- Manufacturer & Model:
- NAD C 368 w/BlueSound
- $899, $1299 as tested
- High performance hybrid digital DAC amplifier with BluOS streaming, refined NAD sound, intuitive App control and wifi connectivity, modern understated styling.
- The C 368 is the latest in a long line of high value and high performance integrated amplifiers from NAD. It’s feature set and capabilities make it their best effort yet. With the inclusion of BluOS, the C 368 stands out as one of the best options in its price class.
Call me audiophile 2.0! That’s what NAD’s Director of Technology and Product Planning, Greg Stidsen, is calling audiophiles of my generation. The Audiophile 2.0, or today’s audiophile, is different from past generations. We don’t want to be restricted in how we access our music. We want streaming, we want vinyl, we want it all. We don’t listen to the same music. We aren’t afraid to go from Brahms, to Brubeck, to Taylor Swift, and enjoy it all. This is how NAD considers the modern audiophile and its target audience for products like the C 368 Hybrid Digital DAC Amplifier. Today’s music lover has placed convenience and nostalgia – even fashion – all on the same pedestal. We expect our gear to be convenient (which means access to whatever music we want whenever we want and wherever we want it), sound great, and make us look cool while using it. The C 368 is the perfect product for the audiophile 2.0, and unlike any product I’ve ever used before.
Many of today’s receivers contain every feature imaginable, be it access to online music streaming services, analogue inputs and phono stages, along with compatibility with every conceivable surround format in existence. Where does that leave a product like the NAD C 368? After all, it doesn’t do half of what a modern receiver does. Its minimalist approach to music reproduction, yet extensive feature set, make it better than anything similar I’ve used before. Why? Because it just works, and it works brilliantly. As you will see later in the review, the NAD C 368 connected me to my music in a way that few products have, and with a cost of $899 (MSRP) for the Hybrid Digital DAC Amplifier and $399 for the BluOS module (which I consider an absolute requirement), it’s an incredible value. Not that long ago, this level of performance would have cost a lot more.
NAD C 368 front Panel
The NAD Lineage
NAD was founded in 1972 by a group of European audio importers who came together to begin offering audio equipment that could provide both great sound and great value. The genius behind its early designs and success was Bjorn Erik Edvardsen, who designed their first integrated Amplifier, the 3020. The 3020 is the great grandfather of the C 368 under review today, and at the time offered some of the best sound anyone had ever heard anywhere near its asking price. In fact, more than two decades later, the NAD 306 (mid 90s predecessor to the 3020) was the object of my teenage lust. I have fond memories of hours spent listening to my favorite music through an NAD 306 and NHT Super Zero’s or PSB Century’s at a local audio shop I frequented. What made the 3020 and 306, and now the C 368, wonderful products is that they all just worked extremely well. NAD’s products have always emotionally connected me to my music in a way that other brands have not. They make me feel like I could be happy with a much more minimalist system. Who isn’t happier when less is more, and for me, that’s what NAD represents.
C 368 Feature Set and Setup
Unboxing the NAD C 368 was not unlike unboxing an Apple product. Prior to the beautiful packaging job done by Apple, most of us found that even pricey electronics often came with components packaged in boring boxes (or worse yet those horrible blister packs that seemed to always cut your fingers like a Ginsu knife). The process of unboxing the gear was often uneventful (or even dangerous). Then Apple came along and changed all of that, turning the unboxing process into a dramatic event. It became exciting as we unearthed each new tightly fitted layer. As you will see in my NAD unboxing video, the NAD was not so different. There was a sense of drama as each layer in the box was lifted out. This was even more true of the Bluesound Pulse 2 that I tested alongside the NAD Hybrid Digital DAC Amplifier (see my sister review of Bluesound Pulse 2 coming soon).
After lifting the C 368 out of the box and admiring its casework, it was immediately clear that it was built to a higher standard. The steel casework felt heavier, the air vents in the top were cut into an attractive pattern, the screws were flush, the faceplate was substantial. This felt like a true high-end piece of equipment. For a Class D Hybrid Digital DAC Amplifier with switch mode power supply, it was heavy.
