Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.
I wanted to start this review with a joke. Something to the effect of “What’s the exact opposite of a mullet?” And in case you’re not familiar with that particularly atrocious hairstyle and the humor surrounding it, the response would have been some ham-fisted attempt to describe NAD’s new C 3050 LE Stereophonic Amplifier (also referred to as a “HybridDigital DAC Amplifier”) as a party up front and all business in the back. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t make it work. But take a look at this thing, and you start to get a sense of why I was drawn to this unsuccessful dad joke.
Viewed from the front, the C 3050 LE ($1972, all prices USD) is a retro-tastic throwback to a legendary NAD product of old: the C 3030 from the 1970s. It’s everything I could hope for in terms of industrial design. Filmmaker David Gordon Green could have stuck one in the background of one of the flashback sequences in Halloween Kills, and no one would have batted an eyelash.
It is, unapologetically and unironically, the Indiana Glass Whitehall iced-tea drinking glass of amplifier design, second only to perhaps the Marantz 2285B (perhaps!). Although it may seem slightly pejorative to say these days, there’s just something deliciously working-class about its aesthetic. Keep in mind, though, that both I and this design come from an era in which a gas station attendant could afford a home mortgage, so my perception of the working class is a bit skewed.
Spin the C 3050 LE ’round and it makes no pretenses about being anything other than a thoroughly modern integrated amp with thoroughly modern connectivity, entirely modern control capabilities, and indeed a thoroughly modern topology that would have sounded like science fiction in the year 1972, when NAD was founded, and even in 1978, the year the C 3030 was released.
In fact, in most respects the back panel of the C 3050 LE is remarkably similar to that of the C 399 I reviewed last year, with a few notable differences. Instead of having 3.5mm IR and 12v trigger inputs and outputs, it has a single IR in and a solitary 12V trigger out. It lacks an RS-232 connection, but it doesn’t need one for reasons we’ll discuss in a sec. Instead of dual optical and coaxial digital inputs, it features one of each. It only has one stereo line input (RCA) instead of two and one subwoofer output (RCA) instead of two. The ground screw has also been relocated next to the (MM-only) phono stage input.
But it features the same HDMI eARC port as the C 399, which will be super handy if you’re using the C 3050 LE in an A/V setup. And although the C 3050 LE only has one MDC2 expansion port (the second generation of NAD’s proprietary Modular Design Construction concept), it comes stock with the MDC2 BluOS-D module installed. That adds advanced bass management, Dirac Live room correction, and of course, BluOS streaming capabilities to the amp, along with Spotify Connect, Tidal Connect, and Apple AirPlay 2. It’s a $599 add-on if purchased separately, so if you’re comparing any two NAD C Series integrated amps in terms of features, make sure to factor that into your calculation. With the BluOS-D module, the C 399 comes in at $2599. If you could buy the C 3050 LE without the BluOS-D module (you can’t), that would put its MSRP at more like $1373. I mention that mainly to illustrate that NAD doesn’t seem to be charging a premium for the satin-walnut case, VU meters, or the smaller production run of this limited-edition amp.
There are also a few noteworthy under-the-hood differences between the C 399 and the C 3050 LE, though they may or may not be significant or meaningful differences for most stereo systems in most rooms. Rather than relying on Hypex Ncore modules for amplification, the 3050 LE employs Hypex UcD modules, with published continuous output power rated at 100Wpc into 8 ohms or 4 ohms (measured 20Hz to 20kHz, both channels driven) and IHF dynamic power rated at 180Wpc into 8 ohms, 250Wpc into 4 ohms, or 300Wpc into 2 ohms.
The C 3050 LE also relies on a Texas Instruments PCM5242 for digital-to-analog conversion instead of the ESS Sabre 9028 employed in the C 399, although it’s somewhat telling that NAD describes one as “a design noted for near-zero levels of clock jitter, ultra-low noise and distortion, and wide dynamic range . . . with amazing musicality, stunning clarity, and precise soundstaging” and the other as “a design noted for high tolerance to clock jitter, and excellent dynamic performance . . . with amazing musicality, stunning clarity, and pinpoint imaging.” The bottom line is both DAC chipsets are excellent.
