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SoundStage reviews NAD C 315BEE Integrated Amp

June 17, 2008

NAD C 315BEE Integrated Amplifier

With the exception of the stocks in my 401K and the house I bought in 2000, the price of things almost never goes down. So call it a pendulum swing, or maybe a paradigm shift, but the trend in high-end audio has been downward, lowering prices while maintaining—and improving—sound quality along the way. Of course, you can still buy five-figure components, but for a company like NAD that specializes in equipment that costs five figures including what comes after the decimal point, the competition at the entry level has grown more fierce.

Only a few years ago, NAD’s 50Wpc C 320BEE was the definitive answer in integrated amplifiers under $400 USD. When it was replaced by the C 325BEE, the price went up to $449, and NAD saw an opening for a new 40Wpc option, the C 315BEE ($349).

Each of the aforementioned models has been proclaimed by NAD to be the "new 3020." First introduced in the late 1970s and designed by Bjørn Erik Edvardsen, NAD’s 3020 integrated sold like mad and launched the NAD brand into subsequent decades as the preeminent name of affordable high-end gear. Edvardsen’s engineering ethos and talents carry on in the contemporary "BEE" product line.

NAD C315BEE Integrated AmplifierApparently, Edvardsen and his employers subscribe to the old audio adage, "The better it looks, the worse it sounds." NAD gear is notoriously drab—or austere, if your view of simplicity is more charitable. The C 325BEE, for example, is available in any color you want as long as it’s graphite gray. The C 315BEE expands the color palette to black, and is quite handsome in its own retro way. Measuring 17"W x 3"H x 9 1/2"D—shorter and not as deep as the C 325BEE—the '315BEE’s slim profile and complexion mark it as a truer successor to the legendary 3020. The '315BEE may be relatively inexpensive, but its construction is sturdy and reassuring, with most of the unit’s 14 pounds accounted for by the toroidal transformer on the left and visible through the vented top.

Budget power and integrated amplifiers have been NAD’s bread and butter, but from the top of the line to bottom, NAD has enjoyed a reputation for offering products that deliver more than they specify, particularly when it comes to output power. It’s even widely perceived that NAD underreports, or is at least modest, in the claims it makes about wattage, relying on the superiority of its PowerDrive and Soft Clipping technologies that "aim to maximize available dynamic power while minimizing cost." Some compromises have been made to make the lower-power '315BEE separate and distinct from the '325BEE. Soft Clipping is not available, and the unit employs a simplified version of PowerDrive.

From left to right along the '315BEE's faceplate are the power button, headphone jack, and input buttons. If the '325BEE has more inputs than you’re likely to use, the '315BEE still has plenty: one fewer tape loop (leaving you with one), along with six line-level inputs, including a 1/8" socket on the faceplate—very convenient for connecting an MP3 player. A remote sensor leads to bass and treble knobs (with a tone-defeat button in between), a balance knob, and NAD’s usual volume knob on the far right.

The volume knob is as black as the rest of the case, and neither lights up nor uses any sort of contrasting dot or color to indicate its position. The black line in relief on the knob is understated to a fault. If the light is wrong, it’s invisible. At this point, NAD’s unwillingness to alter this characteristic seems like stubbornness.

On the rear are the corresponding single-ended inputs, one set of black and red plastic five-way binding posts, a non-detachable power cord, and a main power switch that enables the unit to rest at a stable temperature in stand-by mode (but it’s recommended that the main power switch be turned off if the unit is expected to go unused for an extended period of time).

Unfortunately, NAD has excluded the line-level output jacks that would allow you to use the '315BEE as a preamplifier when connected to a power amplifier or for biamping. The '325BEE allows for this possibility, but the irony is that its power output sounds more than adequate, while the '315BEE runs the risk of sounding a little light. The ability to combine NAD’s controls with more power might make the '315BEE a more attractive and versatile option as a listener’s first foray into the high-end audio.

The '315BEE comes with a smallish, simple, plastic remote that allows you to operate the integrated amp as well as an NAD CD player. I prefer its compact ergonomics to the more elaborate multi-unit control that is supplied with the '325BEE. Two indentations allow a pair of fingers to fit comfortably underneath, and on the top the layout makes sense, as all the important buttons are within thumb’s reach. Volume adjustment was accurate enough. However, I was disappointed with the unit’s unresponsiveness to attempts made with the remote angled any wider than directly in front.

