GOODSOUND!GoodSound! "Equipment" Archives

Published June 1, 2002


NAD C521i CD Player

NAD is a company that brandishes a somewhat drab marketing line: "performance, value, simplicity." They probably aren't going to set the world afire with that one. Oh, well. It's clear that NAD isn't out to conquer the world of advertising. For one thing, they're probably too honest: their new C521i CD player, from their affordable Classic Series, delivers exactly what their slogan claims.

The C521i is a single-disc player priced at $299 (though it's frequently discounted). It's an uncomplicated, well-designed player that upgrades the C521 so that it plays with both CD-R and CD-RW discs.

Keeping it simple

This is a slender, attractive piece of gear with a charcoal-gray matte finish that'll fit in nicely with any color schemes your system might have; it also sports an unobtrusive but effective slate-blue backlit display. The player is controlled by a palm-sized remote control we'll discuss a bit later, or with the push of one of eight buttons on its front panel.

Simplicity of design is one of the things engineers at NAD seem to strive for, whether they're working on affordable gear like this or on their higher-end equipment. NAD doesn't add bells and whistles to equipment simply to impress folks browsing on showroom floors. Like all good gear, it's best auditioned in a listening room at a good audio store, where you can listen without the distractions of nearby TVs, boom boxes and salespeople competing for your attention.

When you're focused solely on the music and how the equipment you're listening to reproduces it, simplicity moves up the list of priorities above constellations of lustrous readout displays and a plethora of buttons to push. The NAD player's eight front-panel buttons control all the usual functions: Scan, Skip, Open (the disc tray opens and closes with that smooth action that quietly says "quality"), Stop, Random, Repeat, Time (elapsed/remaining on a song/album), and Play/Pause.

It's everything you're likely to want or need to do with a CD player except for one thing: program the player to play the tracks you want to hear in a particular order. However, you can very simply program up to 20 tracks via the remote. Press the Program button on the remote and then key-in the number of the track (using the numeric buttons on the remote), press Program again to store your selection, and then just keep repeating the process until you're done. (One last note on the front-panel buttons: they're not backlit, so unless you've got a very good memory, make sure to have some light shining on the player.)

Another useful feature on the remote is the Delete function. Simply press Delete and then skip forward or backwards on your disc until you come to the track you don't want to hear (maybe you just can't stand to hear a certain song on your Abba Gold CD even one more time). Then press Delete again. Faster than you can say "Fernando," the song is skipped over when you play the CD. (But if something is in the air on another night and you want to hear "Fernando," simply forego the Delete procedure and the song will be heard as usual.)

Though the remote might be too small for some hands -- if Shaquille O'Neal is on your Christmas list, for instance, this remote isn't going to be nearly big enough for him -- it does fit nicely into others. My beloved partner's hands are petite, so she thought that, finally, someone had designed a remote with her in mind. For big fellas or gals with catcher's mitts for palms, this remote is likely to be too small to use with ease. However, my guess is that NAD figured most folks would simply program the CD player for use with the universal remotes so popular these days.

In fairness, it should be noted that the remote performed as it was designed to do each and every time over a test period of a month, so its size -- and an absence of backlit buttons -- are its only sticking points.

Set up

This couldn't be easier: connect twin RCA leads from the left and right output jacks to the corresponding inputs on your preamp or receiver. Plug in the AC cord, hit Play, and, with a CD in the player, wham! You've got music.

The C521i also has a digital output, isolated and buffered from the DAC (digital-to-analog converter -- it converts the ones and zeroes of digital music into a signal to be amplified by your receiver or amp). The isolation is designed to give a clean digital signal. To use the digital output, connect it via a 75-ohm coaxial cable with RCA plugs to a digital input on a receiver, processor, DAT or MiniDisc. When tested, the digital out delivered a clean, precise signal. (The buffering of the DAC is exactly the kind of attention to engineering detail that NAD is known for.)


Since none of the money NAD spent on the design of the C521i went into ornamental readouts pulsing in attractive colors or into a big remote with 1000 buttons to handle a few functions in a million different ways, there must be a hole where all the money goes, as John Prine might say. That hole is inside the player. Its electronic innards give it a level of performance one might easily demand from a player costing twice as much or more.

