Stereophile C 372 Review
December 3, 2006
NAD C 372 integrated amplifier
Jim Austin, October, 2006
At the extreme high end—Halcro, VTL, Boulder, etc.—reviewers gush about a lack of character. If you're paying $20,000, you want a preamplifier or power amp to disappear. At those price points we also want extreme, unfatiguing resolution, and noise that's well below what most people would consider audible. But at those prices, an absence of character is definitely something most people aspire to.
Oddly, a lot of people think it's a good thing when a less expensive amplifier has character. We're generally tolerant of noise and limited resolution in cheaper gear, as long as a component is easy on the ears—but character is a selling point. So what are we to do with an $899 integrated amplifier that aspires to, and substantially achieves, bleeding-edge virtues? Does that make it boring—or an outstanding value? Or both?
Not just another pretty face
The NAD C 372 isn't flashy. On the shelf just below my Marantz SA-15 SACD player, with its blue lights and scrolling text, it looks rather plain. It's handsome enough, but no one who's used to the look of more expensive gear is likely to buy the C 372 for its looks. Still, there's an integrity to its design that is appealing: it looks like what it is.
"I've never heard better resolution from [my] speakers with any other amplifier."
The C 372 succeeds the C 370, which received a lot of good press, including a favorable review by Chip Stern in the January 2002 Stereophile; he called it "an exceptionally solid, versatile, musical performer." The C 370 also won the Amplifier of the Year award from the European Imaging and Sound Association, and was, for a while, a Stereophile "Recommended Component."
For the C 372, NAD beefed up and refined the C 370 formula. They upgraded the power supply with a larger transformer and better capacitors, which made it possible to up the power from 120W to 150W. They improved the preamp and driver-stage modules (both of which are claimed to be pure class-A), improved the tone-control circuit, and revised the layout of the circuit boards to further reduce the C 370's already low distortion. The remote was upgraded and the cosmetics were changed. Voilà—the C 372.
For a feature-rich amp, the C 372's front panel is exceptionally simple and clean. There's a Power button, separate buttons for each of two sets of speakers, and buttons for the seven line-level inputs—including two tape loops. The Bass and Treble controls can be bypassed for a shorter circuit path via a front-panel switch. There is also a Balance control and, of course, a Volume knob. Everything but the tone and balance controls can be adjusted from the remote.
Around back, NAD's designers went for flexibility, not minimalism. The rear panel contains seven line inputs, two sets of speaker outputs, and two preamp outputs, one of which has a volume control. That volume control allows you to use any amplifier, regardless of gain, to biamp your speakers, if you're so inclined. One of the pre-outs can also be connected to a powered subwoofer or two. There is also a power-amp input, which allows insertion of a parametric equalizer or a high-pass filter, such as the one required by Vandersteen's 2Wq subwoofer. All inputs and outputs (except, of course, for the speaker binding posts) are unbalanced RCA.
The amplifier section can be bridged via a rear-panel switch to create a single 300W monoblock. The rear panel also contains a switch to defeat NAD's Soft Clipping feature, which, though it might be very useful in a less powerful amplifier, wasn't needed in my relatively small living room, where clipping is unlikely to occur at the levels at which I listen. I thought—I wouldn't swear to it—that I perceived a slight loss of resolution when Soft Clipping was engaged, so I turned it off for most of my listening.
The C 372 doesn't have a phono stage; it does, however, have a headphone amplifier with a single 1/4" connector on the front panel, the volume controlled, as usual, by the preamp section's volume knob. Speaker outputs don't automatically mute when headphones are inserted, but speakers can be turned off at the front panel or with the remote.
Once you're used to the remote, it's easy to find the Volume and Mute controls in the dark—a remote's most important feature, in my opinion. But the remote is multifunction, designed, apparently, to control a range of NAD components, which means it's busier than it needs to be if you use it to control only the C 372. It doesn't seem to be programmable. In an all-NAD system, the remote's versatility would probably be appreciated, but it wouldn't work with my Marantz SA-15 SACD player, so for me, the extra complexity was a mild annoyance.
