The Absolute Sound C 162 C 272 Review
May 9, 2004
The Absolute Sound June / July 2004
Reviewer: Chris Martens
NAD is known for building overachieving amplifiers, and the C 162 and C 272 carry that tradition forward with vigor. Indeed, Chris Martens feels NAD's terrific new separates are entry-level models in name only, offering way more performance (and sophistication) than you might think possible at their modest prices. Praising the NAD pair for its robust bass, open-sounding midrange, and ability "to deliver detail and textures without fake edge enhancement," Martens says these accessibly-priced components make sweet music "in ways that might please even jaded audiophiles." Did we mention the C 162 preamp even includes a killer phono section? Some excerpts:
"the NADs always got the musical essentials right—enough so that I was quickly able to relax and enjoy my music without worrying about (or particularly missing) the superior sound my reference amp would have provided."
Before we talk about NAD's C 162 and C 272 preamp and power amplifiers—the flagships of the firm's "Classic Series" product line—I should tell you I have a deep fondness for well-designed, affordable amplifiers, especially ones that strive for good overall balance and (rather than for whatever happens to be the trendy audiophile "virtue-of-the-month"). I should also mention that I've owned (or assembled for others) a number of NAD-based systems over the years—systems that often produced exceptional sound at reasonable prices (see this month's TAS Retrospective for further details). This is not to suggest that I find all NAD products universally praiseworthy, since like most of you I think it's necessary to assess each new component on its own merits—regardless of the manufacturer's reputation—and to let the product evaluation chips fall where they may. But it is fair to say I was eager to hear what NAD's new C 162/C 272 pair could do, and let me tell you up front that this $1298 pair did not disappoint.
The C 162 is a full-featured stereo preamplifier that provides six line-level inputs, a phono section with dual (switch selectable) moving-magnet and moving coil inputs, and two sets of outputs—one fixed-level and one variable-level (which together make handling complicated biamplified systems a snap). The C 162 breaks with current "audio purist" norms, providing (gasp!) a balance control and tone controls (with the obligatory tone-defeat switch, of course). Though it may be high-end heresy to say so, I welcome the return of the balance control since my practical experience is that the soundstages of some recordings benefit enormously from a bit of judicious balance tweaking. The tone controls, too, are among the most useful and audiophile-friendly that I've heard, adding virtually no veiling when in-circuit, and providing tone-shaping curves that are extraordinarily subtle (they function primarily as delicate "timbre tuners"). Finally, the C 162 comes with a highly intuitive remote control that's a joy to use.
The C 272 is a 150Wpc stereo power amp that, in keeping with NAD tradition, sounds much more powerful than its power ratings would suggest. With bi-amplification requirements in mind, the C 272 provides both fixed- and variable-level inputs (making it easy to level-match the C 272 with a third-party amp). The amplifier bristles with convenience-oriented details, including two sets of speaker binding posts (to facilitate biwiring), a switch-selectable Soft Clipping circuit (useful in preventing damage when hard partiers crank the amplifier up to speaker-roasting levels), 12 V trigger inputs, and a signal-sensing automatic turn-on feature. Generally, I found these convenience touches worked well, though I found it necessary to use the master power switch in lieu of the signal-sensing circuit (because the sensing circuit required overly high signal levels to stay powered up, and occasionally switched the amplifier to "Standby" mode during quieter listening sessions). The C 272 features proprietary NAD "PowerDrive" technology that "automatically senses the impedance of the loudspeaker and then adjusts its power supply settings to best cope with that specific load.!
Plainly the C 162 and 272 have all the important "features and functions" bases well covered, but for most of us the essential question is whether these components can make sweet music. The answer is that they do, and in ways that might please even jaded audiophiles. Specifically, I found the C 162/C 272 pair offered four beautifully integrated qualities that together produced the kind of effortless musicality that makes you want to listen for hours on end.
The first and most central of the NADs' musical qualities is midrange voicing that sounds open and well-defined, yet that always captures the natural warmth, "roundness" of tone, and evocative sweetness of midrange instruments. Through the NAD pair, for example, you can hear how Pat Metheny sculpts the envelopes of each jazz guitar note on the "He's Gone Away" track from Metheny and Charlie Haden's haunting Beyond the Missouri Sky [Verve]. If you've heard this piece through many other high-end amps you've probably noticed that most apply an artificial layer of edge-enhanced "frosting" to the guitar, where the NADs instead give you Metheny's signature tone straight up—pure, sweet, soulful, and without any "hi-fi" adornment. If, like me, you find live music typically sounds smoother and less "edgy" than most audio systems, you may find the NADs' ability to deliver detail and texture without fake "edge enhancement" a revelation.
