NAD C320BEE Integrated
NADs C320BEE is the Honda Civic of
integrated amplifiers. Like the Civic, its design is no-frills, and its intended for
a basic purpose: in this case, to reproduce recorded music accurately at an affordable
price ($399 USD). For a component to achieve this and be so relatively inexpensive -- and
make no mistake, the C320BEEs overriding benefit is its cost -- questions much of
the conventional thinking that goes into buying audio equipment. Do you get more if you
pay more? How much more do you get? And at what price do returns begin to diminish?
The C320BEE is a descendent of NADs first low-cost,
high-performance integrated amplifier, the 3020, which thrived in the late 1970s and early
80s. Audio legend and current NAD engineer Bjorn Erik Edvardsen designed the 3020,
and his initials on the updated C320BEE honor his continuing contributions
Cosmetically, the C320BEE looks like just about every other
piece of equipment NAD makes. You might find the dark gray face and body, white lettering,
and light green power button distinctive and austerely simple, or you might find it drab
and dull. You may also decide that at this price, you can live with it, because the build
quality is unquestionably good for the price.
Of standard size (17"W x 4"H x 11.5"D) and
weighing a bit more than 14 pounds, the C320BEE feels solid and substantial. The gray
knobs, including Bass and Treble (along with a Tone Defeat button to bypass both of them)
and Balance, are plastic and turn tightly without the least wiggle. The volume knob in
particular is a little small, and its indicator -- a raised black line on the gray knob --
is hard to see from a distance. The connectors, with inputs for five line-level sources
and two tape loops, are gold-plated and secure.
While seven inputs seems generous, it excludes one for a
turntable, and though NAD (and other manufacturers) make auxiliary phono stages, its
absence from the C320BEE may disqualify it for some. And, of course, you wont be
able to listen to the radio without dedicating one of those inputs to a tuner. Again,
these represent choices. For instance, the amp does come with a system remote control for
inputs, volume adjustment, activating the Mute function, and operating other NAD
components. It also has a headphone jack, which is not a given among integrated amplifiers
as you climb the price-and-quality ladder.
For the more ambitious, the C320BEE can also serve as a
preamp to an outboard power amp. By and large, this amp tries to appeal to the listener
who plays CDs, perhaps would like to patch in an MP3 player every now and then, might use
the amp to watch DVDs in two-channel stereo, and needs to listen privately from time to
The two channels of the C320BEE are rated at 50W per, but
had the clean punch and strong capability of a rating double that. In a normal listening
environment with reasonably efficient loudspeakers, the C320BEE delivers a steady stream
of continuous wattage while holding some in reserve for when extra is necessary.
The C320BEE isnt one to put on airs, and doesnt
expect a lot of other fancy components to do its work. My CDs for this article were played
on a Pioneer DV-353 CD/DVD player, hooked up with one-notch-above-the-bottom Monster Cable
interconnects. I tested the C320BEE with the comparably entry-level Paradigm Titan
bookshelf speakers, on stands that raised the tweeters to just about my seated ear level
and hooked up with 18-gauge lamp cord from the hardware superstore. Later I switched to
another set of bookshelf speakers, the German-made MB Quart QLC 204s: ultraprecise,
unforgiving, and a slight upgrade from the creamy-smooth presentation of the similarly
In the quest for perfection, it doesnt get much more
perfect than Ella Fitzgerald, and when paired with the great Louis Armstrong on Ella
& Louis [Universal 589598], all the charm and sweetness of her singing begs to
pour from the speakers. The NAD C320BEE was crystal clear in its ability to convey every
nuanced syllable in "A Foggy Day" and the arresting stillness of her tone in
"Moonlight in Vermont," almost as if Ellas voice were suspended on
monofilament wire secured in place by the amp. From that level of quietude to the
ebullience of her and Armstrongs exchange on "Cant We Be Friends,"
the C320BEE efficiently established the contrast of Ellas purity with Louiss
grit. On "The Nearness of You," the C320BEE locked in Ray Browns bass with
On the William Parker Violin Trios Scrapbook
[Thirsty Ear 57133], the bass and drums do more than merely keep time -- they are melodies
unto themselves. When I played "Holiday for Flowers," the C320BEE was able to
lay the rhythmic foundation of Parkers bass and Hamid Drakes drums across the
floor of the soundstage, while detailing the strings vibrating against the basss
neck and the wooden sticks as they struck the drum skins. Along with the percussive lows,
Billy Bangs scratchy, trebly violin was a virtuoso of texture on "Singing
Spirits," a cascade of squeaky scrapes on the title track. In this challenging sonic
environment of a meaty low end under chirping highs, the C320BEE never faltered.