NAD calls its implementation of this Hybrid Digital DAC Amplifier a Hybrid digital architecture. That means the company is utilizing the best of both digital and analogue technology in a single component. Internally, the NAD is a technological tour de force, containing some of the best quality parts on the market (at any price). For example, the Hypex UCD amplifier module used in the C 368 produces less than .01% THD over most of its range up to 80 watts RMS. Digital sources coming through the BluOS operating system or digital inputs are first run through the 32-bit TI DAC PCM 1795, which itself has 123dBs of dynamic range. After the digital to analogue conversion, the signal is then buffered using a high performance linear phase, balanced filter/amp composed of low distortion OpAmps. These parts perform significantly better than a typical discrete stage.
The C 368 is not just a digital only amplifier, it is a hybrid architecture. The analogue inputs are a purist’s dream come true, keeping the signal path analogue the entire way. The famed Bjorn Erik Edvardsen designed the phono stage, which notably has very high overload limits, accurate RIAA equalization, and very low noise and distortion. It’s great to see a product in this price range include such a high-quality phono stage. There is also a high-quality headphone amplifier and, unlike many competing products, doesn’t pad down the output of the main amplifier. Finally, the C 368 includes two MDC slots for expansion and upgrades, including the BluOS module used in this review. For more complete technical information on C 368 and its build quality, head over to the company’s website.
In terms of the amplifiers interface and usability, it’s really a 21st century design. While the number of features that the C 368 has is significant, it only has a few buttons for power, source selection, menu interface, and a knob to control volume. The easiest way to interface with the NAD is through an application that relies on Bluetooth connectivity. I found this to be faultless and an approach other manufacturers should follow. The display is also a major step up from past NAD products, utilizing a full color LCD display. The graphics were bright and colorful, easy to read, and the information was informative to the task at hand. For example, while listening to music through TIDAL, the song title and artist is displayed on the front display. The front is clean and minimalist in the best way, with direct access limited to the most important functions (power, source, and volume). Around back the connectivity is more akin to what we are used to seeing on such a feature rich brand. The device contains multiple pure analogue line inputs, coaxial, toslink, and USB digital inputs, Bluetooth antennae, the BluOS module itself, and heavy-duty speaker binding posts. As already mentioned, the amplifier contains a phono input, but if you have a phono pre-amp you prefer, you can always use one of the line-inputs instead. One feature that’s absent is a USB input for directly connecting a computer. This would then allow the internal DAC to act as a USB DAC with the laptop as a source. Instead, NAD prefers that the BluOS interface act as the bridge between computer and amp. For me, the inclusion of a USB input to allow a computer to be directly connected would have been very welcomed.
NAD C 368 Back Panel
BluOS is the operating system that is at the center of the Bluesound ecosystem. Bluesound is a sister company to NAD and part of the Lenbrook group of companies. BluOS is the software which allows you to connect the different speakers and devices together and stream high definition sound to each or all these devices. I’ve used a variety of competitors to BluOS and feel that all these systems offer a compelling product. Today, these devices allow you to merge all your sound sources into one centrally administered piece of software and send it wherever you want. This has huge value for me, the idea of being able to use one application to control sound everywhere immensely simplifies my life. As mentioned already, many products on the market do what BluOS does, so what sets it apart? When Bluesound was founded, they intended to make a different kind of wireless system. Rather than putting together a bunch of software developers to create a music ecosystem, they pooled the knowledge of folks like Paul Barton and Bjorn Erik Edvardsen to create a music first software. They wanted it to be of audiophile quality and this is really what helps separate BluOS from its competition. While others have added support for high bit rate audio formats, these other systems haven’t similarly included full support for MQA, and many have operational and network issues. BluOS fully supports and decodes MQA which means that you can get full 24-bit 192khz from streaming services like TIDAL (or from your local NAS or USB drive). That’s what sets BluOS apart from the competition, it is a true audiophile software solution that seamlessly integrates a wide range of music sources into a single application and allows users to send those sources wherever they want (as long as it’s part of the BluOS ecosystem, of course), and it works really well.
