Listening #7 Page 2

If I were smart and well-funded enough, I'd leave writing alone and design and build a mass-market solid-state integrated amplifier that could sell for only $300 and still sound better than everything out there, except for perhaps the very, very best. It would have tone controls, a channel-reverse switch, a mono button, and a phono section. Each channel (there would be two) would have its own volume knob, these being tied together with a rubber belt allowing just enough slip for balance adjustments. I'd put the whole kit and caboodle in a nice-looking box and market it direct to college students and people just on their way into or out of the job market.

I'm too busy right now: too many deadlines, too much snow to shovel, too much grass to mow, and hey, those chimps-in-a-bar movies don't download themselves, you know. But nonaudiophile friends and family members keep asking me to recommend good two-channel music systems. With that in mind, I'm on a quest to find the best cheap amp I can; to start out, I've rounded up a couple of likely lads.

First there's the NAD C320BEE, which, according to its manufacturer, carries the torch for their well-loved 3020 integrated amp of the late 1970s and early '80s—this because both products bear the imprint of designer Bjorn Erik Edvardsen (hence the "BEE" designation—and you thought I was trying to sneak in another reference to Napoleon!). The C320BEE looks just like any other budget component from NAD, with its olive-drab faceplate and forest-green power button. It has defeatable tone controls—yes!—but no mono switch. It does have a balance knob, however, and for whatever reason, the C320's balance adjustment is one of the least intrusive I've used: It did little other than move the soundstage this way or that, which is a darned blessing.

The NAD weighs a little over 14 lbs, delivers 50Wpc, and has inputs for five line-level sources in addition to two tape loops. I got all excited when I saw that one of the input selections was marked Disc, but that turned out to be just another line-level input, for DVDs or something; the C320BEE doesn't have a phono section. (NAD offers a companion phono preamp, the PP-1, for $130.) Removable links allow the user to separate the preamp and power-amp sections from one another; the former has an output impedance of 80 ohms, while the latter's input impedance is 20k ohms. There are no preamp output jacks that would allow the C320 to be used with a subwoofer, however—so if you want to use a sub with this amp, it must be drivable by an amplifier-level signal (as are my current favorite subs, the REL Stadium and the Linn Sizmik). The US price of the NAD C320BEE is $399.

That's right: $399. In light of that, the C320's clean layout and excellent build quality come as nothing less than a shock. The transformer is a toroid, all the output devices and voltage regulators are mounted on generously sized heatsinks, and all the C320's active parts are discrete. Solid-copper bus bars abound. Connectors are gold-plated and sturdy without being silly about it.

Your $399 also gets you NAD's multi-product remote handset, and while it doesn't do everything you might wish for (there's no balance control on the remote, for instance), it at least lets you switch in and out of standby mode, select inputs, and turn the C320's motorized volume knob, all from what I assume is the comfort of your listening seat. I almost said the handset lacks a Mute button, but I just recently found it, hiding in plain sight between the volume buttons.

The NAD C320BEE sounded surprisingly good at the basics of playing music—listening to this amp was consistently more an exercise in fulfillment than frustration. Driving the Quad ESL-989s or the "se" version of Spendor's little S3/5, the C320's sound was free of noise and artificial texture. It could sound colorful, given the right source—stringed instruments on Ricky Skaggs' well-recorded Bluegrass Rules (CD, Rounder CD-0801) and Ancient Tones (CD, Skaggs SKFR-CD1001) albums sounded warm and real, as did the strings and woodwinds in some of my favorite small-scale classical recordings—and its low-frequency performance was at least darn good, being not anemic or spastic or slow.

Once up and running for a minimum of 20 minutes, the C320 reproduced stereo recordings with excellent depth. Try that first Leonard Cohen album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, for example (CD, Columbia CK 9533), and listen to how pleasantly distant the brushed snare sounds in "So Long, Marianne," and how realistic the space is between Lenny and his demure backing singers.

The C320 also preserved the music's sense of flow, regardless of style. I've become rather sensitive to this in recent years, but if you want a fairly obvious example of what I'm talking about, try any rock record that has a tambourine playing along with the beat for at least a couple of bars at a time. (Examples abound: the chorus of The Band's "Tears of Rage," Let's Active's "Waters Part," almost any pre-Revolver Beatles track.) All you have to do is listen to the tambourine and see if you can picture a living, breathing, rhythmically imperfect human being playing it, and not a machine. The latter will sound precise and soulless, the former organic, believable, and probably more convincing.

Speaking of pop, the NAD did a great job playing every track on one of my favorite albums from last year, Built to Spill's Ancient Melodies of the Future (Warner Bros. 47954-2). It got across the buzz'n'chunk of the opening number, "Strange," in an engaging and convincing way—lots of color, no fatigue—and managed to make the bass-and-drum combination sound impactful and fast at the same time. Ditto the same album's "Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss" (not the same as the fiddle tune of the same name), which also scooted right along through the C320. On the down side, a better amp—such as my old Naim 110—will make the neat synthesizer and slide-guitar glissando in "Alarmed" sound more dramatic.

Also on the down side, the NAD didn't sound quite big or substantial enough to do justice to such recordings as Pierre Boulez's of Mahler's Symphony 6 (CD, DG 445 835-2). Turning up the C320 made it louder, to a point, but the sound lacked scale—and better amps give me more of a sense of flesh and blood on this and similar discs. Don't get me wrong—the C320 is beyond good for what it is. But, based on my experience, if you want to hear Boulez's Mahler with all the drive it has to give, you need a Naim or Exposure or 47 Lab amp or something like that; if you want all that and all the natural color and beauty there is (as in those wonderful little woodwind chorales scattered throughout the first movement of the Sixth), you need a Linn Klimax, a really good single-ended triode, or maybe something even more exotic.

I don't feel the least bit silly putting a $399 integrated amp in the same system with a $3500 SACD player, $8000 speakers, and God only knows how many dollars' worth of cables. I do, however, feel silly being so critical of something that performs better in that setting than I have any right to expect. The C320BEE is a really nice little amp, and totally worthy of whatever laurel leaves the 3020 has shaken from its head. (I know because I used to own one—and I've owned the 1020 preamp that was derived from it, too.) The NAD is musically and sonically accomplished, and is probably about as close to organic sound as you can get for this kind of money.