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by COREY GREENBERG
Company Address: c/o KH America, 89 Doug Brown Way, Holliston, Mass. 01746; 508/ 429-3600; fax, 508/429-3699.
Amazing Yet True Hi-Fi Taleum No. 69: On a recent visit to a well-known high-end loud speaker manufacturer to hear its latest flagship models, the sound in the company's main listening room just wasn't happening. They'd measured and re-measured the bejesus out of the new speakers, but this was the first time they'd actually fired them up in that room, and it was clear something was seriously wrong.
Given the company's pedigree, I knew these speakers had to sound better, so I checked out the rest of the rig.
An Arcam CD player: cool.
Bryston muscle amps: cool. Audio Research LS2B tube pre amplifier: Suddenly my spider sense tingled, and squiggly red heat lines shot from my head like snakes from a barrel. The ARC is well liked by many audiophiles, but I hadn't had good luck with this particular preamp. To my ears, it dulls the top end and adds an opaque, congested quality to the midrange. And that's exactly how this system sounded, to the manufacturer's clear dismay.
I saw another preamp sitting in the corner, so I asked the techs if we could try it instead. We swapped the preamps, fired the new one up, and within a few minutes of warm-up the system sounded much cleaner and more musical. The speakers sounded like legitimate high-end monitors, and everyone was smiling.
So what was this mystery preamp, you ask? Okay, so I lied. It wasn't really a preamp; it was the preamp section of a five-year-old budget NAD integrated amp. (Sorry, ARC.
Can you send me your $30k mono blocks anyway?) I relate this Amazing Yet True Hi-Fi Taletm because I've been living for the past few months with NAD's latest giant killers, the $399 Model 314 integrated amp and the $349 Model 512 single-disc CD player. Man, is this hi-fi after my own heart! Simple, cheap, unassuming little dark gray boxes that hide more musical-sounding circuitry inside than any thing else I can think of for anywhere near the same green. When I auditioned their predecessors, the $380 NAD 304 integrated amp and the $300 NAD 502 CD player three years ago, I thought they couldn't be beat for the money. But these new NADs are even better, and for just 70 clams more than the old combo! Let's all raise a glass to the poor bastard in the marketing department at NAD who got canned for get ting the prices wrong when he sent the brochures out to the printer.
And let's hope he lands on his feet real, real soon, preferably at my local Nissan dealership-baby needs a new Pathfinder.
It's not often I describe hi-fi gear as being "fun," but the NADs are fun. They're fun to listen to and fun for me to recommend to anyone who's ever picked up a hi-fi mag, done a Danny Thomas spit take at the prices of this stuff, and figured he'd just have to do without real high-end audio this go-round.
Because for 750 measly clams, all you have to do is add a good pair of speakers and you've got high-end sound. Not "entry-level high end," not "Class-C (provisional, pending DA's Formal Reappraisal, to be published sometime this year) high end." Real high-end sound. Better sound than any of the retro tube geeks are getting, I can assure you. And better sound than any one with Shun Mooks in his listening room and/or a monocle is getting, I can promise you that. These NADs are the real deal, and anyone who laughs them off as not-quite-high-end will be missing out on two of the greatest steals in all of hi-fi.
The 314 integrated amp is the updated version of NAD's 304, its best-selling bud get box of several years ago. The new NAD enjoys subtle circuit improvements and better parts, but we're still talking the same basic concept: a cute li'l 35-watt-per-channel integrated with a killer preamp section, a lively and clean amp with enough short term beef to sound much more commanding on actual music signals than the spec implies, and no attention whatsoever paid to making the volume control feel heavy and reassuring, the front panel thick and gleaming, or the RCA connectors good and golden (even though the phono and CD in puts are gold-not those big, jutting jewelry jacks that warm my cockles, but gold nonetheless). Every red cent of the 314's $399 price but one goes into making it sound great on the inside. Then NAD takes that last penny and bites on it like Under dog. The company doesn't even spend that penny on a shiny chassis finish or a cool, severe logo; it gnaws on it and then puts it back into its pocket. Because that penny must be the only profit NAD ever sees from this box.