What's inside the NAD C 372 matches what's outside: it's all business. If you're looking for an amplifier that will add a touch of richness to the sound of your system, you should probably look elsewhere. But if you seek a neutral, feature-rich integrated that delivers the music with plenty of power and resolution with no troubling noise or significant sonic defects, the C 372 might be just what you're looking for. The fact that, at $899, it's also cheap by audiophile standards is merely a bonus.
In this most important part of the review, I find myself with little to say. Driven by the C 372, my speakers went as deep as they ever go, and as high. The C 372 was not the least bit tube-like, yet the sound had plenty of body, and the images it produced were dense and corporeal while also being precisely located in space. I heard none of the added richness and—I thought—slightly blunted transients provided by the Exposure 2010S integrated. The transient, metallic character of Sir Roland Hanna's Bösendorfer piano on the first nine tracks of Swing Me No Waltzes (CD, Storyville)—which went missing during the listening for my follow-up review of the Exposure in the January 2006 issue—was restored through the C 372. The presentation was spacious but not especially airy. There was a lovely sense of ease to the sound. The C 372 was dead quiet; there was no detectable noise through my 86dB-efficient Vandersteen 2Ce Signature speakers at any volume setting, and I could detect no spurious sounds between the notes.
The C 372 resolved everything I played through it to the limits my speakers and room allow—which is to say, I've never heard better resolution from these speakers with any other amplifier. Those of you who must share space with others, or who have neighbors and thin walls, will be happy to know that the C 372 sounded good at low volumes, and that its headphone section drove my Sennheiser HD 650s just fine. The C 372's tone controls alter the character of the sound delicately enough to be useful—a tweak of the Treble control could tame a bright recording—and if you don't want to use them you can remove them from the circuit path.
I feel I ought to say something critical about the C 372; otherwise, the folks on the Internet discussion groups are likely to take me to task. I haven't yet heard an amplifier that makes acoustic music sound acoustic—any kind of music I've ever heard reproduced electrically sounds electrically reproduced. The C 372 was no exception. It's a clean, quiet amplifier, but it is an amplifier and it sounds like one.
"It is sufficient—entirely sufficient—and that's really saying something. There's poetry in that, too."
I also detected, or thought I did, a slight channel imbalance; images were pulled just a little to the right of where I was used to hearing them. This could be fixed, of course, with a slight adjustment of the Balance control, and in any case I could be wrong about it. We'll see what John Atkinson's measurements reveal. Perhaps a better system in a better room would have revealed flaws in this amplifier's sonic presentation that I couldn't detect. Then again, maybe not.
Getting what you need
As I look back over what I've written about the NAD C 372, I worry that my choice of modifiers— neutral, lacking character—might not do it justice. Reading between the lines, people might conclude that I didn't particularly like this integrated, which isn't true. I liked it very much.
John Marks has written that sometimes a component just sounds right. I haven't had that experience—not in connection with a piece of hardware, anyway—but I know what he means. My own reference point is writing: It's hard work, you do your best, and sometimes it comes out right—really right—and that's special. But that alignment of the stars doesn't happen very often, and one of the few bits of wisdom I've acquired in 42 years is that it's foolish to try to force them to align, whether with colored foils, plastic chips, scotch, or what have you. In audiophilia as in life, the best approach is to make good, smart choices, remain skeptical but open-minded, trust your own ears but not too much—and hope that every now and then the gods smile on you. But it isn't particularly healthy to live for that fix from day to day.
It's all about being a basically rational person who believes in the value of a hard day's work but who also believes that, even if it's uncommon, there are such things as, say, art, music, or love. Audio, which has elements of all three, requires a lot of sweat over the long term. Sure, we crave those transcendent moments, but ultimately you come to value the sweat as much as the stars.
The NAD C 372 is not an aligner of stars, nor did I expect it to be. It's arguably something better: a job well done. It's one of the things you can control as you wait and hope that the stars will align. It is sufficient—entirely sufficient—and that's really saying something. There's poetry in that, too.
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