CustomRetailer T 163 and T 973 Review
May 27, 2005
Reviewer: Ron Goldberg
NAD's central selling point has always been steak over sizzle for the money. When you sell or spec this brand, you're not offering the custom flashy light shows or gratuitous audio features that probably sound better on paper. For decades now, NAD's song has stayed the same—advanced power amplification and no-nonsense front ends, available either in separate boxes or mated as a receiver. Your choice of gray or gray (though these days, the company also offers some products in obligator silver).
The latest implementation of this admirable focused approach is a pair of custom-friendly home theater separates. THE T163 is an A/V preamp-processor that includes an AM/FM tuner, thereby making it two-thirds of a receiver. The matching power amp is the T 973, a seven-channel unit capable of 140 watts of continuous power, and more in the clutch. Despite the usual unassuming NAD cosmetics, both components feature some interesting new technology under the hood, and do so with the usual attention to bang for the buck.
T 163 SURROUND SOUND PREAMP
The T 163 is a full-sized 7.1-friendly pre-pro, offering decoding in numerous formats for two, five, six and seven-channel configurations. It also features second zone operation and, in addition to the main system controller, includes a separate compact remote to access source and volume from a remote zone.
Connectivity options are ample, if not overwhelming. There are three HD-compatible component video inputs and one out. Upconversion to component video is not supported, nor is the on-screen menu system available through component outputs. If you're custom installing the T 163, you'll need to run a second monitor connection if you want your customers to be able to make on-screen menu changes. Remember, I said "if".
Other connections include four coaxial and two optical digital audio inputs with composite or S-video; two subwoofer outputs and a set of 7.1 analog inputs for high-res multi-channel audio sources (5.1 would be used for SACD or DVD-A). There is no bass management or other processing available to the multi-channel input. Custom situations will benefit from an RS-232 port and three 12-volt triggers.
All this sounds pretty routine—respectable, but not thrilling—until you get to the T 163's real differentiators. First, there's the inclusion of an AM/FM tuner. You can store up to 30 FM stations and 10 AM in memory, and more importantly, this feature means you no longer have the embarrassment of looking your customers in the eye and telling them that even though they're spending five figures for a A/V system, they can't listen to the radio on it.
The second feature that separates the T 163 from the crowd is the inclusion of several listening modes that show exemplary forethought on how people might actually listen to music these days (and I don't mean through an iPod!). The problem with most surround listening modes for music is that they pre-suppose a fixed listening position that's more or less analogous to the sweet spot of a stereo listening position. Yeah, yeah, there's rear-channel info now, the stage is bigger, there's some ambience enhancement going on. The soundstage is different, but it's still assuming that you're listening to music from your couch or easy chair. This is true for a movie, but for music?
NAD took a different approach with two enhanced stereo modes and a surround setting that fit music better into the way people listen nowadays—while they're doing things like cooking, entertaining or enjoying a CD while a spouse is asleep. For example, the "Enhanced Stereo 1" setting plays all recordings in stereo through all available speakers, which has the happy effect of giving you a cohesive stereo experience in more than one location in the room. The "Enhanced Stereo 2" setting is a simple but brilliant idea—it plays stereo material only through surround speakers (and sub, if there is one). Late at night, you can listen to music at low levels through speakers that are smaller, quieter and probably nearer to your ears than the front speakers, without waking the kids. A third setting called EARS intelligently recovers ambience from stereo recordings and mixes them judiciously into discrete channels. It's a very compelling effect—surround-like without the surround artifacts. Make sure you demo these modes to prospective customers."
"This stuff is built tough, and once it's fired up, you really can forget about it. That's worth it's weight in gold when it comes to a custom installation."
NAD T 973 SEVEN-CHANNEL POWER AMP
The matching power amp to the T 163 is an austere looking gray box called the T 973. THX-Ultra certified, it incorporates a monoblock design in which each of the seven channels employs individual circuitry (except for the power supply, of course). The power supply uses the company's "Holmgren" transformer, which should offer less hum and magnetic leakage than conventional torroidal transformers. The front label features seven green LEDs to show active channels, as well as an indicator for the company's venerable "soft clipping" feature, which suppresses distortion to keep the amps from being overdriven on dynamic peaks.
The rear panel consists of nicely-spaced multi-connection speaker terminals, as well as a defeat switch for the soft clipping feature; a 12-volt trigger input, an auto-trigger switch, and rotary pots for output levels on all channels. In my installation, I left all the pots up full, as the documentation suggests, and adjusted channel output levels with the T 163. There are other level settings possible with the pre-pro, including individual settings per source device that can be memorized in a preset. But it's nice to have the additional level control for the amp, particularly if two of the seven channels will be dedicated to a remote zone.
The most interesting feature in this amp is what NAD calls "PowerDrive." As the company explains it, a second high-voltage rail is added to the power supply, resulting in an overdrive capability that can nearly double the continuous power on a short term basis, such as during a dynamic peak. Over the years, NAD's interest—perhaps even obsession—with the audible (and sometimes physical) effects of amplifier clipping has resulted in numerous innovative design concepts. The PowerDrive is an evolution of an earlier NAD circuit called Power Envelope. The improvement in the new circuit is described as greater stability, particularly in low-impedance contexts.
In practice, the T 973 really does deliver the dynamics. Even though 140 watts (into eight or four ohms) is plenty of continuous power for just about any application, short dynamic bursts like kick drums, gun shots and the like need more, if only for milliseconds. These bursts were effortlessly handled by the T 973, no matter what I threw at it, from Keith Moon on "Live at Leeds" to Saving Private Ryan. As is characteristic of the classic NAD sound, the amp has outstanding speed and slam, making it a great choice for speakers (and customers) that are capable of genuinely rocking out.
It's become a bit of a cliché for reviewers to include some anecdote about an early piece of NAD gear that's still with them—for many of us audiophiliacs, NAD was nothing less than the gateway drug. I'll only deviate from this formula a little bit—a late 80s NAD 1300 preamp was my first entry into stereo separates, and until it went the way of eBay last year, it provided flawless service, despite the beating I gave it through innumerable systems, including a MIDI studio and occasional live sound reinforcement. This stuff is built tough, and once it's fired up, you really can forget about it. That's worth it's weight in gold when it comes to a custom installation.
Durability's a good selling point, but the NAD combo has two others. For one, the audio and video performance is beyond reproach. The video passthrough is clean and free from the overly processed "digital" look I've seen from other gear in this price range. The audio makes no pretense at euphonics—it's clear, present and unabashed. It's everything that's on the program material, and no program material you can think of will make it work up much of a sweat.
Finally you get to value, which is also something of an NAD calling card. The T 163 lists for $1,499, while the T 973 is $1,999. In the case of the former, you're getting a piece that is in many ways competitive with the more elaborate pre-pros from Anthem, Parasound, AudioControl and the like, all of which cost substantially more. These other models might offer greater connectivity and more precise control over specific sound parameters, but not every customer needs these features, and not every one of these other models throws an AM/FM tuner into the mix. In the case of the amp, two grand seems a very fair price for this kind of brute power times seven, particularly when the sound is this clean and the build is this sturdy.
While its competitors have sought ever new ways of putting old wine in new bottles, coming up with endless Mark II editions and ever more logos on the faceplate, NAD has remained steady to its original vision of substance over style, and making sure that the customer's money is going into what's under the hood. That's a timeless selling proposition, which is just the way that NAD likes it. Your customers might very well feel the same way.
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