Presenting a different challenge, Ryan Adams Heartbreaker
[Bloodshot 71] offers guitar rock, mandolin-driven mountain ballads, and rootsy country.
"To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)" kicks things off with a holler, and
the C320BEE delineated the jangly guitars from the cracking drums while letting the music
loosen up without slackening or unwinding out of hand. Adams collaborators on this
date were David Rawlings and Gillian Welch, who in their own music play and sing with the
fervor of their old-timey forebears. On lesser equipment, Ive occasionally been
confused by the backing vocals on "Bartering Lines." Welch sometimes sounds like
Rawlings, the voice recessed too far to reveal itself. On the C320BEE, there was no doubt
it was Gillian Welch. Each voice coming through the NAD had its own musical character and
identity, most tellingly on "Oh My Sweet Carolina," where the amp was able to
explore every subtle crack in Adams delivery. When Emmylou Harris came in on the
chorus, the separation and lucidity with the C320BEE driving the MB Quarts was startling.
Method Mans Tical [Def Jam 5 23839], as
produced by RZA, is the opposite of lucid, and MMs congested, phlegmy vocals are a
perfect complement to the thickly mixed beats. All, however, is not murk, and the C320BEE
delivered the booming undertow of "Bring the Pain," the unhinged falsetto on
"Mr. Sandman," and the rousing horns and soulful vocals of "Release
Yo Delf" with equal ease. It peeled away the layers of echoing, disembodied
voices, eerie keyboards, and music sampled from kung fu movies, putting me in the lab next
to RZA. Under the most unlikely circumstances, the C320BEE was accurate without judging
the source recording; truthful, colorful, authentic, and free from affectation.
Before bringing in the C320BEE, I did a lot of listening
through the centerpiece of the system in my first apartment, a Pioneer VSX-403 A/V
receiver. It had a phono input I never used, and a tuner that, over the years, I used less
and less. Rated at 60W for two channels, it produced all the music I was able to imagine.
When the time came to upgrade, though, I realized there was more available than what was
on display at the half-dozen big-box stores in my town. An integrated amplifier promised
not just something different, but something better. However, other than the C320BEE, the
other medium-priced integrateds came in at $800 to $1000 -- and NAD made some of the few
other models between those two points.
The Pioneer VSX-403 produced sound adequately. More than
adequately, it did everything I expected it to do over the course of several years.
Perhaps I should have raised my expectations. After living with the C320BEE, as the
dynamics of the music went up, the C320BEE seemed to swell and lift where the Pioneer
would strain. Simple increases in volume were substituted by height and depth and width.
The difference between the Pioneer and the NAD was like the difference between screaming
with your vocal cords and singing with breath supported by your diaphragm; between bending
over at the waist to lift a piece of furniture with your back and squatting down to lift
with your legs.
As a testament to its fundamental benefit, the C320BEE
didnt shy away from the individual characters of different loudspeakers. In this way
the amp was a chameleon, assuming the qualities of its environment and optimizing whatever
a pair of speakers had to offer, rather than imposing its own influence on what was
played. The Titans lived up to their reputation as no-nonsense performers with a touch of
warmth, while the NAD allowed the MB Quarts, with their much higher standard and level of
capability, to really sing. Its all too easy to upgrade each component one by one
almost without end; the match of NAD C320BEE and MB Quart QLC 204s illustrated the
importance of pairing the right speakers with the right amp.
If you have any interest in building a high-quality audio
system, the experts will tell you to spend what you can on speakers first, and spend on an
amplifier second. This approach has been further reinforced by engineers who say there is
no audible difference among amplifiers within a given price range. But you cant hear
your CD player or your speakers without an amplifier.
The NAD C320BEE is a "safe" choice. It isnt
perfect -- it has little pizzazz, its not much to look at, and its knobs arent
terribly pleasing to the touch -- but its priorities are in order. It plays music without
resorting to gimmickry, and fills you with pride of ownership. NAD has made some choices
to keep the C320BEEs cost down, but hasnt compromised the quality of the music
this integrated amplifier is able to make.
Entering the world of audiophile equipment is a slippery
slope. Something as excellent and affordable as the NAD C320BEE will get your feet wet
even as it helps you get your footing. The C320BEE epitomizes the entry-level audiophile
component: Unlike with Hondas Civic, there is no equivalent of Toyotas Corolla
to compete with it in its category. The NADs level of performance for $399 makes it
one of a kind.
Price of equipment reviewed