Give me an integrated amplifier with network/streaming capability and a phono input and I can live happily ever after. End of story. No sequel. The NAD C 338 Hybrid Digital DAC/amplifier offers both and more for US$699 (or €659), which, depending on how it sounds as part of a hi-fi system, may offer plenty of joy.
The “Hybrid Digital” bit in the C 338’s name refers to the fact that NAD C 338 offers both digital and analog inputs while using a customized Hypex UCD (Universal class D) output stage for 50wpc into 8 or 4 Ohms. As we know from Darko’s recent Podcast, the Hypex Class-D amplifier springs from the seemingly endlessly fertile mind of Bruno Putzeys who argues, along with Andre Veltman, Paul van der Hulst, and Rene Groenenberg, All amplifiers are analogue, but some amplifiers are more analogue than others in their white paper of the same name: “A device delivering power to a loudspeaker is by definition analogue. The non-idealities of class D amplifiers are analogue in nature as well, and must be solved using analogue means.” One could argue that all digital amplifiers are hybrid designs, but who wants to argue about hifi?
The C 338 offers a total of four digital inputs (2 x coaxial, 2 x TOSLINK) that support resolutions up to 24bit/192kHz using a Cirrus Logic CS4382 DAC plus two analog RCA inputs labelled “Streaming” and “TV”, which can be used with any line-level source. Then there’s an MM phono input, Bluetooth, WiFi through which we get Spotify Connect and the increasingly popular Chromecast Built-In compatibility – more on that below.
There’s also a Subwoofer Out (mono RCA) to connect to a powered subwoofer for those craving more woof. Standard screw-down binding posts and an AC Mains also reside on the rear panel along with three screw-on antennas, one each for 2.4GHz Wi-Fi, 5GHz Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth.
The NAD C 338’s black aluminum front panel houses, from left to right, the power button, a 1/4” headphone jack, two source selection buttons (back / forward), the monochromatic user-defeatable LCD display which shows source names, Bass EQ status, and volume level (in negative dB), the Bass EQ on/off button (boosts overall bass response by “at least 6 dB”), and a nice big volume control knob. The C 338 weighs in at just over 10lbs and fits into a smallish 17 1/8 x 2 13/16 x 11 1/4” black metal box.
Overall I find the NAD’s looks and build quality to be utilitarian and plain. In other words, not much to get excited about but nothing to complain about either. On that note, the included small plastic remote matches these aesthetics. This remote is very directional, sometimes necessitating an awkward leaning-and-stretching-toward-the-device motion and therefore defying the remoteness of the remote. There is also a free NAD app that includes a number of useful features including volume control, source selection, Bass EQ, and display brightness.
What the hell does Chromecast Built-In do and why the hell should I care?
Google Chromecast Built-In elevator pitch is this: a media streaming protocol that allows you to stream, or in Google parlance “Cast”, high-definition audio up to 24bit/192kHz, as implemented in the NAD C 338, using your smartphone, tablet or computer but, unlike Apple AirPlay or Bluetooth, without the audio stream journeying through said smartphone, tablet or computer.
Google released the streaming media protocol Google Cast back in 2013 along with a video-centric streaming media device called Chromecast. The Chromecast connected to your WiFi network and then to your TV using an attached HDMI cable, allowing you to stream content from mobile devices or computers to your TV.
In 2015, Google offered up an audio-centric device called Chromecast Audio that supported resolutions up to 24bit/96kHz (after a firmware upgrade) once again using WiFi but this time the output was a 3.5mm socket which performed double duty: either a stereo analog output that utilised the Chromecast Audio’s internal DAC or mini-TOSLINK digital optical output for connecting to an outboard DAC. Google discontinued the US$35 Chromecast device in 2019 and have since focused on getting Chromecast built into (see what I did there?) more of their own devices as well as third-party devices like TVs, speakers, and integrated amplifiers.
To set up Chromecast Built-In for the NAD you need three things: a WiFi network, the Google Home app installed to your iPhone or Android phone (via the Google Play Store or App Store) and a Google account. I have an iPhone and the setup process took all of a few minutes (and I wasn’t in a hurry). Suffice it to say, the Google Home app walks you through the setup process step-by-step and automatically discovers the NAD C 338 when it’s powered on.