System

You probably won't be surprised to learn that the '315BEE replaced a '325BEE in my system. Both drove Axiom M22 loudspeakers connected by runs of Element Cable’s Double Run speaker cable. The source was an Oppo DV-970HD universal player linked with Monster Cable Interlink 200 interconnects. The '315BEE isn’t intended as a "step-down" product, though it’s more likely that a listener will be taking a step up from it, so I auditioned it along with my '325BEE and a decent stereo receiver, the Denon DRA-345R.

Listening

If the knock on solid-state amps is that they all sound alike, the NAD C 315, without frills or flash, delivers on the promise of transistors: broad soundstaging, wide dynamic range, and concentrated focus on instrumental detail. It also has character, never losing sight of the fact that the science of engineering must be in service to a spirit of welcoming and engaging musicality.

For an integrated amplifier to get the music of Jay-Z right, it has to create a propulsive rhythm while rendering the dramatic scale of the rapper’s voice in relation to the beats—depth as well as height. The '315BEE drew me in to the point where I smiled at the bravado on "Izzo (H.O.V.A)" and the confident, clever humor of "Girls, Girls, Girls" off The Blueprint [Rock-A-Fella 586396]. The '315BEE conveyed the menace of "Takeover," with its growling Jim Morrison sample, as well as the exasperation, echoed by Bobby "Blue" Bland, on "Heart of the City." Every nuanced feeling was well articulated by the '315BEE with a naturalness that was physically and emotionally engaging.

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings’ 100 Days, 100 Nights [Daptone 012], although digitized, has the classic sound of late-1960s R&B. The bass lines are chunky, the drums crack, the horns blare, and Jones’ voice testifies in front of it all. The recording is very clean, and on "Tell Me," the '315BEE set the stage beautifully, with the drums set slightly back, the guitars holding down the middle ground, and Jones’ voice noticeably in front. This music relies on conveying feeling and inflection rather than technical precision, and the '315BEE found its heart, dealing equally with the loss of "Something’s Changed" and the defiant passion of "Let Them Knock."

Where Sharon Jones sounds as if she’s right there in the same room with her band, on Global A Go-Go [Epitaph 80440], Joe Strummer sounds as if his vocals had been matched to backing tracks, on top of music much more electronically textured and treated than the Dap-Kings’ Stax sound. Once again, the '315BEE's spatial imaging was impressive, as the acoustic strumming that opens "Johnny Appleseed" danced overhead before it gave way to a raucous band performance bolstered by spirited background vocals and rollicking drums. At reasonable volume, the '315BEE kept everything together in a coherent presentation. It was crisp on the low end, shimmering up above, and transparent and detailed in the middle.

No one ever accused NAD of making the most accurate integrated amps on the market, but in the years since the introduction of the 3020, the house sound has been based on bang for the buck, and if not a reputation for achieving sonic perfection, certainly the ability to do most everything right and do nothing egregiously wrong. NAD products aim to please, and the '315BEE is no exception. It deftly handled the vocal transients of Strummer’s "Bindhi Bhagee," which moves from conversational to rap speed, as well as revealing the subtleties buried in the Balkan exoticism of "Shaktar Donetsk."

One area in which the '315BEE didn’t exceed expectations was its ability to get loud. Disc Two’s six-part "Ebony Fantasy" off the William Parker Clarinet Trio’s Bob’s Pink Cadillac [Eremite 32] was recorded live at Tonic on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The club has since closed, but it was a well-known haven for adventurous improvising musicians and enthusiastic audiences. The recording emphasizes the intimacy of the relatively small room, and the musicians’ concert amplification was minimal, if at all. Parker’s double bass is thick and rich, Walter Perkins’ drums skitter, and Perry Robinson’s clarinet darts into and weaves around the melodies.

But as the volume knob crept up on the '315BEE, after about 1:00, there just wasn’t much oomph left. Individual voicing was lost and the sound congealed to indistinction. At moderate volume the music was inviting and non-fatiguing, but the power needed to bring the musicians more fully into the room wasn’t quite there.