Setting up and dialing in the NAD C 3050 LE
As is always the case when I review a modern NAD integrated amp, I was initially somewhat thrown by the lack of a USB Type-B port, since that’s the connection I use the most in my two-channel system. But I’ve become so enamored with Lenbrook’s BluOS ecosystem that it’s no longer an inconvenience. More like a momentary observation. Plus, I have my trusty iFi Audio Zen One Signature DAC right there if I want to run a USB output from my Maingear Vybe PC, and indeed, I used it a good bit during this review.
The bulk of my listening was done via my home network, using the BluOS iOS and Windows apps in equal measure. Even if you don’t rely on BluOS as a streaming ecosystem, you’ll still need the app if you want to dip into any of the C 3050 LE’s more advanced setup features, given that it doesn’t have a front-panel screen. Within the app you can enable or disable bass management, set the crossover point between the subwoofer and main speakers (40Hz to 200Hz, in 10Hz increments), select from three different types of volume normalization called “Replay-gain,” and select between any Dirac Live filters you’ve uploaded to the unit or turn room correction off entirely.
For Dirac setup, you can choose between the default target curve, NAD’s own target curve (downloadable from the website), or your own custom curve. For this review, I ran Dirac Live several times, each time with the default “Focused imaging” seating arrangement, using all 13 measurement positions. I uploaded full-range filters using the NAD and Dirac target curves, the former of which features a much more significant bass boost along with a flatter midrange slope and more prominent high-frequency roll-off. I also drew my own custom curve, with a weensy bit less of a bass boost than the NAD curve but more than the Dirac curve, and a maximum filter frequency slightly over two octaves above the crossover frequency of my two-channel room/home office.
I also tinkered briefly with a 2.1-channel speaker setup, including RSL CG3 bookshelf speakers and an SVS PB-1000 Pro subwoofer (using only my target Dirac curve with a crossover of 90Hz). But I was most interested to hear what the amp could do with a slightly more difficult load, so for the bulk of the review I listened via my reference Paradigm Studio 100 v5 towers, connected using pre-terminated Elac Sensible speaker cables. I also connected my Zen One Signature DAC using its own pack-in RCA cables as analog interconnects, with a Monoprice Monolith #33464 USB Type-A to USB Type-B cable connected between the DAC and my PC.
In terms of day-to-day operation, the user experience of the C 3050 LE is driven mainly by the remote and the app, with the former being well laid out and ergonomic and the latter being a gold standard for this sort of thing. It’s worth noting, though, that the unit does have one particular quirk, in that it takes four freaking forevers to wake up from standby. Press Play on a song via the BluOS app with the amp in standby, and it’ll be a full 25 seconds before your music starts. What’s more, for the bulk of that wait, the VU meters of the C 3050 LE grow an angry red as if you’ve done something wrong. That’s a little disconcerting.
How does the NAD C 3050 LE perform?
I originally had no intention of writing about my impressions of “High Head Blues” from The Black Crowes’ Amorica (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, American Recordings / Qobuz). It’s simply one of the albums that I always throw at a new amp or preamp during the setup and tweaking process, because I know it so well and I enjoy listening to it at borderline-dangerous loudness levels. The fact is, though, this album told me as much about the performance of the C 3050 LE as anything else I threw at it.
First things first, before now I hadn’t had the opportunity yet to push Hypex amp modules anywhere near their limits, but with my big Paradigm towers and with the Crowes cranked to the high heavens, I had the volume knob twisted all the way to the right at times. I was impressed by how impeccably the amp held together, but a little concerned about the issue of headroom.
I didn’t have as much cause for concern as I initially thought since the 3050 LE ships with a volume limiter in place. Out of the box, the upper limit was set to 0dB, although you can raise it as high as +12dB. I nudged it up to +3dB just to give me room to play things quite loudly (~97dB peaks), even if for only a few brief moments. Any higher than that and I could start to hear a bit of an edge to my music that didn’t belong there.
