Introduction - What is the NAD M33?
The NAD Masters M33 is a ‘BluOS enabled DAC/amplifier.’ Decoded from the marketing talk, it’s an all-in-one system, a device to which you simply add speakers to have a complete system. This is a category that has come to dominate the landscape of sub £10,000 Hi-Fi in recent years and the reason is simple enough; these systems are all conquering. They offer a huge feature count that comes in a single manageable chassis. Furthermore, the performance deficit to a separates system that puts the same functionality into multiple chassis has narrowed to nothing.
In the case of the M33, this applies with bells on because, as we shall cover, it does a great deal. In fact, this may well be the best equipped of its type we’ve yet seen. Of course, in the case of the NAD, it has the unusual issue of facing some of the stiffest competition from its own house. It is the model up from the NAD M10 - our product of the year 2019 and still one of the most incredible combinations of performance, specification, design and build I have tested in any category. The M33 sets out to be better than the object which is - realistically - the best in class.
Of course, just to spice things up a little, nothing stays constant, even in the comparatively sedate world of two channel. In the same way that the M33 is an amplifier, so is the Arcam SA30. The previously solid boundaries between different product groups has eroded to the point where someone looking at an M33 might also be looking at a considerable array of other options. In this world of endlessly moving targets, can the M33 stay ahead?
Specification and Design
The temptation when sitting in front of a word document with the prospect of listing the functionality of the M33 is to simply list what it can’t do instead as that will save valuable time. There’s no 8-Track for example and it doesn’t support quadraphonic cartridges. You’ll notice that I’ve gone straight to the fairly esoteric end for things it can’t do because, it can do almost everything else.
Let’s start with the bit in the title. The M33 uses the BluOS platform for its streaming. This is indisputably a good thing. BluOS is able to balance a number of requirements made of a streaming interface extremely well. I’ve covered these in the past but, for the edited highlights, it offers a stable, logical and user friendly control interface that scales well between one device and many devices. It supports a whopping selection of streaming services and compiles your music library in the app itself which means you have an initial wait for it to do so but get very quick browsing from then on out.
One thing that BluOS can’t do is play DSD. It does support MQA however, so for people heavily invested in Tidal (which, naturally, BluOS supports), this might seem like a more than acceptable trade off. I will go on record as saying that I don’t think either will be a deciding factor in a purchase - they’re both largely garnishes but, at the £4,000 asking price of the unit, some people will disagree.
What is harder to criticise is the supporting connectivity. The NAD has two coax and two optical inputs and includes HDMI ARC. This is bolstered by an AES balanced digital input, a USB connection for reading sticks and drives and aptX enabled Bluetooth v5.0 (which is bi directional, allowing for Bluetooth headphones to be used. Then there’s the analogue inputs. The NAD is fitted with an XLR input, an RCA connection, a phono stage that supports both moving magnet and moving coil phono stages and an analogue RCA preout; which is more than window dressing in a range that also includes a 300W stereo power amp. Not enough? How about a pair of sub outputs with adjustable crossover and a 6.35mm headphone socket. In the likely make-up of devices you might find to connect to an M33, it seems a stretch to imagine you’ll overwhelm it.
The power is supplied by an example of NAD’s hybrid digital system. This means that the M33 disposes of a healthy 200 watts into eight ohms which nearly doubles into 4 ohms with a quoted figure of 380 watts. The reality is that there isn’t much that the M33 won’t drive satisfactorily. Power is made available to two sets of terminals, all of which are the very sturdy WBT type. Thanks to the Class D nature of the unit, it runs cool, and power consumption is extremely reasonable too.
Like the M10, the M33 is fitted with Dirac Live and supplied with a suitable microphone. This Dirac fitment is the same as the one that Phil Hinton tested on the T778 in that it works to 500Hz but this should still be sufficient to handle most room gremlins you might encounter. NAD’s use of Dirac is to be commended too. For many owners, it won’t be a priority and it won’t nag you to use it. If you do choose to use it, the process is straightforward and logical. The only fly in the ointment is Arcam now giving you ‘full fat’ 20-20 on the SA30 but it’s still more comprehensive than most rivals.
One annoyance - that you may note I have composed in a single paragraph that can be easily edited or expunged in the future - is that, at the time of writing (November 2020), the M33 does not have Roon certification. Earlier this year, Roon shut down the loophole where devices that were Roon capable but not certified could operate as Endpoints. In timing terms, this was a curious one - many software teams are currently scattered, working from home and not ready for the resulting rush job but it’s their train set. It does mean that a key control option is missing for the M33 (and the Arcam SA30, although Arcam seems to be working through its ‘to do’ list while NAD does not). Much as I like BluOS, I don’t consider it superior to Roon. It means that compared to Naim’s Uniti Star and Nova, the NAD - for the time being at least - runs at a disadvantage.
Where the M33 isn’t at a disadvantage to anything is the casework and general finish. Let me go on record as saying that I think that the Masters Series is one of the most aesthetically satisfying bits of industrial design you can buy at the moment. The mix of colour helps it to work with other devices of both colours and the way that the front panel and top plate are broken into sections, reduces the visual bulk of the units very effectively. The front panel is dominated by the same full colour display as the M10 and T778 (hey, if you’ve developed it, get some use out of it) and it feels modern, clever and pleasing to use.
