Stereophile Reviews C375BEE C565BEE
January 3, 2010
Sam Goes NAD
A colleague called the other day to ask for some advice he wanted to pass on. Could I recommend an integrated amplifier to go with a pair of Quad ESL-2805 electrostatic speakers? The amp should be readily available from a "real company" and sell for a "non-crazy" price.
I surprised my colleague when I suggested the NAD C375BEE stereo integrated amplifier for $1299, plus $199 for the optional PP375 onboard phono stage. Some audiophiles will cheerfully pay more than $1299 for a 1m pair of interconnects. With the NAD C375BEE, you don't need interconnects between preamp and power amp.
The price was crazy – not crazy expensive, but crazy cheap. How could Sam – or my colleague – suggest a $1299 amp to go with a $9500 pair of speakers? My colleague was looking for a more serious suggestion – one that would cost somewhere between $6000 and $10,000. His tone suggested that he was in no mood for one of Sam's jokes.
But this wasn't a joke. The Quad ESLs and their successors respond to a gutsy solid-state amp that can grab these otherwise staid speakers by their speaker terminals and lift them from the floor to rock'n'roll, or max out Mahler, or shake the floor with Shostakovich. Most of all, the Quads – which themselves are quick, clear, and clean – love an amp with balls on call that can deliver sudden bursts of clean sound.
According to Greg Stidsen, NAD's direct of product development, the ESL-2805's predecessor, the ESL-63, is one of the loudspeakers NAD uses when designing amplifiers. He didn't think my suggestion was crazy at all.
NAD was launched in 1972 by Dr. Martin L. Borish, an electrical engineer with a PhD in Physics who'd headed up international sales for Acoustic Research, then a major player in the UK. AR is now owned by Audiovox. When I reached AR's website, a message popped up: "Welcome to Home Décor" Dr. Borish is famous for having said, "If God wanted us to go to concerts, He would have given us tickets".
Dr. Borish aimed squarely for the sub-prime market. NAD's most famous product, the 3020 integrated amplifier, sold about 1.3 million units worldwide. If I recall correctly, the 3020's introductory price in the US was $149, back when you had to pay at least $299 for anything with pretensions to quality – like an Advent 300 receiver. NAD gear was assembled in Taiwan, at a time when workers there were still learning how to assemble stuff.
The Taiwanese have since turned themselves into highly skilled, highly paid workers, and thus uncompetitive with the Chinese. NAD, now made in China, has become a prestige brand, while some of its former "quality" competitors have either gone out of business or now routinely put their name on junk with 90-day warranties. (NAD's current warranty is two years, parts and labour) But NAD's quality control had improved long before Lenbrook Industries, of Canada, bought them in 1999. Lenbrook also owns PSB Speakers.
I received the C375BEE integrated amplifier and the C565BEE CD player. The letters BEE do not mean "B stock". They are the initial of Bjorn Erik Edvardsen, NAD's director of advanced development, who designed the NAD 3020. The name has a nice sting to it, don't you think? To judge from the number of new products that have come from the NAD hive lately, Bjorn has been a busy little BEE. I haven't heard all the BEE models, but the two I got were honeys.
NAD C375BEE integrated amplifier
This is not your itty-bitty integrated amp "designed in Britain" and made in China. The C375BEE is big 17" (435mm) wide by 5.2" (133mm) high by 13.7" (352mm) deep – and heavy: 33.7 lbs (15.3 kg).
There's a feast of features – or a surfeit, depending on your point of view. Five line-level inputs (four if the optional phono stage is installed), plus a tape monitor. There are two sets of preamp outputs, one of them controlled by the C375BEE's volume control. There's also a 1/8" (3.5mm) input on the front panel for connecting an iPod or other infernal MP3 device on the fly. There's even a switched electrical outlet on the back for powering another component, like a CD player. The supplied SR8 remote control controls all amplifier functions and most for the matching CD player, too – although you'll need the CD player's CD9 remote to control some of its functions.
Buttons, buttons, everywhere. There are selectors for two sets of speakers, A and B. And there's a built-in head-phone amp. To use it, you have to mute the buttons for both Speakers A and B.
