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Stereophile and Mejias Review C 515BEE CD Player

February 22, 2012

The Entry Level #14

By Stephen Mejias

CD Player

At $300, the C 515BEE is NAD's least expensive CD player (footnote 1). Designed to match the NAD C 316BEE integrated amplifier ($380), the compact C 515BEE measures 17 1/8" W by 2 3/8" H by 9½" D and weighs just 7.75 lbs. In terms of fit and finish, it falls short of the standard set by the big, hefty Emotiva ERC-2 ($449), which I reviewed in December, but there's nothing chintzy about the NAD. In fact, I prefer its simple, modest appearance over the Emotiva's busy, showy design. And anything that's easy on the back is a friend of mine.

On the NAD's front panel, from left to right, are a power button, the disc tray, a modestly lit vacuum-fluorescent display, and two rows of three buttons each: on top, Play, Pause, and Stop; below those are Open/Close, and forward and backward Skip/Scan. So smooth and quiet was the NAD's tray that inserting and removing CDs was always a pleasure—not unlike opening or closing the door of a fine automobile. On the rear panel are an analog output, coaxial and optical digital outputs, and a simple AC power cord. The model's overall appearance is handsome and serene.

The C 515BEE comes with a remote control that allows the user to do all sorts of fun stuff: program tracks, repeat a single track or a section within a track (handy for practicing your rock'n'roll moves), and adjust the display's brightness. The remote is small and light—you won't feel compelled to smash anyone over the head with it.

Surprisingly smart for a $300 CD player, the C 515BEE can play MP3- and WMA-formatted recordings burned to CD-R or CD-RW discs—a trick that even my $1100 Exposure 2010S can't pull off. Using the remote control, the user can select playback by scrolling through the MP3/WMA folders and files. Once a file is selected, the C 515BEE displays the file type and any available metadata (song title, artist, album). Totally neat.

Tech Talk

I wondered if there were special design goals for the C 515BEE. NAD's director of technology and product planning, Greg Stidsen, explained that the company wanted to reach a high level of performance at an affordable price: "While $300 is not much in audiophile terms, it is a major purchase for many people, and we try to offer the best possible musical performance for the price." I appreciate Stidsen's acknowledgment of the real world: For most of my friends, $300 is a crazy amount of money for a CD player. He continued: "While perfection is not possible at $300, a highly engaging musical experience is entirely possible, if you know what you are doing." To that end, NAD developed a circuit layout to complement their chosen active devices: a Cirrus Logic 24-bit/192kHz sigma-delta digital-to-analog converter and an audio-specific Texas Instruments 5532 dual op-amp.

More tech talk from Stidsen: "A lot of people don't realize that most DACs don't meet their potential performance due to manufacturing tolerances. A perfect 24-bit DAC should have a dynamic range of 144dB, yet in practice even the most expensive DACs only get to 135dB or so. Since CD is only 16-bit, even a moderately priced 24/192 DAC will easily accommodate the 96dB dynamic range required with perfect linearity. Circuit layout is supercritical, as [are] correct decoupling of power supply and choice of passive components and component values."

How does NAD keep its prices low? Stidsen explained that the company has never invested in its own manufacturing factories, but instead benefits from the economies of scale and production expertise offered by their overseas partners. The "BEE" in the component's name stand for Bjørn Erik Edvardsen, the man behind the brand, and NAD's director of advanced development. Leading a small team of hardware and software engineers at NAD's Ontario-based facilities, Edvardsen, along with senior engineer Steve Wilkins, fine-tuned the C 515BEE's audio circuitry "to achieve the best possible results within the set budget parameters."

I listened to the C 515BEE CD player with my PSB Alpha B1 loudspeakers ($299/pair), NAD C 316BEE integrated amplifier ($380), and AudioQuest Rocket 33 speaker cables ($299/10' pair) and Sidewinder interconnects ($65/1m pair). The CD player and amplifier sat on shelves in my PolyCrystal equipment rack, plugged into a Furutech e-TP60 power conditioner, itself plugged into a Furutech GTX wall receptacle via an AudioQuest NRG X-3 power cord.