C 368 in “Take your amp to work day”
When I initially accepted the offer to review the NAD C 368, It made sense to test this product in a variety of scenarios, and not just in my main listening room. I decided to spend the first few days listening to the C 368 in my office hooked up to a pair of Behringer B2031P passive monitors. This is a truly world class bookshelf speaker whose measured performance rivals that of the best bookshelf speakers on the market. My source was exclusively BluOS.
This turned out to be a great office system.
In my theater, the NAD replaced my Acurus A200 amplifier, connecting an Acoustic Solid Turntable to its phono input, and my receiver’s L and R preamp output to the C 368’s analogue input. The speakers in this setup are Gedlee Abbey 12s and four subwoofers dispersed throughout the room. After inserting the C 368, the subs were rebalanced to blend with the mains and the C 368’s built in crossover functions were utilized. I listened to TIDAL and TuneIn for streaming digital and the Acoustic Solid for analogue. Movies and CDs were played through a Sony UBP-X800 (movies were processed by my receiver and the front L and R sent to the C 368, CD’s went directly to the C 368 through a coaxial connection).
I started out my listening with Donald Byrd’s “Elizah,” an MQA track on TIDAL. Its presentation through the Behringer speakers and NAD C 368 had spooky good Sound Stage and Imaging (SS&I). Having listened to this track numerous times, some systems reproduce the scale in unrealistic ways, but this was a proper presentation. Everything was placed as it should be, and the scale was just right. There’s a talking piece at the beginning of the song and the voices moving around in hard pan. The sound was sweet and smooth with nothing unduly accentuated. I’ve mentioned before that it’s important that to be drawn into the music, that I feel an emotional response to what I’m hearing. When Donald Best’s vibraphone solo started, this is exactly what happened. Throughout the review it was common to became lost in the overwhelming emotional response to the music. Byrd sounded smooth, dynamic, and articulate through the NAD.
The NAD’s bass quality was so good that I cued up Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean.” The bass line in “Billy Jean” was famously taken from another well-known song and reproduced using a Moog set to a sawtooth filter. Its sound is complex, and a lot of lesser speakers and amplifiers struggle with the accurate reproduction of its texture, making it a great reference track. While listening through the C 368, I found the bass presentation to be accurate, tight, extended, and impactful. The Moog sounded like a Moog, with no unusual or unexpected sounds. There was nothing distracting in the presentation of “Billy Jean.”
C 368 in “Movin’ on down”
After using the C 368 in my office for a period, the NAD was moved to the theater. The equipment in the theater room is larger and of higher quality as compared to my office gear, and the room is a dedicated, sound proof, and heavily treated space. The C 368 was asked to drive my Gedlee Abbey’s, which are a large 12” 2-way high sensitivity waveguide design. It’s a good 8-ohm load and efficient, making it an easy speaker for the C 368. I re-listened to many of the songs indicated above and won’t bore you with the details. Everything in my office was re-experienced in my theater (and more). The biggest difference in my theater was a larger and more dynamic presentation and a smoother overall sound. This is largely attributable to the better speakers and subwoofers and good acoustics. What most impressed me was the NAD’s ability to maintain composure while integrated in this system. In fact, it did a lot of things better than some of my current gear. For one, the BluOS system was a significantly better and easier way for me to stream TIDAL, as opposed to my current approach of using my laptop. Anything that helps me connect to my music faster is a big plus. For another, the amplifier sounded a tad bit better than my current Acurus A200. The differences were certainly subtle, but the Acurus is notorious for being a very warm sounding amplifier, to the point of obscuring detail. The C 368 was a bit more revealing than the Acurus without sounding bright. Certainly, these differences weren’t huge, but many familiar tracks sounded a little better than typical.