The C375BEE's build quality is excellent, as I saw when I installed the PP 375 phono stage (you'll want your dealer to do this). The amp's appearance is curiously drab; a plain black (or silver) box. With the black faceplate, I found myself completely in the dark. Perhaps NAD should issue a flashlight with magnifying glass for folks over 50. To review the C375BEE's features, you can download a pdf of the owner's manual at NAD electronics.com. Just go to the sit map and look for "product manuals". Take a look at the photo of the black faceplate. See what I mean? Unreadable. With so much quality on the inside, why didn't NAD put more design quality on the outside? Fortunately, the SR8 remote control is attractive and well arranged; I could ignore the front panel.
The amp has power; 150Wpc into 8 or 4 ohms. Want more? The C375BEE can be bridged with a matching NAD power amplifier "to provide approximately 330W into an 8 ohm loudspeaker". Speakers with impedance lower than 8 ohms are not recommended in this mode. Problem is, many speakers claimed to be 8 ohms are closer to 4. I'd be very cautious about crossing that bridge; the bridged amps will see something approaching a 2 ohm load and might shut down to protect again a short circuit.
Something is wrong if a single C375BEE can't drive your speakers. Apparently, it's got lots of dynamic headroom, or the ability to deliver short bursts of clean power on musical peaks: 250W into 8 ohms, 410W into 4 ohms, or 600W into 2 ohms. Below 2 ohms, protection circuitry will shut down the amp.
Considering the clarity and speed of the C375BEE's sound – and the ball in the bass – its output transistors could only be bipolar. Which they are. Each channel has four pairs of bipolar outputs, driven by three pairs of bipolar drivers running in almost pure class-A. In effect, everything is class-A up to the output stage, which is class-AB, which is where distortion typically comes in; that is, when the amp's bias slides out of pure class-A. The king BEE (Bjorn) wasn't available, so I asked NAD's Greg Stidsen about this.
The C 375BEE at $1299 is a competition crusher.
"Most AB amps have high crossover distortion under dynamic conditions, while the NAD amps are very stable in this respect", he told me, adding that the BEE's output-stage configuration maintains ideal bias under dynamic load conditions; ie. Speakers playing real music. Like all but the least costly NAD amps, the BEE "uses a power supply design we call PowerDrive, which means high dynamic power and low impedance drive capability", Greg continued. "This allow for performance that is typical of a much larger and more expensive power supply".
NAD has apparently been doing this for years, under various names. The idea is to deliver momentary bursts of dynamic power way above the amp's rated continuous power.
"The design is optimized for 4 ohms loudspeakers with very low distortion and high peak current", Greg explained. "At 8 ohms, there is a huge unused capability in the power supply – it is barely ticking over. We use the extra capability of the power supply to increase the 8 ohms power (it only takes a few extra turns of wire to make a higher voltage secondary winding on the transformer) and then control this with an analog computer that looks at the actual operating status of the output stage – voltage, current, and temperature – to determine which voltage rail is most appropriate.
"In practice, the power supply sits on the high-voltage rail most of the time, which allows for massive dynamic power. But if the load is difficult for long enough, the PowerDrive circuit switches to the lower-voltage, high-current mode to keep distortion very low. This allows the amp to very closely match the power/time envelope of actual recorded music, as defined by the late Peter W. Mitchell and presented in a paper to the AES in 1987".
The optional phono stage takes moving-magnets and moving-coils. I tried it with my Rega P25 turntable and Goldring 1042 MM cartridge – the latter one of the best products Roy Hall of Music Hall distributes but doesn't support very much. Go figure I found the sound of the phono stage curiously uninvolving, especially for vinyl. The highs lacked extension and sparkle, while the overall sound lacked detail, especially spatial information.
A headphone amplifier is included. I used it with my AKG 701 ‘phones, which are admittedly tough to drive. I heard the same mediocre performance that I did with the phono stage; a lack of sparkle; a closed-in, somewhat muddy sound. I thought of a chocolate ice cream cone melting in my hand.
I used the amp with the non-quite-matching NAD C565BEE CD player (see below), which retails for $799. That's one player up from the C545BEE ($499). I also used the new Micromega CD30 ($2495), just to see how the NAD amp would perform with a far more expensive CD player. Speakers were the Harbeth Compact 7 ES3's. Speaker cables (heh-heh) were RadioShack's Megacable—flat copper wire that retails for $24.99/50' (model 278-1273, catalog #278-1273). This is not the best cable I've heard. But hear it before you ante up for more. I got three sets of speaker wire from my 50' roll of Megacable. Use bare wire, or order up some nifty banana plugs from monoprice.com, such as product #2801: $18.60/10 pairs, plus shipping. Order 12 pairs to make up tree sets of cables.