NAD uses a 20-bit Burr-Brown DAC chip. Burr-Brown makes fine digital-to-analog converters, but as everyone who has driven a car with a fancy brand name knows, sometimes those deluxe appellations don't live up to their reputations. What counts in a CD player is the quality of the sound it reproduces from your compact discs. This Honda-priced player delivers as if it had a BMW sticker attached to it.

During the review process, the C521i was connected to a modest system of a Carver CT-17 preamp/tuner and Carver TFM-15 power amp, and a pair of good, affordable B&W 300 Series speakers occasionally swapped out with two Philips DSS 930 speakers.

No matter the configuration of equipment, the C521i consistently delivered open- and transparent-sounding musical reproduction. It focused and separated instruments and voices as well as some more expensive auditioned players. Sonic images were well defined on an abundant soundstage.

The C521i is just a bit thin in the bass, but not to a degree that would make it a deal-buster for most folks. Remember this as you audition the player: a good CD player doesn't add bass -- or treble or midrange -- to your music. Sometimes folks will hear a piece of quality equipment and think it sounds light in the bottom end. What they're actually hearing, most of the time, is an absence of the boominess one associates with gear of lesser quality. The C521i is only slightly thin in comparison to other high-quality, typically pricier CD players.

Vocals were realistically portrayed. Listen to Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch softly crooning "Didn't Leave Nobody but the Baby" on the Grammy-winning soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? [Mercury 088 170-069-2 DG02] and you'll hear their angelic voices harmonizing in a summons to sonic heaven. The C521i reproduces the genuine warmth and depth of their voices, not some digital revision of the music.

The harmonies of Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock aren't quite as divine as those of the women on O Brother, but there's a leathery beauty in their voices as they do a deep, rhythmic chant in the chorus of "Down in the Light of the Melon Moon" on their new Now Again album [New West 07396-6040-2]. Along with the voices, acoustic guitars, a dobro, and percussion, all sound full, round and clear behind Ely's raspy lead vocals.

You get detailed body from the C521i, perhaps nowhere more evident than on jazz singer Cassandra Wilson's rendition of Robert Johnson's "Come On in My Kitchen," from Rounder Records' Divine Divas [5071/2/3/ A]. With minimal backing instrumentation, Wilson's distinctive voice is free of coloration and sounds as if it's hovering in the air in front of you.

What it's worth

During a recent visit to a megabox electronics store, I was told by a saleschild (his age looked to be between 9 and 17; his IQ appeared to be even lower) that all CD players sound the same; all you're looking for when shopping for a player is disc capacity. Uh huh. And all you want to know about a new car is the number of spare tires that'll fit in its trunk.

What you're really looking for when you buy a CD player, of course, is value for your hard-earned money. Now if you're looking for a player that'll hold a couple hundred CDs that you're not listening to, this isn't the player for you. It holds only a single disc at a time. What you get instead of a carousel to hold your all your discs is high-quality sound; quality unbeaten at this price, in my experience. (Denon is another company that's managed to build similarly priced players capable of performance at this level, but nearly everyone else has opted to either go for the very high end or abandon good, affordable CD players in the scramble to churn out DVD players.)

The C521i has a sturdy build; something you want in any piece of audio equipment you buy. Though not heavy, it feels solid enough to use as a blunt weapon in an Agatha Christie novel and still be able to play CDs afterwards without a trace of jitter. Now that's value.

You can get CD players that hold 400 or more discs at this price, but they don't feel this solid and they don't sound this good. Most inexpensive players sound thin, as if they've had bass, treble and midrange bled out of them with leeches by a medieval doctor. The C521i keeps your music sounding vital with a spacious naturalness promised by every maker of budget players, but very rarely delivered.

That's why the C521i is recommended for more than its build quality and simple, elegant appearance. It's well engineered and has the high level of accurate sound reproduction that you'd reasonably expect at twice its price. If you're looking for affordable quality, NAD delivers with its C521i.

Price of equipment reviewed

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