A few years back, I was in a high-end audio store in West Los Angeles. As I chatted it up with one of the principals, he offered to demo an audio system for me. That system had head-turning presence and realism that left a permanent impression. The gentleman explained that it was a $500 integrated amp by NAD and a $1,000 pair of speakers by PSB, both brands owned by parent company Lenbrook. Of course I was familiar with the brands, but I was not prepared to hear that level of performance.
I began researching the NAD product lineup and learned that the company has two levels of equipment: the lower-priced Classic Series and the flagship Masters Series. Both levels maintain the same philosophy: audio first, frills second (if at all), with an understated look. Money is spent on higher-quality internal components, and amplification is rated with all channels driven (and reported on the conservative side). Since then, I have watched NAD introduce new products that have garnered awards and accolades, and now I am given the opportunity to review NAD's newest Masters Series AV processor, the M17. Would the company impress me again?
It has been several years since NAD updated its Masters Series pre/pro model, M15 HD2. The new M17 is a seven-channel preamp/processor that boasts the company's Modular Design Construction (MDC), which places all inputs and associated hardware on user-replaceable modules that can be easily changed and upgraded to make the electronics future-proof. Current features include top-of-the-line digital-to-analog conversion, a high-end build quality and appearance, a touchscreen display, support for most of the major Dolby and DTS audio codecs (except for Atmos and DTS:X), and Audyssey room calibration...and that's just the start. With a retail price of $5,499, this is not a bargain-basement product; however, one could certainly spend more and get less.
The M17's case features six separate panels screwed together with jewel-like hardware instead of the trifold sheet metal fanfare. The front panel is an extruded brushed-aluminum faceplate with rounded right and left corners but hard right angles around the top and bottom perimeters. A second, 0.25-inch-thick, black metal front panel, smaller in all directions, is where the two-inch by 3.75-inch TFT touchscreen display rests. To the left of the display is an NAD emblem with a perimeter light around the logo. The light glows amber in standby mode and turns bright white when the unit is powered on. To the right of the display is a traditional volume knob. Dead-center on top of the processor, but on the horizontal dimension of the faceplate, is a flush power button. The right and left side panels are also brushed aluminum, each with a long screened ventilation strip along the bottom. The top plate is comprised of black metal and brushed aluminum, with eight screened windows for ventilation. On the bottom, four large, brushed-aluminum, cone-shaped pedestals support the unit. Something I have never seen before are the black, concave magnetic dishes that the pedestals can sit on. All of these details create quite an intriguing design. The M17's appearance is industrial yet dressy, clean yet expensive, contemporary yet inviting. Basically, this thing looks badass--a big step up for NAD, which typically spends money on internal hardware, not external aesthetics.
The remote control is made of brushed aluminum to match the M17, and it has a hefty, solid feel. It's a learning remote with full backlighting. The buttons are well laid out, and surround sound controls allow for on-the-fly volume adjustments of the surrounds, center, and subwoofer.
The M17's connection panel includes six HDMI 1.4 inputs and two HDMI 1.4 outputs. To deliver full HDMI 2.0 compatibility, NAD plans to offer a free upgrade to add the VM300 MDC Video Module as soon as it becomes available (likely this summer), when the HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2 implementations have fully matured to support 4K video at 60fps with a 4:4:4 color space. The M17 also offers four SPDIF and four optical digital audio inputs, plus two outputs of each type. Dual component video inputs and a single component video output are onboard, as are a host of composite video and stereo analog ins and outs. The M17 can support up to four zones, with zone four being audio only. Only zone one is supported by HDMI.
A set of 7.1-channel fully balanced pre outs is available (new for NAD), as is a set of 7.2-channel RCA pre outs. While various manufacturers' products have XLR outputs, it does not mean their products are fully balanced. If it's not fully balanced, all you get is the benefit of the XLR connector, not the lower noise floor and silent-background benefits of a fully balanced output stage.
When I embarked on this review, I did some online research and discovered that many NAD enthusiasts are anxiously waiting to learn more about this long-anticipated processor. One constant thread in the blogs was the desire for NAD to implement its Direct Digital technology into a pre/pro. Let's clarify now that, due to the complexity of a processor and the fact that it is highly software-driven, combining Direct Digital technology over eight channels for a surround sound configuration was not feasible, according to NAD. Instead, eight separate stereo Burr-Brown DACs (model PCM 1792A), along with eight separate OPAmps (Operational Amplifiers) by Analog Devices (model OP275) operating in true differential mode, create a state-of-the-art implementation. According to NAD, both of these devices were chosen for their low noise and distortion characteristics. The DACs feature 132 decibels of dynamic range, while the OPAmps are a hybrid Bi-polar/JFET design, with 0.0006 THD+N.
