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Hi Fi Product of the Year

June 12, 2006

NAD C 320BEE Integrated Amplifier GOODSOUND! GREAT BUY

NAD's C 320BEE is the Honda Civic of integrated amplifiers. Like the Civic, its design is no-frills, and it's intended for a basic purpose: in this case, to reproduce recorded music accurately at an affordable price ($399 USD). For a component to achieve this and be so relatively inexpensive—and make no mistake, the C 320BEE's overriding benefit is its cost—questions much of the conventional thinking that goes into buying audio equipment. Do you get more if you pay more? How much more do you get? And at what price do returns begin to diminish?

Description

The C 320BEE is a descendent of NAD's first low-cost, high-performance integrated amplifier, the 3020, which thrived in the late 1970s and early '80s. Audio legend and current NAD engineer Bjørn Erik Edvardsen designed the 3020, and his initials on the updated C 320BEE honor his continuing contributions

Cosmetically, the C 320BEE looks like just about every other piece of equipment NAD makes. You might find the dark gray face and body, white lettering, and light green power button distinctive and austerely simple, or you might find it drab and dull. You may also decide that at this price, you can live with it, because the build quality is unquestionably good for the price.

Of standard size (17"W x 4"H x 11.5"D) and weighing a bit more than 14 pounds, the C 320BEE feels solid and substantial. The gray knobs, including Bass and Treble (along with a Tone Defeat button to bypass both of them) and Balance, are plastic and turn tightly without the least wiggle. The volume knob in particular is a little small, and its indicator—a raised black line on the gray knob—is hard to see from a distance. The connectors, with inputs for five line-level sources and two tape loops, are gold-plated and secure.

NAD C320BEE Product of the year

While seven inputs seems generous, it excludes one for a turntable, and though NAD (and other manufacturers) make auxiliary phono stages, its absence from the C 320BEE may disqualify it for some. And, of course, you won't be able to listen to the radio without dedicating one of those inputs to a tuner. Again, these represent choices. For instance, the amp does come with a system remote control for inputs, volume adjustment, activating the Mute function, and operating other NAD components. It also has a headphone jack, which is not a given among integrated amplifiers as you climb the price-and-quality ladder.

For the more ambitious, the C 320BEE can also serve as a preamp to an outboard power amp. By and large, this amp tries to appeal to the listener who plays CDs, perhaps would like to patch in an MP3 player every now and then, might use the amp to watch DVDs in two-channel stereo, and needs to listen privately from time to time.

 

The two channels of the C 320BEE are rated at 50W per, but had the clean punch and strong capability of a rating double that. In a normal listening environment with reasonably efficient loudspeakers, the C 320BEE delivers a steady stream of continuous wattage while holding some in reserve for when extra is necessary.


Setup

The C 320BEE isn't one to put on airs, and doesn't expect a lot of other fancy components to do its work. My CDs for this article were played on a Pioneer DV-353 CD/DVD player, hooked up with one-notch-above-the-bottom Monster Cable interconnects. I tested the C 320BEE with the comparably entry-level Paradigm Titan bookshelf speakers, on stands that raised the tweeters to just about my seated ear level and hooked up with 18-gauge lamp cord from the hardware superstore. Later I switched to another set of bookshelf speakers, the German-made MB Quart QLC 204s: ultraprecise, unforgiving, and a slight upgrade from the creamy-smooth presentation of the similarly sized Titans.

[The NAD C 320BEE] plays music without resorting to gimmickry, and fills you with pride of ownership.

Sound

In the quest for perfection, it doesn't get much more perfect than Ella Fitzgerald, and when paired with the great Louis Armstrong on Ella & Louis [Universal 589598], all the charm and sweetn

ess of her singing begs to pour from the speakers. The NAD C 320BEE was crystal clear in its ability to convey every nuanced syllable in "A Foggy Day" and the arresting stillness of her tone in "Moonlight in Vermont," almost as if Ella's voice were suspended on monofilament wire secured in place by the amp. From that level of quietude to the ebullience of her and Armstrong's exchange on "Can't We Be Friends," the C 320BEE efficiently established the contrast of Ella's purity with Louis's grit. On "The Nearness of You," the C 320BEE locked in Ray Brown's bass with dead-stop certainty.

On the William Parker Violin Trio's Scrapbook [Thirsty Ear 57133], the bass and drums do more than merely keep time—they are melodies unto themselves. When I played "Holiday for Flowers," the C 320BEE was able to lay the rhythmic foundation of Parker's bass and Hamid Drake's drums across the floor of the soundstage, while detailing the strings vibrating against the bass's neck and the wooden sticks as they struck the drum skins. Along with the percussive lows, Billy Bang's scratchy, trebly violin was a virtuoso of texture on "Singing Spirits," a cascade of squeaky scrapes on the title track. In this challenging sonic environment of a meaty low end under chirping highs, the C 320BEE never faltered.

