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Inner Ear Reviews M5 SACD Player

May 23, 2007

BANG FOR THE BUCK

NAD's M5 SACD Pleases the Music-Lover Heart and Satisfies the Audiophile Soul

By Ernie Fisher

 

Even though the mass-market players in the audio industry have abandoned the SACD format, some higher-end companies continue to offer what a lot of us believe to be the better digital play-back format. The M5 is one of NAD's top of the line Masters Series components which also features a power amplifier, a preamplifier and an integrated amplifier the model M3 (reviewed here).

I decided to review this player first as a stand-alone component and then as part of NAD's Masters Series system with the M3 integrated amplifier. I'm one of those who is obsessed with the matter of synergy, testing the equipment separately allows me to determine how it interacts with other brands. Before I get to the nitty gritty, here is a little about the M5's makeup.

Appearance

M5 SACD playerThe players faceplate matches well with that of its sibling, the M3 amp; its easy on the eyes, almost unobtrusive while still offering a touch of (understand) elegance.

The Masters Series is, according to NAD "Build-Artistry" and the fruit of years of R&D. I consider both the components we received for review to be flawless designs that harmoniously combine function and style, not to mention value for your hard-earned bucks.

The build quality is excellent and had me wondering how, at the prices charged, NAD managed to use extruded aluminum, matrixed zinc and massive steel in handsome, solid components that certainly look a lot more expensive than they actually are.

The Sound

To ascertain the M5's sonic merits, I connected it first to my present in-house system, the Simaudio Moon amp/preamp (reviewed in the last issue) and WLM Grand Viola loudspeakers (reviewed in Vol. 16, No3).

What I liked most about this player was how well it revealed harmonics. Although resolution in the upper and lower bass areas lacked "bite" with instrumental parts that featured deep bass, such as the pedal notes on a B3 organ, I thought that brass was reproduced immaculately and without the annoying jarring or roughness often found in medium priced players. I really enjoyed the M5's handling of violins, horns female vocals and other instruments performing at mid and higher frequencies. The player also impressed in the lower midrange and upper bass.

In view of the price, I couldn't help but be impressed by the player's ability to depict musical subtleties such as finely textured harmonics created by violins and woodwinds; but one of the most endearing elements was the players ability to depict a life-like image with astoundingly accurate focus on instruments and voices. Compared to previously reviewed mega-buck players, the M5 only fell short (by a modicum) in its front-to-back reach; actually nothing to worry about, but I'm trying to be as accurate as possible.

Having listened to this system configuration for a couple of weeks, I then connected the M5 to its Master Series sibling, the M3 amplifier. For these auditioning sessions I settled on the System Audio loudspeakers (reviewed in this issue) as I found the voice of the NAD components to be very compatible indeed. This provided a great musical combination with plenty of high-end aura, once again proving that a synergistic system doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg. I find this both pleasing to my music-lover heart and satisfying to my audiophile soul—what more can one ask for?

Technology

This player is designed to function as both a surround sound and a two-channel SACD player. It will play back Dolby digital, DTS and MPEG formats. The M5 is a sophisticated design implementing the straight-forward REDBOOK CD technology as well as the more sophisticated SACD play-back system.

The units drive is a Sony transport incorporating separate audio paths for CD and SACD play-back. Both formats operate through the D/A converters (DACs) and NAD's analog output circuitry. Separate digital filters are employed for the SACD and CD signal paths. Specially designed, low output impedance, discrete Class A gain modules assure the integrity of high resolution SACD. The audio output stage derives its feed from a separate linear power supply which utilizes a specially designed C-core transformer, chosen for its low noise floor and excellent regulation. Circuits for mechanical and digital operations have their own, independent, NAD-designed switch mode power supply.

SACD uses a fundamentally different approach to transferring the analog musical waveform into the digital domain for storage on the disc. This SACD player (like some others) transfers the analogue waveform with the Direct Stream Digital (DSD) circuit—a superior approach to digital encoding. The high data rate process reduces quantization errors often noticeable in the PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) system used for traditional (REDBOOK) CDs and DVDs.

The M5 contains circuitry designed to obtain top quality sound from regular CDs and also features an HDCD decoder which extends dynamic range by as much as 6dB (from encoded discs).. The M5 employs professional grade D/A converters with 24 bit, 192kHz resolution for PCM (CD) signals, as well as the aforementioned DSD mode for SACD.

The M5 will also play back CD-R, CD-RW and even MP3 and WMA. However, for my tests I used only REDBOOK CDs and SACD material so I cannot comment on the other formats. In the SACD mode, the M5 provides 5.1 surround sound playback. As well, the player includes extensive bass management for the 5.1 output, allowing the end-user to choose the preferred crossover point with 12dB high and 24dB low pass filters. Configurations can be selected using the front panel controls. When used for video play-back, adjustments can be made with the composite video output when operating the M5's on-screen display. When the player is used for music, the video circuit can be switched off to preserve signal integrity and, thus, provide the best possible sound.

Synopsis & Commentary

I'm predisposed to the SACD format, which I believe provides more musical structure and added harmonics to the all-round sound. The M5 definitely meets these expectations of musicality. Like some other players in its price range, it does have a few limitations, but only when compared to much more expensive players such as the ones we have reviewed in past issues: the $17,000 Teac Esoteric X-01 (reviewed in vol. 16 No. 4), the equally pricey Audio Aero Prestige, and the $10k Musical Fidelity kW (both reviewed in Vol.17, No 2). Having been exposed to some of the industry's best players, I am really difficult to please. However, I have to admit that the M5's sonic caliber exceeded my expectations and I think it is superior to any other player I have auditioned in its price category. It provides a fulfilling listening experience, not yet attainable in other brands at its price range, or even from those available at twice the price. High praise from an old and fussy audio devotee who continues to grapple with this price/performance comparison! My advice—audition the M5, invest in a couple of upscale interconnects, and laugh all the way to the bank.

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