Inner Ear Reviews M3 Integrated Amplifier
May 23, 2007
No Mass-Market Mediocrity
With the introduction of the Masters Series M3 Integrated Amp, NAD introduces music lovers to high-end sound at a ridiculous price
Contemporary audio enthusiasts will be familiar with the prominent electronics manufacturer NAD, but few might know that the brand name stands for New Acoustic Dimensions. It all began in 1972 when at a high-level pow-wow in Europe, a number of important sales and marketing people from around the globe agreed to create affordable good quality electronics for audio enthusiasts. It was decided to commission talented designers to build the equipment in already established factories in Taiwan. The first model introduced in the late 70s was a 20 watt/channel receiver—the model 3020 which sold for the ridiculous price of US $179 and sounded very good. This initial product enjoyed instant acceptance and gradually the NAD family of products grew. They are now known as reliable, affordable equipment that is generally admired.
I suppose that thirty years of building and marketing electronics has given the company an all-out understanding of the market, culminating in the new premium and more upscale Masters Series of components to which the M3 (and the M5 also reviewed in this issue) belongs.
The Extruded Aluminum and die-cast zinc faceplate is both elegant and practical. It incorporates a centered status window flanked by the on/off button on the left and a large volume knob on the right. Under the window are seven smaller buttons labeled listen (selector), record, mode (stereo or mono), balance, tone (controls), biamp and speaker (A/B). Accessing any of the functions is easy as the units vacuum florescent display clearly reveals. On the rear, the main power switch is located next to the AC well as are four sets of binding posts, all inputs, preamp out and a DB-9 in/output enables the unit to be connected to and operated by a windows-based PC. A 12 volt trigger allows connection to and control of auxiliary equipment. Four large rubber feet support the amp's weight and help to prevent resonance.
All in all, the silver and gray chassis and left/right heat sinks blend smoothly into an aesthetic component—unobtrusive, yet handsome.
"I believe the M3 to be a great prelude into the very high-end of the electronics industry"
I'm one of those who believe that absolute knowledge is unattainable and that judgments must be continually questioned in order to attain relative certainty. I do not associate specifications with sonic caliber and go about my many hours of listening tests with thoughtful objectivity. In preparation, I operated the unit and its source component sibling for about a week, playing back a CD with the M5 player set to repeat. I noticed considerable changes as the equipment burned in.
Right out of the box both the amp and CD player sounded dull and lackluster with poor resolution. I noticed gradual improvements almost every day and after having burned in the unit(s) for about 150 hours I knew the amp was at its peak operating condition. I then began my usual "labor of love" connecting various loudspeakers to find synergy. Three pairs of loudspeakers served to establish the voice of the amp: the WLM Grand Violas (reviewed in Vol. 16, No. 4), the Sonus faber and System Audio speakers (both reviewed in this issue). Source components included the NAD M5 and the Simaudio Andromeda (reviewed in the last issue) CD players. Three sets of cables were used, the JPS Alumate series (reviewed in the last issue), the Nordost Valhalla series (reviewed in Vol. 13 #2) and an inexpensive German cable called Monitor Das Kabel. Atmost 389, provided by Angstrom.
In my first listening test the most expensive WLMs literally sang with the M3 amp. This system was connected with Valhalla cables. With this system set-up the midrange was free of any sonic impurities and I could perceive inner detail, textures and all those good things reviewers like to talk about. To put it plainly, the M3 is a superb amp with very few short-comings, even compared to amplifiers selling at twice the price. My listening pleasure was not diminished by the use of the Atmos 309 cable ($99.00 for 3 metres pair), indicating that the M3 copes very well with an inexpensive cable, still providing admirable sound – not as good as my "big stuff", but praiseworthy all the same.
Synopsis & Commentary
I believe the M3 to be a great introduction to the very high-end of the electronics industry. All system combinations showed that the NAD M3 is a worthy contender in a market saturated with mass produced mediocrity. It is refreshing to see that NAD hasn't crumbled under the pressure of producing for the masses and sacrificed quality for the sake of making money. They still pay attention to the music lovers of the world and the two components reviewed in this issue (look for the M5 CD player as well) are proof that design, manufacture and music can reside harmoniously in the hardware we call audio components.
The best and most logical system combination will include loudspeakers such as the System Audio (under US $7k), but I believe that the amp can and will drive both more expensive and less costly designs. If you are about to purchase an upscale but uncomplicated audio system, look at this amplifier and the matching SACD player). They can serve as cornerstones for a system you can easily upgrade with more expensive loudspeakers and cables. I tried a few upscale power cords which made a difference, mainly in resolution and spatial ambiance. For additional tweaks to improve an already good amplifier, I recommend a powerline conditioner. Get the point? The M3 can be a stable component in your system for many years to come. If you wish to upgrade, don't hesitate and tweak away—you'll not be sorry.
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