NAD Electronics is well known for offering products that defy the expected price/performance ratio. For a relatively small sum, the owner of an NAD product gets superior performance, many features, and modest but attractive appearance. The C 165BEE stereo preamplifier does not break any new ground in NAD’s successful product formula. For the asking price of $999, you get one very fine sounding preamplifier.
This is a full-featured preamplifier. Included are defeatable tone controls, a phono input with selectable gain for both moving coil and moving magnet cartridges and 3 resistance and capacitance settings, 4 line level inputs plus 2 tape loops, 2 line level outputs (one variable from 0dB to -12dB for subwoofers, bi-amping, or multi-room), a headphone amplifier, pure Class A gain modules, gold-plated RCA jacks, sealed reed relays for input switching, heavy gauge steel chassis, 12V trigger output, IR in and out, a detachable power cord, and remote control. All of this comes in a solidly built component weighing 13.23 pounds.
The phono input will be of interest to a growing population of vinyl listeners since there is resurgence in the popularity of LP records. This month there was a national “Record Store Day” with 300 new, special records released to celebrate the newfound audiences of the venerable LP. Katy Perry has a new LP. So do Flaming Lips, Heady Fwends, Paul McCartney, the Misfits, and White Stripes. Last year, LP sales grew 39 percent, with about 3.9 million albums sold. Sales are up again this year by 10 percent. Record store owners love analog LPs because there is reduced competition with digital downloads. Why the resurgence of LPs? As audio old timers know, along with a younger generation of LP lovers, records simply sound better!
The C 165BEE, with a phono signal/noise spec of -78dB and gain of 62dB, can handle moving coil cartridges with outputs as low as about .3mV. Resistance loading options for MC include 40, 100, and 600 Ohms. There is an infrasonic filter which reduces inaudible very low bass by 3dB at 10Hz. RIAA accuracy is +/- .3dB. These would be excellent specs from a $3,000 dedicated phono preamplifier; from a $1,000 preamplifier, the capabilities of the phono stage are remarkable.
Headphone listeners are well taken care of, too. With an output of 7V into 600 Ohms and 2V into 32 Ohms, and a THD of 0.005%, you can rock well into the wee hours without disturbing anyone. Very nice. Power consumption is at the forefront of today’s “green” electronics, drawing only 0.8 Watts in standby.
Other components on hand during the audition included a SOTA Cosmos vacuum turntable with Triplanar VII u2 tonearm, SOTA Satellite turntable with Origin Live Zephyr tonearm, Miyajima Kansui and Premium Mono phono cartridges, Bob's Devices CineMag 3440 step-up transformers and Bob's new CineMag 1131 "Blue" step-up transformers, Mark Levinson No. 326S solid-state preamplifier with built-in phono stage, Rogue Ares phono preamplifier, Prism Orpheus Digital Interface with custom Windows 7 computer/music server, YG Acoustics Kipod Main Modules speakers, YG Acoustics Kipod II Signature Main Modules (OMG), Dali Mentor 5 speakers (from the home theater system), and Gallo TR-3 subwoofers. Power amplifiers included Levinson 532H, Classe CT-M300, B&K Reference 125.2, Cary SA200.2, and Manley Snappers. All interconnects and speaker cables are Mogami. All front end components, including the preamplifiers, receive their AC power from a PS Audio AV-5000 power conditioner which is connected to the wall power with a 1 meter length of PS Audio PerfectWave AC-10 power cord. Other AC-10s were used elsewhere in the system, and I use Jerry's DIY power cord on the music computer and Levinson preamp. An Audience aR2p-TO power conditioner or PS Audio Quintet are normally used for the power amplifiers.
The NAD C 165BEE is a very good sounding preamplifier. The sound is evenly balanced from the low bass to the upper treble, with only minor deviations in the octave-to-octave tonal balance. There is just a hint of forwardness in the lower treble, but this is not nearly as prominent as presented by the $6,000 Audio Research LS26 or $3,300 McIntosh C220. The upper bass is somewhat reticent which can minimize the full development of bass harmonics. This makes the lower bass sound a little bit loose because much of the sense of a “tight”, well defined lower bass is a result of upper bass that is presented in correct proportion. Even so, the bass is powerful and nicely extended into the lowest bass. When listening to – and enjoying – music with the NAD preamp, the spectral balance seems almost dead neutral, with just a hint of added sheen in the upper frequencies. The preamplifiers that I have tried which come closest to this sonic signature are the $2,000 Wyred4Sound STP/SE and the $6,500 Marantz Reference Series SC-7S2. The C 165BEE sounds more refined and enjoyable than a $3,000 Krell KAV-280P, and has a nicer remote.
