Bells and whis­tles colour the sound

FOR Well-equipped; Google Chrome­cast; smooth tone AGAINST Short on ex­pres­sion, de­tail and rhyth­mic abil­ity

What Hi-Fi (UK) - - First Tests -

You wouldn’t need to bor­row a friend’s hands to count how many £600 stereo am­pli­fiers are ca­pa­ble of stream­ing mu­sic from Spo­tify, Tidal and Google Play Mu­sic with just two taps on your smart­phone screen. In­deed, the C 338 is not only NAD’S “most ver­sa­tile am­pli­fier ever” but among the best-equipped and most flex­i­ble we’ve come across from any brand at this price.

Fea­tures ga­lore

For that rea­son, it would be un­fair to over­look NAD’S am­bi­tion here. While some of the C 338’s ri­vals at this price forgo the in­clu­sion of a DAC – Rega's Brio for in­stance – the C 338 ap­pears to have more con­nec­tions than Game Of Thrones’ Lord Varys.

The am­ple phys­i­cal in­puts (three RCAS – in­clud­ing one MM phono – and twin coax­ial and op­ti­cal con­nec­tions) are boosted by the in­clu­sion of Blue­tooth and wi-fi, via two screw-in an­ten­nae. There’s also built-in sup­port for Google Chrome­cast which, via the Google Home app, opens door­ways to stream­ing from sev­eral mu­sic ser­vices straight from your smart­phone or tablet. It’s quick, easy and, hon­estly, we wish more stereo am­pli­fiers had it on board.

Clean and sim­ple

Such a list does make for a busy rear panel, but those who like their hi-fi with a min­i­mal­ist de­sign will be pleased to know the C 338’s ap­pear­ance is clean and sim­ple. The unit has a 6.3mm head­phone out­put, small dis­play screen, source and Bass EQ but­tons and a vol­ume dial neatly adorn­ing the front panel.

Even so, you’d need to be fairly ine­bri­ated to call the NAD a head-turner – and even more so to praise its plas­tic re­mote con­trol (thank­fully the NAD Re­mote app is very us­able).

“Chrome­cast stream­ing takes the edge over Blue­tooth for in­sight”

The NAD’S un­fussy na­ture isn’t ex­clu­sive to its phys­i­cal de­sign, ei­ther. There’s noth­ing wrong with its smooth, easy lis­ten­ing bal­ance; it gives PJ Har­vey’s brood­ing vo­cal in Black Hearted Love a pleas­ant glossy qual­ity, and en­sures there’s no harsh­ness to the wiry gui­tars and slic­ing cym­bals ac­com­pa­ny­ing it.

Such smooth­ness also proves a bless­ing when it comes to hid­ing flaws in thin record­ings. Sud­denly, the pum­melling cym­bals in The Cure’s Hey You don’t make you want to bash in your speaker’s tweeter.

What’s prob­lem­atic, how­ever, is the NAD’S lack of in­sight, dy­nam­ics and rhyth­mic pre­ci­sion to build on that tonal­ity and truly en­gage you with the mu­sic.

Óla­fur Ar­nalds’ skilled pi­ano-play­ing through­out Erla’s Waltz doesn’t de­serve the de­scrip­tion “mo­not­o­nous”, but a dearth of sub­tlety and dy­namic ex­pres­sion mean that the NAD fails to com­mu­ni­cate the dis­par­ity in each key. It feels as if he’s merely go­ing through the mo­tions rather than play­ing to move his au­di­ence with tempo changes and ever-fluc­tu­at­ing dy­nam­ics.

While the class-lead­ing Rega Brio or Cam­bridge’s CXA60 charge punc­tu­ally through the drum strikes punc­tur­ing the synths in 65daysof­static’s Un­make The Wild Light, the NAD seems, in com­par­i­son, to bow out of dis­pens­ing en­ergy and co­or­di­nat­ing the mul­ti­ple pat­terns with much pre­ci­sion and co­he­sion.

What­ever we lis­ten to, whether it’s Patti Smith or San­tana, we can’t help but feel the NAD in­hibits mu­sic from re­ally com­ing into its own. We pre­fer the sound of the ana­logue in­puts over the dig­i­tal, and Chrome­cast stream­ing takes the sonic edge over Blue­tooth for clar­ity and in­sight.

Tidal vari­a­tion

We stream Manch­ester Or­ches­tra’s orig­i­nal elec­tric-heavy ver­sion of Top Notch from Tidal, and while the pre­sen­ta­tion doesn’t have the spa­cious­ness or co­he­sive­ness it does through the Tidal app on our Rca-con­nected Naim streamer, it’s clear and de­tailed enough to let the drums and vo­cal be heard – and lo­cated – over the mesh of electrics.

The NAD C 338 may be a very ‘here and now’ am­pli­fier. But the trade-off for fruit­ful fea­tures is a mid­dling per­for­mance that doesn’t come close to match­ing the class-lead­ers. The so­lu­tion might be a bet­ter bal­ance of per­for­mance and fea­tures – well achieved by the likes of the Cam­bridge CXA60 – for a more at­trac­tive pack­age.

That min­i­mal­ist front panel gives few clues to the C 338’s ex­ten­sive list of fea­tures

One glance at the busy back panel is enough to tell you you won't want for con­nec­tions

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