Here’s the bottom line of all this: given that the NAD C 3050 LE is a limited anniversary piece celebrating the company’s 50th birthday, and given that its sister brand PSB has also released its own companion piece—the PSB Passif 50 standmount loudspeaker—it’s not unreasonable to expect that some fans out there are going to mate this amp with those speakers for a complete anniversary sound system. My Paradigms might be a weensy bit more sensitive than the Passif 50s on paper, but they’re as close a match as I could get my hands on. And based on my testing, it seems like that system would play satisfyingly loud in most mid-sized rooms, even without the benefit of a sub. Add a sub, and you’ve got a system that should be able to play comfortably loud in most any room.
Continuing my critical evaluation, the next thing I couldn’t help but notice is that the C 3050 LE doesn’t hide any blemishes in a recording. When the bass kicks in at around the 14-second mark of the Crowes’ “High Head Blues,” you can hear the bus of the Focusrite studio console saturating almost to the point of clipping. The flip side to that is that little secrets buried in a recording leap out of the mix much more clearly. The swirling chaos of “Wiser Time,” with its mélange of lead and rhythm and pedal-steel guitars, its shoes-in-a-dryer percussion and its vocal harmonies by Chris and Rich, can tend toward cacophony on many a sound system. Still, every little element of the mix stood out via the NAD, and the little punctuated bursts of cowbell came through with exactly the right mix of attack, decay, and tonality.
That last observation in particular put me right in the mood for some Buena Vista Social Club, specifically “Candela” from the 25th-anniversary edition of the self-titled debut album (24/96 FLAC, World Circuit / Qobuz). Pretty much every element of this mix—from the guitars to the vocals to the bass line—is percussive, and the C 3050 LE thrived with the song even at borderline-ridiculous listening levels. The dense layers of the mix were all beautifully resolved, with each instrument carving out its own little safe space in the mix, and the reverberation of the congas floating behind the soundstage with stunning verisimilitude.
For something a little smoother, a bit less likely to spackle over sonic flaws with gee-whizzery, I cued up “Green Papaya” from Lianne La Havas’ self-titled 2020 album (24/44.1 FLAC, Warner Records / Qobuz). The mix for this one is super simple, with little more than La Havas’ vocals (double-tracked in the chorus), guitar, and the occasional bass line. It’s clean and intimate and just delicious. Even pushing the C 3050 LE near its limits, I was impressed by how it delivered the song with exquisite tonal balance, exceptional clarity, wonderful timbral richness, and no hint of stress or strain. Again, the amp gives what it’s given, so from time to time, I noticed little details that normally fly just under the radar, like exceedingly subtle lip-smacking and saliva-crackling.
It was with this track that I made most of my comparisons between the NAD’s DAC and my own iFi Zen One Signature. They were remarkably similar, and although I could hear very minor differences—one or the other sounded slightly more forward at times, or more spacious, or perhaps just a weensy bit more detailed—when I looked back and compared my notes from different listening sessions on different days, I was inconsistent in applying these various observations to each of the two DACs, so take that for what it’s worth.
As for differences made by the various Dirac Live filters, my observations are perfectly consistent with those from my review of NAD’s C 399. Long story short, I found Dirac’s target room curve a little bass-shy for my room and NAD’s bass boost a little overwhelming. Striking a balance between the two worked best for my listening space, especially with tracks like “Out of Your Mind” from the aforementioned Lianne La Havas jam (24/44.1 FLAC, Warner Records / Qobuz).
This track is my new favorite reference for bass balance, as it is yet another sparse mix, but in this case, the bass can easily overpower the rest of the mix or get lost in the dubbed-and-dubbed-and-overdubbed scatting vocals. Easing off of NAD’s bass boost a bit but still applying more of a shelf than a slope to the overall target curve resulted in sublime perfection with this song’s overall tonal balance. All things considered, though, all of the three target curves did an excellent job of controlling standing waves and resulted in low-frequency reproduction that was not only better controlled but also more consistent from note to note and track to track.
I’m not quite yet to the point where I’ll knock a piece of stereo gear for lacking room correction, but I can see a day in the not-too-distant future when I’ll feel that way. Yet again, NAD proves here that there’s as much benefit for stereo setups as there is for surround-sound systems. And it’s true whether you’re using a sub or not. In fact, in all my testing of the C 3050 LE, I think the improvements made by Dirac Live room correction were more tangible and noticeable when I was running full-range speakers than when I tested a 2.1-channel setup with proper subwoofer placement. I still think 2.1 is right for most rooms, though.