The ability of an audio component to present a well formed virtual sound stage, which is the aural representation of the physical locations of musicians in front of the listener, is very important. This is stereo, after all! The NAD preamplifier has excellent lateral focus, presenting precise locations of musicians left-to-right between the speakers. Compared to some of the better preamplifiers, the NAD lacks some depth, but there is no way that anyone could call the sound stage presentation flat or two-dimensional. The preamp’s excellent detail, speed and articulation in the upper frequencies surely contribute to this very good sound staging ability.
From the midrange to the mid- and upper-treble, the NAD preamplifier is very clear and grain-free. Cymbals have a nice sense of ringing metal without the white noise-like splash of less competent electronics. In this area, the preamp is competitive in the $2-3,000 price range, and even above. Overall, the NAD sounds quite similar to the Wyred4Sound STP/SE in its active mode, with just a bit less dynamic power and natural purity or air in the upper frequencies. To its great credit, the NAD avoids sounding particularly solid-state or electronic.
On “Homeless” from Paul Simon’s Graceland (Warner LP 7599-25447-1), the Ladysmith Black Mambazo singers are clearly presented as being further back in the stage, although in a straight line. With the $11,400 Levinson 326S, the singers are arranged in an arc. The separation of the singers is better realized with the more expensive preamp. Simon’s vocals are very well presented in space, clearly in front of the line of singers. His crisp sibilants are very natural without unwarranted emphasis or brightness.
I rediscovered music of The Doors after receiving the 7 LP box set. If you heard “Peace Frog” at the last RMAF, that was probably from my 24/192 recording transferred to CD. It sounded very good on a number of systems at the show. This cut is an excellent test of macro-dynamics, going from near silence to 0 dB (full volume) instantly. You can see this in the waveform in Audacity. As mentioned in previous reviews, I use bypass testing to help discern the true character of a preamplifier. Through the NAD preamplifier, the explosive dynamics from Jim Morrison and friends is just a bit muted, although nothing seems missing when listened to on its own. The slightly forward upper midrange makes Jim Morrison sound a few years younger than the bypass or through the Levinson 326S.
Sinatra’s Sinatra is a wonderful LP (MFSL1-333). Using their Gain 2 Ultra Analog System®, the sound from Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab is clean, dynamic, and richly detailed. On “Pocketful of Miracles” Sinatra’s voice sounds just a bit thinner without some of his wonderful harmonic depth than when heard with the Levinson preamp. The multiple background voices are clearly in another physical plane again showing the good depth presentation of the C 165BEE. The differences between the two preamps are apparent in short order, but nowhere near as large as what a non-audiophile would expect given the 11x price difference. One could easily make a strong case that the Law of Diminishing Returns starts with the C 165BEE. This is truly high-end sound.
The phono stage has enough gain for moving coil cartridges with outputs above about .3-.5mV, and sounds better with low output cartridges when using either the Bob’s Devices 3440 or, better still, their 1131 moving-coil step-up transformers. As with several other phono stages with which I am familiar - including the Levinson's optional phono stage, boosting these tiny signals before the input to the preamp helps the sound by lowering noise, increasing micro-dynamic resolution, and offering a clearer, richer sound.
The very high signal-to-noise ratio of the line stage of 108dB will pass the input signal intact, and the sound quality from the tape and headphone outputs is outstanding. The sound from the tape output has better depth, much better upper bass, and a bit less forwardness in the treble than is heard from the main outputs. The volume control setting is hard to see with the small red LED indicator on the knob. The control is almost all “cut”. A 1V input provides 1V output at a volume control setting of a bit under 4 o’clock. Even though we might never need the tone controls, sometimes a small application of their +/- 5dB range is helpful. About a 1dB cut in the bass was used to good effect to compensate for a few overdone, bass heavy mixes from Alicia Keys, Sting, and Dire Straits.
Listening to the NAD C 165BEE in a very revealing system could have had me running from the room, or at least wanting to turn down the volume. Neither happened. This is a seriously good preamplifier. It threatens the standing of many preamps in the $2,000 to $7,000 range (none of which are perfect, either), offering comparable overall performance levels and providing features that many listeners require.
Overall Rating: 8 LPs
Link to manufacturer's Web site: NAD Electronics