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SoundStage Reviews the T 175 AV PreAmp

May 18, 2010

The NAD T 175 audio/video processor, introduced a couple of years ago, is one of NAD’s Modular Design Construction (MDC) components, meaning that its audio and video boards are on removable modules. The new MDC modules for the T 175 now include Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio decoding, and Sigma Designs’ advanced VXP video processing. Owners of the original model can upgrade their units simply by buying and installing the new audio and video modules. If NAD keeps releasing new versions of these MDC modules, owners will be able to keep updating their T 175s without having to buy an entirely new A/V processor for quite some time.

Description

The newest T 175 ($2999 USD) is the top of NAD’s line of standard home-theater components, which also includes several MDC surround receivers; the T 175 is their only separate surround processor in that line. The T 175 includes NAD’s most advanced audio module, the AM 200 Dual DSP. In addition to Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, it supports Audyssey’s MultEQ XT room correction, and Dynamic Volume and Dynamic EQ. In addition to Audyssey’s standard and Flat EQ target curves, the T 175 includes NAD’s own target curve, developed by Paul Barton of PSB Speakers. (PSB and NAD are both owned by the Lenbrook Group.) According to Barton, the NAD curve is subtly different from the Audyssey curve in having slightly less high-frequency energy. Barton is well versed in this subject; in the late 1980s, he was involved with the Athena Project at Canada’s National Research Council, which investigated digital signal processing for loudspeakers.

The T 175 also includes Dolby Pro Logic IIx and NAD’s EARS processing, the latter said to add subtle enhancement of the surround ambience present in two-channel recordings. For those who want to adjust the audio settings themselves rather than rely on Audyssey’s automatic calibration, the speaker levels and distances can be set in respective increments of 1dB, and of 1’ or 0.3m. The subwoofer crossover points can be set independently for the front, center, and surround channels from 40 to 200Hz, in increments of 10Hz.

 "...the T 175 should remain a solid recommendation well into the future -- something that can’t be said for many other surround-sound processors."

NAD’s VM 200 video module features Sigma Designs’ VXP broadcast-studio-quality video processing. This is a premium video processor, but the T 175 offers only the most basic video adjustments of edge enhancement, noise reduction, brightness, and contrast -- though this did make setup relatively simple and speedy.

The T 175 measures 17”W x 5.75”H x 13.75”D and weighs 17.6 pounds. Its exterior is finished in matte black, with a thick metal faceplate that gives it a solid look and feel. A substantial toroidal transformer can be seen through its top vents. The audio and video inputs, all of them assignable, consist of four HDMI, three component video, three coaxial, and three optical digital audio inputs. Also included are analog stereo audio and composite and S-video inputs, and a single 7.1-channel analog audio input. That last is a direct input with volume control only, and no DSP of the audio signal. Video monitor outputs are available on the composite, S-video, component, and HDMI connections. There are coaxial and optical digital audio outputs, and the AC cord is removable. Additional composite video, S-video, optical, and stereo analog inputs are available on the front panel, along with a headphone jack and an input for a media player or the Audyssey calibration microphone. Up to four listening zones can be configured, and there are options for adding an iPod dock, and XM satellite and DAB radio tuners.

T175 AV Pre Amplifier

The slim remote control is easy to hold, with a nice heft. It’s backlit, with a handy LCD display that indicates the device currently selected and the last button depressed. It also signals when its batteries are running low. There are even buttons that give direct access to channel levels and the Audyssey MultEQ target curves. This is one of the most functional remote controls for a surround processor from a specialty manufacturer I have ever used.

Setup

One problem I had with the T 175 was what sounded like a clicking relay each time the unit locked to an audio signal. This occurred at the beginnings of Blu-ray Discs or DVDs, when I cycled through multiple trailers and menus, but it also happened whenever I skipped a chapter or track on any video or audio disc. It would even occur between tracks, when I played straight through CDs or SACDs with either the Oppo BDP-83 universal player or the Sony PlayStation 3. This issue was isolated to the digital inputs; it didn’t happen when I used the analog audio inputs.