What other integrated amps might you consider in this class?
Given the distinctive combination of retro aesthetics and forward-thinking technology, it’s tough to find a direct competitor for the C 3050 LE, at least until NAD’s non-LE version hits the market. At right around its $1972 price point, though, there are some competitors.
Perhaps the most obvious comes in the form of the NAD C 389 ($2098 with optional MDC2 BluOS-D module; $1499 without). The 389 has a few extra inputs and features the same UcD modules, but with a bit more power (130Wpc into 8 or 4 ohms; IHF dynamic power of 210Wpc into 8 ohms, 300Wpc into 4 ohms, 350Wpc into 2 ohms). It also has dual MDC2 ports, although it of course lacks the 3050’s retro styling.
If you’re absolutely uninterested in BluOS, you could also consider the $1999 C 399 without the MDC2 BluOS-D plug-in. Of course, that also means you’d be doing without Dirac, but you do get a good bit more power (along with reliance on Hypex Ncore amp modules), an extra line-level input, and two extra S/PDIF inputs.
Another option you might consider is the $2099 Rotel RA-1572 MKII, which boasts class-AB output of 120Wpc into 8 ohms (full bandwidth, 0.018% THD), dual summed-mono subwoofer outputs with no bass management, a set of balanced stereo XLR inputs, and several more line-level ins. There’s also a USB-DAC connection. It doesn’t have an adult-sized headphone jack, though, and it’s not exactly going to win any style contests.
TL; DR: Is the NAD C 3050 LE worth the money?
Good gravy, yes. Although, this throwback amp does raise an interesting question: Can our hobby thrive going into the future with one foot rooted so firmly in the past? I think the answer is yes, so long as we use something like this as the model and don’t simply do retro for the sake of retro.
The 3050 LE’s styling doesn’t merely work because it’s a nostalgia bomb. This isn’t just a hollow attempt at hooking aging Gen-Xers and Boomers who get a dopamine rush from anything that reminds us of a simpler time when the only things we had to worry about were duck-and-cover drills and the ever-present threat of quicksand (seriously, watch a TV show from the era if you’re too young to remember what a dire concern that was).
Far from that, the aesthetics borrowed from the classic C 3030 point back to a time when a piece of audio gear was something you expected to last for decades, something that wouldn’t be rendered obsolete the next time some corporation’s shareholders pressured them into creating some new audio standard for their PR and marketing departments to brainwash audio journalists into trumpeting as revolutionary and essential.
Simply put, while the 3050 LE might not be built quite as tanklike as the Marantz Model 40n, this amp still looks like the sort of audio product made in the era in which everything wasn’t so damned disposable. And given that you’re likely to interact with it directly rather than shoving it into a rack and trying to hide it, that kind of Pavlovian reaction can have power.
Combine its saucy stylings with reliance on legitimately meaningful modern technology under the hood—both in terms of amplification and room correction—and NAD has something special on its hands here. Hypex amplifier technology, NAD’s own HybridDigital Signal Path, and Dirac Live room correction aren’t just bullet points, but rather meaningful advances in audio reproduction.
In the constant tug-of-war between the past and the future, where we’re all trying to take what we can from tradition without being blinded by nostalgia while hopefully embracing innovation without being fooled by faddish tsunamis of consumerism, I think NAD has struck exactly the right balance with the C 3050 LE. I only hope this sort of thinking continues once the 50th-anniversary celebrations are all but forgotten.
. . . Dennis Burger
Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.
- Speakers: Paradigm Studio 100 v5; RSL CG3.
- Subwoofer: SVS PB-1000 Pro.
- Speaker-level connections: Elac Sensible speaker cables.
- Digital-to-analog converter: iFi Audio Zen One Signature.
- Sources: Maingear Vybe PC; iPhone 12 Pro Max; BluOS.
- Power protection: SurgeX XR115 power conditioner.
NAD C 3050 LE Integrated Amplifier-DAC
Warranty: Two years, parts and labor, non-transferrable.
The Lenbrook Group
633 Granite Court
Pickering, Ontario, Canada L1W 3K1
Phone: (905) 831-6555