NAD C338 Integrated Amplifier Review
It’s grey on the outside but there’s a lot of Chrome here too
What is the NAD C338?The NAD C338 is an integrated amplifier that joins NAD’s ‘standard’ range of components. Outwardly it’s business as usual – it looks similar to how NAD amps have always looked – but as we have seen in recent years, NAD has taken the functionality of their amps and shaken it up dramatically. First up, we saw the MDC modules arrive which allowed you to add additional functionality to your amplifier – DAC sections, phono stages etc. If you didn’t need it, you didn’t pay for it. At the same time, the 3020 started to show that NAD was starting to look at amps in a rather different way.
This was confirmed when we looked at the C368 integrated amp in February. This blurred the lines between an integrated amp and an all-in-one system to a pretty much unheralded degree. Provided you attached speakers to it, the C368 didn’t need anything more than that to become a complete system. At £800 though, the C368 is a fairly pricey piece of equipment and some of its functionality isn’t practically applicable to less expensive models.
This is where the C338 comes in. This is a less extensively specified device than the C368… but given that the latter amp does pretty much everything that still gives it plenty of functionality and it's also cheaper at £599. With the tradition that NAD has in the field of affordable amplifiers, the C338 has a fine line to walk though. Can this little box of tricks deliver the full remit of 2017 functionality and still deliver the qualities we have come to expect from the brand?
At the core of the considerable specifications of the C338, it is still an integrated amp. NAD claims an output of 50 watts into 8 ohms which is backed by a dynamic power output of 90, 150 and 200 watts into 8, 4 and 2 ohms respectively. As such, for dynamic peaks in the music, the NAD has the power (and indeed power supply) to ensure that they have the short bursts of extra headroom required. Historically, NAD amps have been very effective in this regard, producing performances that are some way in advance of their published power outputs.
The consistency by which the NAD achieves this is an indicator to the nature of the amplifier it uses. Like a number of recent NAD designs, the C338 uses a class D amp that allows it to produce such a consistently linear peak power measurement. NAD has been one of the earlier advocates of such technology and many of their models now use it to good effect. This amplifier section is mated to a rotary encoder that adjusts the volume in half dB increments.
There are also some conventional connections as well. The NAD has a pair of RCA line inputs that is joined by a moving magnet capable phono stage. This doesn’t sound like a huge amount of options for a £600 amplifier but the realistic truth of the matter in 2017 is that most of us simply don’t have that many analogue sources. It is also only fair to point out that NAD retains the C326BEE in the range for people that need an absolutely conventional integrated amp.
This limited selection of analogue inputs also has to be rationalised against the range of fitments that exist outside the analogue domain. There are four digital inputs – two optical and two coaxial. These are going to be more useful for many owners than a swathe of RCA connections not least because they are 24/192kHz capable – although NAD won’t be drawn on what DAC chip is being used. So, with two line, one phono and four digital inputs, we’re up to seven inputs but the C338 is yet to play its party piece.
The NAD claims to be the first integrated amp that has built in Chromecast. Put it on your wireless network and the NAD will pop up as a selectable device and will in turn play nice with other compatible devices. Chromecast must seem like manna from heaven for audio companies at times because it effectively pushes back on the need to license every bit of software under the sun for use on the amp and instead allows the C338 to access pretty much any streaming service you can think of via this means instead. As a default additional point of support, the NAD has Apt-X Bluetooth built in for a ‘quick and dirty’ (although really not that dirty) connection. A full size headphone socket and single set of binding posts completes the spec.
When all is said and done, the NAD is a grey box – one of the longest running design themes in audio. There have been changes – the grey has got darker over the years and the power button is no longer green which collectively means that a more recent NAD amp will sit with other manufacturer’s units in a more homogenous way than might have been the case in the past – but the grey remains. The C338 is a pretty unsubtle device when viewed objectively, thanks to the trio of aerials poking out of it. One person did ask if it was a router so if you’re after something that has real shelf presence this might not be the best choice for you.
It’s also not a terribly exciting one it must be said. The C338 could be described as ‘clean’ but just as easily ‘dull.’ The NAD does without extensive controls on the front panel thanks to an input cycling source selection and display. The source buttons are fine – they’re seen on plenty of other amps at this price but the display is poor. For the amount of information is actually displays it seems unnecessarily large and the input selection part is hard to read at any distance. The C338 is also a slightly unusual size – being a little shallower than many other amps which will make stacking other full width kit with it potentially challenging (although as the whole concept of ‘full width’ is dying a death, this probably shouldn’t be something to get too hung up on).
The supplied remote is small, plastic and very easily lost and while small remotes seem to be all the rage these days, it really feels like an afterthought. Of course, in some ways it is an afterthought. The NAD is largely going to be controlled either via the Chromecast functionality or the NAD remote app and both of these work well (and ensure you have some control over the C338 when you inevitably lose the remote). If you see yourself using the C338 with a lot of vinyl though, you will have to develop a routine to put the handset in the same place each time.
