How many boxes do we need to get great sound? If you ask NAD, one. Here’s the NAD C368, a super integrated that does it all.
I’m auditioning several integrated amplifiers at around €1000-1400 to find a reference point. That’s standard fare for any audiophile: to find the best piece of equipment for one’s system/room/valet/needs. I have a couple of criteria: it must be able to drive my main speakers with ease (Guru Q60 and Buchardt S400), and it should have DAC and wifi/ethernet streaming onboard. A good phono stage would be nice but is not crucially important. Likewise, a competent headphone output is nice but not crucial.
I believe that the super integrated amplifier will play an important part in the future of hi-fi. I also believe that it may prove to be the most sustainable way of investing in good sound – especially if the designers welcome the concept of modularity. Making hi-fi greener is to a large extent about increasing versatility and longevity in a product. Modularity is at the heart of that.
What if, like me, you can’t afford the super accomplished, very sleek, and minimalistic-futuristic M10 amplifier from NAD or the similarly endowed Uniti Atom from Naim? One option is to look further down the NAD lineup. There you’ll find a string of amplifiers, some of them modular, in a series called New Classic and at the price-point I’m interested in we find the NAD C368.
Modularity the NAD way
The NAD C368 is a modular integrated amplifier that delivers 80 wpc into 8 Ohms and 200 wpc into 4 Ohms. It has a DAC inside (not modular) and comes with Bluetooth and AirPlay. Digital inputs include coax and optical but no USB. It also has a MM phono stage input and two analog line-level inputs and a pre-out. NAD has also found room for a headphone output powered by a dedicated headphone amp. This is a comprehensively outfitted amplifier. A super integrated that can easily act as the center of one’s system.
It’s close in functionality to the inconspicuous overachiever, the Quad Vena II Play. The Vena II Play has an onboard streaming board that connects to your Wi-Fi. Not relying on lossy Bluetooth took the little Quad up into another league altogether. The NAD C368 does not have Wi-Fi in its base configuration. But the C368 can be upgraded quite substainally. I hinted at modularity above and with NAD’s implementation of modularity the C368 super integrated streaming amplifier that is hard to beat for functionality and price-performance.
NAD have developed what they call MDC, Modular Design Construction. On the C368 there are two slots available for modules. You can get a module, the DD-HDM-1 (and soon the DD-HDM-2), that when inserted into the C368, gives it three HDMI inputs and one HDMI output. I’m not really in to Home Theater/surround sound, but others might be and the ability to tailor a product’s functionality to one’s specific needs is commendable.
NAD and Bluesound
The module that takes the NAD C368 to the next level, however, is the BluOs 2i module which turns the C368 into a fully-fledged streaming amplifier that can also be part of the Bluesound multiroom ecosystem. This is a major modular upgrade to an already comprehensively outfitted amplifier. And, functionally, it takes what Quad has done with the Vena II Play to a new level.
It is also another price. Without the BluOs MDC the Quad and the NAD are similarly priced around €1000. With the module the NAD C368 comes in at €1499. At that price the C368 is up against amplifiers like the Hegel H90 and others. I can’t comment on the sound of those two amplifiers side by side. But the NAD has a MM phono input and the Hegel does not. The NAD is Roon Ready and the Hegel is not (yet). The NAD is part of the Bluesound Multiroom system and the Hegel is not.
Bluesound is the audiophile version of Sonos. Sonos speakers are great for what they do: a way to have music playing around the house, and a way to access almost all music services. The Bluesound app does not cover quite as many music services. Bluesound components are quite a bit more expensive. They also sound quite a bit better.
Bluesound does hi-res. It does MQA and it does ROON. To have the option to add that functionality modularly – albeit at a significant increase in price – in an amplifier that already sports an MM phono stage, a headphone output, Bluetooth, AirPlay and 80 very healthy watts and performing at this level is proof, once again, that NAD, as ever, is at the forefront of value-for-money. Not as in selling decently priced hardware that sounds decent; but as in selling very good sounding hardware with extensive functionality at a very competitive price.
