M3 Integrated Amplifier: US $2799
These recent top-of-the-line NAD components come with the claim to “the highest absolute performance ever offered by NAD in its 33-year history”. “Conceived as complete systems, there is a new synergy of performance and luxury with these sleek components.”
There is no question that they do look quite classic (more so than the previous Classic series they replace), and somewhat permanent, in a rather bank-like manner. Here’s how the elaborate brochure goes on to describe their build quality: “Mechanical construction is to a very high standard to assure a lifetime of trouble free use. With 2mm thick steel panels, combined with extruded aluminum and die cast zinc parts, the chassis forms an incredibly solid foundation to reduce air and structure born [sic] vibration from reaching any sensitive electronic components within. Specialized vibration damping feet employ silicon rubber to further isolate the chassis from vibration.”
Internal construction and components are also characterized in this general fashion: “Glass epoxy circuit boards with thick OFC copper traces and extensive ground planes assure uniformly low impedance operating conditions for all circuits. Very high current circuits make liberal use of copper buss bars to assure maximum performance. Selected discrete devices from the world’s top electronic component manufacturers are used in high power stages while SMD (surface mount devices) and LSI’s (large scale integrated circuits) are used on multi-layer PCBs to achieve state-of-the-art performance in low level and digital stages.”
Over a period of several months, Aaron and I have been auditioning this universal player/integrated amplifier pair, so while I’m writing the review, I’ll make considerable use of his extensive listening notes. He replaced his high end Musical Fidelity system with these NAD Masters during this time. Of course, his experience was a pure 2-channel audio one, while mine expands to the multichannel audio and home theatre applications of the M55.
Let’s describe that component first. The M55 will play DVD-A and -V, SACD in multichannel, and all recordable DVD and CD formats. It handles HDCD, MP3, and WMA encoded discs as well, all through 24-bit/192-kHz DACs for all channels. “Separate signal paths for the DVD and SACD audio maintain the highest possible levels of DVD, CD and SACD quality.” No mention is made of DTS in the 3-page brochure devoted to the Masters Series M55. Though upsampling is not discussed either, “High speed FET [analog] output devices keep all the detail present in high resolution SACD and DVD-Audio formats, perfectly intact.”
Digital bass management works in all surround formats, and speaker configurations can be varied with the audio formats. 12 and 24 dB low pass filter slopes are possible when setting up the subwoofer crossover points.
On the video side, the M55 provides a “Dual Discrete Video Circuit”, “for the highest possible picture quality via the Component Video Output. An extremely high-speed video D/A converter is a very critical component in generating a superior quality video playback from DVD.” 12-bit 216-MHz video D/As are used, with 4X oversampling for Progressive Scan, and 8x for interlaced signals. “Progressive Scan features the DCDi processor by Faroudja.” “A wealth of picture quality adjustment functions, including Contrast, Brightness, Hue, Sharpness, Black Level and Gamma, can all be adjusted using the intuitive On Screen Display.”
This, of course, gives you the opportunity to screw up the picture any way you like. If you think I’m being cynical, just walk through any video dealer’s showrooms to choose your options. If the professionals screw it up so consistently with such colourful variety, so can you! I call it Anti-ISF Calibration, but you might want to see it as “creative colour management”, a sort of Andy Warhol approach to video. Of course, your auto-correcting plasma TV will normalize it, anyway, won’t it?
Sorry…it’s early on a Tuesday morning. I guess what I’m trying to say is that, in this case I’d recommend staying with the factory presets on the player, especially if your display is ISF calibrated…which is something well worth having done if you care about your picture.
Turning to the M3 integrated amplifier, we find this headline on its brochure pages: “Analog Sound, Digital Control“. This involves the use of resistor ladder level, balance, and tone control, in mid-circuit and remotely controlled, so “the signal never has to travel to the front panel for switching, as with traditional amplifier designs”. “Keeping signal paths as short as possible is also greatly aided by the use of SMD (miniature surface mount) components and multi-layer PCBs (circuit boards.”
