Remembering the days before my "obsession" with high fidelity and the quest for the Holy Grail of the perfect playback system is somewhat like a trip down memory lane. Many of the names found in the world of yesteryear still exist today, but sadly, less than one might hope remain steadfast in their commitment to produce quality components with outstanding performance. One of these companies that remain committed is NAD Electronics.
Overall, a nice package houses some serious capabilities. Visually it is sleek and clean. There are only a few controls on the front, but these serve their purpose without being overly daunting or difficult to use. The remote control is well designed and easy to use. It complements the controls on the unit itself and definitely makes it easier to change sources or access certain functions. The smartphone app is also easy to use and does a great job of controlling the unit as well. Personally, though, I preferred the simplicity of the included remote or even the front controls, call me old fashioned. That is unless you add expansion cards.
The MDC expansion slots are built to "future-proof" NAD's C 388, by allowing the ability to add functionality later. Luckily, the future is now and my review sample came equipped with a BluOS card capable of Hi-Res Audio playback. Stating simply, it adds Wi-Fi and hardwire Ethernet connectivity along with the ability to decode all major digital formats up to 24-bit/192kHz. In addition, once installed the unit becomes a fully functional music server within the network. However, BluOS goes a step further and gives the unit the ability to be used with other BluOS components or Hi-Res Audio amplified speakers from Bluesound. These speakers, one of which luckily came later in the review, gives the user the ability to use the C 388 as the nexus for multi-room music distribution.
Without NAD's MDC card above, and with MDC BluOS card below.
The Humble Interior
Again, the expansion cards can be somewhat of a game changer. The BluOS card in my sample added the internet and network connectivity, but others allow for HDMI connectivity, for example. Some are still being developed, but they have at least announced the coming of one that will give 4k capability. Ultimately, what you add is yours to decide, but my suggestion would be to at least add the BluOS module if you want a significant boost in functionality.
And Review Time
After the normal two hundred hour, break in period, it was time to put the component through its paces and see what it could do. The first of these exercises focused on the digital realm, so with the new OPPO Digital UDP-205, a favorite lead the pack of musical selections, Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. SACD on EMI's label this selection is always a challenge in bass extension, peaks and resolution of imagery throughout the album as it goes from heartbeats to alarm clocks, to name a few obstacles. The playback task made even harder by power hungry Martin Logan Request speakers, but the C 388 handled it like a champion overall. The imagery was fairly well defined and kept a cohesive nature throughout the entire album. The bass extension seemed effortless and it kept its character except for the most subtle places. There it seemed to lose some of its character and became more muddy, but you had to listen hard to hear it.
The nice thing about using the SACD version of the album is that in addition to the remixed stereo layer, there is a higher resolution SACD layer as well. Like the stereo layer, the album is somewhat difficult to playback for some systems, the detail is far more granular and intricate, but there is quite a bit more. That said, the C 388 did a beautiful job of conveying the oftentimes hidden background voices. It also allowed the lush midrange to shine without clouding it by too much bass or treble extension. Finally, although there was a very slight metallic sound, which tends to follow digital amplifiers, it did not remotely intrude into anything but the most difficult passages.
The next selection used in the review was The Band's The Last Waltz on Mobile Fidelity's Label. The original album was outstanding, but the release by Mobile Fidelity elevated it to entirely different level. It takes away all the somewhat questionable aspects related to mainstream mixing while imparting a far more realistic quality that in my opinion only adds to overall enjoyment of the music. In fact, unlike my trusty original CD, this one you can hear the voices without the distortion that many live recordings for the mass market carry. Of course, the downside is that it makes playback far less forgiving.
The Hybrid Amplifier again did a beautiful job of decoding and playing back the album. In fact, it revealed some inner details that I had somehow missed before this review. The sound of the crowd sounded realistic and engaging, rather than fake and hollow. This in itself is somewhat of an achievement where many systems substantially more expensive fail. In fact, it was so enjoyable that I let it repeat the album again. The number of albums that played through NAD's C 388 was sizable, yet there is not enough space and likely patience for all of them. They represented all genres and overall the results were similar as those mentioned already. Therefore, the last album mentioned will be Andrea Bocelli's Sacred Arias on Phillip's label. Although the playback was definitely consistent with those of other albums, it did somewhat display a slight decrease in the richness of Bocelli's voice This coupled with a slightly brighter tonality made the album less intoxicating then other selections.
Although the review skipped many of the features, one that needs mentioning along with a brief evaluation is the ability to use online music services such as Tidal and Spotify. The smart device app makes connecting them a breeze. In fact, the only way to access them is with the app. It is easy and straightforward. In fact, I found that once I started using them, I tended to use them more often than other formats. Of course, there is a downside with online music services in most cases; the quality tends decrease substantially at times. However, the C 388 seemed to take the material and somehow make it enjoyable to even my reviewer's ears. Of course, to be entirely fair, Tidal and specifically all Hi-Res Music still sounded far better than other services, but one would expect that. The coolest thing is that you could use the Bluesound speaker and listen to something different in another room without seriously wondering if you needed an entirely different system setup.
Available MDC Upgrade Modules