I’ve said it elsewhere and I’ll say it again; moving from integrated to separates can be a big deal. This is my third set of a/v separates in less than three years (!), not because I have some kind of disorder but because I’ve had a tricky time finding electronics that not only synergize with my speakers the way I prefer but also feature aesthetics and functionalities I want. First up was NuForce (AVP-18 processor with MCH-300SEC7 power amplifier) and then Primare (SP33 processor with A30.7 power amplifier), both of which had their good and bad sides. I’ve now settled on two matching NAD Master Series units, my first experience of this brand. Naturally these have their good and bad sides as well but seeing how much I appreciate their performance I’ve decided to keep them. They’ve gathered numerous favorable reviews lately and so I thought I’d share a more personal viewpoint in this thorough write-up. There's a lot to cover…
+ Transparent sound with powerful dynamics
+ Lavish amounts of detail with refined smoothness
+ Three-dimensional soundstage with sharp focus
+ Fully balanced design offers negligible noise floor
+ Plays movies and music with equal enthusiasm
+ Instant lock-on to digital sources
+ High quality build with compact designs and gorgeous looks
+ Modular construction for future hardware updates
+ Terrific back-lit and programmable remote control
- My first sample of the M27 was faulty
- Rough speaker distance settings may cause unbalanced soundstage
- Audyssey MultEQ XT only, no XT32
- Measuring microphone input on the back of the unit, via RCA-adaptor
- No balanced audio XLR input
- No USB input (with standard modules)
- No streaming possibilities (with standard modules)
- No analogue audio pass-through, all analogue connections digitized
- Questionable touch panel display that cannot be switched off
- Only a single balanced XLR output for the subwoofer/LFE channel
NAD M17 a/v processor
This is a tremendously gorgeous machine with a sleek design. Even the ventilation slots on the top cover look really cool and lend a characteristic look to the unit. Build and workmanship is first-rate and merely touching the elegant chassis evokes confidence. NAD aren’t perhaps known for producing eye-catching electronics but with this edition of the Master Series I think they’ve outdone themselves. It's a thorough construction with great attention to detail. The spiked cone feet alone are a rare thing in the a/v world, meant to fight resonance by minimizing surface contact area. Magnetic “cups” are provided for those worried about scratching their shelf. It’s not all exteriors with the M17 of course - popping the lid exposes a tidy interior with quality components, cabling and transformers.
NAD have opted for a modular approach in many of their products to aid obsolescence, called MDC (Modular Design Construction), and the M17 is no different. It’s a smart feature that permits updating the hardware and preserve your initial investment, at least in theory. This approach is not unique as other manufacturers have embraced similar designs, to varying levels of success it needs to be said. Looking at the history of modules released by NAD so far I’m quite impressed by their devotion. The M17 has a total of four interchangeable MDC slots. Included with the purchase of the M17 was a voucher for a free update to a forthcoming 4K/UHD HDMI 2.0/HDPC 2.2 module whenever it’s ready. There is also a Bluesound streaming module coming up plus a rumored Atmos/DTS-X module (how they intend to implement that on a 7.1 machine is anybody’s guess).
The front fascia is kept clean thanks to a touch panel display. The only button is an on/off touch-key placed discreetly on the front top edge. Only the volume knob is directly apparent and has a terrific feel with great precision. Getting back to the display… a touch panel is an ambitious feature, though not unique. Thanks to a terrific remote and a control app for mobile devices I question its necessity. I feel it’s more of a gimmick rather than something that actually contributes. Granted, it allows eliminating button clutter but how often do users actually walk up to their units to control them? Seldom, I reckon. I wish NAD would have spent R&D elsewhere because functionality and usability of the display is a mixed bag. First; apart from a red NAD logo lighting up as you turn the unit on the display isn't full color and looks rather bland with poor contrast. Second; the odd sensitivity of the touch-buttons is a bit frustrating. Third; while input source and volume level is readable from across the room everything else is shown with tiny letters difficult to discern unless you are up-close. Might have made more sense if users could tailor how to view information. What’s more, system settings can't be executed or even displayed here and are instead restricted to the OSD or the control app. The display is basically for operational purposes only. Worst of all though... while there is a 2-step dimmer the display can’t be switched off which is bad news for dark rooms where it might prove a distraction. Since NAD insisted on this feature I hope they’ll make the most of it by allowing more flexible options through a firmware update.
