NAD Gilds The Entry Level Gateway With Gold – RMAF 2017

by Eric Shook

NAD (New Acoustic Dimension to some) invited us to a special demo at Rocky Mountain Audiofest 2017. A showdown of sorts between NAD’s iconic 3020 integrated amplifier (released in 1978) and their newest line of Hybrid Digital integrateds. My personal history with NAD electronics runs wide. Having owned four of their integrated amplifiers, two of which were the same exact model, you could easily assume I am a fan of their sound and value, and you’d be right to do so.

Entering the room I am welcomed by a more than friendly and accommodating group of people from both The Lenbrook Group (NAD’s Central US representation) and NAD’s own sales and marketing staff. It’s nice to see a larger audio company that still values face to face interaction with the end users, which might account for NAD’s continued success as a value leader and slayer of giants over the years. Gotta stay connected with your audience, and it’s apparent that NAD has done this.

First up to bat, the NAD 3020 is sourced through RCA analog inputs by a Bluesound Vault 2 playing various tracks from a locally inserted USB thumb drive containing MQA audio files, and ultimately tethered to a very large sounding set of PSB Imagine XB bookshelf speakers, which if I may as an aside, had me quiet fooled by their full sound to be something much higher up in the PSB line. Good job Paul Barton, did I mention he was also in the room? I’m not the type to ignore a legend.

The NAD 3020 proves immediately why it’s a classic piece of audio engineering and holds up against newer components to this day. It sounds neither anemic or underpowered for it’s rated 20 watts per channel, but we all know it’s capable of so much more. With a street price of only $149 USD upon its 1978 debut, we can see why it was and has remained so popular. Who knew then it would be a product that would give us a relatively clear glimpse into the future? I say that because what comes next clearly shares its DNA with the past but is at the same time, definitely is showing itself to be hip and with the times.

Switching over to the new NAD C328 (with a slew of digital conversion input options and wireless connectivity included), the amplifier comes off as “extraordinarily hip”. If you’re wondering like I am, the C328 is essentially the already popular C338 minus the built-in Google Chromecast. As we begin listening I hear the hallmarks of what made the 3020 so lovable, but now with greater bounce in it’s step. It is great to know that those familiar traits are still a part of NAD’s heritage sound, and also still relevant. Also of “noteworthyness”, that at $549 USD the C328 integrated is actually cheaper than it’s thirty-nine year older ancestor the 3020 (when calculating for inflation).

Regarding improvements over the 3020 and it’s recent line of integrateds with conventional power supplies and Class AB outputs, give all credit to its hybrid design and more than able power supply to dole out what’s needed when the source material becomes complex and dynamic. The new C328 dispenses with ease what other components in this price range just can’t muster. Most of all, what stands out about this integrated is it’s detail and refinement over previous stars within the NAD lineup. Not just when price is concerned either. Make no mistake, with a very up-to-date feature set, on-board digital audio decoding that is synergistically matched to work as well as it can in tandem with NAD amplification. You end up with a product that should be in strong contention with anything on the market with higher stated power ratings and price tags. Not a bad or difficult place to enter the hobby, eh?

The NAD C328’s detail in the bass region is what floored me most during the demo, making me think I was surely listening to PSB’s higher offerings. The control and texture of upright bass was everything I look for and more to cross my personal “this is what I call audiophile” threshold. Treble extension was tight and decay was smooth. NAD has surely outdone themselves in regard to their already fantastic line of AB powered integrateds like the NAD 316 and 326, that’s to be expected considering decades of trajectory upwards within the designs offered by the company. I’m reminded of General Patton’s speech to the Third Army, “We’re not holding… We’re advancing constantly… ” – excerpts here censored and condensed for sensitive readers.

Going a step up in NAD’s Hybrid line we hear the C368 ($899 USD)… and now my mind is playing tricks on me. Let’s not talk about what I am hearing, but what I am NOT hearing. Same source, same tracks, same speakers, same room, now even darker background. The noise background is so contrasted I don’t want to believe it. Unmeasurable maybe? Did they forget the noise at the Denver airport? Instantly I’m drawing comparisons to another integrated by Peachtree Audio, which famously known for it’s low noise among many great other things. This C368 may not outright offer the power or audible acrobatics of the Peachtree, but that’s OK, the Peachtree Nova 150 is currently $1,799 USD (a steal) at the time of this article and is in the conversation with offerings far exceeding its own asking price. That said, I’d put the NAD in good company and on my list of integrateds to consider under $1,200 USD with ease.

In closing, once again like many times before, I sit in front of an NAD product and I’m giddy. Because I know that once again the gateway for many into this hobby is now gilded with gold and probably now threatens a few well regarded products further upstream. I leave the exhibit at Rocky Mountain Audiofest with a smile on my face, and assured that NAD entry level components remain a highly recommended value.