The Entry Level #14 Page 2
A highly engaging musical experience
Unlike the Emotiva ERC-2, which had impressed me with its dynamic range and muscular overall sound, the C 515BEE sacrificed weight and extension for a smoother, more coherent sound. "Self-Obsessed and Sexxee," from Sonic Youth's dark classic, Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (CD, DGC 24632; see "Records To Die For"), sounded appropriately sinister and compelling, with clear delineation of the thick, heavily distorted guitars and a good sense of air around the drums, but lacked some bass weight and impact. More important to me, the NAD showed off a really good sense of touch in the song's quieter passagesI could almost feel the energy of drummer Steve Shelley as he paired gentle taps on the ride cymbals with solid kicks to the bass drum. Further, the NAD didn't miss a beat when the song cleverly shifts from dueling minor-key leads to chunky major-key chords.
The NAD also sacrificed some tonal color and body for speed and impact. In "Woman Left Lonely," from Jukebox, Cat Power's beautiful collection of covers (CD, Matador OLE 793-2), time is loosely kept with wire brushes sweeping the head of a snare drum. Through the NAD, this sweeping sound was more of a metallic scrape than the breathy whisper I've grown used to hearing, which made the song sound as though it were played at a slightly faster tempo and created an illusion of greater detail. Through my Sony PlayStation 1, the wire brushes swept the snare head in a gentler, more relaxed fashion, conveying a greater depth of expression from attack to decay.
But the Sony lacked the NAD's spatial abilities, setting the song's musicians in a narrower, more two-dimensional soundstage. The NAD seemed to enjoy re-creating a performance space, pushing forward the sweet-toned guitars, moving the organ way to the rear of the stage, setting the drums dead center, and letting Chan Marshall's intoxicating voice hover above it all. On the other hand, the piano in "Woman Left Lonely" sounded too big and dramatic through the NAD, seeping into areas of the soundstage that should have remained free from its resonant clang. Through the Sony, the piano was more accurately scaled in relation to the other instruments.
But I loved the C 515BEE's way with "Lonely Woman," from Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come (CD, Atlantic 5182636). Remarkable for its many emotional twists and turns, "Lonely Woman" has got to be one of the most gorgeous and thrilling jazz compositions ever captured on tape, and the NAD presented it brilliantly, communicating the swagger, the longing, the sound of adulation in Coleman's drunken, weeping alto saxophone, all with impressive power and grace. For its part, the Sony offered a much mellower, more analog-like presentation, the horns especially sounding warmer, rounder, less burnished. This was good and bad: The Sony uncovered a fluid, acrobatic grace in the trills of the horns at the end of the piece, but missed the staggering impact of those same horns in the track's opening measures.
When I turned to "Running Away from Melissa," from the mps, the NAD reminded me that we'd recorded the album on analog equipmenttape hiss was clearly audibleand had accidentally recorded this track in mono. More important, however, the NAD conveyed the full range of emotion in the music. When the guitars shift from delicate arpeggios to heavily distorted power chords and the drums go from a soft snare pattern to a thunderous, full-kit explosion, I couldn't help but throw my arms in the air and clench my fists with the soaring music. For a brief moment, I was almost there again, on stage at Maxwell's.
A note about MP3s
They sounded surprisingly good through the NAD C 515BEE. Toward the end of the evaluation period, my dear (and totally hot) friend Kristen asked me to create a mix CD for her upcoming dinner party. Of course, I made not one but six mix CDs, and littered them with provocative tunes like "Je T'aime . . . Moi Non Plus," "Fever," and "Sweet Bacon." Before wrapping the discs in black silk and dousing them with eau de toilette, I tested them out in the NAD. I figured I'd just listen casually while tending to other matters, but the sound was so vibrant and compelling that I was invariably drawn back into the listening room. Through the NAD, it was easy to ignore the timing errors and squashed dynamics that typically make low-bit-rate MP3s so unsatisfying.
Abandoning the CD?
Have you heard? The word on the Internet is that major labels will abandon the Compact Disc by the end of 2012. This is big news. It's all over the Facebooks. Even Natalie and Nicole are talking about it.
"Why would they stop making CDs?" Nicole asked, innocently.
It was a cold Tuesday night and we were at the girls' apartment, listening to Natalie's new records. Okkervil River's Black Sheep Boy had just come to an end, and she was now cueing up In the Grace of Your Love, the excellent new album by The Rapture. She carefully lowered the cueing lever of her Music Hall USB-1 turntable and raised the volume on her Audioengine 5 loudspeakers.
"I haven't bought a CD in years," Natalie said. "Nobody listens to them anymore."
Natalie was exaggerating, but are her words closer to the truth than we realize? Writing for DailyFinance, Rick Aristotle Munarriz examined the topic in further detail, pointing out that big-box stores like Walmart, Target, and Best Buy have been slashing away at their CD inventory, while Amazon.com, Apple, and Google have all recently introduced cloud-based music-storage services. The change is happening whether we like it or not, argues Munarriz:
"Wireless phones and tablets are making music portable for those that don't see the point of dedicated MP3 players. Digital music stores are beefing up the quality of their tracks.
"If you don't feel it now, wait until you see how few 2013 model cars will come with CD players. As music streaming gets easier and more seamless, the percentage of music fans that don't have access to digital music will continue to shrink."
When I asked NAD's Greg Stidsen about this, he responded, "As recently as last year, CD sales were still slightly more than downloads, so we think 2012 is too soon to discontinue CD production. Our guess is that CDs will continue as long as retailers want to buy and sell them. Another factor is that there are still many major markets around the world that do not have reliable access to the Internet.
"The problem will eventually be end-of-life parts as overall CD-player sales decline and new parts and tooling become too expensive to initiate."
Meanwhile, in this issue's "As We See It," Art Dudley writes: "I believe there is still room in the marketplace for perfectionist-quality CD players. But I also believe it's now the duty of anyone reviewing such things to ask every one of their manufacturers: How many disc transports and converter chips have you set aside so that those expensive machines can be kept in service for more than a few years?"
According to Stidsen, NAD has an ample supply of transports and DAC chips on hand for their CD playersgood news, in my view. "While we are now seeing a leveling off of [CD player] sales," Stidsen said, "we'd be happy to be the last company producing CD players."
For now, I'm happy with the NAD C 515BEE. I'm buying the review sample. While it's unlikely that my band will get together again anytime soon, at least I can relive the magic of our last show by listening to the CD.
Now, please excuse me while I practice my rock-star poses.