NAD C 368 Integrated Amplifier Review
Speak softly and carry a big stick
What is the NAD C 368?The NAD C 368 is the latest integrated amplifier from NAD. It follows in a very long and distinguished line of products that dates all the way back to the legendary (in some circles at least) 3020 from the late 70s. NAD took the then radical policy of avoiding going for a biblical published power output and extensive but largely frivolous feature set and instead produced an amplifier that produced a fairly low headline power output but was instead configured to drive a difficult electrical load. It was a tremendous success that spawned many imitators and NAD sold a bucket load of them.
The C368 is notionally very similar but the ensuing 40 years have seen some considerable differences appear. This is still an integrated amplifier, it's still designed to respond to the requirements of loudspeakers and it can still have a turntable connected to it directly (naturally) but the C 368 has capabilities that are far and beyond anything that might have been expected of an integrated amplifier even a decade ago, let along four.
The question is though, is this still the same real world masterclass that NAD amplifiers used to demonstrate effortlessly? It is after all, not too hard in 2017 to find integrated amplifiers that are much more in keeping with the simplicity ethos of the original 3020 than the C 368 is. Does the NAD manage to balance the premise of having only the features you need with having the ability to be a complete system at the same time?
SpecificationsThe C 368 is a two channel integrated amplifier that is built around NAD's digital circuitry. This means that it is a Class D design. Before the more purist readers hit the back button in the often expressed notion that Class D can't sound good, it's worth making a few points about this specific amplifier. NAD was a truly early adopter of the concept of switching amplifiers and has over a decade of experience with them. The C 368 is built around a customised version of a Hypex module and on paper at least, it is hard to argue with the numbers. The headline power output is 80 watts but the amp is capable of peak outputs in excess of 120 watts for dynamic passages. In short, there aren't going to be too many speakers that the C 368 will struggle to drive.
The notional advantages don't stop there either. The NAD is smaller than most rivals that use a conventional A/B circuit to generate a similar power output and consumes rather less power while it does so. It also works on a switchable voltage so if you are something of an internationalist, that might be rather useful too. If being built around a class D amp was the limit of the C368 specification, it would be fairly unremarkable but NAD is only getting started.
Around the back of the amp, you'll find a moving magnet phono stage – NAD forged a reputation for fitting excellent phono stages to their amps over the course of many years and the ongoing vinyl resurgence has seen them start fitting them again. This is backed up by a pair of analogue line inputs. This small total reflects the declining importance of analogue connections on modern amplifiers. In their place NAD has fitted a pair of optical and a pair of coaxial connections and Apt-X capable Bluetooth. The DAC that handles these inputs is not listed although given that some other sources state it is an eight channel design, there's a fair chance that it's an ESS Sabre. This means that the C 368 is well specified out of the box but the features don't end there.
For some years now, NAD has been pushing their modular design concept. Often these ideas don't actually fly in the real world – customers don't seem to feel inclined to return to a shop to boost the performance of their equipment – but it seems to be successful for NAD. This means that the C 368 is equipped with two removable panels that can accommodate optional modules. The first is the DD HDM1. This adds three HDMI inputs and a single HDMI output allowing the C 368 to become a semi competent video switcher. I say 'semi' because as listed, the module is limited to 1080P. It is also stereo only (although this is rather more expected) and unlike the Arcam SR250 won't sum a multichannel source to two channel.
The second module came supplied with the review sample and takes the notional abilities of the C 368 in a totally different direction. As part of the family of products owned by Lembrook, the parent company of NAD, you will also find the Bluesound range of components. The MDC Blu OS is a module that allows the C 368 to become a fully network capable device with access to internet radio and streaming services that can communicate with other Bluesound devices.
DesignOnce upon a time, NAD products existed in a stylistic world of their own. Everything was finished in grey, with a green power button about the only visual flourish in a piece of equipment that was otherwise a simple exercise in functionality. The C 368 is firmly in the spirit of this approach but there are some significant departures too. First up, the amp is still grey but over the years, NAD equipment seems to have been going black one shade at a time. What used to be something near a 'Field Grey' sort of colour is now 'Not quite black.' The green power button has gone too and I rather miss it.
The fascia of the NAD is an interesting demonstration on the requirements of making an amp with this amount of features work cohesively. Rather than try and have umpteen indicators for different functions, NAD has instead moved to a full colour display and menu driven control system. This is not completely perfect – it's possible to aimlessly wander around the menus looking for a particular setting – but it is far more elegant than some rival options.
The amp itself is well built without feeling truly spectacular. Inflation and costs being what they are at the moment, the nature of an £800 product is changing but there are amps available for not a significant amount more (albeit less the extensive feature set) that have a more solid and luxurious feel to them. This extends to other points of contact like the remote control which is comprehensive but doesn't feel especially hefty. NAD can reasonably argue that they've never been about a 'hewn from unobtanium' feel (Masters components aside) and there's nothing fragile about the C 368, just a slight lack of flourish.
One final note is that there are software updates for the C 368 available on the NAD website and I'd recommend you ensure this is installed before you do much critical listening. The changes aren't huge but there are some improvements to the menus and a key alteration to the volume control which is very useful to have in place. I would hesitate to say that the current software build is perfect- it doesn't have the total stability of some rivals- but it's perfectly useable day to day.
