- Written by Michael Jude Galvin
- Published on 15 March 2013
The NAD C 390DD Direct Digital Integrated Amplifier In Use
Finally ready to undertake the task of critically evaluating the C 390DD, I put on Otis Redding's Otis Blue on vinyl. I found the midrange had pleasantly improved, but the record overall seemed less lively and involving than what I recalled from the Naim/Musical Surroundings combination. Indeed, I found this to be true on records ranging from Joan Armitrading's self-titled debut to CSS's La Liberacion to Nas' Illmatic. As I gradually moved away from playing vinyl through the NAD, I thought perhaps the NAD's phono stage was the weak link, so I tried the Musical Surroundings connected through the C 390DD's line level input, but the results were substantially similar. The sound was just not as exciting or involving as I was used to. Of note, however, the NAD's infrasonic phono filter was remarkably effective, eliminating the excessive woofer movement of the Focal's that usually occurs on certain records at certain volumes.
Hooking up my MacBook Air to the USB type B terminal and digging into my iTunes library was a completely different story. Fifty-one seconds into "60 Feet Tall," track one on The Dead Weather's debut album, Horehound (AIFF), the bass drum just about overwhelms you. I start the track again because, well, it's like playing with a new toy. I notice that before the drum becomes the thing, the NAD makes quick work of laying out the stage – a guitar in the background sounds like it's being given a final tune and drumsticks crack against each other. Further into the track, Alison Mosshart shouts "You got my attention. You got it all. I can take the trouble. I'm sixty feet tall." Indeed. The sound is exploding around me, a kaleidoscope of detail and drive. There is a scale and urgency to this song I don't recall, a visceral quality that the NAD has suddenly unchained. The bass is propulsive, addictive. The C 390DD loves rock and roll and loves high-quality digital files.
Curious how the C 390DD would fare on other material. I switched gears to the quiet and delicate (Atlas Sound "Sheila," Logos), then back to explosive and insistent (The Stooges "I Wanna Be Your Dog," The Stooges). No matter what the digital file, the C 390DD displayed a firm grip on the music, a dead-quiet background, and colossal bass.
Comparison is almost a misnomer because in my system, the NAD accomplishes what I need three separate components to do—amplification, phono pre-amplification, and digital to analogue conversion. There really is no direct comparison. For example, if you use separates instead of an integrated amplifier, the NAD takes over duties from four separate components. Just on paper, both the value and space-saving propositions of the NAD rate very high. In my system, those three components retail for $4550, significantly more than the C 390DD's $2600.
First up to compare was something that called for great clarity, Cat Power's Moon Pix (Redbook CD through the coaxial output of the Oppo DVD player). The first thing I noticed was the wonderful way the NAD wove together Chan Marshall's guitar and voice. There was, at once, both weight and separation of the guitar strings. Compared to the Naim/Wyred 4 Sound combination, however, the NAD seemed to leave out some of the breath Chan Marshal wraps around her vocals. My sense listening through the NAD was a somewhat diminished sense of that being-there quality, even though overall, it was extremely difficult to fault.
Turning to a compressed digital file of fairly raucous material, Sleigh Bells "Ring Ring" (192KB MP3), the NAD dazzled, revealing a tonal quality to the bass that I just marveled at. The Naim/Wyred 4 Sound combination could not match the tear-the-woofer-ferocity of the NAD's bass, but did show a bit more nuance, drawing more attention to the cadence of the lyrics. Alexis Krauss sings "Have a heart, have a heart, have a heart" and then continues "sixteen six six six like the pentagon." She sings the latter faster and while this would be obvious through any system, the qualities of the Naim/Wyred 4 Sound combination underscore the transition in pace, suggesting something the NAD seemed to gloss over. I listened to the song several times and while I came to no satisfying conclusion what to make of this, the Naim/Wyred 4 Sound combo had the edge simply because it invited the interaction and invited the question.