Next up was the infectious hit “Despacito,” featuring Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yanki. “Despacito” is a reggaetón style song mixing rapping and singing, which originated in Puerto Rico. The Latin rhythm common in reggaetón (especially in “Despacito”) is notoriously infectious, making you want to tap your feet or groove along with the music. Luis Fonsi has a beautiful voice with wonderful tone and a perfect level of rasp. The mixture of the Cuatro and acoustic guitar make for a compelling backup to Fonsi’s smooth vocals. Through the C 368, what most struck me was the opening sound of the Cuatro, which was recorded in studio in a very clean way. The instrument has no room sound to it (I’m assuming it was recorded close-miked) and comes through with the string overtones superbly intact. I again found myself pausing to give undivided attention to the sound, generally noticing that all the instruments and performers were well placed, with a range of locations for each instrument (in other words, everything didn’t sound muddled together, as can happen with heavily layered multitrack songs). The NAD revealed new sonic details within the track.
“Hey hey…um de hey, de hey…” Who can argue with the timelessness of Dion’s doo-wop classic Runaround Sue, and the cover by the vocal harmony group, the Overtones, is one of the best I’ve heard. This recording has a studio created soundstage with the tenor placed dead center along with all the backing instruments. When the song came on it became impossible not to sing along. There is no better sign of the emotional connection to music than uncontrollably breaking out in song. As I’ve said throughout this review, the C 368 never got in the way of my emotional connection to the music. Everything worked so brilliantly that it was easy to just sit back and listen (or sing!).
One of my all time favorite test albums for drums and soundstage is by a wonderful bebop jazz drummer named Lewis Nash. The album, entitled It Don’t Mean a Thing, a reference to Duke Ellington’s hit song, is one of the best bebop jazz albums I’ve ever heard (and he’s even better live). It’s clearly a fully improvised jazz set, as it should be, but is often not the case in studio albums. Nobody was worrying about getting the performance just so, everyone just grooved together, and the chemistry and magic of a great improvised jazz piece is obvious. Lewis Nash playing “Caravan” has come to be one of the best displays of what drums should sound like (both in terms of playing and recording). It’s a good test of an amplifier’s dynamic capabilities and grip on bass. Lesser amps will fall apart in the face of this recording, sounding flabby and indistinct. The drums on this album reminded me of Joe Morello, Max Roach, and Gene Krupa wrapped up in one cool album. If you love jazz and don’t own this album, I strongly recommend you pick up a copy. As for the NAD, it played the album beautifully.
Moving on to movies, I borrowed Victor Frankenstein from my local library. This is a generally panned reboot of the Frankenstein monster movie which attempted to add the kind of human story, action, and drama that the Sherlock Holmes reboot managed to do for that series. While most agree it was an utter failure, that makes the action no less fun to watch. This monster film has numerous loud high-action scenes capable of putting any amplifier to the test, and by the end of the movie I had forgotten that the NAD was powering my left and right speakers. That’s a great thing for the NAD, as it shows how dynamically powerful its amplifier really is. It also highlighted one the C 368’s unique features: a Hypex amplifier. During discussions with Greg Stidsen, he noted that NAD builds the Hypex amplifier under license and makes a number of upgrades that focus on improved current delivery and better clipping behavior. It’s likely that – at some point –the amplifier was brought to clipping during the movie. However, there was no noticeable clipping. That means I’m either deaf (my wife probably thinks so) or the amplifier clipped so gracefully it was transparent during action scenes. NAD’s classic amplifiers often included a soft clipping feature and it appears that the company’s current approach to improving the clipping behavior has worked very well.
Now, let me explain why this use case is so interesting. The NAD integrated into my theater providing audiophile 2-channel sound while still allowing for full use of the surround system. The NAD doesn’t provide an HT passthrough, but ultimately it wasn’t necessary. It worked wonderfully in this scenario and shows what can be achieved with a product like the C 368.
