REVIEW: NAD ELECTRONICS C388 HYBRID DIGITAL DAC AMPLIFIER
NAD Electronics’ C388 Hybrid Digital DAC Amplifier is a bit of a mouthful, but it's an accurate description of NAD’s new integrated architecture. We take a closer look at this well-equipped integrated amplifier.
C388 Hybrid Digital DAC Amplifier
NAD Electronics’ C388 Hybrid Digital DAC Amplifier is a bit of a mouthful, but it's an accurate description of NAD’s new integrated architecture that grew from the combination of its Direct Digital technology, and Hypex’s “Ultimate Class D” (or ucD) power modules.
The NAD C388 Integrated Amplifier is the current top of the range below its Masters series, offering 150 watts per channel.
NAD Electronics is a company that holds a special place in the history of consumer audio. Since their inception in 1972 they set out to create exceptional amplifiers at realistic prices, and this remains their goal today. One of the most memorable of their success stories is the famous NAD 3020 first released in 1978, and its many variations that followed over the next decade and a half.
I have a 3120 in my possession, and I will eagerly add my voice to all the others that claim it's a very special amplifier. Even today they remain something of a giant killer and are still highly sort after units in the second-hand market.
Traditionally NAD favour understated looks. They prefer to let the performance of their gear do the talking, and this latest model range is no different.
Carbon black fronts with a functional (but not flashy) display and a minimum of dials and buttons can be found on the faceplates of the new model range. They appeal to those of us who like an uncluttered approach to audio.
While the visual side of things may not be as enticing as some other brands, the NAD does not suffer in the areas of performance or connectivity. The current crop of NAD integrated amps come with four digital inputs (2 x coaxial, 2 optical) and a Bluetooth connection in addition to a pair of analogue line inputs and an MM Phono input all as standard.
The higher models in the range (both C368 and C388) also support NADs Modular Design Construction (MDC) Upgrade Modules as optional extras.
The C388 as tested did not include any of these but purchasers can opt for any of the three currently available modules, including Wi-Fi connectivity and multi-format decoding (MDC BluOS), HDMI with 3D video support on pass through (DD HDM-1) or HDMI with 4K video support on pass through (DD HDM-2). Each module comes at an additional cost of course.
Sound decoding on all inputs is, of course, limited to 2 channels. A move to a receiver would be necessary to move up to multi-channel surround sound.
A fourth MDC card, the DD USB 2.0, is mentioned in the manual but not listed on the NAD website. Its function seems relatively straightforward, an asynchronous 24/96 type B USB input for computer source use and a standard USB port for direct connection of flash drives or mass storage devices.
The rear panel also contains jacks that support 12-volt trigger control to allow remote on/off control, plus IR in and out jacks. A pre/subwoofer out is on offer with the settings being user selectable via the main menu. The only USB slot on the amp is for service use only. And last, but not necessarily least, the RS232 port allows integration with AMX and Creston systems should any users wish to integrate with home automation options.
Two sets of speaker binding posts and a power plug and switch round out the back panel.
The aerial mounted on the back panel allows connection via Bluetooth of an assortment of sources. Setup is simple, select it as a source on the C388 and then find it on your device of choice and hit play. Very convenient, certainly for the younger generation.
The supplied SR-9 remote control is a fairly standard unit as far as multi-function remote controls go. It will control NAD Amplifiers, CD Players, AM/FM Tuners and dedicated DAB Tuners. It is a comfortable size and weight, and I was quite happy using it.
After some research on the Hypex module chosen by NAD for the C388, I found that although it is much smaller and seemingly less complex when compared to many of the other modules on offer from Hypex, the UcD 102 module is noted as being a consistent top performer in listening trials.
It is good to see that a company with such a long and rich audio history is still choosing parts based on subjective audio performance (and therefore enjoyment) and not just standard spec. figures like output wattage or THD.
The steel case of the C388 also warrants a mention, I feel. In addition to connectivity and sonic quality, it seems NAD also have a strong opinion on the subject of structural rigidity. The case is solid enough that it does not flex at all when picked up.
