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Product Review
 

NAD C541i CD Player

October, 2002

Jason Serinus

 

 

 

Specifications:

One piece, remote control CD player for CDs, CD-R, CD-RW, and HDCD-encoded CD
Frequency response 5Hz - 20kHz ±0.5dB
De-emphasis error <0.5dB
THD (at 0dB, 1kHz) 0.0035%
Dynamic range 98dB
Linearity 0.5dB; 0 to -90dB
S/N ratio, A-weighted 108dB
Channel separation @1kHz >110dB
@10kHz >80dB
Wow and flutter Quartz accuracy
Output impedance 300 ohms
Output level at 0dB 2.2V rms

Dimensions 2 3/4" H x 17 1/8" W  x 11 1/4" D
Net Weight 9.0 lbs
Shipping Weight 10.8 lbs

NAD Electronics International
633 Granite Court
Pickering, Ontario, Canada l1W3K1
Telephone Worldwide: 905 831-0799
North America: 800-263-4641
Email: nad@NADelectronics.com
Website: http://www.NADelectronics.com

Introduction

Ever since I first began exploring high-end audio, I have read reviews claiming that NAD manufactures some of the best affordable, entry-level equipment on the market. While I’ve taken occasional listens to various NAD components at friends’residences, my auditions have always been compromised by their poor speaker placement, mediocre cabling, and/or severely compromised room setup (e.g., a huge leather couch in the middle of the speakers, with a glass coffee table in front, a rear wall consisting of mirrored glass, huge open glass windows, etc.).

I therefore welcomed the opportunity to give NAD’s entry-level CD player a try. I was especially eager to play some of my Reference Recordings HDCD-discs on a unit equipped with an HDCD chip.

I did question, however, my ability to fairly assess the player’s assets. I did not expect the $499 NAD to approach the level of musical satisfaction offered by my far more expensive digital setup: an Audio Alchemy transport, Perpetual Technologies P-1A, Theta Gen. Va single-ended DAC, Nordost Valhalla interconnects, and three costly after market power cables (currently Shunyata Python, Top Gun High Current, and Elrod EPS-1). Nonetheless, it was in comparison with my reference that I would perform my critical listening. Would I be able to realistically scale down my expectations while at the same time remaining honest about what I was hearing?

Happily, just as the NAD player came my way, so did a Sony DVP-NS500V, a $229 single-disc player capable of CD, SACD, and DVD-V playback. Here was a machine closer to the NAD’s price range that allowed for CD-playback comparison.

Technical Description

The NAD C541i is a relatively straightforward, front-loading, remote control single-disc player that plays standard CD, as well as CD-R, CD-RW, and HDCD-encoded CDs. It features the Burr-Brown 24 bit Sigma Delta chip, with 8 X oversampling. HDCD-decoding occurs automatically on HDCD discs.

The NAD’s display, which remains on at all times, offers a red read-out large enough to be seen across the room. (A definite plus; my Audio Alchemy transport’s numbers are unreadable from my seated position, which is a severe drawback for a reviewer.) The 541i comes equipped with a non-detachable standard power cord.

Front controls include the usual play, scan, and track, plus random play, time, and repeat. Either an individual track or the entire disc may be repeated.

The remote control allows programming of up to 20 tracks, and offers single track as well as entire disc repeat; random; and time options. It is small, lightweight, and easy to use. Happily, its shape is a bit distinctive, allowing for easy differentiation from other remote units. I found it a snap to figure out how to program without referencing the multi-lingual instruction booklet.

The unit comes equipped with RCA (coaxial) line outputs, RCA and optical digital outputs, and the proprietary NAD Link used solely for connection to other NAD components.

Set-Up

I placed the 541i on a shelf of my Michael Green Ultrarack, further isolating it from vibration by means of three Michael Green brass Audiopoints. I then plugged it into a PS Audio P600 Power Plant, using the multi-wave setting of SS1. Nordost Valhalla interconnects extended from the player’s stereo analog line outputs to the CD input of a Bruce Moore Companion III preamp.