Finally, after spending a lot of time listening to music and watching movies, it was time to test out the phono stage. NAD put forth a concerted effort to create a high-quality phono stage, a feature it touts, that certainly passed muster with this audiophile 2.0. First up was a copy of The Dave Brubeck Quartet at Carnegie Hall. Due to an injury early in his career, Dave Brubeck suffered from pain in his hands that made it difficult for him to play sweeping runs on the piano. He developed a unique piano style that focused primarily on block chords rather than more quick and dexterous playing. While that remains true on this album, I’m still amazed at the runs he was able to play on songs like “St. Louis Blues;” the C 368 did it justice. The picture inside the record cover shows the album’s stage setup, with drums to the left rear of the stage and Brubeck to the right and forward of the drums. This is what I heard in my room, and a testament to how faithfully they captured this performance. The next album was Mike Bloomfield’s I’m Cutting Out. This is a great up-tempo blues album that highlights Mike’s blues chops. It’s also, unfortunately, an overly bright album, that can be unlistenable on many rigs. That wasn’t the case with the C 368. It sounded wonderfully smooth during demo sessions and easy to listen to both sides.
Overall, the C 368’s phono stage was exceedingly quiet, much quieter than the records played on it. It seemed to have a good amount of detail and focus, allowing all the notes to come through clearly. Dynamic passages never seemed congested. Tonally it was very clean and smooth (not warm, not bright). There was good synergy between my vinyl rig and the C 368, which was a nice plus. As should seem like a theme by now, it was easy to become so lost in the music that I found myself grabbing crate after crate of my records to hear how they would sound on the C 368. At one point I had completely stopped critically listening (and taking notes) and was just enjoying my time listening to these records. In total, I listened to more than 50 albums, but was lost in the music after just the first few. At one point my wife looked up at me with a big smile and said, “You’re having a good time, aren’t you?” It was so true.
This review ended up being a lot of fun. After all, that’s what the audiophile 2.0 is about, having fun with music. If there is one thing I most lament about the recent direction of our industry, it’s that a divisive climate seems to have superseded the notion of entertainment. Our music systems should be fun and if they aren’t, you’re doing it wrong. The C 368 is thoroughly enjoyable; NAD and Lenbrook have combined to create a potent musical experience. It’s one of the best products of this type I’ve ever used, combining a top-notch amplifier, DAC, and streaming platform into a simple and intuitive device at a reasonable price. The amplification is totally transparent, and its feature set is compelling. It could be easily integrated into large and small systems alike, and when you add BluOS it falls into a class by itself. In fact, I’m so enamored by BluOS that it’s now slated to be slotted into my own system. To see how the NAD C 368 with BluOS module worked with the Bluesound infrastructure, see my review of the Bluesound Pulse 2. In the end, I summarize: this product is fun, easy to use, and well designed. Forget the power specs…it has power! The NAD C 368 Hybrid Digital DAC Amplifier is an easy recommendation for your short list.
NAD C 368 with BluOS Module Specifications
- Rated Output Power: 80 watts per channel into 8 or 4 ohms at rated THD, 20hz to 20khz, both channels driven
- 10 ms Power: 145w, 240w, and 260w into 8, 4, and 2 ohms, 1 ohm stable
- Amplifier type: modified Hypex UCD type, Class D amplifier manufactured by NAD under license with Hypex
- Distortion: less than .01% THD
- DAC: TI Asynchronous sample-rate converter SRC 4382 and 32 bit TI DAC PCM 1795
- DAC Buffer: BurrBrown OPA 1652
- Signal/Noise ratio: >98dB
- Channel Separation: >75dB (1khz), 70dB (10khz)
- Damping factor: >300
- Inputs: Bluetooth A2DP with aptX, MM Phono, 2 analogue inputs, 2 SPDIF inputs, 2 optical inputs
- Outputs: Preamp/Subwoofer with digital crossover
- Headphone: Includes a high-quality headphone amplifier with single ¼” plug on front panel
- Upgrades: Includes 2 MDC slots, review sample included BluOS module installed
- Remote: Physical remote and smart phone control through Bluetooth or wifi with BluOS module installed
- Additional inputs/outputs: IR in/out, 12 volt trigger, RS-232 serial control