Product: NAD C350 - integrated amplifier
Manufacturer: NAD - USA
Approx. price: $/€ 425 - $/€ 475
Reviewer: Julian Ashbourn - TNT UK
Reviewed: May, 2003
Appearances can be deceptive, and so it is with the NAD C350. If you spot it on a shelf in your local audio dealer among the cosmetically well finished similarly priced rivals, you could be forgiven for thinking it looks rather cheap and poorly finished. Move a little closer and this first impression is reinforced as you examine it's plastic trim around the control knobs and witness the fairly coarse action of these controls. There is no getting away from the fact that the NAD C350 does look a little Spartan alongside the glitzy finish of some of it's mainstream rivals from the far east. For the same amount of cash you can buy a beautifully finished amplifier from one of the big name Japanese companies. Pay a little more, and you can walk out of the store with one of the British amplifiers which sound good and look even better. When you further realise that the NAD C350 is made in China, you may wonder why you should consider it at all at this price point and against such worthy competition. However, those familiar with the NAD philosophy and way of doing things will appreciate that there is a little more to it than this.
You see, NAD tend to spend your hard earned cash not on finely finished cases or expensive looking controls, but on quality internal components matched to sound design principles. This approach has earned them a particular distinction among HI-FI manufacturers for being able to conjure up superior audio quality at near budget prices. This amplifier won't win any beauty contests. It won't even look particularly impressive in your equipment rack or on the shelf. Nope, if you are seeking a sparkling piece of kit as a centrepiece for your room, forget it. If on the other hand, you would like a little taste of real Hi-Fi without breaking the bank, then read on.
Specs are things that we wear in middle age so that we can still read the newspapers. They are also cunning devices with which audio manufacturers seek to impress the buying public. In the case of amplifiers, the power rating is the one they concentrate on the most in order to engage in a little psychological marketing. When they say that the Tossini Thunderbolt 209 has "100 watts output" it sounds pretty impressive. The fact that the Thunderbolt will be frying your tweeters with 90% distortion and clipping as it approaches this figure is of course beside the point. Or, that it's frequency response and dynamic capabilities into anything other than an 8 ohm resistor are dire. NAD fortunately take a different approach to specifications. The figure they quote (in this case 60 watts per channel) is quoted as RMS both channels driven for a full bandwidth response. It is no surprise that NAD amplifiers often measure as delivering more than the stated power. Indeed, a hint of this is provided by their quoted "dynamic" power figures for this amplifier at 135 watts into 8 ohms, 190 watts into 4 ohms and 240 watts into 2 ohms. Now take a look under the hood at the toroidal transformer and decent power transistors and you start to get a feel for the NAD way of going about things. Yes, this is a budget amplifier (well, almost) but you get a lot of engineering and well considered design in return for your cash.
The familiar NAD techniques of soft clipping (protects your loudspeakers if you insist on disturbing the neighbours or damaging your own hearing with absurd volume levels in contained spaces) and the Impedance Sensing Circuit (adjusts the amplifiers power delivery characteristics to the loudspeaker actually being driven) are present in this design. There are plenty of line level inputs (a phono pre-amp is available as an extra) and the facility to split the pre and power sections of the amplifier and use it as one or the other in conjunction with other components. Indeed, there are actually two sets of pre-outs on the C350 making it a versatile device for potential bi-amping and other configurations. It also comes supplied with a good remote control which may control other components as well.
OK, you have a pretty good idea now of what the NAD C350 is about. It has a decent power supply, good facilities and is reasonably specified for the price. The question is, what does it sound like? You may reason that all amplifiers at this price point are much of a muchness, with perhaps subtle differences in character. Well, maybe so, but no one seems to have explained this to NAD. Even from cold and straight out of the box, the C350 sounds immediately different and more confident than anything you have a right to expect at this price. Let it warm up a little and an involuntary smile will spread across your face as you realise you are experiencing real Hi-Fi in the home environment, without giving your bank balance a bashing. Reproduced sound isn't just about theoretical frequency response, power output or quoted distortion figures, but the ability to realistically reproduce the timbre and presence of the recorded instruments (including the human voice) in a different acoustic. A flute should sound like a flute. A violin should sound like a violin. A piano a piano. A trumpet a trumpet, and so on. If you know what instruments really sound like, you will appreciate how relatively few Hi-Fi set ups (at any price) even come close. When they do, the results can be magical. Much of this has to do with dynamics and the ability to reproduce the harmonic structure of the instruments in question. The coupling between amplifier and loudspeaker must be an intimate one for this to happen. Similarly, the coupling between loudspeaker and room must also be right. The NAD C350 knows this as it steps up onto the podium and conducts things accordingly.
