Sugg. Retail: $799.99
Manufacturer: NAD Electronics Division, Lenbrook Industries Ltd, Pickering ON CA
Digital audio in its many variations seems to yield new categories of product constantly, this new product from NAD a case in point. It will snoop for music files on your computer via its wired or wireless networks, receive AM and FM broadcasts, and stream internet radio of all sorts and send all of these directly to your high end audio system via 24-bit/192-kHz DACs (caveat coming) via RCA jacks, or by direct digital feed (Toslink). It also has a Data Port for your MP3 player when you add the appropriate dock and cable.
There are many current approaches out there in audioland for dealing with the multifarious media possibilities, ranging from broadcast sources to iPods to various file types or just about anything else. I don’t envy any designer trying to come up with a single product to compete with Sonos Bridges, Yamaha MusiCasts, Escient Convergences, Olive and Linn music banks or MusicVaults, as another manufacturer would have it. There are lots of overheated hard drives, overcast clouds, and other approaches to slicing, dicing, storing, and expanding your music collection. We will herein attempt to explore how the new C 446 Digital Media Tuner fits into this overall media circus.
Here’s how the NAD website quickly sums up its capabilities: “Beneath the classic NAD chassis of the C 446 lays a uniquely powerful digital media player with Internet radio, FM/AM and DAB/DAB+ (where available). Included in its uncommon bag of tricks is the ability to stream your music collection from multiple networked storage devices using DLNA and Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) standards. Other great features include USB playback, Wi-Fi, an easy-to-use Internet radio portal and support for cloud music services, such as Last.fm.”
“The C 446 has a chameleon nature. Analogue FM/AM can be decoded as SPDIF digital output. Likewise, digital formats can be listened to using a high quality analogue output. An RS-232 serial interface port allows easy integration with advanced home automation systems. You can also control and charge your iPod or iPhone by adding our optional IPD 2 for iPod…The C 446 supports all the popular digital formats— MP3, FLAC, WMA, WAV, and AAC—and offers a great opportunity for music lovers who want the quality found in high-resolution audio files. Streaming these large files to the C 446 is simple thanks to its networking capabilities.”
But let’s accentuate the positive. The most sophisticated and interesting aspect to me of this “Media Tuner” is its myriad internet radio capabilities and performance, starting with its ability to present them in upsampled sound. The second is its excellent FM tuner, which also upsamples to 96/24 in its following DAC for digital Toslink or analog RCA out, which I will compare below in its salient performance features and audio quality to our audiophile reference classic analog tuner. The C 446 also allows direct injection of audio music files through a USB port on the front panel. These three capabilities alone, effectively realized, could easily justify its quite reasonable price.
The NAD C 446 FM tuner brought in 51 stations with the same antenna that brings in 60 on the classic Accuphase T-101. Its FM sound was clean and confident sounding, with especially good deep bass on the better stations. It did not bring in my favourite (and now almost only local) Classical station, WNED-FM at 94.5 from Buffalo on this big dedicated muliti-element yagi FM aerial, lacking the necessary selectivity (no Narrow option), but offered most received signals in clean, quiet stereo. A narrower IF setting might have yielded a few more listenable signals, but on balance, this is an excellent FM tuner, superior to many separate models, including some regarded as classics, such as numerous once-popular Marantz, Luxman, and Kenwood models profiled in our FM Tuner Project. It’s also worth noting, against that background, that the only other digital FM tuner I am aware of with a true digital output is the uber-expensive Accuphase T-1000, or more recent $6500 T-1100. I tried the NAD optical output into a neat little uber-cheap Chinese 24/96 DAC (they claimed), and it sounded very decent, though not quite as good as the C 446’s own DAC through its RCA outs.
But even more fun was the internet tuner section of this Media Tuner. However, a fair bit of orientation is required, which I’ll try to cover quickly. I had little luck accessing my local wireless computer network, which my wife uses for her iMac upstairs (my son installed it, and knows the access secrets, but that’s another story); I am fully wired into three computers downstairs with Bell Turbo Hub, and an outboard router to boot (so to speak), so I found it easier to just plug in. That done, there are numerous paths to stations, a couple of which you can create yourself with My Favourites or My Added Stations, drawing from the other avenues to store available signals.
Tuning starts with Stations, which then offers Genre or Geographical access, as well as stations pre-grouped as Local Canada, as well as High Quality (128 kbps or better, as far as I could tell, but this is not clarified in the otherwise exhaustive manual), and Podcasts. There is also a Help position, which leads to an access code, which I did not need, and thus ignored. Some may find fun in the podcasts, but I wasn’t much interested, preferring real continuous broadcasting.
