High-end Masters Series Home Theater Review
March 28, 2011
NAD Master Series - High-Def Heavyweights
When NAD first introduced its Master Series of top-end components, I wasn't entirely comfortable with the notion. After All, NAD had built its brand reputation on brilliant but affordable components that exuded both sonic excellence and exceptional value – traits that are true of the marque to this day.
The Master Series seemed at odds with such core values, and while I had no doubt that the units bearing the new badge would be good, I wondered whether they would be able to exceed expectations and thrill their audience to the same extent as the 'normal' NAD components typically do.
A few years later, the Master Series has established itself as a worthy player in the high-end field. And it has created some ground-breaking products, most notably the highly praised M2 digital integrated amplifier.
The three Master Series components under the spotlight here are somewhat more conventional, although also reflecting thoroughly contemporary trends such as multizone applications. Wi-Fi and Ethernet connectivity and compatibility with multiple formats.
Of the three, the M25 seven-channel Home theater powered amplifier will be the most familiar to those who've been following the Master Series story. It's been around for a good few years now, and has remained mostly unchanged during that time.
It's a monster of an amplifier, weighing a back-breaking 43 kg once unpacked, and requiring two people (or The Incredible Hulk) to maneuver into position. That weight is understandable, given the massive Holmgren toroidal power supply, and a circuit topology that effectively positions seven individual monoblock amps inside a common case.
Each monoblock employs a balanced FET input stage, while close attention has been paid to ground isolation to prevent noise. Other features include a class A voltage amp with push-pull output stage to deliver ample current, substantial overload protection, and multiple 100 000 uF, 100V low-ESR capacitors to ensure a clean DC voltage supply.
The Master Series styling is smart and purposeful, with a certain functional honesty that only adds to its overall aesthetic appeal. A power button and a blue indicator light for each channel are the only occupants of the grey faceplate, which is framed in brushed aluminum.
The rear panel offers a line-level RCA input (no balanced-line sockets?) for each of the seven channels, accompanied by a buffered rotary level control. Impressively engineered binding posts with ample space to accommodate thick speaker cables and a kettle plug power chord receptacle complete the picture.
By comparison, the M15HD surround sound home theater pre-amp has a somewhat busier fascia and so it should, given the extensive array of complex tasks it needs to perform. Those ergonomics are still pretty clean and intuitive, tough – especially compared to the flight deck-style complexity of many AV receivers.
The NAD's front panel gets a large, clear alphanumeric display, a single rotary controller, and a sprinkling of round buttons. Aesthetically, it's a perfect match for the big M25 power amp, with the same grey, silver-framed finish.
But if you're thinking that this is the same M15 introduced back in 2005, think again: the basic layout may appear the same, but the HD designation tacked onto the end of the nameplate should alert one that this is a significantly upgraded AV pre-processor, compared to its predecessor.
As that moniker applies, the new M15HD is high-definition ready – although the advent of 3D and HDMI 1.4 has already left this unit one step behind the cutting edge. All isn't lost, however: like the T765HD receiver recently reviewed in this magazine, the M15HD also features NAD's new Modular Design Configuration, or MDC.
It means that the main chassis of the M15HD acts as a host for a number of dedicated boards, which can be swapped out to take advantage of new technologies, formats or standards. As a result, the M15HD is effectively future-proofed, while protecting the owner's considerable investment. Software and firmware is upgradeable via the unit's RS232 port.
As tested, the M15HD features HDMI 1.3a compatibility only, and unlike the M25, which is THX Ultra II-certified, the pre-processor doesn't get a THX certificate. But the modular construction means that upgrade boards should be regularly available, and that users will be able to custom-configure their M15HD to reflect specific needs or applications.
The M15HD is completely compatible with all the latest high-res audio formats from Dolby and DTS, and promises fine video processing and upscaling. With an ample array of analogue and digital inputs, and the ability to operate up to three different zones, versatility is a further plus point.
A closer look at the technical details underscores just how much effort has gone into ensuring that the M15HD lives up to the expectations of demanding home entertainment enthusiasts.