In rather better news for the amp though, the general fit and finish is solid and perfectly respectable for the price. I had some brief issues setting the amp up with the Google Home software but this was almost certainly because the amp had been setup elsewhere before. A reset worked like a charm and given that you’re likely to buying a fresh unit out of the box, I suspect it will be unlikely you’ll have any similar issues.
The NAD claims to be the first integrated amp that has built in Chromecast
How was the NAD C338 tested?The NAD has seen a fair bit of use as a standalone unit because effectively it is one. It has been connected to a pair of Monitor Audio Silver 100 speakers and been controlled for Chromecast testing via an iPad Air. Bluetooth testing has been carried out using a Motorola G4 Android phone which is Apt-X capable. A Naim ND5XS has been used to test the analogue and digital inputs and an Audio Files modified Audio Technica LP5 with a Goldring E3 cartridge was briefly used to test the phono stage.
The NAD had done some running before it arrived here so critical listening took place from the off. What is interesting with the performance of the C338 is that there are some aspects that are absolute in keeping with the way that NAD amps have behaved since the brand first appeared in the seventies. This is an amp that balances a warmth and sweetness with enough detail and energy to avoid sounding dull or syrupy.
With the Naim ND5 XS connected to the RCA input, the way that the NAD handles the 24/96kHz download of Emily Barker’s Almanac with an involving, almost cossetting presentation. Barkers vocals are tangible to point you feel they are in the room and the supporting instruments have the vibrancy and realism to be consistently convincing. Helped by the big, effortless presentation of the Monitor Audio, the NAD manages to make everything sound believable in the sort of way that helps your brain stop trying to find the catch and start listening to the music instead.
If you switch the Naim over to a coaxial connection and let the NAD handle the decoding too what is impressive is that while the performance isn’t as good as it with the Naim’s decoding in the circuit, it remains very convincing and very listenable some of the bass weight that the Naim bring is lost but the bass itself retains plenty of detail and control. This decoding is extremely consistent too. Switch over to Chromecast and select the NAD as the output point for Tidal- something that is extremely simple to do and you get a performance that keeps that basic warmth of the NAD’s amplifier section with enough get up and go not to sound dull.
Slightly more problematically for the NAD though, while it has enough life to do this, it can sometimes struggle to be truly exciting. The energetic and upbeat La Confusion by Amadou & Mariam has the same lovely tonality as before but it doesn’t have the effortless sense of fun and energy that the slightly more expensive Audiolab M-One can bring to the same music. Identifying what measureable facet of the NAD’s performance is responsible for this but it definitely has something going on that means it just doesn’t engage the listener in the same way.
For people who are less concerned about ‘b of the bang’ style timing though, the flexibility that the Chromecast section brings to the NAD is something that makes many of its rivals feel extremely old by comparison. Having it available to send a wide variety of material to, is something you get used to extremely fast and miss when it goes. Of course, you can add a Chromecast to anything for a very sensible price but it’s extra equipment to stow and find power for and having it in the NAD ties the volume into the apps as well which is an underrated bonus. If you have become a fan of the Chromecast ecosystem over the previous years, the C338 has a priceless advantage.
The NAD then extends its advantage in the complete opposite direction thanks to the phono stage. Judged by the absolute standard of standalone models at around the £100 point, the NAD can seem fractionally soft but it is more than good enough to get a solid performance out of the sort of relatively affordable turntables that it is likely to be partnered with. What is most notable is the low noise floor- which helps detail and the relatively close gain levels available to the line inputs which will help you avoid running out of headroom unless you’re really going for it. Conversely, the Bluetooth performance of the C338 is a little disappointing. The clarity is fine and it keeps reasonable tonal accuracy but with both the Motorola and a Lenovo T530 ThinkPad, it lacks a little bass weight and energy that is present via the other inputs.
The flexibility that the Chromecast section brings to the NAD is something that makes many of its rivals feel extremely old by comparison
- Outstandingly flexible and easy to use
- Refined and detailed sound
- Solidly built
- Not terribly attractive
- Can lack a little excitement
- Remote is easy to lose
NAD C338 Integrated Amplifier ReviewFor as long as I can remember, stereo audio has an element of convenience vs purist performance to it but rarely have they been as clear as they are here. The NAD C338 is not the best sounding £600 amplifier you can buy. There are some other readily obtainable models that can sound punchier and more exciting without losing the NAD’s wonderfully sweet and involving presentation. The catch is that none of these amps can get anywhere near the breadth of well integrated functionality that the NAD offers. This is an outstandingly flexible product – a truly modern amplifier that has clearly been carefully designed to handle the requirements of 2017. The NAD isn’t a perfect amp but it does so much with sufficient ability that it has to be considered worthy of recommendation.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £599.00
Ease of use9
Value for money8
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