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.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...