Even though this is my first experience with NAD it’s a known fact they’re not the kind of company to offer every single feature or codec under the sun and to some extent I’m ok with that, even prefer it. But if you already have a specific feature on-board that works as a selling point why not offer the version customers have come to expect and demand? One bound to elevate the performance of the product instead of implementing a limited version that will hold it back in comparison. I am of course referring to Audyssey MultEQ XT in favor of XT32. When I first learned that the M17 would not feature XT32 I called this product a “joke”. Even though I’m currently not using EQ this omission is unfortunate. There’s no getting around the fact that even with a Pro calibration the end-result will be less than it could be with XT32 onboard. After all, that version offers 32 times the filter resolution and 4 times the subwoofer resolution with dual independent calibration, compared to XT. This becomes particularly questionable considering the asking-price of the unit. If Marantz could include XT32 in their latest AV8802 processor at a lower price surely NAD could do the same at a higher price? I may prefer listening in ‘direct/bypass’ mode these days but there might come a time when I need EQ. I fear this blunder by will put many Audyssey-fans off and while that’s understandable it would be ashamed. I know tons of owners of NAD’s products have requested XT32 for years to no avail and I really wish they would re-think this issue since there clearly is a market for it.
I’ve been told the DSP processing power in the M17 is rather massive, meaning it’s one of the few Audyssey-equipped units available that don’t downsample (and thereby limit) high resolution material to 48 kHz while applying the EQ. It’s also the first a/v product I’ve ever used where I haven’t had to compensate for lip sync delay. I’m guessing the processing power might have something to do with that. Might also be part of the reason why the HDMI-board locks instantly to audio and video streams (using an Oppo BDP-103D). The same appears to be true for coaxial digital inputs. This is a welcome relief as many machines out there (processors in particular) can be unreliable locking on to digital signals. Not an issue with the M17 so there's little-to-no risk of missing anything.
Given that this is a fully balanced differential design it’s ashamed NAD did not see fit to include at least one balanced audio input. I understand the DAC’s inside the M17 are formidable but owners might have high-quality players with balanced outputs and a DAC they’d prefer to use. I’m guessing since the M17 digitize analogue audio sources NAD prefer we go the digital route. Another omission is the lack of a USB-input, something that is pretty much standard on a/v equipment nowadays and seems a clumsy move on NAD’s part. Firmware updates or music playback via USB is therefore not catered for. The unit does have LAN connection for your network but is primarily meant to link to the remote app for mobile devices. I’ve been told the upcoming Bluesound streaming module will include a USB input though.
Setting up the M17 is easy and straightforward. The square overlay OSD may look plain but is serviceable and easy to navigate. The control app works reasonably well also. The M17 can tailor most things to your preference and up to five fully user-definable presets can be programmed. That is a brilliant feature lacking in many competing processors (and receivers, for that matter). NAD’s rough speaker distance settings are not so brilliant however, as the M17 restricts adjustments per feet – in coarse 30 cm steps. In challenging rooms where one can’t (or refuse to) adjust the positioning of speakers to compensate for this it may create a problem and unnecessary compromise is inevitable. Many manufacturers allow precisely trimmed distance settings down to 1 cm accuracy and considering the processing power within the M17 this is another move by NAD that makes little sense. Back to the drawing board, please, because this limitation is unacceptable! Firmware update required.