“Unlike many high performance amplifiers, the M3 includes a full suite of convenience features. Speaker switching for two pairs of speakers and very flexible tone controls are provided, as is a Zone 2 output with its own independent set of commands and dedicated ZR 3 remote control. Front panel controls use a multi-function knob and buttons to quickly navigate all amplifier functions. All operating conditions are clearly displayed on 2 line dot matrix VFD display. Direct access to many functions is available via the SRM 3 remote handset. The SRM 3 handset also features basic controls for the matching NAD DVD/SACD player.”
There, I couldn’t have said it better myself, and I do have to add that the brochure for the Masters Series is a model of clarity. Other features include a “Mode control that allows stereo, left only, right only and mono settings. Tone controls offer bass and treble adjustment, as well as a ’spectral tilt’ option that is highly effective at correcting the the tonal balance of many recordings by simultaneously increasing the bass and decreasing the treble (and vice versa)…” Shades of historic McIntosh and QUAD, respectively, here, and implemented in modern low-distortion circuitry. Neat!
Inputs are marked Disc, CD, Tuner, Input 4, Input 5, and Input 6. with Pre In/Outs with jumpers. There is also a Balanced input, making for lots of sources with the M3, though phono will require an outboard dedicated preamplifier into Disc, I suppose.
Also offered is “Biamp function [which] allows the use of a second amplifier or active subwoofer [on] PreOut 2, and offers a high pass filter function on PreOut 1, with selectable 40Hz, 60Hz, 80Hz, 100Hz or Full Range options. These are analog second order filters configured around the low impedance differential Class A output stage of the preamplifier. This output stage also employs proprietary distortion cancellation circuitry.”
As far as I can tell, the PreOut 2 can also be used for level controlled record out, but there is also line-level record out. By the way, the digital control and display circuits have their own isolated power supplies, as do the 2 channels, the M3 being dual mono in both preamp and amp functions. It is, to say the least, a very well thought out and executed piece of electronic design.
The amplifier section also deserves some description: “NAD’s PowerDrive technology measures load impedance continuously on each channel and adjusts the power supply voltage for maximum undistorted dynamic power into the connected speaker at all times and under all operating conditions. The signal processor also continuously measures temperature and average long term power and, based on this information, chooses the optimum voltage.”
“PowerDrive allows the M3 to sound far more powerful than its already impressive 180 watt per channel rating would suggest.” “The M3 utilizes a wideband current-mode Class A voltage amp featuring large open loop compensated bandwidth, and running from low noise stabilized power supplies.” “By utilizing small amounts of feedback the circuit returns distortion levels at all audible frequencies that are at limit of measurement - less than 0.002%!”
“The super rugged output stage features 4 pairs of 150W discrete bipolar output transistors per channel, for 50A[mp] peak undistorted output current. Massive heat sinking assures a lifetime of trouble free operation.”
Aaron spent quite a lot of time putting this amp through its paces, and most of my listening to it was done at his house in Toronto, so I’ll concentrate my energies on the video and surround SACD performance of the M55 in my King City system through our Sunfire Theatre Grand II’s direct 5-channel inputs and the Cinema Grand Signature amplifier. Then we’ll combine our comments on the sound character of the M3 integrated stereo amplifier.
My first act with the M55 was to insert into its drawer my Video Essentials DVD. The picture of video excellence emerged quickly (and quite literally). I saw very nice blacker-than-black capability, with excellent contrast and grey-scale performance, with very precise gradation from black to light grey. Next, the tests of anamorphic and 4:3 screen geometry were perfect, with straight lines and square squares to the corners on our 64″ ISF-calibrated Pioneer Elite 710HD, with perfect circles in the middle.
The resolution charts showed performance very close to the DVD limits, and colour that was noise-free and extremely accurate in hue. It was also unusually free of video noise, very pure in all of the various primary and derived colour tests.