In addition to evaluating the unit as a one-piece CD player, I evaluated it as a transport, comparing it to my Audio Alchemy transport. Since the NAD’s digital output would not accommodate my standard Nordost Valhalla AES/EBU digital interconnects, I instead used a Nirvana BNC-terminated digital interconnect plus RCA to BNC adapters. The Nirvana digital cable extended from the NAD’s digital output to the Perpetual Technology P-1A’s digital input. My regular Nordost Valhalla digital interconnect then completed the chain to my Theta Gen Va single-ended DAC. In all cases, Valhalla interconnects led to the Bruce Moore preamp.

Listening

During my extended period with the 541i, my Bruce Moore Companion III preamp was upgraded with better resistors, affording more transparent sound, and my Bruce Moore Dual 70’s internal wiring was upgraded to Nirvana. I also gained access to a $229 Sony SACD/DVD DVP-NS500V and a Kora Galaxy 50 watt single ended triode amp; both were employed in sonic comparisons.

The first disc I auditioned was the Ian Bostridge/Thomas Adčs EMI recording of Janácek’s great song cycle, "The Diary of One Who Disappeared". Using the Kora Galaxy 50, I was delighted by the lovely, seductive warmth of the presentation. Had I not previously auditioned the disc with my Audio Alchemy/Perpetual Technologies P-1a/Theta Gen. Va set-up (whose cost, including three after-market power cords but exclude the two Nordost Valhalla digital cables, is still a good $10,000), I would have been quite satisfied with the $499 NAD.

As I continued to listen critically, I found the sound a bit gray and veiled, almost as if a scrim had been laid across the soundstage. Accustomed to hearing the artists’ voice and piano as separate, rounded, three-dimensional entities, I instead discovered them occupying the same, somewhat flattened plane. I missed the extended, ringing harmonics of the piano heard with my far more costly reference digital setup. But if I had not had that other system as a reference, I would have been quite satisfied by what I heard.

Then I played Terry Evans’ “Blues No More” from his JVC-XRCD disc Puttin’ It Down. This is a superb recording; originally made by Audioquest, it excels in three-dimensionality, air, and separation of instruments. I again heard a modicum of grayness. Some of the detail in the voice I’m used to hearing on my “standard” setup was not present. Edges were less clear, three-dimensionality less startling, slam softer. Most tellingly, instrumental and vocal color were not as pronounced and differentiated. Regardless, there was a musicality to the presentation that I found quite satisfying, in fact outstanding for a player costing only 1/20th of my reference.

When I used the 541i solely as a transport, I heard far more of the color I’m used to hearing. The $1,700 Audio Alchemy transport produced images somewhat rounder and more sonically substantial, with a greater sense of definition, separation, and air between them. So, for the difference in price, the 541i was quite impressive as a stand-alone transport.

As a rule, I “green pen” all my discs with an Audio Prism CD Stoplight, spin them in a Bedini Ultraclarifier, and play them on my Audio Alchemy transport using the stable platter version of the Audio Prism CD Blacklight mat. I find that each of these tweaks makes a marked improvement in sound quality.

While I always used the Stoplight and Ultraclarifier with the NAD, I first played discs without using a mat. When I found the results rather muddy, I variously employed the Audio Prism CD Blacklight and the Marigo Audio Lab Orpheus Crossbow CD mat (the thinner version, possessing greater compatibility with a wide range of players, and reportedly offering 80% of the improvement offered by the thicker mat).

Both of these mats helped clarify sound and reduce muddiness. As to which was better, I remain uncertain. On the first selection, the Janácek song cycle discussed below, I thought the Marigo did the best job of focusing the sound of the piano. But on the Terry Evans, I thought the Audio Prism rendered percussion clearer and sharper.

I confess I did not spend umpteen hours trying to reach a definitive conclusion as to which mat worked better with the 541i. I can nonetheless assure you that either mat will noticeably improve playback quality.

Three Cheers for HDCD

For all my years of enjoying HDCD-encoded discs from HDCD-creator Keith Johnson’s Reference Recordings, I have never had the opportunity to play them through a DAC equipped with HDCD-decoding. Imagine my delight, then, in finally having the opportunity to audition HDCD at home.

HDCD makes all the difference with this unit. On two of my reference RR discs, Dominic Argento's Valentino Dances and the fairly recent, twice Golden Eared Rachmaninoff, I heard a fabulous, strikingly realistic depth and fullness. The soundstage was marvelous, at least 50% larger than with standard CD. While there was still some grayness, instruments seemed far more realistically reproduced. Most importantly, there was a beautiful, resonant glow to the sound when much of the orchestra let loose. The experience was totally musical and engrossing.

