Bells and whistles colour the sound
FOR Well-equipped; Google Chromecast; smooth tone AGAINST Short on expression, detail and rhythmic ability
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.
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.
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