Review: NAD C-541 CD Player

Category: Digital

My taste in listening runs the gamut of musical genres, with the exception of opera, country or pop. Primarily, I listen to small combo jazz, world/ethnic, and classical, with a strong preference for primarily acoustical instrumentation. No turntable or vinyl; I like that separation of instruments so central to CDs!

Having played in bands, my primary requirement in reproduction relates to the realism in imaging and soundstage. It drives me crazy to hear a drum as a "thump" or a bass as a "pluck" or a sax as a "bleat", when I know the sound is rich and varied, even over less than a second. Volume is not an issue for me, but clarity is critical. My pet peeve in digital is when the HF of brushes or cymbals sounds like radio static or water spraying.

I purchased the NAD C541i (improved version) within the past month with some trepidation. Auditions were clearly a winner in showrooms and the reviews were outstanding for this price range, but I had my doubts. It replaced an old TEAC changer, that had done well in my system, and I was additionally uncertain I could convert to single disc mode after having the choice to skip around 5 discs and upwards of 100 tracks. As it turns out, I had not reason to fear the change.

The sound is so well matched to my NAD amp that I am astounded. The detail, imaging, etc. are all strongly enhanced. Beyond the cliched, "I heard things I never heard before", I liked them all better! To my sensitive ears, the improvement in representation of each instrument and of multiple instruments simultaneously is wonderful. The full spectrum of sound seems very well represented; it handles rapid sound changes with applomb. No artifacts that I can detect of any note.

It's clean, clear, realistic for my purposes. In fact, I'm rediscovering my whole CD collection and finding some that I thought were so-so are actually musically rich and far more interesting than I remembered. They don't rate NADs as "musical" for nothing! Here's the clincher: I have to put down the book I'm reading (my usual listening habit is to read too) so often, simply because the music is so beautiful or sublime that it commands my attention foremost. No kidding!

Oh, and that single vs. multi-disc issue? Forget it! I enjoy so much more of every CD that I don't feel the need to skip around anymore. What I do feel the need to do is buy ever better recorded versions of the music I love, at whatever the price, because the NAD can pull more delicious detail out of the CDs than I ever thought I could afford.

The only weakness (and I still suspect that it's a matter of recording engineering as opposed to reproduction) is that large, massed orchestral sound isn't quite as detailed as I would like to satisfy my penchant for realism. Having heard the same CDs on systems costing tens of thousands of dollars, however, the level of improvement isn't so great over this little NAD that I would pay that much readily if I had it to spend.

The C541i does the job of CDPs "more than twice their price" according to all the reviewers; my vote is for several times their price!

Associated gear
NAD C740 receiver/amp
Energy XL15 bookshelf speakers
Very good review! I have a similar system: an NAD C521i player with their 3400 integrated amp, and I've since abandoned multi-disc players for the same reasons as you. Despite having owned more expensive gear (Acurus, Meridian, etc.) I find this to be the most highly resolved system I've ever had.

The only part of your review I'm not sure I understand is this: "No turntable or vinyl; I like that separation of instruments so central to CDs!" Do you mean CHANNEL seperation? If so, I can tell you I've owned many budget cartridges (Denon DL-160, AT OC7, others) that had near-CD quality channel seperation. But if you mean resolution and definition of individual instruments, I have to disagree. I own a large collection (600+) of jazz and classical LPs, a few of which I also own on CD, and almost without fail the LPs kill the CDs in every respect except deep bass extension. That's probably due to my budget-priced rig (Rega P2, P3 platter, None Felt mat, Ortofon X1-MC.) can buy mint used classical LPs for $1 apiece at record fairs! If you're a rabid collector like me, a cheap TT almost pays for itself!

I'd highly recommend you consider an NAD PP-1 phono stage, NAD 533 turntable and maybe a cheap record cleaning machine and give vinyl another whirl. It's not the most convenient medium, granted, and it's not as technically 'perfect' as CD sound, but there's a lot more musical truth to be had with analog than with any digital medium -- including SACD and DVD-A -- and I speak from experience.

Thanks again for the helped cement my decision to go with the NAD player! I guess I should post a review soon.
I have had the NAD C541i for a few years now and generally agree with your assessment. I have also seen the CDP sound described as being a bit gray at times. For me it was polite, seemingly detailed, but really excelled with a HDCD disk. It was gray at times, as well, playing CDs. I Just flipped them off and turned to Lp.

I saw a few mods being talked about on different sites and decided to change some caps and the opamps.


My mods:

Damping the chassis and transport seemed to change the noise floor and focus dramatically. The Blackgates really added some oomph and clarity - nice sweet topend. The opamps really added a high level of transparency. The output caps turned on the presence, the several steps forward presentation and incredible presence, I mean WOW. There is more controlled bass than I should be allowed to have. The mods have improved the stock CDP without a doubt. I have been very very pleased with the CDP but when switching to Lp I still see how small (and congested even with the mods!) the presentation is in comparison to my SL-1200 /w Wood SS re-tipped DL103 going through a modded Cambridge 640p.

If I play CDs starting out I can play them for a serious duration. After about an hour of warm up the whole presentation improves and it is very palpable. ..but there is still the edge or hash that is still present which can be seen when switching over to Lp. I was thinking about upgrading the clock in the 541 but saw an 8x TDA1543 NOS DAC for sale from VALAB. This thing is so over built for less than $200 and said to approach the vinyl experience much closer that I went for it. I will see what is up when it arrives next week. (I know I improved the 541 as a transport by just damping the hell out of it that I will keep it as such using the coax output.)

I thought to add comments to your review since the CDP is probably much cheaper on the used market by now and the mods are not that expensive if done DIY. The improvement is very satisfying. If my NOS DAC does not cut the mustard or ever fails I will happily [but with chagrin, I suppose] go back to the modded analog outputs on the C541i.

In the time I have had it I have not had any service problems with it. The board is rugged enough to take some modding by an amateur and withstand the torture. It has read every Disk and CDR I have given it. It will fail on damaged CDPs, obviously, and intermittently I have had to recycle the machine to get it to read a certain couple of CDR's but it succeeds after the restart.

If you buy it just to play HDCD and forget the mods then it is still worth it. The way it presents HDCD is amazing. That distinction is met better by 'normal' CDs after the mods but HDCD still is it's raison d'etre.

I hear that NOS DACs beat the HDCD so here is hoping.