Even though in some respects the M17 feels like an unfinished product one could say it’s a work-in-progress, meaning future modules and (hopefully) firmware updates will make it more of a ‘complete’ product. Processors are complex and evolving machines that need to be polished and fine-tuned during their life-cycle, much like a Blu-ray player. In this respect I believe Oppo is the perfect reference for this. I hope NAD delivers in this area and take not only their product seriously but their devoted customers as well. There is much to gain in doing so.
During the first month of usage I've experienced no issues with the M17. The unit have been a joy to use in day-to-day operation and responds promptly to commands from both the remote and the control app installed on iPhone. No annoying relay 'clicks' or 'pops' either. Smooth sailing.
NAD M27 multichannel power amplifier
Build is equally high on this matching machine and the added weight makes it feel rather rigid. As a class-D design it’s not as bulky and heavy as most traditional amplifiers, something I welcome. Seeing them placed together it’s evident the M17 and M27 were intended to be shown off and used as a pair (for more than just cosmetic reasons). The multi-way speaker cable terminals are of high quality, as are the oversized RCA-inputs. The balanced XLR-inputs are naturally more of a standard affair. Like the processor the M27 is a fully balanced differential design for minimal noise and maximum dynamic contrast. The nCore amplifier modules are said to sound best in balanced situations so that seems the preferred connection. Internally things are clean and well put together with quality parts.
Power output is specified at 180 watts per channel, all 7 channels driven, into 8 Ohm and 4 Ohm respectively. I wouldn’t have objected to more power, simply because it wouldn’t hurt, but I’ll get to that under ‘listening impressions’. Unlike a few other super-efficient class-D designs the M27’s chassis does get a bit warm under normal operation so ventilation is important. It doesn't appear to get burning hot though like some traditional amplifiers (at least not under the conditions in which I used it). Audible noise from speaker tweeters is close tonegligible with this machine, the lowest I've heard as a matter of fact, which is excellent. Even if one never listens to speakers with ears pressed up against them the simple fact is I don't want noise as part of my listening experience. In a similar way I don’t want hum or transformer buzz and I'm happy to report the M27 is virtually dead quiet.
During the first week of usage I had issues with channels refusing to turn on and the M27 irrationally switching itself to protection-mode for no apparent reason. No amount of cable checking or rebooting helped the situation. Luckily I got the unit replaced for a new sample which has been working without a hitch. Hopefully this won’t happen again. Obviously I was unlucky to receive a faulty sample. I’m hoping this was an exception rather than the rule as reliability and quality control means everything.
NAD HTRM 2 remote control
I've heard throughout the years that NAD makes great remote controls and I'm willing to attest to that here. The HTMR 2 deserves a mention because this isn't a run-of-the-mill handset. First and foremost the build and feel of the remote is top notch with material and design to match the processor and amplifier. It's long and slim with solid weight and fits comfortably in my hand. The buttons are tad small but with good tactile response. Everyday use is great. Not only does the remote have impeccable IR range, it’s also fully backlight and programmable head-to-head. Lots of flexible features to discover here, including macros. Many settings and functions from the M17 are accessible directly, such as on-the-fly speaker channel volume, dynamic range control, Audyssey etc, so little need to enter menu settings. Brilliant. So brilliant in fact that I intend on pensioning my otherwise excellent Logitech remote. Great work, NAD.
Connecting sources and hooking up my Ken Kreisel Quattro 5.1 speaker system was a breeze, and dialing everything in on the M17 took less than half an hour. Speaker channel levels were manually calibrated using a sound level pressure meter. I let the units play multichannel music for a few days non-stop before critical listening. It’s important to note that my listening is entirely done in ‘direct/bypass’ with no automated room correction EQ, tone controls or excessive DSP post-processing applied. This, in my experience, give the most honest and transparent sound quality through my speakers in my room. While room correction can improve certain aspects (taming low frequency issues, for example) it may sometimes also clog and throttle the naked purity of the original signal. My speakers are placed symmetrically and the listening room is equipped with thick carpet, textile furniture and curtains. There are flat surfaces and windows too that don’t exactly aid the end-result but seeing as this space doubles as my living room it’s a compromise.