In the motion charts, I did see some twinklies in the Snell & Wilcox bouncing ball display, but no other motion artifacts except for just the slightest bit of judder in vertical and diagonal low pans. In general, the M55 picture is very natural and film-like, not over-saturated, the excellent grey-scale performance leading to very subtle colour gradations in real-world viewing.
In sum, this is one of the best DVD players in my experience, very close in its video excellence to our reference Pioneer Elite DV-AX10, which sold for around $8000 in its day, and remains our benchmark against all other DVD players for video quality.
Used as an SACD player, in particular as a multichannel SACD player, the M55 is no slouch, either. I sampled all of my current demo discs on it, starting with James Taylor’s SACD-only Sony release of Hourglass (Columbia CS 67912). Line ‘Em Up, and Little More Time With You had their relatively subtle surround clearly heard, with such effects as the chorus of the former song as it progresses moving to rear, and the startling surround drumbeats opening the latter tune offering a wake-up to the lulled listener.
Dark Side of the Moon (Capitol CDP 7243 4 82136 2) revealed its whispered secrets from all around, as well as its largely 4-channel glory from the original Alan Parsons mix, while Kind of Blue (Columbia/Legacy 64935), and Time Out (Columbia/Legacy CS 65122) restored to their original 3-channel Columbia analog mastering, showed nuances of solo and drumwork long lost in the stereo mixes on over 30 years of vinyl (and especially) CD versions. There’s just the right amount of the 30th Street Studio ambience at rear here. And the soundfields between left and centre and right and centre, provide a totally new level of spatial realism and musical detail.
A new recording I recommend highly, LAGQ Brazil, by the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet on Telarc (SACD-60686), was a revelation of surround syncopation, with flutes (pan and other) and voices at centre front. It’s a very exciting series of virtuoso performances of Brazilian music in riveting surround sound. I’m quite amazed at how much of the extraordinary guitar work can be clearly heard when each guitarist has his own corner of the room, albeit a small room with a very intimate feel. Again, like the classic Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck jazz reissues, a level of realism and involvement, which cannot be found in 2-channel reproduction, is heard.
I could go on, but the point is that the NAD Masters Series M55 universal player is about as good as it gets for both video and audio, and as an aside, its CD reproduction is also exemplary. I could find no ways to fault its performance in either area. To these observations I’ll add Aaron’s in 2-channel SACD listening from his notes: “Makes a CD sound like an MP3. Too bad Sony/Philips didn’t get it ‘perfect’ back in 83″.
“More importantly, for someone like me, anyway, is that the M3 combo sounds excellent on CDs and LPs: rock solid imaging (especially with a little tweak from the excellent and very finely adjustable Balance control), superb resolution, great bass definition and slam, more than enough power, big, blooming outside-the-speakers soundstaging, sweet unfatiguing treble, and clean, open sounding mids…not a lot to fault, really, but perhaps a touch on the lean and clean side.” I should note here that Aaron is used to the Musical Fidelity A3 components’ sound.
Earlier in his notes he writes, “a lot of bottom end grip and control. Reminds me of a Bryston amp in this regard. Definitely more grip and authority than my MF gear [with] a subjective sense of more deep bass.” And later, “they really mate well with the Veritas [v1.8s, like Dads] - excellent driver control.” “If clean, powerful, neutral, and fine is your thing, then the M3 is not likely to disappoint. Should be able to drive damn near anything.”
There’s more, but I’ll leave Aaron to add what he wants of that, since I think I’ve got the essence of his reaction, and I can’t really add anything to that myself. NAD has gone to great lengths to make a high end statement, and they’ve done it more emphatically, I think, than any other mid-fi-oriented company ever has before. The common wisdom in this business is that it’s too easy for companies to move down-market, and almost impossible for them to make progress in the opposite direction. Well, NAD has succeeded in doing so magnificently, the Masters Series of components the true work of high end audio Masters.
Andrew Marshall, (with notes from Aaron Marshall)
Related Reviews:NAD Masters Series Components - Very Classy!
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