The first thing that strikes you is that the sound has a three dimensional quality with instruments and voices being placed precisely in space, a characteristic you might expect from high end amplifiers, but a surprise at this price point. But there is more. Musical instruments sound like musical instruments and not the cardboard cut-outs which are often reproduced by domestic Hi-Fi. At first, I wondered if the NAD wasn't a little dry in the lower frequencies, until I realised that it was simply starting and stopping at the right time, with no overhang or "bloom" to confuse things. Indeed, this rhythmic quality manifested itself on a wide variety of recordings. Similarly, at high frequencies there was no exaggeration of the sound (unlike some amplifiers which are described as being "sweet" or "extended" in the treble). The NAD simply passed on what was in the recording. If higher frequencies were there, you heard them. If they weren't, you didn't. This is of course how it should be. After listening to a great deal of music via the C350, I hesitated to play Mozart's works for the clarinet, because they are special to me and must be savoured, like a good wine. I need not have worried. Within seconds I had forgotten entirely about Hi-Fi and the reproduction mechanism and was transported by Mozart's pen into a different era. The clarinet was with me in the room, with a full and glorious presence, completely detached from loudspeakers or boxes of electronics. I was simply enjoying the music I love. Isn't this what it is all about? Does it matter what badge is on the box? Or what some fool in the mainstream Hi-Fi press waffles on about? The NAD C350 is capable of reproducing music in the home with a high degree of realism. Believe me, I do not utter such words lightly. I can pay it no higher compliment.
This is a basic integrated amplifier which has everything you really need and, given a good quality source and loudspeakers well matched to your listening room, can reproduce music very well. I have heard amplifiers at ten times this price which couldn't catch the dynamics or timbre of real instruments. I have heard systems costing more than my car which, while being able to create lots of noise, could not make a piano sound like a piano. I have rarely heard the human voice accurately reproduced at any high end audio show, regardless of the chicanery employed. But this little NAD takes a good stab at all these things, and does so pretty convincingly. This would be no mean feat at any price. For an amplifier costing less than 500 euros, it is quite remarkable. Some think that the goal of Hi-Fi is to reproduce concert hall volumes in the home - a complete nonsense of course as you cannot recreate the same acoustic conditions, apart from it also being hazardous to your health. For those who wish to simply appreciate music in a domestic setting, this amplifier is capable of providing an insight into both the score and the recording in a very satisfying manner. Partner it with a pair of fast speakers and a decent source and you have everything you need to enjoy music in the home, at a reasonable cost.
So... if you want to trade in your house for one of the big name heavyweight metal boxes so beloved of the Hi-Fi media - go ahead. This will qualify you for membership of some Hi-Fi secret society somewhere, even if you end up financially distressed. If, on the other hand, you are a human being who appreciates the finer moments of human artistic achievement, and simply wishes to savour recordings of such in the home, then go out and get a NAD C350. You can then spend some money on the works of Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven, Wagner, or whatever else takes your fancy. This is a beautiful little amplifier which will be sorely missed when the masses have gone over to home cinema and forgotten what real instruments and music actually sound like. Maybe we had better bury one in the garden for the little green men from Mars to discover long after we have all gone? They would probably appreciate the elegant simplicity and good fundamental design of this amplifier, and it might convince them that, once upon a time, we knew what we were doing in this respect. I wonder if they have a Mozart?
© Copyright Julian Ashbourn 2003 - www.tnt-audio.com