CD Player - rear

A Highly Engaging Musical Experience

Unlike the Emotiva ERC-2, which had impressed me with its dynamic range and muscular overall sound, the C 515BEE sacrificed weight and extension for a smoother, more coherent sound. "Self-Obsessed and Sexxee," from Sonic Youth's dark classic, Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (CD, DGC 24632; see "Records To Die For"), sounded appropriately sinister and compelling, with clear delineation of the thick, heavily distorted guitars and a good sense of air around the drums, but lacked some bass weight and impact. More important to me, the NAD showed off a really good sense of touch in the song's quieter passages—I could almost feel the energy of drummer Steve Shelley as he paired gentle taps on the ride cymbals with solid kicks to the bass drum. Further, the NAD didn't miss a beat when the song cleverly shifts from dueling minor-key leads to chunky major-key chords.

The NAD also sacrificed some tonal color and body for speed and impact. In "Woman Left Lonely," from Jukebox, Cat Power's beautiful collection of covers (CD, Matador OLE 793-2), time is loosely kept with wire brushes sweeping the head of a snare drum. Through the NAD, this sweeping sound was more of a metallic scrape than the breathy whisper I've grown used to hearing, which made the song sound as though it were played at a slightly faster tempo and created an illusion of greater detail. Through my Sony PlayStation 1, the wire brushes swept the snare head in a gentler, more relaxed fashion, conveying a greater depth of expression from attack to decay.

But the Sony lacked the NAD's spatial abilities, setting the song's musicians in a narrower, more two-dimensional soundstage. The NAD seemed to enjoy re-creating a performance space, pushing forward the sweet-toned guitars, moving the organ way to the rear of the stage, setting the drums dead center, and letting Chan Marshall's intoxicating voice hover above it all. On the other hand, the piano in "Woman Left Lonely" sounded too big and dramatic through the NAD, seeping into areas of the soundstage that should have remained free from its resonant clang. Through the Sony, the piano was more accurately scaled in relation to the other instruments.

But I loved the C 515BEE's way with "Lonely Woman," from Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come (CD, Atlantic 5182636). Remarkable for its many emotional twists and turns, "Lonely Woman" has got to be one of the most gorgeous and thrilling jazz compositions ever captured on tape, and the NAD presented it brilliantly, communicating the swagger, the longing, the sound of adulation in Coleman's drunken, weeping alto saxophone, all with impressive power and grace. For its part, the Sony offered a much mellower, more analog-like presentation, the horns especially sounding warmer, rounder, less burnished. This was good and bad: The Sony uncovered a fluid, acrobatic grace in the trills of the horns at the end of the piece, but missed the staggering impact of those same horns in the track's opening measures.

When I turned to "Running Away from Melissa," from the mps, the NAD reminded me that we'd recorded the album on analog equipment—tape hiss was clearly audible—and had accidentally recorded this track in mono. More important, however, the NAD conveyed the full range of emotion in the music. When the guitars shift from delicate arpeggios to heavily distorted power chords and the drums go from a soft snare pattern to a thunderous, full-kit explosion, I couldn't help but throw my arms in the air and clench my fists with the soaring music. For a brief moment, I was almost there again, on stage at Maxwell's.

A Note About MP3s

They sounded surprisingly good through the NAD C 515BEE. Toward the end of the evaluation period, my dear (and totally hot) friend Kristen asked me to create a mix CD for her upcoming dinner party. Of course, I made not one but six mix CDs, and littered them with provocative tunes like "Je T'aime . . . Moi Non Plus," "Fever," and "Sweet Bacon." Before wrapping the discs in black silk and dousing them with eau de toilette, I tested them out in the NAD. I figured I'd just listen casually while tending to other matters, but the sound was so vibrant and compelling that I was invariably drawn back into the listening room. Through the NAD, it was easy to ignore the timing errors and squashed dynamics that typically make low-bit-rate MP3s so unsatisfying.

[article continued further]

For now, I'm happy with the NAD C 515BEE. I'm buying the review sample. While it's unlikely that my band will get together again anytime soon, at least I can relive the magic of our last show by listening to the CD.

Now, please excuse me while I practice my rock-star poses.

 

For the full version of Stephen Mejia's fourteenth installement of "The Entry Level", click here.

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