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This review first appeared in the July 2008 issue of and can be read in its original German version here. It is herewith translated and presented to an English-only audience through a mutual syndication arrangement with As is customary for our own reviews, the writer's signature at review's end has a link below it to his e-mail should you have questions or feedback you wish to send. All images contained in this review are the property of or NAD and Onkyo. - Ed.

Reviewer: Martin Mertens
Digital Source: Creek CD 43 Mk II
Amplification: integrated - Jadis Orchestra black/silver
Loudspeakers: Expolinear T 120
Cabling: low-level - Vampire CC; high-level inakustik
Review component retails: NAD €350, Onkyo €399

There are various reasons to inspect budget hifi. The most obvious? You're looking for quality playback at a limited budget. Another might be a secondary system in an office or weekend getaway. As a reviewer, the hotly contested budget league demands attention since it's here the maker has to prove his mettle with limited financial resources. That 350 euros needn't mean chopped liver is finely demonstrated by the integrated amps NAD C 315BEE and Onkyo A-9355.

Unwrap - NAD
The NAD arrived first. I was curious about their new small entry after the firm's legendary NAD 3020 precedent which established their rep for first-class sonics on short green. Since New Acoustic Dimension's 1973 launch in London, the company's core philosophy has demanded a focus on performance while cosmetics would be secondary. Today the firm operates out of Canada while the still modest looking Classic Line has been supplemented by the snazzier Lifestyle Range. Yet the underlying focus remains on inner beauty. As a sign of them times, the C 315BEE of the Classic Series is available not only in classic 'graphite' but also 'Titanium'.

NAD would tirelessly remind us that the C 315BEE follows in the foot prints of the world-famous NAD 3020. The nomenclature's BEE suffix indicates design input from Bjorn Erik Edvardsen, NAD founding member and designer of the 3020. Personally, that's nearly too much marketing - admittedly a sore point because this marketing really does it for me. And even though NAD presumably didn't care about aesthetics, the NAD C 315BEE design is masterful - self-depreciating, "loudly quiet", a very uncluttered small grey box despite comprehensive features.

The front sports not only volume and balance control but defeatable tone controls, a standby button, six source choosers, a headphone socket and 3.5mm mobile source link for an MP3 player or similar. The back responds with two pairs of quite solid binding posts, a captive power cord with power mains and seven pairs of gold-plated RCAs: six inputs and one record out.

Lifting the amp reiterates how with the C 315BEE, NAD meant to groom a poster child of understatement. Outer simplicity and solid mass of a small enclosure squarely suggest keen focus on inner values. Competitors in this price class run aluminum fascias but NAD's plastic suits the image - thrifty, not cheap. I personally could do without the included remote but it's cute. I must also confess that despite marketing spiel, this amp instantly triggered my 'gotta have it' reflexes.

Onkyo's A-9355 looks like any other Onkyo amp as far back as I can remember - which does go rather far back. After all, like the other big Japanese firms Yamaha, Pioneer and Denon, Onkyo's been in the hifi component biz since the 60s. The aluminum front of the quite sizeable enclosure is dominated by a big volume control and somewhat smaller source selector. Significantly smaller are the treble and bass controls while a balance control is amiss. In my eyes, that's a small oversight since particularly in the entry level, many folks aren't too concerned over ideal loudspeaker positioning. Here a balance control can help restore the stereo illusion. The loudness and bypass controls as well as speaker mute buttons are outright diminutive. At far left, there's finally the larger power mains.

The Onkyo is strong on features. Around back you'll find four pairs of solid binding posts for two pairs of speaker as well as two auxiliary AC sockets for ancillary kit. An additional frontal input like the NAD sports is MIA but compensated for with a ground post and inbuilt MM phono stage whose inputs are shorted with caps during non-use. Two of the five inputs enjoy their own record outs and the remote control, via cable links on the back, can also communicate with other Onkyo machines.