When you put them together, the NAD 314 and 512 make the ultimate affordable audiophile system. Normally you have to junk whatever rig you started with when it's time to get real in hi-fi, but this NAD combo is fully upgradable in every possible dimension. Say you want to start in stereo but eventually move up to multichannel surround sound. Unlike most budget integrated amps, the NAD 314 has separate preamp outputs and power amp inputs, so you can hook up something like the $700 Marantz DP870 Dolby Digital surround processor and turn the 314 into an AC-3-ready home theater control center. And, of course, you can use the pre-out/amp-in jacks to connect the NAD's excellent preamp section to a more powerful amplifier when you move on up to that deluxe apartment in the sky-yi-yii.
Even so, I have to say that the 314's 35-watt amplifier section sounds impossibly loud for its rated spec. When I first got it, the 314 did duty in my bedroom system, driving a pair of big, inefficient AR 303 acoustic-suspension speakers. And even though this system has but one job, to blast The Stooges' Funhouse so I can get moving in the morning, the NAD 314 never broke a sweat or sounded strained in any way. These have got to be the meatiest 35 watts I've ever heard, and I didn't even have to switch on the NAD's "soft-clipping" circuit, which smooths clipped musical peaks but murks the sound up noticeably. The 314, like NAD amps be fore it, sounds better with this switch turned off.
The 512 CD player offers its own upward spiral as well. If the upgrade bug ever bites you down the road (or anywhere else on your person, for that matter), the 512's dig ital output will turn it into a high-quality CD transport. I hitched the 512 up to a Meridian 563 D/A converter, and in no way did the sound suggest that the $1,395 processor was hamstrung by the $349 NAD.
But don't automatically assume that any of the cheap, entry-level D/A converters are going to improve on the sound you get from the 512's own audio outputs. Unlike any other $350 CD player I know of, the 512 not only has premium Signetics 5532 op-amps in its analog audio section but also a DC-coupled output circuit, which means no low-grade coupling caps in series with the signal path. All of this adds up to a clearly better-sounding CD player than anything else I've heard for the money. If you want CD sound that's significantly better, you're going to have to pony up the dough for at least something like Theta Digital's excellent $675 Chroma D/A converter. (I cannot tell you how many calls and letters I've received from owners of the NAD 502 who bought cheap outboard D/A converters and sheepishly admitted that the sound got worse. And the 512 sounds even better than the 502 did.) Believe me, this is no "tide me over till I get the Benson & Hedges account" CD player. Neither is the 314 a cheap 'n' cheerful substitute for "real" electronics. These are true audiophile components that sound cleaner and smoother than mass-market CD players and receivers and better even than many expensive audiophile separates.
Right now, the NADs run in my home office, driving a $350 pair of NHT SuperOnes flanking my PC monitor. If I'm getting hit right in the puss all day long with music, it better sound great or it's going to irritate the hell out of me. With the NAD/NHT rig, I'm listening to high-end sound all day long and loving every minute of it.
Taken on its own, the 314 integrated amp sounds very neutral and accurate. It doesn't warm over the top end, like many of the British integrateds do, and it doesn't hype the treble into a keening wail, like some of the Japanese budget amps do. The NAD's bass, in particular, is really nice. The low end is the one area where budget amps tend to sound small and lean, but the 314's bass is tight, well defined, and all there. No doubt its EDP (Extended Dynamic Power) circuit, which switches over to a higher power-supply voltage rail for brief signal peaks, enables the 314 to sound like a much bigger amp than a 35-watt rating would normally suggest. (And the rating may be, in classic NAD fashion, very conservative.) The real star of the show is the 314's pre amp section. NAD has always been known for using simple, great-sounding discrete circuitry in its preamps, even in its budget integrateds (which is why you can pull the kind of trick I did at the loudspeaker demo). They're just damn-good, no-funny-stuff, very neutral preamps. And the 314 continues this tradition. Its discrete-circuit line stage is as good as or better than gear costing many times the 314's price, and it makes a difference you can easily hear. Believe it or not, the NAD's line stage sounds better than the one in the $4,000 Citation 7.0 surround preamp I normally use in my system. Image focus is more precisely de fined, and the top end is slightly cleaner.
