Some brands disappear, and you couldn't give a toss. But others? They leave a gap in the market and a hole in your soul...if you were one of their devotees. And I adored Nakamichi with a passion. But not just because the company turned a turd (the lowly audio cassette) into a tolerable format: Nakamichi's real claim to historical importance is how it proved, emphatically, that Japanese companies bigger than Stax or Koetsu could make true high-end gear. And then Nak vanished from our shores, denying us a whole school of components: great sounding, great looking and prestigious, while bursting with the latest convenience notions and strictly Japanese virtues like cases with 90 degree corners.
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Now they're back, filling the chasm between the major Japanese brands (which Western audio snobs will never respect) and American/European high-end products. But this is not the tape-oriented Nak of yore: this is Nak for the Millennium. And that means home theatre.
Which is particularly brave of the company. It's not that they've been gone so long that a whole generation is unaware of its reputation (think: Leak); it's just that Nakamichi has chosen an arena dominated by a couple of brands with products so thoroughly competent, so perfectly priced and so highly regarded by both retailers and the press that the company has to bring something very special to the table.
Nakamichi philosophy permeates the AV-10, and not just because of the comfortingly familiar styling. However much more refined it is than a 20-year-old 600-series pre-amp or a 580-series tape deck, the AV-10 is unmistakably Nakamichi. Al-black, with a subtle font to identify the functions, the AV-10 front panel is clean despite containing 31 teensy press-buttons and rotaries. Its red-illuminated display panel is visible from across a room, and a half-dozen buttons are accompanied by their own tell-tale LEDs.
This is, after all, an A/V receiver, so it's not just pre-amp and surround-sound duties which need addressing. The AV-10 contains an AM/FM RDS tuner section which worked as intuitively and quickly as a car radio, and even here in East Kent - better known as Broadcast Hell, where transmissions are hamstrung so as not to upset the scum across the Channel - it worked beautifully. Not that I would waste more time than absolutely necessary on radio.
Blissfully, all of the functions are accessible via a large remote control with learning capability. I've yet to find a remote which doesn't have a fatal flaw, but the one supplied with the AV-10 is at least truly straightforward, simple to use and comprehensive. If you do need to use the front panel controls - rarely, as the main power on/off is a press button at the back and the AV-10 resides in stand-by mode accessed by pressing any source - they are grouped into sections for primary sources, radio functions, surround functions and basic tone setting. The large rotary volume control is motorised, most operations are revealed by messages in the display, tone control is defeatable, there's a proper headphone socket - this is pretty much the classic A/V receiver of the late 20th Century.
Around the back, it's the usual comprehensive array of sockets, the AV-10 accepting seven line level sources plus tape and four inputs each for S-video and composite, and sufficient video outputs to allow S-video tape dubbing to two decks. Also fitted are four digital inputs - two coax, two optical - and the pre-amp outputs for 5.1 surround set-ups. Here's where Nakamichi tips its hat to audiophiles and to discrete, full-frequency surround sound: the five power amplifier sections for left, centre, right, left rear and right rear are 100W each - none of this half-power nonsense for the rear channels, a naff throwback to Dolby Pro Logic-only days.
As such, the AV-10 deals with Dolby Digital
Bless 'em. One or two gimmicks aside, Nakamichi made sound quality a priority. The AV-10's power amplifiers feature the company's Harmonic Time Alignment technology, said to 'maintain the correct timing relationship between the signal and its distortion components'. If the benefits are as claimed - gains in transparency and non-fatiguing performance - then HTA 'works'. As there's no way to A/B it, I'm loath to give it all the credit for the AV-10's sweet sound. Then again, who knows?
Whatever the precise cause of the AV-10's greatness, there's no doubt that the company didn't scrimp on the power supply. The AV-10 measures 430x140x370 (WHD), yet it weighs a chunky 16kg. And a large part of that is pure power supply - including one for the front and rear channels and one for the centre, Nakamichi believing that cinematic playback places the greatest demands on the centre channel. But good old stereo hasn't been neglected: although rated at 5x100W, the AV-10 delivers 120W/ch when only the front left and right channels are driven. Also in the interest of stereo playback, there's a second set of speaker terminals for either driving the mains in bi-wired mode, or for running the sound to a second room.
Other niceties include 30 AM/FM presets, full remote operation with other Nakamichi products, adjustable sub-woofer output, a wonderfully silent fan at the rear to keep things cool - this unit has neglected but one area. As you'd expect, it comes with a comprehensive menu for fine-tuning, coupled to a tone generator which allows you to sit in the hot seat with your remote, setting up every key parameter, e.g. speaker size. Alas, the only read-out is that on the front panel's display: there's no on-screen menu. A colleague of mine who specialises in custom A/V installations once told me - years ago, in fact - that his customers wouldn't even contemplate a device without on-screen information. Nakamichi, on the other hand, argues that, for £999, you're getting better sound quality and, hey, how often do you dabble with the settings?
Like, uh, every time I watch a movie?
Anyway, enough with the picking of nits. The lack of on-screen data will either deter you or not, much in the same way that you'd either buy or not buy a speaker because it's only available in walnut. What the omission it should not distract you from is the core reason why you should consider the AV-10 in the first place: sound quality.
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