(Last revised, 26/08/08)
PART 1: Background info
NAD has always been a good budget brand that delivers good driving power per dollar. Its very long history means it had both wildly successful products as well as many lemons. While NAD have always designed their amplifiers, many of their other products, like tuners and turntables, were simply re-badged products and varying in quality.
I once had a 3020i and did not like its bland and flaccid sound. On the other hand, the 412 tuner (OEM) was really excellent (but not the model that followed it, a Japanese one). They also have traditionally put out good sounding CD players, though I have never owned one.
Now based in Canada, in recent years, NAD have been expanding into the higher end a bit, with questionable success. However, recently their more humble products with the designation BEE (initials of chief designer, like Marantz's KI) have been garnering quite a bit of critical success, by even magazines like TAS and Stereophile. This has helped them regain footage (and dealership, like in Taiwan). On occasion I have heard them to usually good effect. I actually think the company has improved a lot and now walk a fine balance between hifi parameters and musicality.
This is a brand new design. Although I have read reviews of this amplifier in 6moons and Soundstage, I never paid much attention to this product as those magazines are frequently questionable.
A few weeks ago I checked out a stack of old HiFi News from the library to read in Shenzhen. And Ken Kessler's review of the amplifier (November 2007) caught my attention for the following reasons:
1. Although I don't at all like Ken Kessler's review of "high-end" stuff, nor his overpraise of current tube products, this is an unusual review of a very cheap entry level integrated, which he bought. Note that KK does have perspective in the "cheap-end" and an interest in vintage and audio history. Hence he compared this amp to the "classic" 3020.
2. I totally agree with him that the 3020 is nothing special.
3. Unlike other net reviews, he used really good source (Marantz CD12/DA12, tweaked by Ken Ishiwata) and serious loudspeakers in his testing. Both the Ls3/5A and Sonus Faber Guarneri pose serious challenge to any integrated amplifiers, especially the latter.
4. Although I am no technocrat, usually I do believe in simplicity and am skeptical of too much control circuitry. NAD's "soft-clipping" I know is useless from my experience with the 3020i, and all serious users switch it off. NAD's amps also have controlling "Power Drive" circuitry, which I am somewhat skeptical of too. But here The excellent Paul Miller provided really useful technical information that made this entry-level amp much more attractive to me. The simpler "Power Drive-S" is not even electronic! I like that. The quartz-halogen bulbs referred to are the 2 silver-colored tube shield-like cans next to the (good-sized) power transformer ( for better reading, remember you can click on the pics to emlarge).
And I was really quite attracted by the measurements, particularly the healthy peak level figures for even 2 ohms and that is comforting if I have to use it to drive speakers like ATC.
After reading the comprehensive review I was already tempted to buy one. Contributing to the final decision were:
- Good looks (I prefer black/olive to the more popular silver/titanium).
- Small size (only 2/3 as tall or deep as standard).
- Remote control that is simple and effective (pictured in HFN).
- Very reasonable price of $2xxx. As water goods is only a little cheaper, and no black color, I'd advise buying hong hoods.
- My fetish with integrateds.
What started out as fun ultimately turned into a big "shootout" feast. But before the comparative listening (next part and future articles) the basic run-in and listening first.
From the start, it was apparent that this belongs to the "big" sounding camp. None of the usual over-emphasis on treble/imaging (=tiny and not live) stuff for this amp. This one majors on "presence".
At first sound is a little unruly and slightly coarse at high levels, but after several days of run-in this has disappeared.
In order to run it in I had it almost constantly on, by running it both in the living room and in the study. This thing generates a fair amount of heat, and that created a problem in my study during the first really hot days. That boiling hot day I used a fan on myself, no room air-conditioning. With the windows closed and the amp place high up on the (deep) bookshelf (its slim size enables this to be done), ONE time the amp muted itself, and I found the fins too hot to touch. After opening the windows, I could place it even higher up (now <1.5' from the ceiling) and do not have any issue even driving tougher speakers like ATC A7. The amp partnered all speakers very well, including Usher S-520/X-708 and KEF LS3/5A.
My main concern was classical replay. You shall note that KK did not even use one classic track and the German expressed reserve (with his weird speakers). Initially I was a little bothered by the coarseness. But not to worry, after running in, the amp turns out quite neutral in classical reproduction, be it solo intsruments or orchestral works.
Its overall neutrality can be glimpsed from one fact: It effortlessly reflects the effect of gear change. It can reveal the astonishing difference between the three TDA1541 16-bit CD players I used during the evaluation (Naim CD2, Sony R1/D1 and Esoteric P500/D500); and between all the speakers used.
Its capability can only be appreciated by partnering it with gears much oustside its price range. The better the gears, the better the sound with this little amp. It's a big mistake to base a review of this amp on partnering it with cheap speakers and CD players. It deserves better, like what KK had done.
During all this, it never put a foot wrong, and was always emotionally generous. It cuts to the core of music and is never boring. Do be patient with run-in.
And yes the remote is a pleasure. It now sits high up on my shelf, controlled from my desk-top. For this convenience, it has replaced the Cyrus I in my study. It is now playing through ATC SCM7 (placed on top of my bookshelves), fed by a Cambridge Audio DV87 player. Sound is great while I type! Oh, I just got myself a dirt-cheap and somewhat beat-up NAD 4020A tuner and it works wonders here too! The remote can control the matching NAD 515BEE CD player too; anyone wants to sell me one???
Next up would be comparisons with Cyrus I and Naim Nait II. This shall be followed in due course by comparisons of the small speakers and CD players mentioned in this review. Using this little amp? Why not?