And it is beautifully made. The panel gaps, paint finish and general assembly are exceptional even at the £4,000 point. The volume knob moves with the sort of travel that is clearly the result of somebody really caring about these things. For the most part, none of the fastidious attention to detail has any bearing on usability but I’d suggest that the ground for the phono stage is placed in a way that is fairly awkward to actually use and the remote handset, while a thing of immense solidity, is highly directional and too easy to switch to a mode that does nothing to the M33. Given the app takes most of the strain, this is not the end of the world but rivals (see Naim) have more reliable handsets. What those rivals don’t have is the ability to show a giant pair of VU meters with some inputs and while this is utterly pointless, it’s also fantastic.
In the likely make-up of devices you might find to connect to an M33, it seems a stretch to imagine you’ll overwhelm it
How was the M33 tested?
The NAD has been connected to an IsoTek Evo3 Sigmas mains conditioner and taken an Ethernet connection allowing access to streaming services and a Melco N1A NAS drive. The phono stage has been tested via Rega Planar 10 turntable and the digital inputs have been evaluated using an LG 55B7 OLED via optical and a Chord Electronics Mscaler working to 24/176.4 and 24/192kHz via single coax cable. The app has been run on an iPad Pro. Speakers used have been the Focal Kanta No1 and Kudos Titan 505. Material used has been FLAC, AIFF, Tidal and Qobuz, on demand TV and vinyl.
When a product is designed to be better than one you’ve already loaded superlatives on, there is an unavoidable weight of expectation heaped on it. The good news for the M33 is that, largely, it manages to justify its existence. There was no M10 on hand to test against it and I’ve changed rooms since I reviewed it but there are many areas where the M33 just feels like a more capable version of its little brother. The key word across both is ‘unflappable’, which I grant you is not as easy to contextually place as ‘exciting’ or ‘dynamic’ but is the most accurate.
It means that you can choose to listen to the furious bombast of My Own Soul’s Warning by The Killers at deeply antisocial levels and the M33’s composure is absolute. You never feel like it is being pushed past (or indeed anywhere near) the limits of its operating envelope. It should not be inferred that this results in a dull or constrained performance. The NAD is fast on its feet, hard hitting and effortlessly dynamic in a way that only comes about from having a great deal of headroom at your disposal.
It’s also a demonstration of why these all in one products are so effective. Separating the influence of the digital decoding and the amplification of the M33 is largely pointless because they work hand in glove with one another. It gives the NAD an absolute consistency of presentation it makes available across everything it does. Even the Bluetooth is largely in keeping with the more conventional digital inputs. It doesn’t really matter how you choose to use it, the M33 will simply get on with delivering the goods.
That prodigious power output also means that the NAD can be relied upon to drive pretty much anything you choose to connect to it short of a length of wet rope. The Focal Kanta No1 is unsurprisingly effortless… but then so is the Kudos Titan 505. There really is very little that it won’t partner up with quite happily. This has the added bonus that it obviates some aspects of the spec that might ordinarily be an issue. The phono stage in its moving coil setting is not possessed of huge gain so, connected to the Planar 10 and it’s 0.3mV output Apheta 3 cartridge, you need to use rather more volume than you do for the digital. This is not an issue though because there is so much gain available, you can still hit any level you realistically want.
The performance used as an outlet for a TV is no less impressive too. The NAD handled a… varied… portfolio of work from Masterchef The Professionals through Die Hard 2 and it didn’t put a foot wrong at any point. Even without the HDMI ARC (I will see this corrected in 2021, I’m just not sure how yet), that effortless ability to open out the source material and deliver it free of compression and congestion is something that borders on the addictive. Not for the first time, the benefit of Dirac seems to be more keenly felt with this material than with music. I also feel that the stopping of correction at 500Hz is in no way detrimental to it but that is coming from the position of having a benign room with correctly placed speakers. Those in more challenging environments might feel differently.
Taken on its own merits, the M33 is a deeply impressive piece of kit but it would remiss of me to point out that there is an issue that I can’t shake even after two very enjoyable weeks with it and that issue is its absurdly talented little brother. To be absolutely clear, the M33 is better than the M10 but, even with the law of diminishing returns being factored in as carefully as I can, I cannot always say that it feels £1,800 better. The extra functionality is welcome, but it isn’t like the smaller unit is minimalist. The extra power gives an enticing sense of effortlessness but again, you’ll struggle to drag an M10 outside its performance envelope in a normal UK lounge. When compared to the trio of Naim Unitis, each building on the spec of the lower model in a cohesive way, you feel that NAD built the M10 to demolish the Uniti Atom (which to a fair extent it does) but that left it with a limited portfolio of means by which to challenge the Uniti Nova.
That prodigious power output also means that the NAD can be relied upon to drive pretty much anything you choose to connect to it short of a length of wet rope
- Sounds extremely good
- Extremely all- encompassing specification
- Extremely well made
- Needs to be in a fairly serious system before it is better than the M10
- Currently lacking Roon integration
- Slight quirks to remote and rear panel layout
NAD M33 Streaming Amplifier Review
The best way to get around this feeling is to regard the M33 as something you reach for when it is time to front a system where it will be the least expensive component. Used with the Planar 10 and Kudos 505, it makes more sense than it does with the notionally more comparative Focal Kanta (which the M10 will drive perfectly). This is fine as far as it goes but it does put the NAD in fairly rarefied territory as a result. It’s only fair to point out that NAD is currently back ordered to the eyeballs on the M33 and there are literally thousands of glowing words written about it that don’t feel quite the same as me so that should also be taken into account.
If we ignore the M10 for a moment though, it’s hard not to admire pretty much every facet of the design, engineering and execution of NAD’s flagship all in one. This is a breathtakingly competent piece of equipment that combines a comprehensive spec and excellent performance. It might share a house with a talented sibling but the M33 is a star too and, judged on its own merits, it comes Highly Recommended.
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