Second, the NAD pair offers unfailing upper midrange and treble smoothness, even on vigorous transients. If you listen to the high overtones of Milt Jackson's vibraphones or Connie Kay's percussion from the LP The Best of the Modern Jazz Quartet [Pablo/Fantasy], for example, you will find the C 162/272 pair provides plenty of high-frequency attack, shimmer, and decay on individual notes, but without any of the "zingy" overshoot or exaggerated harmonic enrichment that, in so many other components, passes for "high definition." On orchestral strings, too, the NADs—as heard on the Abbado/Berlin live recording of the Mahler Symphony No. 9 [Deutsche Grammophon]—let you hear the crisp, incisive sound of the bowing, yet render overall string tones (and overtones) with a sound that remains rich, warm, and golden. Few affordable components handle the treble smoothness/extension balancing act as effectively as the NAD components do, and I've found that many which promise superior definition or transparency seem to achieve those qualities at the expense of voicing that can become "glassy" or "hard-edged" at times—characteristics that prove fatiguing in the long run.
Third, the C 162/C 272 pair offers clear yet robust and full-bodied bass, especially in the all-important mid-bass region (this quality is one of the essential ingredients in NAD's "house sound"). It seems to me any number of amplifier-makers have run off in a blind quest to achieve better bass "definition," only to wind up with tightly-controlled amps that suffer from serious low-frequency anemia. Who needs that? In contrast, the NADs produce ample mid-bass—on low percussion, low winds or brass, and on acoustic or electric bass—bass that has terrific weight, warmth, and vitality (and, yes, quite good definition, as well). Two beautiful recordings that make the most of the NADs' bass capabilities (and that show why proper mid-bass weight is essential) are Patricia Barber's Verse [Blue Note/ Premonition] and Béla Fleck and the Flecktones' Little Worlds [Columbia], both of which represent "master classes" of sorts on the creative and melodic use of bass in popular music and jazz. On both recordings, the NAD pair sounds night/day different from (and better than) amplifiers that come from "tight and bright" school.
Fourth, the C 162/C 272 pair treats the listener to highly believable three-dimensional soundstaging on great and even not-so-great recordings. While you could probably find amps with better lateral imaging and/or front-to-back stage depth, per se, the NADs' strengths in both areas are so well balanced that the resulting soundstage almost always sounds convincing. Thus, when you listen to the classic, Cozart/Fine-produced, Dorati/ London recording of the Webern Five Pieces for Orchestra [Mercury], you hear—as you should—sound that conveys the feeling of real musicians performing in a real hall. One small tip: The NAD pair develops noticeably more "liquid" and three-dimensional sound after being powered-up for an hour or two.
A final point that must not go unmentioned is that the C 162 comes with a dynamite phono section—one that dramatically improves the already good "value proposition" this preamp puts forward. For some perspective, I compared the NAD phono section to the terrific Musical Surroundings Phonomena, which is one of the best-sounding affordable phonostages The Absolute Sound has reviewed. While the Phonomena offers greater setup flexibility and better overall definition, focus, and transparency than the NAD phonostage, the sounds of the two sections are—on the whole—more similar than they are different. Then, when you consider that the Phonomena sells for about the price that C 162 does, you suddenly realize the NAD phono section is not only a solid performer, but a screaming good deal!
As you can tell from the preceding discussion, I greatly admired the sound of NAD's C 162 and C 272. Even so, I suspect many of you will want to know how the NADs compare to higher-priced top-tier electronics. My reference amplifier is a Musical Fidelity Tri-Vista 300 Integrated (which sells for several times the price of the NAD pair), and comparison between the Tri-Vista and the C 162/C 272 combo proved illuminating. As you might expect, the Tri-Vista did almost everything a little better than the NADs could, offering particular advantages in the areas of grain-free transparency, soundstage depth, and overall three-dimensionality; even so, the operative phrase is "a little better." When switching from the Tri-Vista to the NADs, I observed—on an analytical level—a number of noticeable performance differences, yet on an emotional level I didn't find the "musical satisfaction" gap between the amplifiers all that large. This is perhaps a roundabout way of saying the NADs always got the musical essentials right—enough so that I was quickly able to relax and enjoy my music without worrying about (or particularly missing) the superior sound my reference amp would have provided. The true genius of the C 162 and C 272, then, is that they bring you close enough to top-tier performance in so many areas, with a sound that is so balanced and free from disruptive discontinuities, that you are released from preoccupation with audio equipment—and set free to savor (and become deeply content with) the beauty of music, itself. What could be a higher recommendation than that?
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