Interestingly enough, when I played Reference Recordings' HDCD discs using the 541i solely as a transport and the P-1A/Theta Gen. Va as the DAC, the music was less alive and clear than when heard solely through the 541i. Sounds were grayer and less realistic, the soundstage more forward and mono-dimensional, and percussion less sharp. While images and sounds become more coherent, refined and transparent with the P-1A/Theta Gen. Va, I could not hear the same degree of three-dimensional, air-filled realism as afforded by the 541i's HDCD decoding chip. This indicates just how well the 541i performs on HDCD-encoded discs. Though it was not perfect, on HDCD discs, the $499 NAD 541i in many ways outperformed my $10,000 non-HDCD equipped setup!

Comparing CD playback to the Sony SACD/DVD DVP-NS500V

Before I had my $229 Sony SACD/CD/DVD-V DVP-NS500V upgraded by Richard Kern of Audiomod, I compared its reproduction of standard CDs to the $499 NAD’s. The comparison may be unfair; it has been suggested that, in an attempt to seduce people with SACD, Sony is selling these entry-level players at a considerable loss. Nonetheless, I could not resist the comparison.

Simply put, I felt the Sony allowed me to hear more of the music available on standard CDs than did the 541i. Soundstage was bigger, bass fuller, and detail more present. Of course, on standard CD, the Sony could not in any way approach the musicality and refinement of my $10,000 setup, and, on HDCD-encoded discs, the Sony couldn't hold a candle to the NAD player. But on regular CD, the cheapo Sony not only offered fine CD reproduction but entry-level SACD and DVD-V as well.

Conclusions

For an entry-level player, the NAD 541i offers much satisfaction. Reproduction is quite musical, never etched or sterile. And, with HDCD-encoded discs, this player makes a giant leap from “entry level” to knockout.

If I were to purchase this unit, I would immediately replace its stock power cord with an IEC connector, and use an aftermarket power cord. Entry level cords from Shunyata, Harmonic Technology, and the Custom Power Company would be my first suggestion. (I have since replaced the stock cord on the Sony player, and it makes a huge difference.)

For those seeking a one-disc CD player in the $500 price range, the NAD 541i is a must-audition.


Associated Equipment

Digital Front End

Theta Gen. 5A single-ended DAC
Perpetual Technologies P-1A with Monolithic Power Supply
Audio Alchemy DDS-Pro transport
Sony DVP-NV500V SACD/DVD-V upgraded by Audio Mod

Amplification

Bruce Moore Dual 70 tube poweramp with Electro-Harmonix KT-88 and Siemens Cca tubes, rewired with Nirvana wire
Kora Galaxy poweramp
Bruce Moore Companion III tube preamp with Siemens CCa and Chinese AU7 tubes (rewired with Nirvana hook-up wire)

Loudspeakers

Talon Khorus X speakers

Cabling

Nordost Valhalla interconnects, digital interconnects, and speaker cable
Nirvana digital interconnect
Shunyata Python and Sidewinder powercables
Nordost power cable
Audio Prism power cable
Custom Power Company Top Gun High Current power cables
Elrod EPS-1 and EPS-2 cords
PS Audio Lab Cable

Accessories

PS Audio P600 Power Plant power synthesizer with MultiWave;
PS Audio Ultimate Outlet;
PS Audio Power Ports in wall
Michael Green Deluxe Ultrarack, Basic Racks, and room treatment
Black Diamond Racing Cones
Michael Green Audiopoints
Inner tube, maple cutting boards, bags of sand sand and maple also Shakti stone and Shakti On-Lines
Bedini Dual Beam Ultraclarifier
Audioprism Stoplight and Blacklight
Marigo Disc
Gryphon Exorcist
Sheffield/XLO degmagnetiser and break-in disc

Analog Front End (hardly the strong suit of the system, rarely used)

Dual 1219,
Sumiko Blue Point
Classe 6 phono preampwith the optional umbilical cord. Tara Decade and Nirvana SL-1 interconnects
Shunyata Sidewinder power cord.
 

- Jason Serinus -

Related to the article above, we recommend the following:

Primer - CD Players

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