC (a Stereophile component-of-the-year runner up). I don't mean to imply that the C 446 is on the same level as those units simply because it uses the same DAC or opamps. My point is that these inexpensive components can and are used in a variety of applications, from low end to high.

BUILD QUALITY

The C 446 seems rather well built and certainly meets my expectations for an $800 component. It isn't fancy, but tolerances are tight and finishes are well done. The gold "feet" on bottom are a nice touch, adding a bit of class to an otherwise low-key design. Despite the case appearing somewhat empty, the device weighs in at over 10 pounds, which is fairly substantial.

I really enjoyed the included remote control. It felt good in my hands and seemed to be laid out well. The only complaint I had: I didn't end up using the number keys or transport keys much, so I was a bit disappointed that they took up so much real estate. Aside from that it was about as good as it possibly could have been.

FEATURES

The C 446 aims to be the heart of your system, and has enough features to support that goal. It can play AM/FM terrestrial radio. It can access thousands of internet radio stations using the vTuner content portal. It can stream audio tracks from a computer or NAS using the UPnP protocol. It can play tracks directly from a USB stick or portable hard drive through the front panel USB input. It can also access Last.fm, which requires a paid account at $3/month. Euro versions support DAB and DAB+ radio. That is a lot of options for getting content.

Breaking those features down into more detail:

AM/FM – A unique feature here is that the stream can be passed out in digital form through the Toslink output. This could make system setup easier, though for most folks it won't matter.

Internet radio – vTuner works quite well for organizing your favorite stations. It is much easier to do all that legwork on your computer and then access it through the C 446, rather than do it all from the device itself. I have a "favorites" menu setup, and inside I keep things organized into different genres: classical, jazz, rock, pop, world, Christmas, electronic, reggae, etc. It is easy to search for stations and add them to the proper section. Since vTuner allows filtering by bitrate (they label it "fastest speed") I was able to quickly find high quality 320k mp3 stations for most genres, which sound pretty darn good.

UPnP playback – The C 446 can play FLAC, MP3, WAV, AAC, and WMA files, up to 24-bit/48kHz. That limitation means it doesn't handle what we usually consider "Hi-Resolution" tracks, though one could argue that tracks such as the Bowers & Wilkins Society of Sound releases at 24/48 qualify as Hi-Res. They certainly sound good enough. Still, this limitation means that some care is required when organizing or selecting files for playback. When I accidentally select the 24/96 version of "Paper Airplane" by Alison Krauss & Union Station, the C 446 gets stuck on "Buffering" and never finishes.

"Play with it, listen to it, maybe even arrange an in-home trial. You might be glad you did."

USB playback – I tried a few flash memory drives, as well as a 500GB Seagate portable hard drive, and had (mostly) good luck with all of them. I did run into an issue though: when I power down the C 446 with a USB stick or hard drive plugged in, it sometimes fails to recognize the drive when I later power back on. A quick unplug-then-plug-back-in maneuver rectifies this situation. NAD likes to use the term "USB memory stick" when talking about the USB port, as if to discourage use of an actual spinning-platter hard drive. My first try was to add a dozen test albums to the Seagate drive, and it all worked out perfectly. That drive has since been paired with a different streaming player and loaded full of hi-resolution files. I later tried plugging it back in to the C 446 and it recognized the drive by saying "Attached", but went no further. This is probably caused by some issue with the amount of files or possibly even the sizes of the files - some of the Reference Recordings HRx 24-bit/176.4kHz tracks are simply massive. But I don't have the time or energy to erase the drive and try it again. Portable USB hard drive support is almost always a bit touchy in my experience, so I really can't predict if your particular drive will work or not.

The manual gives some limitations to watch out for: FAT32 format, maximum of 65,408 total files in a maximum of 128 folders. As long as you work within those parameters most drives should theoretically work. Some drives may require an external power source (like a powered hub) but mine didn't. Surprisingly I found that I didn't use USB as much as I had anticipated. UPnP worked well enough so I usually stuck with that. Your needs may differ.

Last.fm – The literature on the NAD website says the C 446 features " …support for cloud music services such as Last.fm". That implies that Last.fm is only one example of several. But in reality it is the sole choice. It also requires a $3/month premium account in order to work with the NAD (Last.fm free accounts work with computers only). I hope that NAD has plans for adding more services in the near future. MOG or Spotify might be a challenge due to their more complex user interfaces, but Pandora and Aupeo! would be a perfect fit here. Both offer free services so C 446 users could get up and running without spending extra money initially. The remote already has buttons for Like/Dislike so it should be a perfect match.

Interestingly, NAD chose not to design a specific App for Android or iOS users to control the C 446. Instead, users can choose from any one of a large number of existing UPnP remote Apps. I'm personally using Skifka on my Android Tablet and iMediaControl on my iPad. Both are free and both do a reasonably good job of handling basic remote functions. Other options include Smartstor Fusion Stream for iOS (free) and PlugPlayer for Android or iOS (not free). I do wish that NAD had offered some suggestions for what programs they like. I suspect the target market for C 446 includes folks who aren't extremely computer savvy, and some tips on which options to try might have been appreciated.

