What exactly is an integrated amplifier? Basically, it's a stereo receiver without an AM/FM tuner. Since almost no one listens to terrestrial radio anymore, integrated amps are the way to go. Take, for example, the NAD C 356BEE -- I like its straightforward approach that minimizes glitz and useless features and prioritizes sound quality.
The rear panel houses five sets of stereo RCA analog line inputs, two sets of tape inputs and outputs, two sets of preamp outputs (for use with separate power amps, powered speakers or subwoofers), and two sets (A and B) of stereo speaker connectors. The C 356BEE amp is rated at 80 watts per channel. I was happy to see the amp has bass and treble controls, features rarely seen on most competitor's amps. You can nudge the bass up to add some weight to a small speakers' bottom, or take the edge off nasty-sounding MP3s by turning the treble down. Hit the "Tone Defeat" when you wish to abstain from using the tone controls. A full-function remote is included with the C 356BEE.
The basic version of the amp doesn't have turntable or digital inputs, but if you're a serious about vinyl, order the optional PP 375 phono pre-amp module. Digitally oriented audiophiles can opt for the MDC DAC converter module. If you fancy analog and digital sound, though, you might be out of luck; the C 356BEE can accommodate only one module; the simple work-around solution would involve an external digital converter such as the Schiit Modi hooked up to one of the C 356BEE's line inputs. My C 356BEE sample came with the MDC DAC module installed, and that's what I used for all of my listening tests with my Oppo BDP-105 Blu-ray player and computer. The sound was great, but the USB's sound would occasionally drop out for a few seconds at a time. Just like every other integrated amp I've tested, the C 356BEE lacks HDMI inputs and outputs, but you can hook up your cable box or Blu-ray player's video connections directly to your TV. The C 356BEE measures 17.2 x 5.2 x 13.3 inches (435 x 131 x 337 mm), and it weighs 19.2 pounds (8.7kg).
For this review, I paired the amp with a bunch of speakers -- the, , PSB Imagine X2T -- all with good results. Eighty watts per channel may not seem like much, but even when I put the pedal to the metal with ZZ Top's Live From Texas concert Blu-ray, I never felt the NAD was straining to keep up. Of the three speakers, the Prime Tower was the most transparent and pure sounding. The RF-62 II was the rock-and-roll champ; it had the liveliest dynamics and a potent low-end drive that proved irresistible with rock recordings. But that speaker was a little rough around the edges on acoustic music, the Imagine X2T had massive low-end, and it was more precise and controlled than the RF-62 II, so I came to feel the X2T was the best all-around performer. The C 356BEE made it easy to hear the differences between the speakers.
Later on, I used the X2Ts with PSB's matching XC center speaker, and XB bookshelf speakers in a 5.1-channel home-theater system. The X2Ts still sounded fine, but they were softer and less transparent with theI used for the home-theater tests. I was happy to return to the C 356BEE for stereo.
The NAD C 356BEE US price is $799, the MDC DAC 2 digital converter module is $249, and the PP375 moving-magnet/moving-coil phono preamplifier module is $199. UK pricing is £599 for the amp, £199 for the digital converter, and £99 for the phono preamp. In Australia, the C 356BEE runs AU$999, while the modules are AU$319 and AU$159, respectively.