Presenting a different challenge, Ryan Adams' Heartbreaker [Bloodshot 71] offers guitar rock, mandolin-driven mountain ballads, and rootsy country. "To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)" kicks things off with a holler, and the C 320BEE delineated the jangly guitars from the cracking drums while letting the music loosen up without slackening or unwinding out of hand. Adams' collaborators on this date were David Rawlings and Gillian Welch, who in their own music play and sing with the fervor of their old-timey forebears. On lesser equipment, I've occasionally been confused by the backing vocals on "Bartering Lines." Welch sometimes sounds like Rawlings, the voice recessed too far to reveal itself. On the C 320BEE, there was no doubt it was Gillian Welch. Each voice coming through the NAD had its own musical character and identity, most tellingly on "Oh My Sweet Carolina," where the amp was able to explore every subtle crack in Adams' delivery. When Emmylou Harris came in on the chorus, the separation and lucidity with the C 320BEE driving the MB Quarts was startling.

 

Method Man's Tical [Def Jam 5 23839], as produced by RZA, is the opposite of lucid, and MM's congested, phlegmy vocals are a perfect complement to the thickly mixed beats. All, however, is not murk, and the C 320BEE delivered the booming undertow of "Bring the Pain," the unhinged falsetto on "Mr. Sandman," and the rousing horns and soulful vocals of "Release Yo' Delf" with equal ease. It peeled away the layers of echoing, disembodied voices, eerie keyboards, and music sampled from kung fu movies, putting me in the lab next to RZA. Under the most unlikely circumstances, the C 320BEE was accurate without judging the source recording; truthful, colorful, authentic, and free from affectation.

Before bringing in the C 320BEE, I did a lot of listening through the centerpiece of the system in my first apartment, a Pioneer VSX-403 A/V receiver. It had a phono input I never used, and a tuner that, over the years, I used less and less. Rated at 60W for two channels, it produced all the music I was able to imagine. When the time came to upgrade, though, I realized there was more available than what was on display at the half-dozen big-box stores in my town. An integrated amplifier promised not just something different, but something better. However, other than the C 320BEE, the other medium-priced integrateds came in at $800 to $1000—and NAD made some of the few other models between those two points.

The Pioneer VSX-403 produced sound adequately. More than adequately, it did everything I expected it to do over the course of several years. Perhaps I should have raised my expectations. After living with the C 320BEE, as the dynamics of the music went up, the C 320BEE seemed to swell and lift where the Pioneer would strain. Simple increases in volume were substituted by height and depth and width. The difference between the Pioneer and the NAD was like the difference between screaming with your vocal cords and singing with breath supported by your diaphragm; between bending over at the waist to lift a piece of furniture with your back and squatting down to lift with your legs.

As a testament to its fundamental benefit, the C 320BEE didn't shy away from the individual characters of different loudspeakers. In this way the amp was a chameleon, assuming the qualities of its environment and optimizing whatever a pair of speakers had to offer, rather than imposing its own influence on what was played. The Titans lived up to their reputation as no-nonsense performers with a touch of warmth, while the NAD allowed the MB Quarts, with their much higher standard and level of capability, to really sing. It's all too easy to upgrade each component one by one almost without end; the match of NAD C3 20BEE and MB Quart QLC 204s illustrated the importance of pairing the right speakers with the right amp.

Conclusion

If you have any interest in building a high-quality audio system, the experts will tell you to spend what you can on speakers first, and spend on an amplifier second. This approach has been further reinforced by engineers who say there is no audible difference among amplifiers within a given price range. But you can't hear your CD player or your speakers without an amplifier.

The NAD C 320BEE is a "safe" choice. It isn't perfect—it has little pizzazz, it's not much to look at, and its knobs aren't terribly pleasing to the touch—but its priorities are in order. It plays music without resorting to gimmickry, and fills you with pride of ownership. NAD has made some choices to keep the C 320BEE's cost down, but hasn't compromised the quality of the music this integrated amplifier is able to make.

Entering the world of audiophile equipment is a slippery slope. Something as excellent and affordable as the NAD C 320BEE will get your feet wet even as it helps you get your footing. The C 320BEE epitomizes the entry-level audiophile component: Unlike with Honda's Civic, there is no equivalent of Toyota's Corolla to compete with it in its category. The NAD's level of performance for $399 makes it one of a kind.

...Jeff Stockton

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