SETUP

The C 446 was quick and easy. After plugging it in and telling it to use my network, I was prompted for a password, and was up and running from there. I used www.vTuner.NADelectronics.com to start a vTuner account and register my unit. Since I already had UPnP running well with my Windows 7 based PC, I was all ready to go.

USE

The C 446 was easy to get the hang of. Using the left and right Source buttons on the remote or the front panel, one can quickly cycle through the various functions. The screen was well laid out and generally bright enough, though sometimes difficult to read from across the room. This is not due to any deficiency in clarity or brightness but simply the font size. I see no way to avoid this while still presenting a similar level of information, and as it stands it is certainly no worse than most disc-based players.

The top line of the display always tells what source you are listening to. The next level down gives you specific information about the song: each push of the "info" button switches this line to show something else – song title, artist, album, then compression type and bitrate. There are variations based on what source you are using but it is generally similar. The bottom level shows status such as "playing" or "paused", along with elapsed time. I tried to capture the display in action as that will probably give you a better idea than my attempted explanation.

Moving through files or radio stations is fairly easy. The remote control has a nice 4-way rocker plus an "enter" button in the middle, and that's what gets used 90% of the time. You can list music by the usual criteria such as artist, genre, album, etc. As with any device of this nature, the results depend on how well your library is tagged. My one complaint here was that scrolling through a long list could take a while. There is a search option but it is inconveniently located at the end of the file list – by the time you scrolled down to it, you would have already passed whatever you were looking for. It would make way more sense to place it on top instead.

This issue was solved through the use of an iOS or Android device as a remote. Scrolling through your list on a big touchscreen device is by far the easiest way to deal with a large music library. The addition of album art is a small benefit as well, but it is mainly the navigation that I'm concerned about. If you have a smaller library (or just more patience than I do) the standard remote is perfectly fine, but for huge collections a smartphone really upgrades the experience.

In terms of speed, the C 446 was pretty impressive. Boot up takes a little longer than I'd like, but once it was up and running things moved along quite well. Selecting my large library from a networked computer caused just a short delay, and it would probably be shorter if I had a faster network. Playing songs from USB was near instantaneous, and UPnP playback was quick too. Internet radio stations took a second or two to load, occasionally longer when they are very far away. I never ran into any buffering issues, and had no interruptions once playback had begun. I did occasionally get errors when selecting internet radio stations: A message saying "Media Invalid" would display and the unit would just sit. I found that the solution was to simply back out to the prior menu, then reselect the same station, and it would always work fine the second time around. A minor annoyance at worst.

Last.fm is not my favorite choice as far as music services go, and as I've mentioned it is the only music service available on the C 446 at the moment. For one thing, the bitrate tops out at 128k. That's not any better than the average internet radio station, and actually worse in many cases. I've used it before but don't currently have a premium account. I tried a free account just to confirm that it won't work with the C 446. Consider it confirmed. I'm hopeful that at least Pandora will be added as an option, but I have no specific information about whether or not that is in the works.

Some screenshots of the unit in action. These were difficult to capture due to lighting. Where there is any blur or apparent artifacting, it is because the display was changing at that moment.

"This was just a good sounding unit with its own character, and unless I compared it to a $1k+ stand alone DAC it held up pretty well."

SOUND QUALITY

The NAD C 446 has been a roller coaster ride for me in terms of sound quality. When I first plugged it in and used the RCA outputs with my speaker setup, I was blown away by the superb analog-like sound I heard. It had warmth, drive, and a wonderfully smooth top end that seemed perfectly suited for a device like this. Even though I was primarily listening to lossless files at the time, I knew that at least some of my future use would involve lesser quality material – I figured this was the perfect voicing to give the unit.

Things changed a bit when I started comparing the C 446 analog outputs with some of my nicer DACs. In direct A/B comparisons, I noticed that the top end on the NAD wasn't just smooth – it was actually missing some details altogether. The unit still sounded warm and inviting but the glossed over detail was a deal breaker for a while.

Eventually I think I got acclimated enough to the sound signature, and swung almost all the way back to my original position. This was just a good sounding unit with its own character, and unless I compared it to a $1k+ stand alone DAC it held up pretty well. It wasn't a detail monster but did an admirable job of balancing strengths and weaknesses.

Bass reproduction was clearly one of the strong points of this design. From punishing dubstep to slap bass funk to the amazing Gary Karr on double bass, the C 446 handled it all in a very fun yet convincing manner. It can't quite match the depth or dynamics of the best DACs and players I've heard, but the NAD unit is still very pleasing on its own.

Mids sounded well defined, if a little on the rich and warm side of neutral. Once again this seems like an optimal choice given the variety of material that will likely be played. Instruments and voices sounded realistic enough and I felt that the balance of technicality and emotion was just right. During really complex passages I noticed that there was a very slight blurring taking place, making it more challenging to focus on individual instrument placement (compared to my reference units). But on the whole this is a minor complaint.