It starts with carefully regulated power supplies: switch-mode types for the digital audio and video stages, and linear for the analogue audio stage. The theme of ensuring audiophile-grade sonic performance is one that permeates through every facet of this M15HD and the Master Series as a whole.
Compared to its predecessor, the HD version bristles with computing power – NAD says this has increased four-fold and employs high-speed 32-bit floating-point DSP modules. Analogue-to-digital, and digital-to-analogue conversion is effected at 192 kHZ/24-bit, with discrete two-channel DACs favoured ahead of multichannel DAC boards.
Video processing power is also impressive. The M15HD is equipped with the Sigma VXP processor, which accepts and upscales both analogue and digital video source signals. The claimed processing latency is less than 1/50th of a second.
The Sigma boards upscales to full 1080p, and can output at resolution of up to 2048X2048 – well beyond what normal HD screens currently handle. It outputs upscaled video, regardless of whether the original was digital or analogue, and feeds both component analogue or HDMI digital video interfaces.
The Audyssey MultiEQ equalization and processing system is standard, allowing more accurate room correction using actually measured acoustic data.
The third and last member of the Master Series trio being evaluated here is the M56 Blu-ray player. As one would expect, it too is fully HD-compatible, and copes with all the latest high-def audio formats, while outputting video in high-def 1080p.
Blu-ray features include BD Live 2.0, including ample internal memory for downloaded content, fast disc loading (compared to some older players, which can take hours to load a BD), and support for Deep Colour and picture-in-picture.
Sonically, the M56 also offers all the latest high-resolution audio formats, including Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio. DVD video is upscaled to full HD (via HDMI only, though). The back panel shows a full mix of analogue and digital signal management options, including a 7.1 analogue output set for use with older ancillaries, and support for both component video and HDMI 1.3.
Less obvious is the network streaming capability of the M56. The Ethernet port isn't only provided for BD Live purposes, but also allows the player to access and stream content from other sources on a home network. And if Ethernet isn't available, the NAD can achieve the same via its integrated Wi-Fi support.
The M56 is compatible with JPEG, GIF, PNG, DivX, AVCHD, MPED-2, MPEG-4 and VC-1 formats, but doesn't appear to support AVI or ISO files, which limits its streaming usefulness to some extent.
The system was set up in the AVSA listening studio, and was reviewed using both our default Atlantic Technology 7.1 speaker set, and a Martin Logan Motion 5.1 system also on appraisal at the time.
Software assembled for the review included a number of movie and music BD discs: the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy, Chris Botti Live, the classic and visually arresting 'Gangs Of New York', and Jeff Beck's virtuoso tour de force on “Live At Ronnie Scott's'.
I also took along some DVDs, among them 'Blackhawk Down' and Santana's classic 'Supernatural', while stereo CD choices included Pat Metheny's 'Secret Story', Patricia Barber's moody 'Companion', the latest Katie Melua release, 'The House', and vintage Paul Rodgers on 'Muddy Water Blues'.
There's nothing shy or reticent about the master Series. Heard together, as here, the threesome finds an obvious sonic rapport that is to significant benefit of the overall performance. There's a cohesion, a sonic unity that allows these devices to sound convincing, enthralling and downright impressive, all at the same time.
The most obvious aspect of this partnership is that between pre-processor and power amp. The big M25 might look (and feel) the brutal, heavyweight part, but in practice, it delivers its wares with an agility and impetus that never sounds overbearing, but always entices.
At lower levels, its effortless delivery makes it obvious that the big amp has plenty in reserve. But that smooth and deceptively easy approach is maintained as you crank up the volume and even when driven hard, there's no sign of any sonic stress.
The combination of ample headroom and an inherent finesse makes the M25 a gentle, approachable giant that can tip-toe its way through delicate passages, yet deliver all the punch and fireworks one could wish for if required. I never got even close to clipping the amp.
And while the M25 hardly seems to raise a sweat, it's anything but laid back. There's nothing slow or slapstick about its delivery: this is a very fast, very athletic power amp that doesn't allow all that muscle to trip it up.
All of this translates into an amplifier that rises to the challenge of even the most demanding surround sound-track, and can make special effects seem startlingly real and lifelike. But the NAD's real class is evidenced by its treatment of music.