I listened mainly to classical and jazz CDs, avoiding historical recordings and the 1920s and ‘30s music I love so much – I might have been temped to use the C375BEE's tone controls!
From the get-go, I could hear that this NAD is a very special amplifier – up there in sound quality with the best solid-state. Just don't tell my colleague who wants to recommend something (ahem) more serious. The C375BEE is serious. The Harbeths had bass dynamics and extension I hadn't heard before, including with some amps far more expensive than the NAD – I'm stirring up a hornet's nest here – yet retained their famously sweet, neutral sound.
I listened to trumpeter Nicholas Payton's Gumbo Nouveau (CD, Verve 314 531 99-2). The first track, "Whoopin' Blues", came on like a house afire. The sound was tight, dynamic, fast. Track 2, "When the Saints Go Marching In", was even more satisfying. I thought Payton's trumpet was spot on, as it might be with a great tube amp but seldom is with solid-state. Tonally, the C375BEE was pushing all the right buttons for me. Maybe Marty Borish was right – who needs concert tickets?
Being the geezer I am, I turned to classical and one of ArkivMusic's splendid custom-burned reissue CDs: Brahms' Symphony 1, with Carlo Maria Giulini conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon 429 403-2). I've greatly admired Giulini, especially with Brahms, every since hearing the maestro conduct the Israel Philharmonic in Symphony 4 back in 1961 or '62.
The sound was rich and full, with plenty of support in the bass. The Wiener Musikverein sounded like itself (yes, Marina and I have been there), and yet the sound was open, with a light and airy sense of space. Highs were crystalline.
Strings are always a tough test for a solid-state amp. I tried the Strauss and Respighi violin sonatas, with Kyung Wha Chung and pianist Krystian Zimerman – another ArkivMusic reissue (CD, Deutsche Grammophon 427-617-2). This is the sort of beautiful chamber performance DGG once routinely offered. I thought the sound of Chung's violin was exquisite – sweet, extended, romantic, with no trace of digital or solid-state harshness.
Finally, I couldn't resist. I tried The Wasps, by Ralph Vaughan Williams, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vernon Handley (CD, EMI Eminence EMX 9508; no longer available, but you can find it used). The music was written for a Cambridge University production of the play by Aristophanes; the overture opens with strings imitating the buzzing of lawyers wrapped up in litigation. I thought the C375BEE got the buzzing just right. I was even more thrilled by the kettledrums in March Past of the Kitchen Utensils. You can't make this up. Now this is an amp!
The C375BEE ran slightly but not excessively warm. (Maksik, our cat, loves to sleep on it). You want to provide enough ventilation, and I don't recommend placing another component on top of it. It also ran exceptionally quiet (I have a dedicated AC line): no hum, no buzz, no BEEs inside the case. I had nothing to bumble – er, grumble about.
Except for the feature clutter. For those of us who can't stand surfeits of features, maybe NAD could offer a version without frills: No headphone section or speaker selection. No tone controls or soft clipping – which, on their website, NAD advises again using anyway! No triggers, no IR in and out. Certainly no switched AC outlet on the back. Simplify the remote. Make the faceplate readable. Could a stripped-down, hot-rod version be marketed for $1000? Could a "Special Edition" be offered for $1500, with upgraded RCA sockets and speaker connectors? Either way, I'd buy one.
Even as it is, with too many features, the C375BEE at $1299 is a competition crusher. Before you spend more, audition it. If you agree, write me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you disagree, write me. Tell me I should join NAD.org: the National Association of the Deaf. (Gad, I'm sounding waspish today. Full of venom). If you're on a tight budget and thought you had to compromise on sound quality and power…maybe you don't.
To borrow a word from Kal Rubinson, I think an audition is mandatory. Make a BEEline to your NAD dealer now.
NAD C565BEE CD Player
While you're there, you might as well audition NAD's C565BEE CD player ($799), another BEE from Bjorn's bonnet. The C565BEE is not quite the matching CD player for the C375BEE integrated – that would be the C545BEE ($499). Again, I used the Micromega CD 30 CD player ($2495), which lists for more than three times the price of the NAD. Would the C565BEE be another killer BEE? (Yes, Micromega, known in the late 1980's and early 90's for producing some of the best-sounding, if not always the most reliable, CD players on the planet. They haven't lost their touch. But that's for another column).
