Two years ago, part of my pitch to TAS Editor-in-Chief Robert Harley and Senior Writer Chris Martens about joining the Absolute Multimedia team was my enthusiasm for affordable high-performance components. “The difference between ultra-high-end gear and mass-market stuff is smaller than ever before—and shrinking,” I asserted, to wry smiles. “And somebody ought to be covering affordable excellence.”
I’ve just come away from a marathon listening session involving a $299 CD player and $399 integrated amp, and I’m more convinced than ever that great sound, real soul-satisfying musical sound, can be had on a painfully tight budget. The gear that provoked this revelation is the NAD C 325BEE integrated amplifier and C 525BEE CD player, new entry-level two-channel components that, right out of the box, had a compelling synergy with a pair of DALI IKON 6 loudspeakers.
Launched at the CEDIA Expo in September, the NAD pieces were heralded as the latest evidence of the manufacturer’s commitment to two-channel playback. Also implied in that announcement was NAD’s commitment to the huge market of budget-minded music lovers. Incorporating many technical advancements—the “BEE” suffix stands for engineer Bjorn Erik Edvardsen, who was intimately involved in the design of both products—the two components are claimed by NAD to establish new benchmarks for affordable audio.
After extended and enthusiastic listening, I believe this claim is not mere marketing hype. Using Nordost SPM interconnects and speaker cable—I’ve previously justified this “not-in-the-realworld” hookup by explaining that SPM is so transparent that it reveals all of the components’ contributions to the soundscape—the NAD/DALI system delivered stunning detail and layered harmonic textures that were completely unexpected from equipment in this price niche.
The Best of Boubacar Traore [Wrasse] was the first CD I popped in the player, and what an eyeopener it proved to be. The world-weary voice of the Malian bluesman and his backing chorus overlaid with alto-relievo plucked strings and drums emerged in the room like an orchestrated swarm of butterflies.
Perhaps subconsciously expecting a flat lifeless soundstage and a bit of cheap hi-fi shrillness, I was completely unprepared for both the degree of detail and sheer musicality that the NADs delivered. Chrissie Hynde’s heartbreaking live cover of Ray Davies’ “I Go to Sleep” from The Pretenders’ The Isle of View [Warner Bros.] had a dimensionality that we normally associate with much more expensive electronics, and seemed as immediate as it must have been for the audience that sat in rapt silence through her performance. Pacing and bass impact were great too. On Shadowland [Sire], K.D. Lang’s thumping country tearjerker “I’m Down to My Last Cigarette” picked me up and carried me along like a high-rolling big rig on an open stretch of interstate. Putting the Gershwin classic “Summertime” through the up-tempo jazz blender is, I suppose, an experiment worth trying, and club diva Kitty Margolis makes an admirable attempt in Heart & Soul/Live in San Francisco [Mad-Kat]. Her three-piece band works up a lather in this extended improv, every drum whack and every plucked bass string fully articulated by the NADs and DALIs.
Although rated at only 50Wpc, the C 325BEE is claimed to have dynamic power of 210Wpc into 2 ohms, meaning it can deliver enormous bursts of current into very low-impedance loads without bogging down. This ability is enhanced by the “PowerDrive” technology found in all NAD amplifiers, which NAD says, “adds huge reserves of dynamic headroom without adding cost by ingeniously matching the amplifier to the speaker load . . . adjusting the power supply parameters of the amplifier to best cope with the actual musical signal and specific speaker loading characteristics.”
The amp’s good sound can also be attributed to “trickle-down” improvements derived from NAD Masters Series products, including a “new DC Servo that eliminates sound coloring capacitors in the signal path,” and a “patented distortion-canceling circuit that uses both feedback and feedforward to reduce distortion and improve amplifier stability. The optimized circuit layout lowers internal impedance, improves grounding, and eliminates subtle magnetic distortions.”
In use, the C 325BEE was very quiet— residual noise was barely audible with an open input and the volume control turned fully clockwise. But with high-sensitivity loudspeakers like the IKON 6s, there was never any need to push the volume control beyond the 10 o’clock position. The amp was also tremendously dynamic, with open, effortless sonics.