The Absolute Sound Reviews the C326BEE and C545BEE
NAD C326BEE Integrated Amplifier and NAD C545BEE Compact Disc Player Released Date: 24/01/11
The Best-Selling Amp in High-End History Just Got Better
The Absolute Sound
The Absolute Sound 2010 budget product of the year
The BEE of NAD’s BEE series of components pays homage to its designer Bjorn Erik Edvardsen, who also designed the storied 3020 integrated amplifier that put the company on the map three decades ago. Introduced only a few years after Crown and Bob Carver at Phase Linear had begun to pioneer really high-powered amplifiers, the 3020 was rated at a mere 20 watts per channel. By no means wholly accurate or neutral in tonal balance and far from the last word in transparency or transient attack, it nevertheless had an engaging personality: sweet on top, warm in the midrange, plummy on the bottom, easy on the ear because always musical and surprisingly dynamic owing to some ingenious electronic circuitry that continues in the new model (see sidebar).
As solid a performer as the 3020 was, I’ve always felt its popularity-with some 1.4 million units in the field world-wide, NAD claims it’s the highest selling amplifier in audio history-owed to a combination of low price (introduced at less than $200, it topped out, I believe, at $219 in the early eighties), a brilliant marketing strategy, and a key-at the time unique-design feature that had nothing to do with sonics as such. The 3020 was initially sold almost exclusively through genuine high-end or otherwise “quality” dealers, so it quickly acquired an audiophile reputation as the integrated amp of choice for those strapped for cash and wanting to put their money where it counted most, in record-playing setups and speaker systems. What cinched the deal was that Evardsen had the uncommon good sense to make the preamp-out/power-amp- in jacks accessible on the back panel, connected by removable jumper jacks.1 It thus became possible to use an integrated amp to bootstrap your way toward later electronics purchases, which is exactly what I did when, as an impecunious professor of literature just starting out in Los Angeles in the late seventies, I traded my DCM Time Windows for the murderously inefficient Acoustat 2 electrostatics. The preamp section of my 3020 was fed into a kit-built Hafler DH200. When I eventually acquired a better preamp, the 3020 was pressed into integrated use again as the nucleus of my office system.
NAD has come a long way since then, branching out into separates, a prestige line of components, compact disc and DVD players, and home theater. Yet it has never abandoned its core commitment to value-driven products that offer a combination of excellent performance and sensible pricing. Under review here are the C 326BEE Integrated Ampifier and C 545 CD Player, priced at $499 each. It took only a few moments of listening to be reminded that a lot has changed in the past thirty years when it comes to amplification, all of it for the better. Banished is the 3020’s warm, somewhat veiled personality, mandated back then by the limitations of solid-state technology at low price-points, in its place a thoroughly neutral tonal balance, a considerably more transparent window onto the presentation, and far more control and authority.
Richard Goode’s Beethoven sonatas left me in stunned disbelief by how much 50 really intelligently designed watts per channel could bring my low-sensitivity Quad 2805s to life. Goode’s Waldstein, without in any way sacrificing nuance and delicacy, is a powerhouse performance, nowhere more so than in the thundering coda to the last movement, which filled the room to a nearly lifelike level. Extraordinary dynamic range from seemingly limited power has always been a specialty chez NAD, and the C 326BEE Intigrated Ampifier continues to uphold a proud tradition.
During the review period my wife and I attended Siegfried at the LA Opera. The next day I couldn’t resist comparing the disappointing forging song we heard there with the Solti recording. Even after forty years John Culshaw’s production remains a sonic milestone. He went through the trouble of procuring the tuned anvils that Wagner specified, Horst Berger, the Vienna Philharmonic’s chief percussionist, doing the pounding so that Wolfgang Windgassen could give all his energy to the singing. Consider everything that’s going on here: a full Wagnerian-that is, augmented- orchestra, a percussionist hitting anvils with a sledgehammer, a heldentenor singing at the top of his lungs as he forges a weapon from the shattered remnants of his grandfather’s spear, a hysterical scheming dwarf running about, the whole thing staged for the gramophone, which, this being a Culshaw production, means filling up every corner of the soundstage (Siegfried is placed back and center). No matter what was asked of it, this little amplifier delivered the goods at levels as loud as I could stand. I won’t claim it was the last word in ultimate control and composure, but nothing ever fell apart, my attention was never diverted from the drama, and the soundstaging was superb. Most of the time, even over very good equipment, the sound of the anvil will momentarily overwhelm the orchestral chords, but the NAD held fast, the low brass that provide the foundation clearly audible.