Audyssey MultEQ XT is employed to calibrate the speakers, as well as perform acoustic equalization for room characteristics. Audyssey has a step-up product called MultEQ XT 32, which I thought would be more appropriate for a processor at this price point. However, NAD did include Audyssey MultEQ Pro, which allows for a substantial step up in calibration and equalization but requires the assistance of a certified Audyssey installer and the purchase of an Audyssey MultEQ XT Pro license. Interestingly, there is no mention of MultEQ Pro anywhere in NAD's literature, website, or manual. I was made aware of the capability during a discussion with NAD, when I questioned the lack of Audyssey MultEQ XT 32. Something to consider is that each level of functionality from Audyssey adds additional licensing fees. Determining what to implement and what to leave out in order to keep costs in line is a process of compromises. If NAD threw every possible option in, we would be looking at a much more expensive processor. Unique to NAD is a Listening Mode within the Audyssey system that NAD and Audyssey engineers worked on together. This mode is simply labeled "NAD" under the Listening Mode field within the onscreen GUI. I experimented with this mode and actually enjoyed it quite a bit. A feature like this can be very arbitrary, but my first instinct is that it made an improved difference, although results can vary depending on the movie soundtrack.
An Ethernet port allows for a wired connection to a local area network; the processor lacks built-in WiFi. If you connect it to your network via Ethernet, you can control the M17 with the NAD AVR Remote App, available from the App Store for use with your iOS device. Unfortunately I did not have a wired connection to the Internet, so I could not test the remote application. RS-232, 12-volt triggers, and IR ins and outs are also included.
One feature that I was expecting to find in the M17 is an asynchronous USB connection to play high-resolution music files from my computer or network attached storage drive. No such luck. I was happy to learn that NAD is working on another MDC module for high-resolution streaming and connectivity, in partnership with NAD's sister company Bluesound. NAD says that the new MDC NM BluOS Module, coming shortly, will bring high-resolution multi-room network streaming, Bluetooth aptX, WiFi, and Ethernet capabilities to the M17, with a free BluOS app to control the M17 as part of a whole-house wireless music system utilizing Bluesound players. You can expect the hi-res upgrade module to cost between $300 and $600.
Utilizing my existing living room system, I replaced an Onkyo PR-SC5508 processor with the NAD M17. All other components stayed intact, including an Oppo BDP-105D disc player, a Direct TV HD satellite box, a Halcro MC70 multichannel amplifier, a Pioneer Kuro 60-inch plasma display, five Vienna Acoustics speakers from the Schonberg line, and a Paradigm Studio Series Sub 15 subwoofer. Setup was fast and straightforward, and I was playing music and watching movies in no time.
I first put the M17 to the test with music, starting with the song "Never Going Back Again" from Fleetwood Mac's Rumors CD (Warner Brothers). I experienced a level of clarity and presence that had not existed in my system before. Vocals were pure and had a natural presence. The midrange in the front channels was more noticeable than what I was used to, contributing to a more authentic soundstage. I found the frequency response to be flat in nature (i.e., neutral), and imaging was excellent--not only in the usual sense of width and depth, but also in height, creating a wall of sound that appeared a few feet above my speaker down to the floor. With all of this going on, the image was also floating in front of the speakers, but it was at no time overbearing or in your face.
In "Songbird" from the same CD, Christine McVie's vocals were exceptionally rendered. Subtle changes in her tenor created a natural contour in her voice that was beyond what my usual system can render.
I moved on to Supertramp's "School" from Crime of the Century (CD, A&M Records), which can be challenging due to the combination of the high-pitched voice of singer Rodger Hodgson and the lower raspy voice of singer Rick Davies, along with the dramatic piano accompaniment. Again, I experienced a wall of sound, along with width and depth that gave new life to this recording. The piano sounded alive, while cymbals had no edginess or harshness. The sound really hovered off the walls and hung in the balance of the room.
I often like to test music that I love but perhaps isn't served up through the highest quality recording. For this I turned to Elton John's "Candle in the Wind," a mediocre recording that has often posed a challenge for the Onkyo processor. With the NAD, Elton's voice took on a real three-dimensional quality, due to the M17's ability to reveal the smallest deviations in pitch, inflection, and detail. Instruments were easily placed, and each stood out in their own right, displaying exceptional clarity and detail. Quite simply, this song has never sounded as good through my system as it did with the M17 in place.