That the NAD C368 becomes part of the Bluesound multiroom system is not a small thing in my book. Bluesound also make wireless multiroom speakers and streamers. This means your main system can play along with all the little Bluesound speakers scattered throughout the house. It also means that since there’s a MM phono stage onboard the C368, you can have your vinyl and turntable playing through all your multiroom speakers over Wi-Fi. That is a cool thing, perfect for a leisurely Sunday morning.
And, I think, a way to make this amplifier both more everyday useable and futureproof and thus more sustainable. It becomes part of your whole investment in sound throughout your house. That seamless integration can be a significant attraction for audiophile newcomers and casual audiophiles – or simply music lovers – to music of whatever format playing throughout the house. We shouldn’t sneer at multiroom solutions – it is a modern miracle. The NAD C368 is good enough that it can be part of that casual way of music enjoyment and serve as a stand-alone amplifier to power our favorite loudspeakers.
I won’t insult anyone by claiming I can remember how the Quad Vena II Play sounds compared to the C368. Not in any specific way at least. What I can say, in general terms, is that right off the bat they both have that big, warm sound that is easy to like.
Like the review of the Quad Vena II Play, the amp I have at hand to compare is the original Quad Vena. To even the odds I use a Bluesound Node 2i to feed the Vena.
Unsurprisingly the Vena sounds much better with the Node 2i as source than using an iPad via USB. Clarity, ease of listening, and bass grip is improved. If ever there was a case that the delivery of the ones and zeroes matter this is it. Despite this, the issue I’ve always had with the Vena persists, albeit to a lesser degree. Compared to the Vena II Play, the Vena had soft and woolly bass. This is also true compared to the NAD C368. This means this James Blake’s The Colour in Anything come across as more muddled and unclear. That makes it a less charged, less involving, listen. The melancholy is there, his voice is still tender and fragile. It just doesn’t sound as well-founded. It’s not as cohesive.
On the NAD C368 that cohesion is there. The C368 makes the album sound big but not hampered by bigness. It’s a big voluminous sound, but it is not clumsy. It is detailed enough that I don’t feel I’m missing the finer elements in the music. Blake’s voice is a delicate instrument and the NAD C368 conveys that.
To some extent my Guru Q60s being driven by the Quad Vena and Node 2i has more top end grit. There’s a bit more energy there, and not unpleasantly so. The NAD C368 is rounder in the top, rolled-off. On some recordings that rounded treble is a good thing. Like on Nils Frahm’s Spaces album where I sometimes find the piano too insistent. On the Vena it becomes too much, too strident; on the C368 the top end is softened just enough that songs like Went Missing and Familiar appears gently, effortlessly flowing. And effortlessness commendable in any audio component.
My Q60s are wonderfully cavernous and full-flavored speakers. I love them for that. With the C368 they retain their qualities but maybe I would prefer a bit more sparkle in the highs. The C368 might make the Q60s too restrained. I could use with just a little bit of top-end crackle. Not a lot, a dollop.
Enormous is what my Guru Q60 speakers do and enormous is something the C368 is capable of. But it also does delicate and intricate. A perfect mix of these is Jon Hopkins’ Singularity. A distilled, refined, evolved version of the previous Immunity album, there are passages of quiet piano bliss, furious cuts and samples, and voluminous bass and drums, drums in the deep…
The song Emerald Rush starts off ambient-like and transforms into a cacophony of sound that on a good system sounds incredible. The NAD C368 manages this well. There’s feeling here. I get the low-end thrust I want. The Q60s forcibly push me back in my seat. Where the limitations of the C368 are made obvious is when the song becomes very hectic. The NAD sort of stumbles along, loosing a bit of its boisterous, warm poise.
To find out what might be causing this I start by employing the Node 2i to bypass the MDC BluOs 2i streaming module. Same thing happens: the C368 loses its footing a bit. That means it’s probably either the DAC that loses a little ground or the amplifier that can’t keep up. Time for an upgrade: I insert a DAC I know can keep its footing. The Node 2i feeding the Schiit Gungnir Multibit takes things to a new level. Gone is the stumbling. With me again is a surefooted delivery that oozes toe-tapping rhythm and a firm hand on any and all busy passages.