Highs were a bit of a stumbling block for me. As I mentioned prior, it took me a while to figure out what to make of the C 446 sound signature, and the highs were chiefly to blame. My conclusion is that with the right expectations, the C 446 has a pleasantly forgiving tone, which will satisfy many but certainly not all potential customers. Everything is still there – cymbals, triangles, and various other percussion instruments are clearly rendered if not quite perfectly lifelike. If you are the type who demands crisp, hyper-detailed sound with sparkling highs, the C 446 (when used by itself) is probably not the best source for you. If you are willing to live with a smooth, flattering sound where poor recordings benefit, occasionally at the expense of hindering excellent recordings, the C 446 sounds pretty good overall.

Pairing the C 446 with an external DAC worked out nicely. The sole digital output is a Toslink optical connection – I would have liked to see a coaxial digital connection as well, but it isn't that big of a deal. The main benefit I see with coaxial is the ability to work with 192kHz sample rates, where optical generally tops out at 96kHz (in practice if not in theory). Since the C 446 is capped at 48kHz this limitation doesn't come into play. Still, if only for the sake of convenience, a coaxial output would have been nice. In terms of sound quality I didn't find the C 446 to be a significant factor – which means it makes for a high quality transport.

COMPARISON

To help gauge how the unit would stack up against similarly priced competition of the disc-spinner variety, I compared it directly against a few other players. The C 446 seemed easily more capable than the somewhat entry level Denon DCM-390 and Marantz CD6002 players. The Marantz was superior to the Denon but neither could match the dynamics or resolution of the NAD. Stepping up to a Cambridge Audio Azur 650C ($750 when new), the C 446 was different but roughly equal. The Cambridge had a more detailed sound that also seemed more open and spacious. It was less congested during complex passages, and had more pinpoint imaging. In contrast, the NAD seemed smoother, warmer, more rhythmic, less clinical, and overall more inviting for long term listening. I could see either one being declared superior based on listener preference, but I personally think they are more or less on the same level. My choice would depend on what gear I would be pairing it with, and what music would be played.

I didn't do direct comparisons with more expensive units, but I don't think the C 446 would compete with some of the better ~$1k units such as the Rega Apollo. Obviously high quality speakers or headphones and proper amplification would be required to discern the differences.

CONCLUSION

The NAD C 446 is a really enjoyable unit. Expectations run somewhat high at $799 and in my mind the unit really delivers, doing an outstanding job of balancing its wide array of features. It looks suitably high end and is sonically competitive with traditional disc players in this price category. As NADs maiden voyage into the realm of streaming audio I'd say they have done well for themselves.

The trick here is going in with the proper expectations: knowing what the C 446 can and can't do is really key to determining if it will be a good fit for your system. Those seeking a fancy color display complete with album art should obviously look elsewhere. Folks who judge gear by the complexity and prestige of their individual parts will not find enough bragging rights here. But go in with an open mind and a willingness to judge based on results rather than chip specs, and you are likely to be impressed.

"As NADs maiden voyage into the realm of streaming audio I'd say they have done well for themselves."

Clearly the 24-bit/48kHz limit will turn off some users. And I do think the issue is a valid criticism. But as I listen to Cara Dillon, or Samuel Yirga, or Radiohead, or Ola Onabule, or Tom Petty, or The Unthanks, or others in 24-bit/48kHz FLAC from B&W, Pristine Classical, and other sources, I can't help but think that I AM in fact hearing what I consider Hi-Res audio. But I agree that it would be convenient to play the rest of my collection and not have to worry about sample rate issues. Especially since many of my other streaming audio players do allow that. At the very least I think NAD should add an error message so users know when they have selected an improper file with too high of a sample rate. The current "buffering" message gives a false hope that the track is going to play, which is not the case.

Further criticism? The lack of Pandora or other streaming services, the single digital output, the failure to provide recommendations for remote control software. None of these are deal breakers in my eyes, and two of them are easy enough to fix if NAD wants to – making the C 446 go from "really good" to "exceptional" with a single firmware update.

I see the ideal customer for the C 446 as someone who already has a fairly nice system. They are heavily invested in their current components but want to add a new level of versatility. The C 446 analog output would be fed into their high quality pre-amp, and the unit would fit on their audio stand just like the other components. This customer has no interest in a touch screen interface. They may eventually use iOS or Android for control but will get by just fine initially with the standard remote. The C 446 is a good combination of functionality and simplicity, so even the most hardened Luddite should be able to figure it out.

Like every streaming audio player I've experienced so far, the NAD C 446 is not perfect, and it won't be ideal for everyone. But it you find yourself in its target market I highly recommend looking into it. Being from an established firm like NAD has benefits too – you are much more likely to find this model at your local dealer. Play with it, listen to it, maybe even arrange an in-home trial. You might be glad you did.

I'd like to extend a big "Thank You" to Peter Hoagland of Lenbrook, parent company of NAD and PSB Speakers, for loaning me this review sample. Your generosity to the HeadFi community is much appreciated. I'll be sending the unit back soon and I already miss it.

 

For the full online review on Head-Fi.org, click here.

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