NAD L53 DVD Receiver
More is more (usually) when it comes to hi-fi (except when it doesn't). At the very least, any self-respecting much less music loving audiophile these days requires:
1. A CD Player
2. A Tuner (optional for some, but not for me)
3. Pre and power amps, or at least a quality integrated
4. A decent pair of speakers that don't have the word 'satellite' in their name
5. Cables to go between sources, between stages of amplification, and another pair, or even quartet of cables to your speakers. (I am currently having good luck with solid core cooker-cable from Home Depot)
6. An overpriced disc of a jazz singer singing tired standards so that you can show off your hi-fi to your audiophile friends and feel better about all the time, money and sweat you have spent on putting together your 'system.'
You can, of course, add to this list to your heart's content. Indeed, for many, it is a mark of religious faith that the more boxes the better. A decent vinyl rig would probably double the above list. And if the audiophile should, on occasion, like to watch a movie, you would of course have to add a DVD player, a fancy television and many more speakers, channels of amplification and, wait for it, more expensive snake-oiled cables.
But what if all this (minus speakers, TV and that source of all things round and fun, a turntable) were combined into a single silvery box that demanded few sonic compromises could be had for less than $600? Well, NAD has done it in the form of NAD's new DVD-Receiver, the wonderfully named L53. (How NAD comes upon these catchy names remains a mystery.)
There's nothing particularly new about placing everything in a single box. NAD did have a great deal of success with the '53s CD-only playing predecessor, the memorably named L40. And, of course, one-box players have been with us since the dawn of the spring-operated acoustic gramophone. Indeed, my little guys use one of these no-ode players almost every day. (My son prefers to use cactus needles. He says it gives a more organic sound. Apologies to ST).
And at the supermarket, for a measly hundred loonies (that's Canadian for what the British call 'readies'), I recently bought a 15-inch flat tubed television that included a built-in PAL and NTSC compliant DVD player which has coaxial digital output for 5.1 as well as analogue stereo output jacks and a spare input for a VCR. It also plays VCDs, DVDrs of the plus and minus variety, mp3s, displays jpgs and who the heck knows what else.
How is it? Not too bad for a hundred dollars Canadian actually, particularly if you factor in that, with the current exchange rate, it cost less than an American C note. (Things could be different next month). But what this TV that also plays DVDs and CDs is not is hi-fi.
My Desert Island
In any event, I am happy to watch the news on this TV, just as I am happy to listen to BBC World Service on my pocket shortwave, but should I end up on a desert island with reliable mains power, I would want to take along something quite a bit better. And if hand luggage was all I was allowed for electronics, I would be very happy to pack NAD's L53 under my arm. (Of course, I would also need a couple of steamer trunks for my beloved Tannoys and, while I am playing the imagining game, a huge high definition TV, but if you are playing the imaginary desert island game, you might as well make it a good one. Did I mention the mermaids that cavort in the local lagoon?)
But, of course, I also love to play with hi-fi, to disconnect and reconnect various components in various configurations for the sheer fun of it. I swap tubes. Pump up isolation platforms and generally make myself a nuisance to those who could not give a toss for all the boxes, cables and valves and whatnot of hi-fi, but do enjoy music and movies. But if I had to give all the playing up, or wanted a second fuss-free system that both myself and my family could enjoy, it would be NAD's new 2 channel L53 DVD-Receiver. It's that good.
Army Intelligence? Conventional Hi Fi Wisdom?
Conventional audiophile wisdom now there is an oxymoron would have you believe that one box cannot work as well as a stack of boxes and cables. How could all the parts be good? How could all the parts fit in the same box? How could all the parts be stopped from stepping on each other's toes? How could they all share the same power cord and not fight it out for the biggest drink of the AC spout? How could the designers and bean counters not take fiscal advantage of a one-box solution that would result in seriously audible compromises?
It must surely have been tempting for designer, bean counter, and candlestick maker to cut costs. But in the case of the L53, through excellent PCB layout for example, all the digital audio and video decoding is conducted on a PCB board mounted directly on the transport, this basically eliminating much of the jitter, crosstalk and general muckiness that would arise through routing it through cable throughout the box and a stubborn expat designer with a penchant for bitter who refused to brook compromise even at this price point, few, if any, short cuts would seem to have been made. In any event, I could not hear them.