Once set up, the app asked me if I wanted to update the C 338’s firmware. How helpful! I said, Yes. Since Roon, my music player of choice, supports Google Chromecast (up to 96kHz), all that was left for me to do was let Roon auto-discover the NAD C 388’s Chromecast input (Menu > Settings > Audio), activate that input and the hit play on a song. Streaming through Google Cast using Roon allowed me to stream from Tidal and Qobuz and play my own NAS-based files of all resolutions including DSD without a hitch. I also used Roon’s volume to control the C 338.
For those who choose to go Roonless, you can also Cast to the C 338 via a number of streaming sources including Qobuz, Tidal, Pandora, Spotify (requires Premium subscription) and Google Play Music. Just activate a stream on your smartphone and click the ‘Cast’ button in the top-right corner; the stream will transfer to the C 338 after a few seconds.
In addition, you can Cast from the Google Chrome web browser (running on any Mac or PC) from sites like YouTube. Watching a full-screen video on my iMac while listening to the sound through the HiFi is kinda nice, albeit with a bit of a lag between sound and video like watching a Bruce Lee film in English. Be like water…
I’d imagine a more common approach to Casting video content while using the NAD for audio would be to Cast to your TV with Chromecast Built-In (like those from Visio, Sharp, and Sony et al) while routing the TV’s TOSLINK output into the NAD. As a matter of fact, I see the scenario of streaming, playing records, and TV audio as the C 338’s ideal use-case trifecta.
It’s worth noting that there’s a remnant from the Google Audio device days still lingering in the Home app. If you tap on your device in the app you’ll see a gear symbol in the top right of the screen. Touching it brings up a “Device Settings” screen that includes an option called “Full dynamic range, For AVRs and HiFi systems”. When I first saw this I was like, “Hell yeah I want full dynamic range!” But it turns out this setting makes no changes when Casting audio and is only a real option when using a Google Audio device hard-wired to your hifi using its 3.5 analog out.
There is one potentially useful option on this screen which is to let other people, like guests, stream to your device. Chromecast transmission isn’t lossy in the way Bluetooth is. I have mine set to OFF just in case the Barn mice decide to throw a rager when I’m not around.
That NAD Sound
Here’s a HiFi review-reading tip –– if you read a review of an integrated amplifier and the reviewer fails to mention the speaker(s) used for the review, ignore everything he or she said about sound. The reason being: integrated amplifiers do not have a sound of their own. If you don’t believe me, try listening to one without using speakers. Both must be present for music to flow.
That being said, in my experience with integrated amplifiers from NAD, which stretches all the way back to one of HiFi’s classics, the NAD 3020 (c.1980), as well as most products from sister company Bluesound, I find a house sound that can remain relatively constant from speaker to speaker, namely a fat, fit and fun presentation.
I used the C 338 with two different speakers in different price classes beginning with the over-achieving ELAC Debut 2.0 B6.2 bookshelf speakers (US$289.98/pair) and the also over-achieving GoldenEar BRX Reference X bookshelf speaker (US$1598/pair).
Before we dig into the specifics of loudspeaker listening, I’ll say upfront that I do not spend much time listening through headphones because there’s really no need to in the Barn. I’m pretty much the only one in here (aforementioned mice aside). But for due diligence’s sake, I did spend some time testing the front panel quarter-inch output with a pair of AudioQuest NightOwl and I was not disappointed. The NAD C 338 had no problem driving the NightOwl and music sounded nice and fat and full.
NAD & ELAC
What does a sub-$1K system sound like? In the case of the NAD C 338 / ELAC Debut 2.0 B6.2 combination, it sounds smile-worthy. I would describe the C 338’s overall sound quality as being on the fat and fun side, meaning the high end is gentle, the midrange is on the rich side of perceived neutrality, and the bottom end is also on the weightier side of neutral. That being said, I would not call this amplifier dark as there’s plenty of detail and punch, even with the budget-friendly ELACs.