What does this tell us? 1) the DAC in the C368 is not as good as a DAC costing as much as the entire amp. 2) in the C368 the amp is better than the DAC, which should come as no surprise: this NAD!
The above is mostly a fun experiment. What the C368 offers as a single box should be weighed up against the hazzle of increasing sound quality by adding more boxes. If it were me, I wouldn’t think about adding an external DAC and streamer. That goes against the idea of a product like the C368.
What it does illustrate is that NAD could have taken their MDC implementation a step further. What if we could also upgrade the DAC in the C368? What if we could upgrade the phone stage? That would take the idea of modular longevity to another level.
The NAD C368 Headphone Out
One of the impressive things about this amplifier is not that it does so much. A lot of amplifiers do that. It’s that it does so much so well.
When I compared the headphone output in C368 with the Schiit Asgard 3 the NAD didn’t fall through. The headphone output drove my Sennheiser HD6XX with the same rich vitality that characterizes the main speaker-amp. Is it as good as the Asgard 3? No. But the Asgard is a stand-alone unit, that is designed as a headphone amplifier from the ground up. That it also has pre-amp functionality and optional DAC/Phono modularity makes it a true bargain in hi-fi.
The Asgard 3 is clearer and more detailed, but not by much. There is more air and head stage is better. The NAD is richer and thicker, the Asgard is more energetic. It’s also more powerful. But these are not big differences. They are small. And after foregoing quick A-B comparisons and just relaxing with the NAD and the HD6XX for thirty minutes, any apprehension about SQ vanishes, and I’m left with richly sweet music and I don’t really miss the extra vitality of the Asgard 3.
For my purposes and for the purposes of an integrated amp at this price-point the headphone output on the NAD is more than acceptable. It is yet another proof that NAD know their way around an amplifier.
The NAD C368 and Vinyl
Much the same can be said about the phono stage in the C368. It is rich and engaging. It is not as good as the one in my Croft Micro 25R pre-amp. Not at all. But as a part of complete package it is more than fine. Playing vinyl is enjoyable and engaging. I use a nice cartridge from Grado, the Reference Master 1. It costs about as much as the entire amp so it should be adequate to determine with some credibility how the phono stage sounds. I did an experiment: how does Floating Points’ Crush sound via the MCD BluOs module vs. Crush on my vinyl setup and the C368 phono stage? The BluOs module sounded significantly better. It was more dynamic, there was better bass, better clarity, more vitality, more air. The vinyl sounded a bit cloudy in comparison. That changed when I compared the phono stage in the Croft Micro 25R and the BluOs module. Here I preferred the sound of the Croft, by quite some margin.
What all this tells us is this: the C368 is a tremendous value-for-money proposition. The amplifier is the star of the show, followed by the BluOs module and the onboard DAC. Then comes the headphone amplifier and lastly the phono stage. But it is when we view it as an entire package, a super integrated amplifier, that the impressive functionality and performance becomes evident. No, it can’t rival stand-alone units costing more or designed specifically for one thing. But as a complete package, the NAD C368 is very tough to get by.
This amp, like the Vena II Play, are probably not for the audiophiles at the bleeding edge of technology; nor is it for the die-hard sweet-spot audiophiles who sit enraptured between their speakers scoping for details. These amps, in this price-range, are for the audiophiles who enjoy music without the compulsive angst of missing out; audiophiles without the need for a full hi-fi rack and endless black boxes and interconnects and exotic power cords. The NAD C368 is for the audiophiles who (want to) enjoy music more casually (and joyfully?). It is for audiophiles who put music before gear. It’s a do-it-all solution without the traditional, perceived sonic shortcomings of an all-in-one system.
Can you put together a better-sounding bunch of separates with the same functionality? Maybe. But don’t forget the full rack, the cables, the power cords, the real estate. This amplifier is for the people who want to avoid the cul-de-sac of endless upgrading and just listen to music.
I say Bravo!