NAD C315BEE Stereo Integrated Amplifier Reviewed

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nad-c315bee.gifNumbers show that the NAD 3020 may be the best-selling integrated amplifier in hi-fi history. NAD's founder, Marty Borish, believes they sold 1.3 million units; of those, 500,000 were sold in Great Britain alone. Certainly it was the most successful product in the UK at the time, from its 1978 introduction at £69.99, and it transformed what was then just another hi-fi company, originally called "New Acoustic Dimension," into one of the most influential brands of the 1980s and 1990s. The phenomenon started in the UK.

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Quite how a gutless, unreliable piece of junk like the NAD 3020 became the Heinz Ketchup of amplifiers is easy to understand. When it was launched, the UK market was in the thrall of the press, which consisted of malleable journalists who would swallow any hype thrown at them. Equally, NAD was distributed by "Hi-Fi Markets," a then-omnipotent aggregate of independent retailers. Between them, the timing was as perfect as the iPod's.

Reality was quite different. The sound quality of the NAD 3020 wasn't "superior" to far better budget amps from Trio (Kenwood), Marantz or Sansui. Instead, it was different by virtue of being innocuous - even without the useless "soft clipping" in play. As a result, it sounded euphonic next to far more accurate rivals, softer even than aged valve amps.

Power? It barely drove the small Celestions and KEFs usually paired with it; thankfully, NAD had the foresight to include pre-out facilities so it could later sell a separate power amp to the wattage-bereft customer, concerned because the volume control twisted all the way to the right most of the time. Owners, though, never complained for fear of looking stupid in light of the near-unanimous worship of the 3020 by now-virtually-unemployable audio hacks.

Its input sockets were feeble and easy to snap off, the buttons had a habit of flying across the room and the amps died with alarming frequency. But the scribblers worshipped the 3020 as a stepping-stone along the path to the more costly Linn-Naim system. In 2008, because people have such a weak grasp of history, the lowly NAD 3020 still commands £70 or so on eBay.

Not the NAD 3020
NAD's Director of Advanced Development Bjorn Eric Edvardsen (whose initials have cursed the C315BEE with a silly model number) couldn't avoid having the 3020 in the back of his mind when faced with the challenge of designing a new super-budget-amp. According to NAD, his brief included the need to "maintain the same performance specification as our more expensive amplifiers while removing cost."
Greg Stidsen, Director of Product Development, explains, "While we had to make some compromises compared to the C325BEE - CMOS input switching instead of reed relay, simplified PowerDrive circuit, etc. - the basic performance under most conditions is equal." What remains is terrifyingly good: even the more powerful, slightly more expensive C325BEE had better watch its ass.

Fed by the Marantz CD12/DA12 CD player via Kimber cables, with Yter delivering the signal to PMC DB1+, Sonus faber Guarneri or Rogers LS3/5A speaker systems, the C315BEE's performance continually surprised and enchanted, especially the way it caressed the LS3/5As. Two characteristics marked this standout performance, the most obvious being its real-world power. It could make the LS3/5As clip, but best of all, it could genuinely access the full range of the Guarneri. This is no mean feat: I've heard far costlier, more powerful amplifiers fail to drive the Italian masterwork.

When fed Keb' Mo's "For What It's Worth," the richness and attack of the bass had the same substance I expect from and experienced not long before with massive Krells. While there's no substitute for wattage, the NAD certainly has the right stuff for normal rooms, through probably any speaker in its price class. It was only when hammering the Guarneris that power became an issue.

I am not saying that NAD has defied all reason and come up with a dreadnought of an amplifier for under £200, able to massacre £6000-plus powerhouses. Close scrutiny reveals slight restraint in the absolute dynamic swings, the lowest reaches of the bass will not cause the room to quake and massive drums will reveal its absolute limits. But neither is it so painfully obvious at sane listening levels as to undermine the way this amplifier excels at its price level.

Far more important is the other characteristic that turned me into a champion of this amplifier: a mid-band so lifelike that the textures of vocals, its intimations of warmth, a sort of realistic sibilance presented in the correct context so authentic that even the LS3/5As could not embarrass it. Gravel-throated Johnny Cash at San Quentin, singing with his crystal-clear-voiced wife June Carter Cash, benefited from the amplifier's ability to retain their voices' characteristics even in tandem, as tricky a situation to resolve as any in music playback. To confirm this, I pulled out Lou Rawls' duets with Dianne Reeves and Louis Armstrong's with Ella Fitzgerald to see if these juxtapositions enjoyed the same respectful handling. And so they did: perfect balance.

Forgive my use of politically incorrect stereotypes, but one might posit that most £180 amps end up with students or those newly added to the work force, not ordinarily fans of lounge-style vocals. The good news? The '315 fears no genre. From Prince to Velvet Revolver to the White Stripes, the NAD could deliver hot transients and the requisite crunch. Headroom? In abundance, provided you use the '315 with real-world speaker loads. While there are occasional hints of top-end restraint - shades of the accursed '3020 - the '315 is rarely less than commanding.

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