This sound profile was easily heard when streaming solo piano. I recently came across Satoko Inoue’s wonderful Japan Piano1966 which consists of eight works by contemporary Japanese composers who give the pianist, and the piano, a real workout. When listening through the NAD / ELAC combo, there’s a lack of sparkle when Inoue strikes the upper registers, a softening of the attack which I’ve heard to much greater effect through other, albeit more expensive, systems. The space of this recording, which can sound cavernous, is also diminished by the NAD / ELAC pairing.
With electronic music like “Figure 8” from FKA twigs’ EP M3LL155X, the more dense and complex passages get a bit muddy, losing the detail that comprises the mass of sound. There’s also a sameness to the sounds that is not a result of the recording –– it is a result of this system.
What the NAD / ELAC pairing does deliver is a punchy and inviting presentation that doesn’t scream out with bumps, humps or bites. When played within this system’s comfort zone, with listening levels averaging in the high 60dBs / low 70dBs at the red chair, you get a nice helping of boogie-factor. Just for kicks, I hit that Bass Boost button and low and behold, bass was boosted. I’m not a fan of enhanced bass because it strikes me as making music sound unbalanced but for those who prefer a bigger bottom end, have at it.
What the NAD / ELAC system does not deliver is subtlety, nuance, richly textured harmonics, or a sound image that extends outside of a relatively shallow field of depth, regardless of what’s in the recording. You could say that there’s a bit of homogenization at work and I wouldn’t argue the point. Things also get a bit hard-sounding when pushed toward louder-than-normal listening levels.
NAD & GoldenEar BRX
The GoldenEar BRX sounded their best when placed closer together than my reference DeVore O/93’s happy place with me sitting closer to the BRX than I do with the DeVore’s. This had the BRX sitting 6.5’ apart, measured on center, and roughly 7’ from the red chair. The same held true for the little ELACs. When streaming using the BRX, comfortable listening levels had the C 338’s volume at -20dB.
Katie Crutchfield’s vocals on Waxahatchee’s eminently pleasant Saint Cloud had more body and the backing band regained their fuller voice as compared to the ELACs. While the sound image was akin to a sphere of energy hovering around the speakers, this same sound image was flatter and drier through the ELACs. In a general sense, music sounded richer and fuller with more variation between the sound of instruments, more space in and around the performers, making for a more engaging experience when listening through the BRX.
Satoko Inoue’s piano sounded more piano-like with that upper register chink ringing out with a more defined edge, taking longer to decay into silence. The space of this recording also grew in every dimension, giving a more tangible sense of the place where the recording occurred. To put it another way, everything sounded bigger and more like itself. I sometimes wonder about people who decry our ability to know what things sound like unless we put ourselves through some unnatural rapid A/B “listening tests.” We have no difficulty knowing when the reporter we’re listening to on the TV is wearing a mask, even without looking, just as we can hear pain in a loved one’s voice over a noisy cell phone connection. Sonic rightness is not something we need to test for when it comes to enjoying music on the hifi. We just need to listen and, perhaps of greater importance, feel.
I spent the majority of my NAD C 338 time listening to it hooked up to the BRX and feeling the effects of music Cast from Tidal, Qobuz and my NAS. Note: while Bluetooth is a great friends-and-family input option, Google Cast gives us better sound quality. My own Cast-centric listening occurred over weeks (not minutes) and I listened to all manner of music, both new and old familiar favorites. My musical tastes are fairly omnivorous so I sampled from Heiner Stadler, Kelly Lee Owns, Les Filles de Illighadad, Satoko Inoue, Phoebe Bridgers, Funkadelic, Gil Scott-Heron, and many more. The NAD / Golden Ear pairing allowed for a seamless flow from album to album, with nary a hint of the system behind it coming to mind.
How about vinyl records?
Using the NAD / GoldenEar combo, I spun some vinyl from a Rega P3 (2000) which currently sports the wallet-friendly Nagaoka MP-110 MM cartridge. The verdict here was readily apparent –– not enough gain. Playing through a number of LPs with an average listening level of 68dB(A), which is about my usual level for casual listening, saw the NAD’s volume nearly pegged at -7.0dB. Turning things up produced noticeable hardness to the sound quality which translated into me turning the volume back down.