I’ve generally liked going directly through Genre to Classical or Jazz to make my selections from this jungle of international stations. Adding to My Favourites is easy, but the manual offers access to more related features by creating an account at http://vtunernadelectronics.com, but I again didn’t see the need, adding stations as I encountered them. Just doing that is enough of a time waster for me.
And I found plenty of silly frustrations in the stations I did encounter and sometimes save, once I’d started by successively pressing the INFO button on the remote, which should tell you genre (Classical, etc.), description (from and of the station itself), mode/resolution (eg, MP3 192K or wma 128K; it doesn’t show Real Enabled or other such further info like my Sanyo), and does offer meta data (not shown on many stations, but handy when there for such info as work/artist being played in particular; a case in point is Organ Live, which plays mostly esoteric solo, concerto, or other music involving pipe organ, and scrolls this essential info on what is being presented at any given time). I’ve noticed most of CBC’s streams do not offer any ID of selections, either by meta data or announcement. It seems that, in too many cases, the programmers need to get with the program, as it were, and identify what they play.
The process of access was a little like Alice’s Restaurant, with anything you want (”excepting Alice”), but lots of “media invalid”, “operation failed” and other messages popping up along the way; that is, with a lot of choice comes plenty of confusion, both yours and the machine’s. That’s where the cumulative libraries come in, to allow you to save the stuff you might want to return to, while avoiding the chaff and frustration of access in future (or to quote once and for all today’s most annoying cliche, “going forward”).
But after absorbing all these frustrations and all this information, you are truly into a world of potentially wonderful listening. Though many stations are definitely bit-starved (WFMT, Chicago at 48 kbps [a shame for a great station], WNED, Buffalo at 32 kbps mono [unlistenable, why bother?]), there are such as AVRO Baroque from Hilversum, Holland (256 kbps), which except for the bargain countertenors, offers a delicious baroque smorgasbord, or Cincinnati’s WGUC (188 kbps; see below) with an excellent variety of listenable classics without too many potboilers, or the aforementioned Organ Live (192 kbps), with its essential scrolling info and fabulous rolling deep bass. The possibilities are truly galactic, so many stars/signals are there to peer at through this giant radio telescope. (The photo below shows the C 446 with its remote and manual on top of my venerable Nagra IV-S analog open reel recorder, a famous early state-of-the-art stereo music organizer for the tape era)
Internet radio sound quality is generally good, within the limits already expressed, but I do want to note that, unlike FM, internet radio has the potential for excellent dynamic range and very low noise. Its audio resolution may be limited by the kilobytes-per-second count, but the S/N ratio has greater potential than that of an FM signal. It may be that stations online that actually recognize and exploit this potential (by turning off their compressors and limiters) are few among the galaxies, but there they are, and audibly impressive when closely encountered.
Now, to the USB access capabilities of the C 446, as much as we could exploit them. Aaron sent me a number of CD-quality WAV files, which I unzipped, and moved to a 4 gig USB memory stick, which I plugged into the C 446’s front-panel slot. There was no display beyond the bitrate of 1411K, since WAV files don’t store any metadata the way FLACs or MP3s do.
But the story here is the sound! It was as good as I’ve ever heard from 44.1/16 files, the DACs in the NAD really showing their stuff. Such well-known tunes as Joni Mitchell’s A Case Of You, and The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again have seldom sounded as dynamic and alive through a digital playback system. So, if you copy your favourite CDs onto memory sticks as individual files, you will possibly hear them in better sound than ever before. And you can get several 600-800MB CDs onto a 4-gig USB stick, the only hassle being in cataloging the contents for such a physically small drive. You can also attach a larger USB hard drive to join the optional iPod dock in enhancing this product’s capabilities, reaching beyond MP 3 access to provide massive memory for CD-quality files. In both cases, of course, you can always find the content list on the display, once you’ve plugged in the USB drive or iPod source.
Obviously, other users will find more ways to exploit the USB and, in particular, the network computer possibilities than I did, but might also wonder, as I did, at the odd exclusion of either simple Toslink or coaxial digital inputs to tap into the C 446’s superb upsampling DACs (perhaps it’s an easy mod or hack, if you don’t mind voiding the warranty), but, as suggested above, what I did accomplish, especially the superb sound quality of this remarkable device, amply justifies its value and cost. Therefore, I recommend the NAD C 446 Media Tuner highly to all who can appreciate its versatility and sonic excellence from all of its available digital sources.
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