The Citation's an excellent-sounding pre-amp and does magical things with surround sound that no other preamp I've used can match, but I wish its line-level stage sounded as clean as the NAD's.
Even the 314's phono stage, at best a cheap op-amp-based throwaway circuit in most budget gear, is a fully discrete design that has high-quality film caps, low-noise metal-film resistors, and an isolated power supply. When I plugged my Rega Planar 3 turntable and Sumiko SHO cartridge into the NAD's phono stage, the playback was smooth, clear, open, and totally musical.
The NAD's internal phono section sounded a lot better with my Rega/Sumiko setup than Audio Alchemy's $259 VAC-in-the-Box external phono stage did. Fed to one of the 314's line-level inputs, the AA sounded hard and tizzy, compared to the NAD, and a lot leaner in the bass. In fact, the NAD's phono section came quite close to the quality of sound I get from McCormack Audio's excellent $495 Micro Phono Drive, the external phono stage I use in my reference system. The NAD's highs weren't quite as pristinely clean as the McCormack's, and the low end was stronger and more tightly defined via the more expensive phono section, but the NAD's got a phono stage I could definitely live with. It sounded clearly better than the VITB and is easily worth the entire price of the 314.
I should tell you about something I tried that really made a significant improvement to the sound of the NAD combo. Now, I'm not big on tweaks anymore; I used to be up for trying just about any tweak that came down the pike, no matter how kooky it seemed, but so few of these geegaws made any kind of real sonic difference that I pretty much stay out of that mess now. (The whole $50 magic drink-coaster scam that's so in vogue right now with the hardcore geek elite kind of sealed that meal for good, as far as I'm concerned.) But after a few equally tweak-free friends raved about the sonic improvements they were getting from Townshend Audio's Seismic Sinks, I figured what the hell-the company's down in Texas, so that's a good sign right there: I haven't eaten Mexican food worth a tinker's damn since I moved to L.A. two years ago, so I welcome anything postmarked "TX" with open arms.
The Seismic Sinks are isolation bases you sit your gear on, with an inflatable inner tube sandwiched between two steel plates.
They come with a little bicycle pump, and the idea is to fill the Sinks with just enough air to float your gear on a compliant cushion, but not too much air or else the compliance of the suspension won't be high enough to isolate your equipment from physical vibration.
Townshend sent me its He-Man jobs, big $350 1-Std. Sinks with little red LEDs on the front that blink if you need to give the Sink a puff or two, and that's what I started out with under all my usual gear. But even though I heard some nice improvements in low-end weight and definition, the real shocker was when I tried, almost on a lark, Townshend's budget $150 CD Sink (no LEDs, so you have to eyeball the right inflation) under the two stacked NADs (the amp on top of the CD player).
Man! This made the biggest difference of all. Even though I also got good results with a $50 set of four Navcom rubber pucks under the NADs, the CD Sink was unquestionably the better-sounding geegaw to stick under them. If the 314 and 512 sounded impressive before, now they sounded all out of proportion to their combined 750 clams. As with my reference gear, the most noticeable difference was in the bass: Sitting on the budget Sink, the NADs gained a stronger and meatier low end, with greater power and clarity. Other things, like image focus, got subtly better, but the most obvious boost was a bigger, better, more coherent low end that came embarrassingly close to the sound of my Theta/Citation/Aragon electronics. As a reformed tweakaholic, I'm almost depressed at how much the budget Sink improved the sound of the NADs, but if you can stretch your scratch from $750 to $900, I totally recommend the CD Sink for squeezing the most performance out of these budget NADs.
There has never been a better time to be an audiophile on a real-world budget.
When I first caught the hi-fi bug, you needed to spend many thousands of dollars to get the kind of smooth, clean, naturally musical sound that the $399 NAD 314 integrated amp and the $349 NAD 512 CD player deliver. Add a good pair of $350 speakers like the NHT SuperOnes or the Paradigm Mini-Mk3s, stack the NADs on a $150 CD Sink, and I'm telling you, you're going to flip out over what you'll hear. If you're just starting to get serious about hi fi, or if you're coming in from the cold after years of getting too serious about it, this is the stuff you need to own.
(Source: Audio magazine, Feb. 1997)
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