Listening impressions – movies
There’s nothing quite like the experience of good separates. That high-end authority to the sound that demands attention without letting go. It’s a promising sign then when while attempting to take notes as you first start to listen, your focus is instead drawn to just… listening. I suspected at first that the reputation of NAD’s smooth and warm signature sound might make movie soundtracks a bit tame and restrict that all-important ‘bite’ and ‘attack’ that dynamically challenging soundtracks often require to keep you on the edge of your seat. An issue I often had with my former Primare separates, even though they were musically fulfilling.
It was during the first Blu-ray, “Gravity”, that I realized my suspicions were unfounded. There is plenty of ‘bite’ and ‘attack’ with these units whenever the soundtrack demands it. And there are several such moments in this film. In fact, it’s an all-out aural assault at times. What NAD does, and does really well, is keep straining harshness at bay to avoid listening fatigue but without sacrificing detail or impact. I found rather quickly that the capabilities of this duo seem to fulfill numerous vital aspects in home theater sound; be it aggressive bombast, panning effects, delicate vocals, swooping score and subtle ambience. The clean, articulated approach by NAD is thankfully void of any ‘clinical’ or ‘analytical’ character, instead there is refinement with openness and high levels of resolution. It’s not an in-your-face type of sound or a laid-back one either, rather somewhere in between. A terrific balancing act and a combination of qualities I've never experienced with an integrated solution.
Following up with “Seven” (one of my personal favorites) I was surprised to discover subtle nuances of intricate detail in the lossless soundtrack that I’ve never picked up on before despite countless viewings. Perhaps because those details were previously buried in noise and distortion? Here everything was clear and precisely placed within a realistic and expansive soundstage. This type of fine detail retrieval contributed further to the chilling tone of the movie. Transparent speakers driven by transparent electronics will of course reveal more of what is in the source material and allow you to hear deeper into a recording. The layering of this detail within three dimensional space is also performed beautifully by the NAD’s. My small listening room suddenly seems a tad bigger, as if the walls have expanded while the speakers themselves ‘disappear’. My Ken Kreisel Quattro system have great spatial capabilities with quality gear but slightly less so with limited electronics. NAD proved an excellent partner in this respect.
I’m not the biggest fan of superhero movies but “The Wolverine” (the second spin-off in the series) is a surprisingly entertaining one. With a skillfully constructed soundtrack containing many dynamically challenging moments it demands a lot from your system. NAD had no problem keeping up the pace throughout the film. Yet, there’s no loss of subtlety – during quieter moments the aforementioned detail retrieval lends a great sense of atmospheric presence, only in a more civilized manner. Another fine soundtrack is on the Blu-ray for the grossly underrated sci-fi flick “Sunshine”. Every time I watch this film I marvel at the extensive work that went into creating the mix, and even more so now. With NAD in charge I was thrown on board the space vessel and basically felt like one of the crew members. There is an abundance of stirring music and spatial cues in this film which play really well over the Quattro system, almost to an eerie degree. NAD made the most of this by heightening the realism (yes… even Sci-Fi can feel real). The same can be said of the soundtrack for Peter Jackson’s flawed but beautiful rendition of “King Kong”, whose Blu-ray disc has an effective amount of aggressiveness and swirls of various jungle sounds. Instead of merely watching the film I felt like I was on Skull Island. However bizarre the on-screen scenario, realistic sound reproduction such as this is what home theater is all about. With busy soundtracks it feels like NAD delivers both the energy and control that allow my speakers to show what they are capable of.