Now this is not to say that I am going to throw everything away just because I like the L53 so much. Or that the L53 would blow a $20,000 transport-DAC-pre-poweramp out of the water. Tinkering and playing around with Hi Fi, however, is too much a part of the Ecumenical Audiophile's raison d'etre, but if I had to, I could happily live with and enjoy the '53 for years to come. What's more, my marriage might even be the better for it.
And no, I am not high on solder fumes.
Some Specs And Specmanship
The tuner, which I was delighted to discover was clearly not an afterthought, has a frequency response of between 30Hz and 15kHz on FM. In mono, it professes a signal to noise ratio of 69dB (64dB in stereo) with 40 db of separation at 1 kHz and less than a fifth of a percent of distortion in mono. There are 30 presets if only there were 30 stations worth presetting and includes RDS. The AM section, while tested, was not used much but seemed fine.
The built in CD/progressive DVD player is auto-sensing for Redbook CD, PAL and NTSC and does not appear particularly fussy about home made compilations or family videos transferred onto recordable DVDs. Frequency response on DVD and CD is quoted as running from 4Hz to 20kHz. Though it will display JPGs and play MP3s, it does not play SACD or DVD-Audio, though will play the included the PCM, AC3 and DTS tracks. MPEG duty is conducted by the well-regarded ESS Vibrato 2 chip set, with a 54MHz 10-bit video DAC. Audio is taken care of by Cirrus Logic's CS4391 DAC, which offers a theoretical 108dB dynamic range and plays however-many-bits-are-on-the-disc at whatever-sample-rate-they-are recorded-at, up to 24 bits at 192kHz.
And even though the '53 is a one-box solution less speakers, you can happily add as many boxes as you like since it supports a decent enough compliment of spare inputs and outputs, including a VCR tape loop and input for a satellite receiver. Next to a decent single pair of speaker terminals (how things have improved from my 3020b with its push-clip terminals), the '53 sports composite and component outputs, and coaxial and optical digital outs. The European edition also includes a very versatile SCART jack.
On the input side, there is coaxial and optical, 3 pairs of stereo, composite and S-video ins, including a convenient front-mounted stereo and composite and S-video input for use with a camcorder, video game or, dare I say it, an IPOD. There is NAD's usual IR link, FM and AM antenna terminals (included are starter aerials which picked up all the locals even from the basement) and a switched 120 volt power plug into which I plugged our multi-format VCR so that we might watch the BBC's vintage 'Andy Pandy.' Sad to say, I did not try the component out as I did not have a new enough TV on hand. I can only imagine they would do a better job than the single composite video connection I did use.
Installation was a breeze. In fact, I spent more time dismantling the system that was in place than I did hooking up the '53. After I had positioned the L53 upon my old rear-projection television and connected up the speakers, at my feet lay a three foot pile of components, cables and even a power-bar. (With TV, VCR and '53, a single dual plug wall socket will do you.) An RCA cable to the sub-woofer, another to the TV and some Monster Cable to a pair of mid nineties Mirage M5s was all it took to connect everything!
The L53 has a comprehensive on-screen menu system that can be used to tailor the machine just the way you want it, but I just dove right in and put in a DVD. Just for fun, I did not set the clock. Sadly, the days of the blinking 12:00 are not gone.
NAD is not built like it used to be and that's a good thing. My first audio article was the aforementioned second hand 3020b. There were some great things about the 3020, but build quality was not one of them. From the plasticky volume control, the push-buttons that would occasionally fly off (seriously) the 3020b did not exactly exude quality. What it did, however, was sound nice and to this day I still like the phono-stage. Moreover, with its output wattage indicator, it gave the lie to just how much power you needed to drive speakers to reasonable levels. I still have that amp today and though my ears may have developed more expensive tastes, you always maintain a special feeling for your first.
The L53, while not quite built like a Soviet T72, is not built like a Lada. What is even better is that it doesn't look like either. Instead, the '53 exudes quality and style in a way that NAD never did before except for the seriously underappreciated Silverline series. And even in regard to the much costlier Silverline, the '53 still has more style.