Movies were up next, starting with the Transformers: Age of Extinction Blu-ray disc. The M17 keeps the video signal in its native format, with no upconversion performed. In regards to audio, immediately I noticed major changes in the sound compared with my usual setup. First, the overall clarity was astonishing, with more midrange presence floating in the room, over and above my location. Another characteristic I noticed was that my rear channels were better imaged, creating a center stage behind me. Music passages during the movie became more prominent.
Next up was the overused but effective pod race scene from Star Wars--Episode I on Blu-ray. While this chapter is always fun to watch, the NAD's clarity created a more involving movie experience, beyond anything I have heard before. The pods circled around my listening room with more presence, the dialogue was clearer, and the overall detail was just better. An increase in mid-bass was present in the front three channels, in a pleasing way. I began wondering how this setup would perform with big floorstanding speakers. While I enjoy my Vienna Acoustics Schonbergs, I chose them for their smaller form factor in my everyday living environment, and their sound quality has its limitations. I suspect the NAD M17 is worthy of much higher-caliber speakers. (http://www.starwars.com/films/star-wars-episode-i-the-phantom-menace)
Finally, I demoed the scene from The Bourne Identity where Jason and Marie arrive at his apartment in France. Low-level audio hints at an impending threat. The apartment is quiet; but, as Bourne looks around, you know something is about to happen. An assassin swings into the apartment, crashing through a large window of glass. A fight begins, and the characters move around the room. The level of detail, clarity, and imaging consumed my attention and fully immersed me in the movie.
I am very impressed with the M17's performance, but there are certainly features that some shoppers will miss. As I mentioned, the M17 utilizes Audyssey MultEQ XT, and some specification mongers will expect XT32. My Onkyo processor has XT32, yet it does not offer the level of audio performance that the NAD does. This is a good example of how specifications are not always indicative of how a product will perform. Also, it is an indication of how an audio company balances components, focusing on DACs and other internal parts to make the sum of all parts better than a single specification. According to NAD, I have not scratched the surface on what is possible until I have the Audyssey Pro calibration performed, but I was not able to accomplish this during the review period. It is something I hope to audition at some point, though.
Another concern may be that this is a seven-channel processor. We often see receivers and preamp/processors in this price range with nine or more channels, but keep in mind that, right now, most software titles still only support seven channels of audio. Those extra channels in a nine-channel setup don't contain discrete information but are interpolating information; as such, this is not a big issue for me. However, it could be an issue if you wish to embrace Dolby Atmos or DTS:X. NAD does have a Dolby Atmos MDC module in the works, which should be ready later this year, that will include four additional channels of output for a total of 11.1--but it will carry an additional charge.
Also, I prefer two subwoofer outputs and the ability of the calibration system to balance each sub individually. The M17 has only one balanced subwoofer output, but it does have two RCA line-level subwoofer outputs. I connected a second subwoofer to see how it would operate, and although I did obtain output from the second sub, there was no way to balance it with the processor. If you want one subwoofer in front of the room and another in the back, you would have to manually adjust each subwoofer by its volume control, but it can be done.
The lack of a phono stage is noted, but there are many separate phono stages that can be connected if LPs are a priority. Lastly, there is no headphone output. This is surprising, as headphones have become so popular amongst the younger crowd and audiophiles alike. But again, a separate headphone amplifier can be integrated into your system.
Comparison and Competition
A few competing processors in this price range come to mind. The Krell Foundation is highly regarded for its audio performance. The Anthem AVM 50v 3D is another fine example of how good audio can be from a processor. The Classé SSP-800 is at a higher price point but should be mentioned for its sonic performance, and the Marantz AV8801 comes in at a significantly lower price point.
The NAD M17 is a compelling surround sound processor. In terms of audio quality, this is one of the best processors I have experienced. Build quality is impressive, with an appearance to match. The Modular Design Construction is an amazing promise by NAD to future-proof the product for any unforeseen evolution. I have to say that NAD continues to impress me, once again leaving a sonic impression that I won't soon forget and setting a new standard for me to compare future processors. If I were in the market for a high-performance, top-of-the-line processor, the NAD M17 would be at the top of my short list.
• More AV preamp/processor reviews can be found on our AV Preamplifier category page.
• NAD Introduces C 510 Direct Digital Preamp/DAC at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Check out our NAD brand page at HomeTheaterReview.com.