Disney’s “Frozen” was another lovely listen over the NAD’s. With musical enthusiasm throughout I found myself enjoying the film more than I did upon initial viewing. I also cranked the volume louder than I normally would because vocals and music sounded so pure. And again, when things got busier nothing grated at my ears urging me to lower the volume. Disney knows how to create effective and engaging soundtracks, the same goes for Pixar. I consider them both pioneers in this respect. With “Toy Story 2” I was smiling ear-to-ear at the hard-hitting impact during the Buzz Lightyear opening sequence. The many playful effects throughout the rest of the movie were so wonderfully rendered that I enjoyed the film like it was my first viewing. Low-frequency moments were a real treat. Another gem is undoubtedly “Ratatouille”, with a stellar PCM track. The realistic tone of the NAD’s transported me to the streets of Paris and plunged me into the busy environment of a restaurant kitchen. Again I marveled at the fabulous size of the soundstage and depth of bass.
Speaking of bass, I immediately noticed an improvement in ‘oomph’ and low-level presence delivered via the M17 to my subwoofer. Compared to my previous Primare SP33 processor the difference wasn’t subtle. It’s not that the M17 necessarily does something other processors can’t, it’s just the Primare seemed to subdue output from my subwoofer, as if holding it back. Luckily NAD have no such restriction. In fact, I’ve had to lower the volume of the subwoofer a bit and adjust it’s placement slightly in order to help even out low-level energy in my room. During bass-heavy content like “Godzilla”, “Fury”, “Pacific Rim”, “Saving Private Ryan”, “Hellboy II” and “War Of The Worlds” I can now feel the bass as much as I can hear it, which is of course fantastic! Because of this pronounced low-frequency presence I’ve been reminded of my rooms acoustic problems in the 30-40Hz region, something I hope to fix with bass traps.
Contrary to popular belief a unit with balanced XLR outputs doesn’t automatically equal a truly balanced design, so I’m glad NAD went the extra mile here. I can’t help thinking the balanced differential approach of the NAD’s help lower the noise floor aiding dynamic capabilities and resulting in awesome pitch-black background. A ‘silent’ processor and amplifier can obviously help improve performance. This attribute is generally preferable but often difficult to achieve. The power and quality of the M27 amplifier obviously plays a significant part. The headroom of my satellites seems quite fulfilled with this amplifier, slightly more so than with my former Primare A30.7 amplifier (which in itself was no slouch). There’s been a lot of talk about class-D designs in the negative sense for many years. M27 uses the latest technology but isn’t a “digital” amplifier. I can’t pick out anything that sounds “digital” here at all (whatever that would be), nor is there a tinny character or any kind of grainy aspect either. That said, the M27 could have benefited from even more power. It certainly wouldn’t have hurt. I personally won’t run out of steam anytime soon but I reckon certain large and demanding full-range floorstanding speakers might be in need of additional power to perform at their best with upmost control.
One of the better aspects of the NAD’s is the near ‘perfect’ coherency between speakers, including the subwoofer, again - without room correction applied. The front stage is wide, tall and deep, while steering from speaker to speaker is truly excellent. Everything simply sounds convincing. In my experience it’s not enough with speakers designed with these attributes, though that’s where it’s starts obviously, but electronics of high caliber are needed to bring those traits to the forefront and weave everything together in an effortlessly controlled bubble of sound. Coherency in multichannel set-up’s is the vital link for seamless immersion and integration, whether you’ve got a 5.1 or 13.1 system. Many factors play a part in creating this but at least with NAD one has great potential of achieving it. In fact, many of these qualities remind me of my old Lexicon DC-1 reference processor where things simply just hung together and sounded ‘right’ with a diversity of soundtracks.
Listening impressions – music
Naturally, being a “music first” company, I expected nothing less than greatness from the NAD duo as I began spinning some music. Seeing how I enjoyed music during films I assumed I was in for a treat. And sure enough, within the first few minutes of playing my favorite record something happened that rarely occurs with a/v products - immersion into the recording studio with a lovely toe-tapping effect. The NAD’s can fool you into thinking they are actually a dedicated stereo set, not your typical surround electronics. I wouldn’t compare them to stereo separates of equivalent price but perhaps somewhere around half that, which ain’t bad. One has to remember that a/v processors and multichannel amplifiers are crammed with stuff that stereo-only components aren’t. That undoubtedly has an effect on cost vs performance ratio to some degree. Still, these NAD units present music with a wonderful sense of poise and vibrancy across the board.