Still, the C 315BEE’s modest goals are successfully reached: tunefulness is reproduced properly, the intention of the performer comes across, the listener is drawn in, and listening becomes fun. The '315BEE plays music with authority, dimension, depth, and flawless timing -- all for $349.

Comparison

My Axiom M22 speakers are fundamentally neutral but with a hint of warmth, and they responded well to the power boost supplied by the NAD '325BEE ($449). Taken at face value, the '315BEE’s 40 watts per channel don’t seem too far away from the '325BEE’s ($449) 50. In my experience, however, when driving an 8-ohm load, the '325BEE tended to behave more like a 100Wpc amplifier, giving music verticality, breadth and punch. The '315BEE stayed closer to its power rating, handling reasonable volume levels without strain but running out of gas at high volume. Rated at the same 40Wpc, the Denon DRA-345R receiver (about $250 when still available) is competent but decidedly mid-fi when following a superlative performer such as the '325BEE. It feels underpowered and uninvolving, and creates a narrower and more limited soundstage with a reduced sense of realism.

Inserting the NAD '315BEE into the audio chain reverses these impressions. When listening to the newly issued Rudy Van Gelder edition of Lou Donaldson’s lost classic Lush Life [Blue Note 742142] through the Denon DRA-345R, the music sounded just a bit insubstantial and vague. When compared to the '315BEE, what should have been gentle and luxuriously orchestral on the Denon sounded veiled and pallid. "Sweet Slumber" opens the disc with the unapologetically romantic sound of Pepper Adams’ baritone, before Donaldson states the melody and then hands it off for a solo from Wayne Shorter. Each of the sax players sounds as if he is doing his impression of Ben Webster: Adams on the brawny low end, Donaldson sweetly fluttering on top, Shorter wrapping his arms around the midrange. The '315BEE was able to render these individual sonic characters with all the ambience and atmospherics you could ask for. Its capacity for greater information retrieval made it more believably realistic and gave it greater presence than the Denon receiver.

NAD competes first and foremost on price. The easy advice would be to spend the extra hundred and get the '325BEE instead of the '315BEE, mostly for its higher power rating and greater subjective power output. Most of us want as much wattage as we can afford. There is something primal about having it available, just in case.

Conclusion

If you were to follow the general rule of spending as much as you could on speakers, then finding an amplifier to support them while saving as much as you could on the source, wires, and cables, this system, including the NAD C 315BEE, would cost about $1000. You could spend less or considerably more, but that thousand dollars can buy an amazing stereo for a person who has an average-size room, and it would easily exceed that same person’s average expectations.

In the end, NAD is in the expectation business—surpassing them. Supplying the joy a listener gets from rich, full, clear sound; tightly defined bass; airy highs; and a darkly tinted and liquid midrange—the '315BEE provides all of this along with a level of realism and refinement not offered from mid-fi receivers.

If there’s anything NAD knows how to do, it’s design and manufacture an entry-level integrated amp. The C 315BEE’s build quality—and sound quality—are first rate, and the unit is likely to last for a couple of decades. Unlike stocks and houses, which are bought and sold, NADs stay in the family.

...Jeff Stockton

 

 

Review Summary

Sound:

"Delivers on the promise of transistors: broad soundstaging, wide dynamic range, and concentrated focus on instrumental detail. It also has character, never losing sight of the fact that the science of engineering must be in service to a spirit of welcoming and engaging musicality." "Every nuanced feeling was well articulated by the '315BEE with a naturalness that was physically and emotionally engaging."

Features:

A 40Wpc budget-priced integrated amp that's billed as the '"new 3020.'" "The '315BEE comes with a smallish, simple, plastic remote that allows you to operate the integrated amp as well as an NAD CD player." "Soft Clipping is not available, and the unit employs a simplified version of PowerDrive."

Use:

"Unfortunately, NAD has excluded the line-level output jacks that would allow you to use the '315BEE as a preamplifier when connected to a power amplifier or for biamping." "I was disappointed with the unit's unresponsiveness to attempts made with the remote angled any wider than directly in front."

Value:

"The '315BEE plays music with authority, dimension, depth, and flawless timing—all for $349."

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