With a neutral finish known as 'titanium,' the buttons on the front panel have a good, solid feel. The unit comes with a comprehensive, illuminated learning remote. The styling is a sort of a cross between NAD's high-end Silverline and their more usual fare. And while the NAD heritage is there, the look and feel is very much of this decade. For this, we must thank Gary Merrington (formerly of NAD) of Merrington Design in the UK.
So, as you can see, while NAD's headquarters are now in Canada, the firm is very much an international company with its design feet straddling the UK and Canada and production in the Far East. Nevertheless, NAD's demeanor, I would say, is still very British and this bit of NAD still seems very much in the British tradition of 'adequate power,' minimalist controls and a view to English domestic living arrangements. No, it does not make tea. But if it did, the milk would go in after.
How does the L53 sound? Bloody great! How does the picture look? As good as I have seen on my old rear-projection TV. In fact, even the VHS looked better through the '53 than directly connected to the TV and why this should be the case I do not know.
And yes, I also gave the CD player and tuner a fair workout. CD sounded just fine. Upfront and solid. Warts and all with the warts not overly obscuring the all. Audiophile discs of lame songstresses sounded like audiophile discs of lame songstresses and Billie Holiday sounded simply wonderful. Clapton's latest CD and DVD sounded like the impeccably recorded and played corporate rock it is today. A slight fly in the ointment is that the transport is mildly audible and sometimes a little slow-this I understand to be a feature of basing the drive on PC IDE technology, the advantage of which it insulates NAD from the short marketing life spans of many drive mechanism manufacturers.
On FM, I listened to everything from Danny Mark's Blues FM on CJRT to Opera at the Met on WNED in Buffalo, CBC and Radio Canada in Toronto. On every occasion, the L53 delivered just what was there. I could hear the artifacts of the well-loved vinyl being played on CJRT's Sunday Night Big Band Show with Glen Woodcock, the overt electronic processing on Toronto's classic rock station on Q107, and a certain je ne sais quois superiority of Opera at the Met on French Radio Canada over the English CBC transmission.
As for the 2 channels of 50 watt amplification that brought the music to the speakers, there's watts and there's watts and at no time did I have the volume turned up high enough on these relatively inefficient speakers to feel that the '53 was running out of steam. Bentley used to specify the output of their engines (probably because they varied from example to example) as 'more than adequate.' That seems fair for the L53. I have heard 100 specified watts sound much less powerful on the same speakers.
Who would I recommend the '53 to and what would I recommend the '53 be used with? I would unhesitatingly recommend the L53 for audiophiles in want of a second system for a bedroom, office, second home (should you be so lucky) or living room. And I would unhesitatingly recommend the '53 to a music and movie-loving friend who has no interest in the hardware of audio reproduction but still appreciates good sound (and value). In regards to partnering equipment, the '53 can easily hold its own with speakers and display devices worth multiples more without letting down the side.
In the accompanying bumph that NAD sent me, NAD suggests that for under a kilobuck, with the '53 selling for $599, you could have a great two-channel system. You certainly could, but were you to spend 4 or 5 times more on speakers and hook up the '53 to a $5000 plasma, the '53 would not be caught with its pants down. Of course you can spend a lot more, but in terms of value, NAD, quite simply, has knocked one out of the value ballpark with the L53.
Type: DVD/CD stereo receiver
Amplification: two channels, 50 watts per channel
THD: <0.08%, both channels driven into 8 Ohms
Formats: Plays DVD-V, VCD, SVCD, CD, CD-R, CD-RW, MP-3, J-PEG, WMA
Video: Progressive scan with component output, composite, and S-Video. Dual standard (PAL/NTSC) and OSD follows input for DVD
Inputs: two A/V inputs, S-Video and composite for adding additional sources such as Satellite TV. Two digital inputs (coax and optical)
Output: optical digital (TOSlink), gold plated RCA and loudspeaker binding posts. Subwoofer line level output with level adjustment.
Tuner: FM/AM tuner with RDS (RS, PT) and 30 station presets
Remote: NAD HTR-L53 eight device illuminated learning with macro function
NAD Electronics International