Samantha James fantastic album “Rise” is a fine demo album, featuring a blend of up-tempo/down-tempo tracks filled with soulful rhythm. Sadly this album is only available in standard 16-bit 48 kHz resolution but the recording quality itself is high. Enjoying this album through the delicate treatment of the NAD’s breathed new life into her music, especially her voice which was more intoxicating than usual. With "Brothers In Arms", Dire Straits all-time classic audiophile CD, I was presented with amazing imaging and accurate micro-detailing. Bass from my subwoofer was firm and deep, yet thankfully difficult to localize. With this album I also experimented with ‘Enhanced Stereo’ and was rewarded with quite an interesting soundstage. This mode works a treat to fill your room with music for parties or background listening but can also serve as an alternative for more serious enjoyment, even if not entirely accurate.
While the NAD’s won’t magically make mediocre recordings or low resolution music sound good, at least material of that nature is somewhat passable. With quality material there is much to praise. With certain types of music I found myself singing along to the lyrics, even wanting to get off my duff and dance. Although embarrassing to admit, when something like that happens it’s a good thing. High definition multi-channel SACD’s were of course the cream of the crop through the NAD’s, with the higher fidelity offering extra weight and realism to instruments and male and female voices alike. Live concert material on Blu-ray was another joy as the natural tone of the NAD's often made me feel as though I was one with the crowd. I can't help wishing more music was available on high resolution Blu-ray because of the fantastic potential of this format.
Much like my Quattro speakers the NAD electronics seem to almost ‘disappear’ with good recordings by letting the sound wash over you and engulfing you in the content rather than letting you focus on individual notes. You can of course do that if you want to but I find that pointless because the overall presentation is so enjoyable. Listening judgmentally actually proved quite difficult. The sound is likeable on many levels - it’s refined and smooth without being soft or dull and powerful and detailed without being overbearing or aggressive. Music has a fine balance with the NAD units. I must admit, even though my Quattro satellite speakers are good at music I can’t help wonder how a pair of dedicated full-range floorstanders would sound with the NAD’s… I wouldn’t mind finding out!
Apart from the issues with my initial sample of the M27, and my criticisms of the M17 shortcomings, this NAD duo is a formidable force in terms of outright performance. While the NAD’s aren’t perfect their aesthetics and overall quality is as appealing and mesmerizing as their unblemished sound. Although pricey they feel like serious high-end without the sky-high price tag. One could spend considerably more but at the price they deliver the goods with a wide selection of source material. The module approach of the processor is a nice touch, something that ought to be standard on all a/v processors when you think about it. As long as NAD delivers in that area there’s bound to be at least a few updates during it’s lifetime. What I appreciate most is that this pairing don’t seem to favor movies over music, or vice versa – instead they achieve a rare balance of being able to handle both with aplomb, something which normally should not be assumed even at these prices. I read a review a few years ago on the predecessors (M15 and M25) that described their sound as a “titanium fist in a velvet glove” which I think is a fitting description for these follow-up units as well.
I believe once you’ve experienced what a good set of separates can accomplish it’s difficult going back. Can’t imagine any integrated solution achieving this level of fidelity or flexibility. NAD have elevated my system to new heights of audio bliss with great levels of enjoyment. I can easily leave em on all day enjoying movies and music without fatigue. They inspire to just keep on listening… they’re that good. Needs to be said though that I was lucky to have NAD synergize so well with my speakers – something not to be taken for granted when shopping for electronics. That can often be a hit or miss situation. In other words; synergism is a bit of a lottery. Seems I have found my winning ticket.
This review is based solely on personal experience and opinions and should be judged accordingly. I am basing this on how the NAD units performs to my ears under my specific circumstances; using my associated equipment, in my particular room.