In a certain manner, the Onkyo too whispers understatement. "Why?" you might wonder since its silver aluminum front has it look like an integrated ought to look. Well, consider the small 'VL DIGITAL' silk screen on the machine's upper right corner. Onkyo's A-9355 isn't your garden-variety class A/B design typical in this sector but class D. Is Onkyo hesitant to openly push this newer switching technology and rather hides it behind a classic façade? Class-D circuits, particularly in the budget sector, are still bedeviled by sonic preconceptions though this trend is mellowing with the introduction of upscale class D amplifiers such as entries by Bel Canto and NuForce which we've reviewed. To my knowledge, Onkyo is the first mainstream brand to implement class D for its own entry-level range.

Flip the lids
As different as their outsides are, so do their guts diverge. The NAD is extremely sorted and dominated by a large circuit board, a massive heat sink and a solid toroidal transformer. The Onkyo segregates its circuits over various boards and, since it's unnecessary with class D, there's just a small metal strip on the output board rather than a full-blown conventional heat sink.

Plug in, power up
Both machines slipped directly into the main rig with my Creek CD 42MkII as source. Copasetic with bananas both, I had no issues connecting to my Expolinear T120. NAD's power mains is on the back adjacent to the power cord, with a standby switch upfront. The output transistors remain biased during standby as the hand-warm chassis temperature underscores. This serves instant sonic gratification since electronics require time to reach thermal stability and sound their best. If a constant minimum bias is maintained, the waiting time is cancelled. Alas, the NAD books 28 watts at idle, leaving it to the owner to decide when to put it to sleep and when to fully power it down.

Connected to the input marked CD, I selected this input to get a plopp over the speakers. Oops. I'd have thought those times were passé. So pot back to zero to switch between inputs afterwards but the switching transient remained, albeit demure over my less efficient Expolinear. The power mains of the Onkyo has two readily visible positions. A solid push and it engages cleanly. Simple. Really? Below a red LED lit up and nada. I waited and still nada. Then I noticed how this LED is accompanied by the lettering 'standby'. The discarded remote became my savior. One push of its 'on' command and the red LED extinguished with a small relay click. Once awakened from sleep mode, the Onkyo powered up and down easy. Alternatively without remote, the owner's manual explains that you can awaken the sleepy thing by also pressing the 'Speaker A' button.

Audition NAD
The NAD was first to show up and off it did fom bar one, playing impressively forceful to put a lie to the demure exterior. A small twist on the throttle and the speakers acted high and mighty. I got it. This small amp sounds as though it put the speakers on a very short leash. This called for evaluating its performance from the bottom up. I picked Marla Glen. Righteous. The basses on "The Cost of Freedom" entered the room and were tracked precisely by the NAD - up to a point. Somewhere just above the lowest octaves, the NAD seemed to retreat somewhat. But then sub bass isn't my speakers' greatest forté.

I also enjoyed that a lot of detail came to the fore. The complex arrangements of Quincy Jones' "Back on the Block" were well resolved. In general, a focus on detail and precision characterizes the NAD. The Quincy Jones disc also demonstrated what this amp struggles with: Steep impulses are finely honed but not terribly dynamic. The NAD refuses to get pushed and remains limpid. Perhaps this impression is underlined by a certain HF reticence. Nothing's outright lacking there but compared to other amps, its treble belongs into the soft, more sonorous sector of the breed. A small cross check with Patricia Barber's Modern Cool confirmed it. This recording veers into treble sharpness and occasional hissing. The NAD barely hints at this tendency. I imagined hearing a small bass emphasis too, a bit of upper-bass girth. While still on Patricia Barber, small formations, Jazz and vocals are the ultimate diet for the NAD.

Massive orchestral and Big Bands aren't. A well-loved personal habit has me demo my rig with Wagner's "The God's Entry into Valhalla" from Rheingold to shock my visitors. Past a sweet string lull comes a triangle followed by a gargantuan orchestral entrance, perfectly rendered by the Vienna Philharmonic under Sir Georg Solti. With the NAD, the heart attack scaled back to a minor jolt. Even the triangle's finesse stepped down. In general, the NAD goes swimming on classical. The demand to embrace big orchestras with the same force and detail acumen as Jazz ensembles eludes this amp. Even the dimensional sorting which comes off perfectly with smaller ensembles sacrifices a bit. After a few more attempts at classics, I returned to the NAD's favored Jazz, Blues and Pop. And there I listened long and happily: The NAD's powerful sonic image free of all nerve-wrecking tendencies predestined the amp for many long and satisfying post-dinner auditions of a few fave Jazz CDs accompanied by full-bodied red wine.