Confronted with a relatively low-powered amplifier, one’s first inclination is always to test its mettle with the big stuff. But in fact I began by hooking it up to my original Quad ESL-57s (Wayne Piquet restored) and playing some early Peter, Paul, and Mary, Mary Travers having just passed away. There was a time in my youth when I thought detail, I don’t know of many more demanding tests than the whispered directions Bernstein gives to the orchestra in his magnificent recording of the Op. 131 with the Vienna Philharmonic. Whether on old or new Quads, the NAD revealed them all. Is it a perfect amplifier? Of course not. In ultimate terms, depth seems to me a little foreshortened; and though it is in the main very neutral-much more so than any of several far more expensive units I can think of-there is a slight dark cast overall, a tilting toward the Yin. This doesn’t concern me much-truth to tell, it’s even rather attractive (and some would argue more accurate to reality)-but if your system leans in that direction, an audition might be prudent. Otherwise, no reservations whatsoever.
If I seem to be slighting the CD player, I guess I am because…well, let me put it this way: If the C 326BEE Intigrated Ampifier cost four times its $500 retail, my assessment of its value would remain pretty much the same. By contrast, the C 545 CD Player is “merely” a very good $500 CD player-solid, pleasing, nonfatiguing, its personality on the polite, even cautious side, never dreaming of making an unpleasant sound. The flip side of this is that it doesn’t quite fully excite, engage, or enliven either. The Waldstein and Siegfried’s forging song again. When I ran the output through the Benchmark DAC1, the dynamic envelope of the sonata’s coda seemed to explode with a sheerly physical power that is simply lacking with the C 545 CD Player alone. In the forging song, the bass foundation, so vital to the texture and sound picture of the Ring at this point, was deeper, weightier, and more involving, the whole soundstage of greater apparent volume, dimensionality, and especially bottom-end air. Nor do the big anvil strikes momentarily cover the deep brass instruments.
The C 545 CD Player is certainly good enough to warrant consideration, and the price calls for no complaints. But know that the C 326BEE Intigrated Ampifier will readily reveal the improvement of something more expensive or, better still, the Benchmark either on an initial purchase or down the road.2 With this new integrated amplifier, NAD proves again that lighting can indeed strike twice: In view of the superb performance, its low price feels like a gift.
The C 326BEE Intigrated Ampifier is a full-featured unit with four line-level inputs, monitor facilities, switchable tone controls (that work really well, by the way), front-panel MP access, separate amp/preamp operation, and remote handset (that will also operate the C 545 CD Player), which means it can serve as the brains of a complex two-channel system. Greg Stidsen, NAD’s Director of Product Development, told me that three Edvardsen-designed circuits contribute to the amp section’s remarkable dynamic performance. The “soft-clipping” circuit monitors the output so that as clipping approaches, the power-supply rail limits output while allowing a moderate amount of benign overdrive. The “power-drive” circuit, based on Peter Mitchell’s studies of how much power is actually needed to replay music at natural levels, optimizes the output devices for high-current delivery; a second winding on the power transformer monitors output current, output voltage, and temperature to provide enough current on a short-term basis (e.g., 40 to 50 milliseconds) to handle large transients. Finally, “while most class A/B amplifiers use the output stage as a current dumper, in the ‘distortion-cancelling’ circuit Evardsen configures the output transistors to provide a small voltage-gain to which is added a local feedback-loop that reduces distortion even lower, to around 0.005 percent.” Stidsen told me he doubts that any amplifier, regardless of design type, size, or expense, of fifteen to twenty years ago could match the noise and distortion specs of this one. I’m inclined to agree. Make no mistake: These circuits do not work miracles. If loud sustained levels over inefficient speakers are demanded, then a far more powerful amplifier will be required. But I doubt that any serious music lover who plays back at natural levels will need louder, cleaner levels than the C 326BEE Intigrated Ampifier can deliver in normal-sized rooms, which means you’ll have a lot of money left over for better speakers, better source components, or more music. That’s smart economy.