NAD is a company with a long-standing history (50 years, in fact) of making great products. The NAD C 538 (buy at Amazon) is a great example of what the company does so well, as it’s a straightforward entry-level Compact Disc player that does exactly what you would expect of it at a very reasonable price of just $399. It supports CD-Rs, CD-RWs, and discs with MP3 and WMA files on them, but the key here is that they have to be on an actual, physical disc. NAD is using a Wolfson 24-bit/192KHz DAC chip to send the signal out to your stereo preamp or integrated amp, but it also has digital outputs if you would prefer to use this CD player as more of a CD transport.
What Makes the NAD C 538 Compact Disc Player Special?
- The NAD C 538 is a well-built piece of audiophile-grade hardware. NAD built this Compact Disc player out of high-grade materials that can withstand the vibration of the spinning discs and should work just as well 10 years from now as it does today.
- The Wolfson DAC has an accurate sound and excellent specs. The key to buying CD players is all about finding one with a DAC that you like, and I definitely like this one. In my listening, I found that NAD C538 to be tonally accurate. Live music had that live-feel to it, which isn’t always the case on lesser players, which can sound a little thin and non-involved.
Why Should You Care About the NAD C 538 Compact Disc Player?
If you’re someone who is into (or looking to get into) physical media, then Compact Discs are a great option, as they come at a much more reasonable price as compared with vinyl, especially these days. The NAD C 538 does an exceptional job of playing traditional, Red Book Compact Discs. If you’re someone that still burns CD-Rs or CD-RWs, then this player can help you out there as well. I’m not sure many people will be ripping music to a recordable disc these days, but I’m sure there are still some of you out there who would prefer to have their music on a disc than on a hard drive. This is an affordable way to get into that game with surprisingly good sound at a pretty damn fair price.
Some Things You Might Not Like About the NAD C 538 CD Player
- The C 538 has no support for SACD or DVD-Audio. To many who are new to the silver disc, you might not be aware of or interested in these legacy audiophile formats, but if you’re someone who has been collecting discs for years, you might be looking something that supports these higher-resolution formats, and this player simply isn’t it.
- There is no USB Support. This is an item that NAD has curiously left out of their CD players. If you’re someone like me who has their CD collections also ripped to a hard drive, it would be nice to have support for this connectivity. Especially as the product does support reading CD-R discs, so it already has the capacity to read different folders.
- I had an odd issue with this CD player in that when I turned on my Anthem STR preamp, about 40 percent of the time the NAD C 538 CD player would also turn on and it would oddly open the disc tray. This would be fantastic if I had wired a trigger cable to it, but it doesn’t support that feature. I don’t expect this is an issue most people will run into, but it is worth noting.
Listening to the NAD C 538 Compact Disc Player…
Coming off the legendary second album Electric Ladyland (buy at Amazon) (Compact Disc, of course), The Jimi Hendrix Experience track “Crosstown Traffic” is likely the closest Jimi got to a pop track at this stage of his career. Hendrix used a lot of pedal effects on his guitar to allow the sound to carry during the chorus, as it has fairly minimal playing at that point, but also he also manages to make his guitar sound more like a kazoo that a guitar through most of the track and the NAD C 538 keeps that sound from being too sweet as the song trucks along.
This track “Sober” (Compact Disc), from Tool’s first full-length album Undertow (buy at Amazon), is the one that really put this band on the map for most people. You really start to get a sense of drummer Danny Carey’s precision and command of the percussion and rhythm on this track, and the NAD C 538 is able to allow you to hear all of his fills and his lauded high-hat work very clearly throughout. The guitar track is very muddied, as there is a lot of purposeful distortion and reverb, but the bass line is driving throughout this track. Additionally, the vocals of Maynard James Keenan are clear and clean and never feel like they are being pushed too far forward.
“Blue Sky” from the Allman Brothers Band’s album Eat a Peach (Compact Disc) (buy at Amazon) was the last hurrah of the band in its original form, as their legendary slide guitar player Duane Allman passed away after a motorcycle accident while they were recording this album. Part of this album was recorded live with Duane and part of the album as recorded without him. This track is a bit on the longer side, but seeing how the Allman Brothers Band is a jam band, especially at this stage of their career, a little over five minutes shouldn’t surprise anyone. This track uses a lot of acoustic guitars, and while it’s a prominent part of the track, it never sounds too bright, and at the same time the NAD C 538 is able to present each instrument clearly, allowing you to really pick up all of Duane Allman’s slide work as well as Dickey Betts’ picking.
Does the NAD C 538 Compact Disc Player Have Any Resale Value?
With Compact Discs still making up a large portion of physical music sales, you should expect a quality audiophile component like the NAD C 538 to hold most of its value for years to come. From what I can see, it looks like you are still seeing these players sell for about two-thirds of their retail price used, which isn’t bad if you make the purchase but realize you would still rather stream your music or you would like a player that can play more formats.
Who Is the Competition for the NAD C538 Audiophile Compact Disc Player?
As for much of the competition in this price range, the difference between them is more about the DAC than a major difference in features or format compatibilities. The one distinct difference I see in the Denon’s DCD-600NE ($429) (buy at Amazon), though, is that it offers a 32-bit DAC instead of the 24-bit you see in most of the competition. That upsampling is a matter of debate for some in the uber-high-end audiophile community. At this level, my instinct is that it is nothing but a good thing sonically.
As an audiophile CD transport (no DAC included), the Audiolab 6000CDT ($600) (buy at Amazon) is an interesting price point. Today, many CD transports come priced at over $1,000, allowing the unit to focus simply on reading the silver disc which is optimal, especially if you already have an DAC you like, be it standalone or built into your integrated amp, receiver, or preamp.
Paul Wilson reviewed the Rotel CD11 Tribute ($549) (buy at Crutchfield) and didn’t find any really issues with it and enjoyed the sound. It has a similar price and feature set, so it really comes down to DAC preference as to which one you’re likely to prefer.
The value of the Sony BDP-S6700 ($119) (buy at Crutchfield), meanwhile, is practically unmatched. If you’re someone who has SACDs in their collection and you’re not looking to pay a whole lot to play CDs, then this might be the right player for you. You also get HDMI out for Blu-ray playback.
Final Thoughts on the NAD C 538 Compact Disc Player
Most CD players that are in this price range comes with their flaws, and the NAD C 538 (buy at Amazon) is no different. I wish that it had a USB connection, so I could use an external drive on which my ripped CDs are stored, or that it could play SACDs and DVD-Audio. But it can’t, and to be fair to NAD, outside of Sony’s Blu-ray and 4K Blu-ray players, no one is including these features at this price point either.
With that said, if you enjoy listening to compact discs, this player does a fantastic job of it. The build quality of the C 538 is fantastic. Outside of the disc tray opening, you never hear it running. In the time I spent listing to Compact Discs on it, I really enjoyed the crisp but neutral sound that it reproduced. I certainly recommend it to anyone who is looking for a Compact Disc player, and if you understand exactly what the player is and isn’t designed to do, you are unlikely to be disappointed.
With any CD player that you’re likely to keep for a long time, I would quiz the manufacturer regarding the source for the drive mechanism and how long they intend keeping spares.