Which brings me to my room –– the barn is roughly 35’ x 40’ x 12’ high with the listening area defined by bookshelves creating an 18’ x 35’ x 12’ space. That’s a lot of volume to fill. We also have to take into account the GoldenEar BRX’s load. The company specifies the BRX’s sensitivity at 90dB, with a nominal impedance stated as being “Compatible with 8 ohms.” I take that as meaning they have some dips.
For a quick double-check, I re-hooked up the little ELACs (Nominal Impedance: 6 ohms / Sensitivity: 86db @2.83v/1m) and found that it took roughly the same volume setting (-7.0dB) to reach the same listening levels at the red chair (68dB) when listening to vinyl. Based on these two speakers, I would say that when using the NAD’s phono section with what I consider to be fairly common speaker loads, you may find yourself running out of headroom…in larger rooms. Of course, smaller rooms will demand less volume but even here all of the common variables like furniture and other dampening stuff will come into play.
For another point of reference, when streaming to the NAD, a volume level setting of -19.0dB delivered the same 68dB listening levels at the red chair.
I currently have two other streaming integrated amplifiers in-Barn, both being considerably more expensive than the NAD including the recently released Hegel H95 (US$2000) and the even more costly Ayre EX-8 (US$7850). I know, tough and not very fair competition. Wishing I had other similarly-priced and specced components here didn’t make it so. (Ideally, I will hang onto the NAD C 338 to compare it to similarly priced streaming integrated amplifiers down the line).
It should come as no surprise that both of these more costly contenders bettered the NAD in obvious ways. For simplicity’s sake, I used the GoldenEar BRX for these comparisons. The Hegel H95 was up first and within a few bars of “Arpeggi” from Kelly Lee Owens’ wonderful new album Inner Song, it was readily apparent we were in another sonic league. The most notable changes involved hearing more of what’s in the music.
That sphere of energy hovering around the speakers I experienced when using the NAD C 338 exploded with the Hegel, separating different sounds in the music apart and away from the speakers, well outside NAD’s sphere. On African Head Charge’s “God Is Great” from Songs of Praise, each instrument had more space around it coupled with more distance from the speakers, making everything that much more present and distinct. When this track dropped its first few bombs of bass throb, the Hegel handled it with more force and perceived body than the NAD. There was also a sense of hearing more of each sound’s fuller voice, making for a richer musical experience.
There’s really no need to spend much time on the Ayre EX-8 since no one shopping for a streaming integrated amplifier in the US$800 range is going to add another zero to their budget in search of better sound because most of us understand that giant killers of this scale are more often than not the stuff of fairy tales. But as an exercise in “you get what you pay for,” I will say that the Ayre bettered the Hegel in much the same way that the Hegel bettered the NAD. Namely, more of the things that make listening to recorded music on the hifi a more engaging experience, which involved giving a fuller and more distinct voice to each instrument, sound, and vocalist while allowing them to perform in a space that feels unrestrained by the hifi responsible for the show.
I will also add the obvious, which is to point out that NAD makes a number of integrated amplifiers that include either a DAC and/or streaming capabilities, from the D 3020 V2 (US$449) up to the flagship M32 Masters Series Stereo integrated amplifier (US$4399). You can bet your bottom dollar that NAD’s own more costly integrated amplifiers will outperform the C 338. In fact, one could spend months just focusing on the differences between these NAD offerings.
These comparisons, however, do not change the things the NAD C 338 does so well. While offering all of the inputs that count — including Chromecast Built-In, which turned out to be a very good sounding high-resolution WiFi-based streaming solution — the NAD grabs hold of the recording and, when paired with a complimentary pair of speakers like the GoldenEar BRX, provides a seamless sphere of energy for music to unfold within. What you get for US$699 is a component that just asks for a pair of speakers in order to give you a complete system that will reward by delivering all the music that you have time for and in a convincing, engaging, and (dare I say) fun manner.
Further information: NAD