As a general rule integrated audio systems offer versatility and affordability at the expense of overall ability; performance hounds will always advise taking the separates route if absolute fidelity is a priority. But, as with all rules, there are exceptions and some experiments in integration have come close to emulating separates performance from a single system - previously there was the Linn Classik and more recently Arcam's Solo. The L53 from NAD combines a DVD/CD player with a tuner and stereo amplifier.
As NAD's 'Music First' mission statement dictates, the L53 is primarily a CD player that focuses attention on 2-channel sound performance while allowing you to play DVDs and enjoy 'some' of the spatial sound effects of home cinema. If space or your budget is limited then the L53 is an affordable alternative that claims few compromises in design, operation and performance.
The compact unit is well built and features a solid front panel in titanium - a welcome departure from NAD's usual gun-metal grey - with retro, elliptical controls and display. Internally, high current power supplies have been used with discrete transistor output stages and coordinated components with the hope of minimising distortion and producing crisp power delivery.
An intrinsic virtue of housing all components in a single system is that fewer connections reduce signal degradation and other electronic noise. All audio processing is conducted on a PCB board mounted directly over the transport .
Essentially, the L53 is a stereo player/receiver offering a modest 50W of power for each of its two channels. But, while the system will play CDs including -R/RW recordable formats and discs encoded with MP3, WMA and JPEG files it is also equipped to play DVD films. But, with only two channels to play with, NAD has opted to use SRS (Sound Retrieval technology) 3D sound to help recreate the ambience of film soundtracks.
SRS supposedly retrieves spatial information lost during recording and playback to create the illusion of surround sound by broadening the sound stage and enhancing ambient effects - it's not Virtual Dolby, but it can still make a neat second system solution.
Although the system doesn't locate a specific 'sweet spot', SRS works best when speakers are placed around 2.5m apart and at least 2m from your listening position. You can also experience spatial effects when listening via headphones.
Although a single box system there's enough spare inputs to support several other components, including a VCR and set-top receiver. Component outputs are equipped to enable both PAL and NTSC progressive scan output; other connections include a single RGB Scart and basic AV outputs. On the audio side, digital connections include an optical in/output as well as an electrical input and a subwoofer output. Naturally enough, all input jacks have been gold plated to improve signal integrity and long-term reliability.
Installation is predictably simple. The only connections necessary are to a pair of speakers and your screen leaving you ready to plug and play within a matter of minutes. DVD settings are displayed on screen using well-presented graphics that are easily navigated via a learning remote, which can be organised to operate your entire system with only a couple of keystrokes. Audio settings are displayed on the front panel and as well as activating SRS there's also tone controls for bass and treble, and right and left channel adjustments.
Listen to the music
As the L53 has been chiefly designed as a hi-fi component, it seems fitting that the system should be primarily judged on its stereo sound performance. As a source for 2-channel music, I'd rate the L53 as comparable to an inexpensive dedicated CD player, and far more musically minded than the average all-in-one DVD system.
CDs are crisply delivered with impeccable rhythmic timing supported by a warm tonal balance which lends itself to all types of musical genres; there's enough solid bass extension to enliven rock or hip-hop tracks while providing detail and open midrange that augments the acoustic refinement of ambient tracks. Power amplification is the only compromise but while the L53 may not be authoritative it is adequate, especially for the sized space it's intended to be used in.
For film listening from two speakers, activating the SRS mode widens the soundstage to create the illusion of surround sound - off screen sounds actually sound off screen. The midrange lifts leaving dialogue more pronounced. This suits ambient films like the Brit-flick Closer but becomes confused with big effects blockbusters like Blade Trinity.
While SRS's audio trickery does create a sense of surround it never quite sounds like a full set of speakers. And steer clear of SRS for music listening as it enhances bass and treble to unnatural, if not annoying levels.
Picture performance doesn't scale the same heights but is still competent, if not class leading. Colours are evenly balanced and natural but lack the richness required to realise the full spectrum of special effects. Deep blacks create a sense of dynamics, definition is lost in dark scenes. Picture noise and other disturbances, especially ones associated with movement, are kept to a minimum and only rear their heads in the backgrounds of complex scenes.
The concept of an all-in-one system may run contrary to existing notions of aspirational AV performance but the L53 does a fine job of bridging the performance gap between separates and single box solutions. The SRS Surround effect brings a sense of involvement to DVD playback without the need for additional cables or the precise sweet spot you find with Virtual Dolby.
If you're in the market for a second system, or just lack the space for a conventional kit stack, this nifty NAD has considerable appeal. Richard Arrowsmith