Here, the M25 manages to combine momentum and brio with a certain finesse and attention to emotive detail that really drives the musical message home. It can tiptoe its way through a melancholy Metheny guitar solo with as much verve and commitment as it does when rocking along with ace axeman Jeff Beck. Such virtuoso versatility is rare, and downright impressive.
The M15HD pre-processor remains somewhat aloof of this musical process. Like a good conductor, it directs the audio affairs but never gets in the way of M25's delivery – or so it appears. In reality, its role is a lot more active, more hands-on, than such sonic imperceptibility would suggest.
It says a lot for the electronic mastery and the processing speed of the M15HD that it is able to cope with the challenge of overseeing and controlling a full 7.1 channels' worth of digital signal processing, video upconversion, digital-to-analogue conversion and basic signal control.
Besides, it does so with a quiet unobtrusiveness that understates the role it plays – and plays so well. Fact is, the M15HD has to be acknowledged for the grand scale of the system's delivery, as well as an integration of main and surround channels that is so smooth that it creates a panoramic, inviting and immersive sonic image.
Yes, there is a sheen of polish that tends to soften some of the more sassy brass notes, and usefully disguises the tonal vagaries of a poor recordings. But for the most, the M15's considerable contributions remain transparent and unobtrusive – and in control amp terms, there can't be higher praise.
It also means that the marriage of M25 and M15HD is a match made in audio heaven, offering a surround sound experience that makes the most of the latest high-res formats, but steers clear of the hyperrealism and exaggeration that can sometimes mar even high-end components.
In the latest-generation context, the newest member of the Master Series plays a critical role in maximizing the potential of its two system partners. As explained, the M56 Blu-ray player reflects the most recent audio and video technologies and advances, allowing it to present the M15HD with a top-quality signal.
I liked its fast boot-up time, its quiet operation and its ease of use – a trait that it shares with the M15HD. Initial set-up was quick and intuitive, and if HDMI is the preferred connection, there is a welcome lack of tangled cables and laborious connections.
The M56 is a fine disc player, even though its ability to accommodate SACD means that it isn't a true universal player. However, one suspects that the majority of owners will stick to its Blu-ray talents, and in that it certainly excels.
The Jeff Beck 'Live at Ronnie Scott's' remains one of my absolute favourite BDs at present. It combines the moody lighting and intimacy of the legendary club to superb sound in both stereo and surround. And besides, Beck's guitar is magic!
On Blu-ray, the picture quality was superb: crisp and detailed, with rich colours and finely etched facial features. The M56 had no problem dealing with fast-moving action ('Ronin' had me on the edge of my seat, even though I know the DVD well), and on 'The Lord of The Rings' trilogy, some of the scenes felt almost three-dimensional.
While the visual standards are impressive, the M56 shines even brighter in music terms. It's one thing to make a movie soundtrack sound vivid and believable. But the challenge is somewhat more telling in musical terms.
Chris Botti's live concerts are available on Blu-ray and CD, in both stereo and latest-gen surround, and is a stern test for any system, because his exuberant trumpet can sound too bright and edgy on lessor systems. The live ambience, complex orchestration and some pretty good solo work by the assembled session musicians all ensure a riveting performance – if the hardware is up to it.
The M56 delivered on all counts: it managed to capture the atmosphere and scale of the performances, translating both the bold strokes and the finer nuance with realism and confidence. In stereo mode, staging was so three-dimensional that I hardly missed the surround element – although, once switching to true 7, the addition of those rear channels did add a further sense of size and presence.
Evaluated individually, these Master Series components easily deliver to high-end standards, and it is in that context that they should be considered. The NAD heritage contributes solid, detailed and innovative engineering, as well as an ongoing focus on value and discarding the unnecessary.
That also means that this trio, although not cheap in absolute terms, represents fine value when considered against more glamorous, but also much more expensive, high-end marques.
But it all really comes together as a system. With a decent source signal from the M56 to work with, the M15HD struts its processing stuff with confidence and care, offering excellent video performance, and ensuring true high-end sonics.
Add the muscle of the gentle-giant M25 to this equation, and the result is home theatre nirvana – with convincing, enthralling stereo as an added bonus. Money well spent, I'd say.
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