Tuesday, 17/10/2017 | 4:40 UTC+0

Before buying a sound bar, consider the alternatives

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I wasn’t planning on reviewing the NAD C 338 stereo amplifier, but when it showed up at the CNET office I couldn’t resist trying it out. As I listened to music and movies, the combo of this little amp paired with a decent pair of speakers sounded better than most sound bars!

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I liked the amp’s minimalist aesthetic that recalls NAD’s 1970s look. Of course this new one comes loaded with gotta-have features like Chromecast and Bluetooth, along with two optical and two coaxial inputs, two analog line inputs, one turntable input, a 6.3mm headphone jack, and a subwoofer output jack. Power is rated at 50 watts per channel for 4- and 8-ohm rated speakers.

The amp comes with a little plastic remote, but you’ll probably prefer using the NAD remote app for smartphones and tablets. I didn’t like the display’s super tiny readout for selected inputs, and the plastic volume control knob feels cheap, but otherwise I had no complaints about the C 338. It’s not all that big — the low-profile amp is just 2.8 inches (70mm) tall, and this bad boy weighs all of 10.7 pounds (4.85kg). The C 338 sells for $650, £599 or AU$999, depending where you are.

Sounds

To get started I paired the C 338 with ELAC Debut B6 bookshelf speakers ($280, £289, AU$599 per pair) and watched a few Blu-rays. My initial reaction was that this is so much better-sounding than a lot of sound bars we test here at CNET. First, there’s much better stereo imaging, superior depth and dimensionality; dialogue sounds more natural and the bass is solid. When it comes to playing music, the C 338/B6 combo is massively better than most sound bars.

While it’s true sound bars have improved over the last few years, they all stumble with music files and CDs. That’s where stereo systems with speakers spread five feet or more apart (1.5 meters or greater) have it all over sound bars, no matter their price.

Streaming music from Tidal via Chromecast was fine, though I did the bulk of my listening with an Oppo BDP 105 Blu-ray player hooked up to the C 338’s optical digital audio input.

Every time I play the B6 speakers I can’t get over how good they are for the money. Here, teamed with the C 338, the speakers are even better than usual. There’s a richness to the sound, and yet clarity is very decent with the CD soundtrack of Hans Zimmer’s score for “The Thin Red Line.” This music has incredibly deep drums and I was taken back by how this little system held its own down there.

Country singer Angaleena Presley’s take-no-prisoners “Wrangled” album demonstrated the C 338/B6’s stamina. This woman has attitude; she wants to rip the gloss off country music and make it scream for mercy.

Cuing up any of “Avatar” scenes where Jake is taking on humongous creatures in the jungle the C 338/B6 combo had impressive impact, clarity and power. While you can easily add a subwoofer to this system you won’t need to.

Buoyed by the C 338’s sound with the ELAC B6s, I next reached for KEF’s new Q350 speakers ($650, £529 per pair) and the combination clicked — the little C 338 allowed these speakers to really strut their stuff!

The Q350s sounded remarkably potent — bass was deep, dynamics rocked, and the overall presentation did justice to all kinds of music. There was real synergy between the speakers and the amp when I played blues harmonica wizard Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Keep It To Ourselves” album. Vocals, guitars and his harmonica sounded organically realistic, and they thinned out a bit when I repeated the tunes again with a Sony STR-DN1080 7.1 channel AV receiver. I like that receiver a lot, but the C 338’s sound was a step up. With Radiohead’s “Moon Shaped Pool,” the C 338 dug deep into the mixes’ palpable textures.

The C 338/Q350 system’s suitability for stereo home theater exceeded the ELAC B6 speakers on every count. The Q350 is a much better but also much more expensive speaker.

I used the NAD C 338 with these two speakers as examples, but there’s no reason why you couldn’t do better than most sound bars for a lot less money than the C 338, starting with the Yamaha R-S202 stereo receiver ($130, £190, AU$479). But there’s one catch with budget-priced stereo receivers like this one: you’ll need to add an external digital converter if your cable/satellite box or Blu-ray player doesn’t have stereo RCA analog outputs.

The R-S202 and ELAC B6 speakers would be a sweet little affordable system for music and movies. A stereo system for home theater and music is a very viable alternative to sound bars. Listen and you’ll see.

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