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NAD C521 I - CD player

High Detail on a Low Budget

[Italian version]

Product: NAD C521 I - CD player
Manufacturer: NAD Electronics - USA
Approx. price: 320 Euro/$
Reviewer: Julian Ashbourn - TNT UK
Reviewed: October, 2002

NAD products tend to elicit strong opinions from hi-fi enthusiasts. There are those who consider them cheap and cheerful with quirky styling, and those who consider them as simply fantastic value and one of the only routes towards true high fidelity at affordable prices.
The fact is that NAD products seem to consistently break down the cost barriers and produce audio quality far in excess of what is expected at the price.
Those who have been following their progress tend to suggest it was the 3020 amplifier which started them along this road, although there was of course a previous range of electronics - remember the NAD 60 with VU meters and microphone inputs?

As the NAD CD players have tended to be well received I thought it was time I took a close look myself. The C521I is currently the base model of the range and is available for 200 pounds UK / 320 euro - a reasonable price for a CD player in a budget hi-fi system. I will not dwell too much on the styling as this is in any case a subjective area, some will appreciate the clean, uncluttered lines and neutral finish, and some may not.
I quite liked it and appreciated the simplicity of the control layout and the logical remote control supplied with the machine.

The first surprise with the NAD C521I comes when removing it from the box. It is a substantially made piece of equipment - more so than some players costing considerably more. This perception of quality extends to the comprehensive multi language manual, printed on good quality paper and the sensible remote with it's soft rubber 'feet' to avoid scratching or sliding on hard surfaces. Small points maybe, but this attention to detail is most welcome and promotes a certain pride of ownership which some other brands I could mention would do well to copy.

Basic Technology

The NAD uses a Burr-Brown Sigma Delta 20 bit DAC and features separate power regulators for the analog and digital sections. It is compatible with both CD-R and CD-RW and includes a coaxial digital output. This output has been carefully considered and, to quote NAD "the coaxial output is buffered and isolated by a transformer from the converter itself and the output impedance has been carefully tailored to produce a precise 75 ohms impedance to ensure perfect matching. This attention to detail reduces the timing errors (jitter) that could otherwise distort the digital data stream". Once again, this level of attention to detail is more than you have a right to expect at the price, but is typical of what NAD products represent in the marketplace. Good quality 5532 op-amps are also used and the output impedance is maintained at a low 300 ohms making the player less susceptible to connecting cable induced quirks.

A comprehensive range of programming functions are available via the logically designed remote control, with the basic transport functions also available on the front panel via tactile controls which leave you in no doubt as to their operation. The luminescent display provides full information in an attractive soft blue colour and is easily read from a distance - providing you are on axis to it.

Sound Quality

OK - but what does it sound like? Well, here is the biggest surprise of all. Even straight out of the box the NAD C521I sounds impressive. Let it warm up for a while and run a few CD's through it and you start to hear detail that you would not expect a player of two or three times the cost of the NAD to retrieve. This is particularly evident on complex vocal harmonies and chamber works, but in fact is evident with most types of music. Furthermore, such detail is portrayed without becoming too analytical or cold sounding. There is a space between instruments and voices which lets you follow the line of any individual component clearly.

At first, I wondered if the low frequency reproduction was a little lightweight. It isn't - but it is so clean that you just hear what you are supposed to be hearing - no artificial bloom, no thumpy overhang, but a well articulated bass line where it actually exists in the programme material. This is an excellent achievement. Where very low frequencies are present, the NAD retrieves them without difficulty.

Curious as to dynamic range and the ability to create a coherent acoustic (assuming one was recorded in the first place) I put on the 1975 Andre Previn / LSO Carmina Burana (now available via the EMI Great Recordings of the Century series). This recording has a good dynamic and a sense of occasion which can become very involving when played on a good system. The NAD didn't disappoint.
Indeed, I soon found myself listening to the music and not the reproduction mechanism. Let's try some difficult vocals - I dug out a recording of Janacek folk ballads and nocturnes on the Supraphon label. Not a great recording, but simply presented. The folk nocturnes can sound uninvolving and bland via some players, but the NAD once again delighted with it's detail retrieval and ability to separate the voices. Some jazz. Billie Holiday sounded great on the remastered Billie's Best (Verve 513 943-2) and Paul Desmond's gentle sax could have been in the room with me on Feeling Blue (Camden 74321 400552). For some lighter hearted moments I tried Kirsty MacColl's Tropical Brainstorm (V2 WR1009972).
The combination of Kirsty's sharp lyrics and those latin rhythms is guaranteed to put a smile on your face. The Nad picked out the vocal harmonies with aplomb. Piano music was also handled well, allowing you to hear the sound characteristics of the instrument being played, rather than just a "piano sound".


Let's not beat around the bush. The NAD 521I is a great CD player at a bargain price. Those magazine reviewers who straight faced claim that $15'000 CD players offer good value for money might find minor fault here and there, but the basics for retrieving high quality sounds from your CD collection are all there.

The best compliment I can pay the NAD C521I is that I really enjoyed listening to a wide range of music CDs via this player. Isn't that what it is all about? If you are looking for a CD player at this price level to give an above average performance, go out and try the NAD C521I. You will not be disappointed.

© Copyright 2002 Julian Ashbourn - http://www.tnt-audio.com

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