As usual, this review was performed using my YBA Heritage CD100 CD spinner (mostly as transport in this particular case), Aurealis coax digital cable, Redgum Audio Pipeline speaker cables and my old faithful Lenehan Audio S2R stand mount speakers.
But How Does It Sound?
In my listening tests, I found that the C388 is a little rolled off in the top end. It carries a soft and delicate feel to the lighter instruments while harder and metallic instruments do not sound hard or harsh at all.
Trumpets come across as much less raspy than usual and triangles softer and quite recessed. These attributes allow the C388 to be very easy on the ears in the upper treble. It does not feel as if it is reaching quite as far up as it could if it just tried that little bit harder.
The soft feel to the treble is also evident in the midrange, smooth and velvety but not entirely opening up quite as wide as they might have been able to.
Acoustic strings are pleasing but border on a little subdued, particularly at lower volumes. Longer notes are very, very good, so softly played piano and light woodwinds will impress on the C388.
Stronger notes also come across very well, strongly plucked strings, for instance, sound superb.
There is a light warmth to the music that runs from the middle of the midrange down through the lower mids and upper bass. This is a reasonably distinctive trait and is a big part of NAD’s house sound. People who like this approach, I suspect, will enjoy everything about the new NAD range.
The Bass region carries good impact with robust delivery and depth, along with the lightly warm character mentioned above. There is a slight softening of initial drum strikes, but it is not enough to skew the sound of each hit and allows the middle and fade of each strike to come through in a very natural way.
The C388 is an integrated amp that delivers very well in both home theatre and musical bass requirements. Often an integrated amplifier’s personality will skew it towards one or the other. Most musical amps lack the punch for home theatre, and home theatre amps lack the musicality required to make world-class singers, softly played piano, or lightly played woodwind instruments come alive. While the C388 is not exactly a giant killer, it does do a much better job at both than I was expecting at this price point.
The vocal abilities of the 388 are excellent, surpassing my expectations. Female vocals come across soft and lightly sweet with plenty of breath to them. It was only on more vocally powerful songs that I considered that perhaps the amp was not delivering the conviction of the recording. That softer presentation works very well on softer and regular vocals, but I felt the C388 was holding back here.
Male vocals are very well depicted, with a clear distinction between guttural, crisp and gravelly voices on the side of the fellows. There is a feeling of a little more honesty here, with the fellows given more space to move about within.
The C388 is a performer that is easy to listen to. It is never forward, and while I am being critical, it offers a softer presentation but does not feel recessed either. The soundstage does not reach out too far from the plain of the speakers in either direction.
The midrange, along with the upper bass to a certain extent, is quite emotionally satisfying to listen to. In my experience, this level of emotional captivation is rare in a mainstream amplifier.
But can it rock?
This is a question I ask of every amplifier that passes through my listening room. The C388’s ability to portray electric guitar in all its hard-played glory is relatively good but lacks a little of that raw energy. That soft presentation I keep referring to does not allow it to put quite enough jagged edge on to the sonic cascade that is an electric guitar to keep my inner rocker satisfied. It certainly has the power to convey this, just not the edge itself.
On most of the more modern music I listened to the C388 was pretty much spot on with its drum execution. It was only when I moved back to 70’s and 80’s albums it was apparent that sharper sounds (initial skin contact, hard cymbals and stick taps) were lacking a little of the excitement.
So, the NAD C388 can most certainly rock, but it isn’t quite rebellious enough to get the entire street rocking along with it.
The NAD C388 is a solidly performing amplifier with a soft, but pleasing delivery in the treble, very pleasant mid-range and strong in the bass region. For me, it's quite clearly voiced towards a lightly warm character that is evident throughout and matched with the right pair of speakers, it will undoubtedly please many listeners.
It has every connectivity option expected of an integrated amplifier of the digital age, and the build quality is rock solid. It is difficult to imagine wanting more out of a product that sells for $2,299 RRP.
For more information visit NAD Electronics.
Jeff thought Chemistry might be his passion but in 2012 discovering StereoNET, that was the end of that. An enthusiast of most things Hi-Fi, he particularly likes Integrated amps. He is working on broadening his horizons but integrated amps remain his first love.
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