Audition Onkyo
Moving over to the Onkyo A-9355, I had to acclimate to its volume taper. Music arises somewhere at high noon while standard room levels occur until the last quarter whence things get rapidly louder still. Sonically, the Onkyo followed a very different direction, one that on first encounter seemed nearly lean. Closer attention then felt that unlike the full-bodied NAD, the Onkyo was rather more neutral. A bit more lit up, not as pressurized in the upper bass, the Onkyo ultimately seemed very balanced. Besides which it offered clearly higher jump factor and dynamics than the NAD while not being quite as poignant with details.

For example, Pop and Jazz were conveyed very lively yet timbral finesse took a second seat. I was not sinking into the music and felt kept at a certain distance. Since liveliness appeared to be its focus, I cued up La Chicana's "Tango Agazapado". Voilà, brisk guitar works played very well to the Onkyo's talents. Yet even here I remained somewhat at a distance.

The Onkyo unveiled rather amazing chops with larger formations then. Big Band swing for example exhibited powerful toe-tapping responses. Nearly better still was grande orchestral. Here the A-0355 proved fully in its element. Wagnerian deities entered Valhalla cloaked in thunder and lightning which would have you pale. So I reached deeper into the CD rack where the more rarely listened-to classic recordings live. My first effort netted Beethoven's Ninth - Karajan and Berlin. Serious stuff but good for a ride. And surprised I was. The A-9355 really has a penchant for such fare. Besides stable imaging leaning more towards breadth than depth, the Onkyo handled the sonic proceedings with great conviction. This bolstered a personal theory -- die-hard classic lovers might demur -- that classics rely more on dynamics than detail, that too much detail can in fact undermine the illusion. Take a small painting which you'll step up to closely to inspect its details without losing sight of the whole. Large paintings meanwhile don't warrant standing too close to. Only proper distance reveals their true impact. And so it is with music for me: Detail is important with small ensembles, grander groupings require context over the minutiae.

The Onkyo thus had me rediscover my classic CDs. After an extended Saturday breakfast, sun streaming into the living room and a glass of Prosecco setting the mood, I dedicated myself happily to classical music. At the conclusion of these comparisons, I moved to my PC system where the hard disk is fed to JBL's Control One. Here the NAD's focus on detail was lost on the budget speakers and its rounder voicing defaulted into undue thickesse to favor the Onkyo whose slimmer voicing and dynamic prowess fit this constellation for satisfaction with all manner of music.

Wrap Up
Both NAD and Onkyo prove how entry-level needn't mean water and bread though each integrated amp pursues its very own take technically, sonically and in cosmetics. Even in this class it pays to carefully match speakers and amps.

The NAD C 315BEE ...

  • appeals to Jazz and Pop listeners.
  • plays with power and detail.
  • is somewhat soft on top.
  • has sufficient reserves to render the occasional crash.
  • takes its time delving into minutiae but isn't the fastest.
  • is a very nicely conceived amp for people who value understatement.

The Onkyo A-9355 ...

  • invites lovers of classical music.
  • is highly dynamic.
  • is tonally ultra neutral.
  • isn't overtly addicted to detail.
  • comes with MM phono.


  • Class A/B integrated
  • Dimensions: 435 × 80 × 292mm
  • Trim: Graphite and Titanium
  • Weight: 5,25kg
  • RMS power: 2 x 40-watt (into 8 und 4 Ohm)
  • Other: frontal 3.5mm input
  • Distribution: Dealer network
  • NAD website

The Onkyo A-9355

  • Class D integrated
  • Dimensions: 435 × 124 × 344mm
  • Trim: Silver and black
  • Weight: 7,3kg
  • RMS power: 2 × 70W (4 Ohm)
  • Other: MM phono stage
  • Distribution: Dealer network
  • Onkyo website
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