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NAD C521i CD Player Print E-mail
Wednesday, 01 January 2003
ImageThe NAD C521i is the latest version of NAD’s CD player. It attempts to offer very high audio performance at an affordable price – a goal in which it succeeds, largely via a combination of offshore manufacturing (the unit is made in the People’s Republic of China to NAD specs) and careful product design, focusing on “must-have” features and limiting the implementation of bells and whistles you tend to use only once or twice in the lifetime of a player.

The C521i features Burr-Brown 20-bit delta-sigma converters for maximum audio quality. CDs are only 16-bit, but over-specifying the converters is a good decision. Even now, to get true 16-bit capability, you need to aim a little high. Also on the technical side, the unit features separate analog and digital power supply regulation. The actual converter chips inside a piece of digital equipment are one of the least important bits as far as sound is concerned: the important stuff is in the power supply (avoiding digits getting into the analog, for example, which is the intent with the separate regulation here), the board layout (to minimize common impedances which can compromise performance), and also getting the lowest possible clock jitter recovering data from the disc, which this unit also addresses.

The unit plays both CD-R and CD-R/W discs, as well as regular pressings. It’s a slim standard-width (17 inches) unit with a single disc drawer-loading transport, a backlit LCD display (which, during the day, is a little less visible than I would like) and no more than eight buttons: play/pause, stop, random, open/close, time and repeat, plus two rocker buttons for previous/next track and scan.
The rear panel of this unit is as simple as you can imagine: apart from the power cable entry there are just three items on the back: two RCA sockets for analog out left and right, plus an RCA output for S/PDIF digital. Coax is a better format for digital signals than the more common TOSLink optical, in my view, so I rate this as a good choice.

I plugged in the analog and digital outputs in a couple of minutes and powered up. The display came alive and inserting a disc showed a “calendar” display of the type common on Sony players, showing the number of tracks on the disc and flashing the one currently playing. An indicator in the bottom left portion of the display shows the current play/pause status, large numerals show the currently playing track and a smaller time display can be switched (with the “time” button) between track elapsed time, time remaining, disc elapsed time and time remaining. The machine and the supplied compact IR remote perform flawlessly, so we proceed to listening tests.

I started with Mylène Farmer’s 1995 French release Anamorphosée. The first track, “California,” has a great bass end, and some inserted stereo sound effects at the front. I also copied the track to CD-R and compared the two. In both cases, the results were excellent and indistinguishable from each other. CD-Rs sometimes pick up a lot of jitter, but that did not seem to be a problem here, this player being optimized for low-jitter playback.

The analog performance was good, but I am afraid I am spoiled by the D to A converters in my Sunfire Theater Grand III, which is a good deal more expensive than those in the NAD CD player. This being said, the NAD sounded excellent and performed better than you might expect from a unit at this price point. The analog outs have an unusually low impedance (300 ohms) and this helps.

On the digital side, the performance was even better. The key to a good digital output is low jitter. As this is one of the design goals here, I was pleased to note that the designers had succeeded. In addition, the digital output is transformer-isolated from the feed to the converters, again improving the performance. The bass synth part on this track was very clean and clear, with good localization of the attack, and the effects came out in a number of places beyond the speakers, suggesting accurate handling of phase-shift panning information. Similarly clean and well presented was Track 9, “Alice,” where the lead guitar part near the end of the track was very nicely rendered.

While listening to the digital outputs, I put on my standard test disc, Alan Parsons’ On Air DTS CD, and the player handled it with no trouble, feeding the digital signal to my DTS decoder and rendering the surround with excellent localization, as I have come to expect from this album – indicating that the low-jitter replay was occurring as advertised.

While on an aerial theme, I switched to the rendering of Ron Goodwin’s own recording of his theme to the movie “633 Squadron” from the 1998 Abbey Road remastered version of his 1966 Adventure! Studio 2 CD (it’s paired with the Legend of the Glass Mountain CD in my two-CD version, but you can also find it paired with another Studio 2 recording, Ron Goodwin’s Action!). Very nice, especially the brass attacks, which have plenty of transients and popped out nicely, although overall this recording does slightly show its age in the dynamic range department.

Still in the movie music department, I played John Barry’s spine-tingling Game of Hide and Seek (actually, all his chord progressions are spine-tingling -- his work is always interesting, even though he has such a distinctive style that you can spot it a mile off and would think you would get bored with it) from “Playing By Heart.” The warm, flowing chords filled the room and the overall impression was excellent.

For a change of pace, I put on Eliza Gilkyson’s recent release, Lost and Found, beginning with the opening cut, “Welcome Back.” Gilkyson is an accomplished writer and an excellent performer, and here her vocals were beautifully rendered with a good clean handling of transients. The snare and bass drum were well defined, including plenty of bottom end from the rhythm section. It was easy to pick out every element of the arrangement, right down to the subtle but effective mandolin. In fact, you could characterize this player as “clear and clean” and a good performer all round.

The Downside
The simplicity and low cost of this component leaves little to find fault with, especially when comparing it to AV receivers and other more complex components. The backlit LCD display is not as bright as the majority of components, and it is a little difficult to see in normal daylight, although this is not a problem in subdued lighting.

The NAD C521i CD player is a good performer all round, and combines high quality on both digital and analog outputs with a very affordable list price of just $299. It is a perfect component for someone who likes the smooth sound of high-end gear but doesn’t have the coin to pop for a more expensive player. Its simplicity in use is also an advantage when compared with DVD-Video players or CD mega-changers, which are often used as CD transports these days in home theaters. There are often times when you want to just put a disc in the tray and make some sweet-sounding music. The NAD C521i CD player is up to the task and will likely surpass your expectations for the quality of sound you can get for $300.

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