The C565BEE measures 17" (435mm) wide by 2.75" (70mm) high by 11.5" (285mm) deep and weighs 11.5 lbs (5.2kg). It's a substantial player, as it should be for $800, but its disc drawer struck me as somewhat lightweight and flimsy – though not as flimsy as the drawer of my $32 Philips DVD player from Walmart that I wrote about last month.
NAD's Greg Stidsen says that "the transport uses good Japanese parts that are cost effective and very reliable". These include a Sanyo laser pickup and a Toshiba controller. A Texas Instruments sample-rate converter upsamples to your choice of 96 or 192kHz, or no upsampling at all. "This feeds the latest high-end DACs from Wolfson (WM8741), featuring 125dB signal/noise performance", said Stidsen. "Because noise and distortion increase with higher sample rates, we double up the DACs and use a dual-differential configuration to improve the 192kHz performance".
I marginally preferred the 192kHz setting to 96 kHz, and strong preferred it to no upsampling at all; with no upsampling, there was less air, less ambience, a more digital lack of ease – less flow, if you will, Greg continued: "The output-stage op-amps are pretty fancy top-of-the-range Burr-Brown FETs. Only one carefully selected capacitor is in the signal path. Just having fancy parts does not make a product sound good. The circuit layout, power supply, etc., must be highly optimized to get this level of performance. We use multiple regulated power supplies to feed the various circuits to isolate noise and optimize performance".
To confuse the user and exhaust the reviewer, there are also four analog filter settings for each of the three upsampling options, you can engage on of these filters, for 12 ways to tailor the sound. Download the owner's manual if you're curious.
Moi? I'd decide on which upsampling rate I preferred (if any), then fiddle with the filters. I preferred the default Filter 1-slow rolloff with group delay, low ripple, and wide stopband characteristics – though I had a soft spot for Filter 3. The differences were subtle rather than dramatic. The point is, if you don't like the sound, you can change it.
The C565BEE has some useful features. Yes, I said useful. There's an optical digital input that you can use with a Squeezebox music server or a laptop computer for Internet radio – or HD radio, if your tuner has an optical output. There's also a USE input on the front panel, into which you can plug a flash drive loaded with MP3 files. There are the usual coaxial and optical S/PDIF digital outs.
I loved the USB input. (But NAD cautions not to remove a USB device with the music playing; otherwise, you might damage the player. What happened to bulletproof?) I won't listen to MP3 music files and I won't buy an iPod, but I do love to download spoken-word podcasts from NPR and the BBC. My aim is to listen to podcasts without the pod, cut the pod out of podcast – to core the apple, as it were. Usually I do this by running iTunes on my Mac mini computer, but sometimes I burn a program to a CD-R, especially for listening in the car. The NAD C565BEE gives me another, quicker option: I can copy the podcast to a flash drive. The results proved excellent. Unfortunately, I seem to have broken the USB input doing exactly what the instructions told me not to do.
Note that you can't use the USB input to connect a PC, "as they are both USB hosts", said Stidsen. "The USB port is designed to work with a memory stick or USB Hard Drive (FAT 32/16 format)". That's how I'd like to buy high-resolution commercial recordings: on a memory stick. But the record labels, major and minor alike, don't seem to give a rat's ass about what you and I want.
I compared the C565BEE with the Micromega CD30 CD player. I know this was unfair, but I wanted to hear a) what the C375BEE integrated could do when not held back by an inexpensive source, and b) what the C565BEE was capable of. (I wish I'd had another current $800 player to compare with the C565BEE. A good choice would have been the Cambridge Audio Azur 650C, which Audio Advisor sells for $699).
I thought the Micromega CD30 the far better player, as it damned well better be for $2495. I heard more air, more ease, more resolution. Transients were better defined – I heard that right away with Nicholas Payton's Gumbo Nouveau. And remember that Giulini performance of the Brahms Symphony 1? About a minute into the third movement, the triangles glisten with a bracing clarity. The Micromega CD30 let me hear Giulini and the Vienna Philharmonic in all their glory. The NAD player seemed to take away some of the life and sparkle.
For a $800 CD player, the NAD C565BEE sounded just fine; and for someone looking for an NAD combo, it does the trick. The C375BEE integrated amplifier, on the other hand, performs way, way out of its price class, and can make use of a more upmarket CD player than the C565BEE. In fact, I might be tempted to audition the downmarket C545BEE ($499). You do lose the optical digital input, though, and the fabulous USB input on the front panel. Your call.
You won't go wrong with the C565BEE, especially for use in an all-NAD system.