The fascia of the NAD is an interesting demonstration on the requirements of making an amp with this amount of features work cohesively
How was the C 368 tested?The NAD has been placed on a Quadraspire rack and connected to an Isotek Evo III Sigmas mains conditioner and a pair of Neat IOTA speakers for testing. As this test largely focuses on the amp as available for £800, the overwhelming majority of testing has been around the analogue and digital inputs and the Bluetooth connection rather than the Bluesound module. For this, a Musaic MPL has been used via the analogue and digital connection as has a Panasonic GT60 Plasma. Bluetooth has been tested with a Pioneer XDP-100R audio player. Material used has included lossless and high res FLAC and AIFF, Tidal and Spotify and some on demand TV services.
Sound QualityThe C 368 arrived having been used elsewhere (although given that the software hadn't been updated, the experience for the person before must have been 'interesting'). As such, I was able to get straight on with listening on a critical level – a task made more exciting thanks to the continued presence of the Audiolab M-One reviewed recently.
First, lets put an old wive's tale to bed. There is a curiously durable notion that Class D amps can sound thin and unnatural. Back in the extremely early days of the technology, this might have been the case but listen to the NAD for more than thirty seconds and I imagine that these are not words you'd be thinking about to describe how the C 368 sounds. This is a big, lush, full bodied sounding amp that has a warmth and three dimensionality to it that is almost valve-like.
This means that listening to the FLAC rip of Calexico's
Algiers via the Musaic MPL over a coaxial connection is the audio equivalent of a hot shower after a cold walk home. The presentation has plenty of scale and space but there is a refinement and intimacy to it that is hard not to be somewhat captivated by. The promise of the extra headroom of Class D seems to be fulfilled too as there is no point on this or anything else I've played that ever leaves it sounding strained.
If you can find some high res material to play on it, the performance gets even better. The 24/96 version of Massive Attack's Blue Lines has a total lack of digital fingerprint to it. The vocals in Safe from Harm simply flow with an effortlessness that brings to mind an eerily silent copy of the 180g repressing from a few years ago played on something considerable more expensive than the £800 asking price of the NAD. The more propulsive nature of Massive Attack gives the NAD a chance to demonstrate that its bass response is also good. Used into the Neat IOTA – a speaker that remains impossibly small judged by the standard of a 'normal' cabinet – the bass isn't seismic but based on listening to the IOTA with other products, it's still deeply impressive.
It is not however, a knockout blow. The lingering presence of the Audiolab alongside the NAD suggests that the M-One, while clearly and consistently down on power compared to the C 368, has an energy to its performance that the NAD can lack. The M-One isn't as refined as the NAD (although you'd be stretching it to call it harsh) but with more exciting music like Vitalic's Voyager on Tidal, it just sounds more animated, more punchy and in some ways more fun.
This is not a damning indictment of the NAD though. With some thought put into the speaker pairing, it can still sound impressively dynamic and the scale and refinement it has is something that could easily become very hard to live without. It also has a useful advantage over the Audiolab (and indeed many other rivals at the price) in the form of the phono stage which is genuinely good. Connected to an Avid Ingenium Twin turntable, SME M2-9 arm and Nagaoka MP150 cartridge, the performance that the C 368 offers is free from unwanted noise and possessed of the same wonderful scale and refinement that the digital inputs possess. This together with some tests with the MPL into the analogue line inputs suggests that the bulk of the NAD's character comes from the amp stage.
It's also worth pointing out that the Bluesound module – while not completely bulletproof operationally – gives the NAD attributes that take it closer in capability to something like the Moon NEO Ace. Bluesound is one of the more advanced multiroom options out there at the moment and while I can't pretend to have been completely convinced by the performance of the standalone speaker I lived with for a bit last year, there's no doubt in my mind that the their interface is one of the better examples on the market. The module is £400 but the resulting product should really be considered more of an all-in-one system than an integrated amp in that it would have no need for sources.
Nor does the list of useful extras end there. The performance of the C 368 via Bluetooth is in keeping with the standards we demand of devices in 2017 and proved stable and reasonably long ranged in use. The headphone socket is also capable of a performance that is more than up to a little late night listening now and again. It doesn't feel hugely powerful and there's a little background hiss but it's more than up to incidental use.
This is a big, lush, full bodied sounding amp that has a warmth and three dimensionality to it that is almost valvelike
- Exceptionally smooth and refined sound
- Comprehensive features
- Solid build
- Lacks a little excitement
- Software not perfect
- Strength of rivals
NAD C 368 Integrated Amplifier ReviewIf the C 368 looked a bit more swoopy and space age, I suspect that people would be paying more attention to it than might be the case at the moment. I have at various points over the last few years pointed to the trend of audio equipment evolving to handle the end of physical media and this is perhaps one of the best examples yet of what the resulting products look like. Out of the box, the NAD only needs very basic sources to function and with the Bluesound module included, it has no need of them at all to perform most of the roles we'd ever need for an audio system in 2017.
The really good news is that this is all attached to one of the most fluid and refined sounding amplifiers I've tested in quite a while. I will nail my own colours to the mast and say that were it my £800, I would go for the slightly more dynamic sounding Audiolab M-One but I can't ignore the higher specification of the NAD for the same price and the scope for upgrade that it has. This is a seriously clever modern amplifier and as such, one that comes recommended.
Ease of use8
Value for money8
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