Performance

The T 175 might have limited options of video adjustment, but its picture quality through the Sigma Designs VXP video processor was outstanding. Native 1080p material from Blu-ray Discs looked immaculate. The plentiful inky blacks in The Dark Knight were beautifully reproduced with superb shadow detail, and outdoor scenes, especially those presented in the 1:78 aspect ratio, had outstanding clarity and detail.

"The NAD T 175 may lack some features and flexibility, but it’s still an excellent performer. It includes the latest VXP video processing, and has exceptional sound with both movie soundtracks and music, all for a reasonable price of $2999. Assuming continuing MDC upgrades, the T 175 should remain a solid recommendation well into the future -- something that can’t be said for many other surround-sound processors."

Public Enemies, which was shot in HD video, had an eye-catching and hyperdetailed look. In the final scene in the women’s prison, the bright white background of the prison walls was starkly contrasted with the ruddy complexion of Special Agent Winstead (Stephen Lang). The various shades of gray and the textures of grout on the walls, Winstead’s suit, Billie’s (Marion Cotillard) dress, and her tearful eyes, were striking. In one of the early scenes, as Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) chases Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum), the detail visible in the lush green vegetation of the fields and orchards was impressive. It was also easy to distinguish the differing weights of material in clothing, such as Purvis’s heavy wool pants and Floyd’s comparatively lightweight suit.

The 480i video signals from standard DVDs also looked excellent through the T 175. Standard-definition CGI animation can look outstanding when properly deinterlaced and upscaled, and it did with the NAD’s VXP processor. Cars, with its bounty of bold primary colors, had plenty of visual pop, and plenty of detail was apparent in the many logos adorning the cars. At times, the bright lighting effects in the desert outside Radiator Springs looked almost like real sunlight. And although it was entirely artificial, there was a sense of dimensionality to the racetrack and stadium in the opening scenes.

Deinterlacing torture tests, such as the “flyover” of the Colosseum in Gladiator, were handled smoothly, as were the empty grandstand seats in the racetrack shots on the Silicon Optix HQV Benchmark DVD. The VXP video processor was able to immediately lock on to the seats with no visible moiré patterning. The “Jaggies Tests” exhibited only a slight wavering in the most extreme portion of the tests. More natural-looking material, as in Ang Lee’s Hulk, looked exceptional. The Hulk himself looked cartoonish and artificial, but the beautiful cinematography and natural lighting of the live-action shots were remarkably smooth and realistic.

Inglourious Basterds looked fantastic on Blu-ray, but the sound quality was even more impressive in DTS-HD Master Audio through the T 175. Giorgio Moroder (music) and David Bowie’s (words) “Putting Out the Fire,” which originally appeared in the soundtrack of another film, Cat People (1982), is used to fantastic effect in this film, and sounded simply stunning. The music was spread effectively among the speakers, and Bowie’s voice was wonderfully lucid through the front speakers. When the actors began speaking, the music was mixed down and pushed into the background, but it was still easily distinguishable, and the dialogue was equally intelligible. The shoot-out in the tavern demonstrated the T 175’s ability to reproduce startling dynamics while maintaining a sense of control and composure so that the sound didn’t become overbearing. Even more noteworthy was the NAD’s ability to capture the aural ambiance of the claustrophobic setting. Background conversations and even an old phonograph sounded as if they were actually taking place in a small basement tavern. The soundtrack of Inglourious Basterds is of reference quality; with the T 175, I was completely immersed in the film’s reality.

T175 AV Pre Amplifier

 

Morph the Cat, from Donald Fagen’s Nightfly Trilogy (DVD and CD, Reprise 9362433252), in both 24-bit/96kHz stereo PCM and 5.1-channel DTS, was equally involving. This nearly perfect pop album is reminiscent of Steely Dan’s Gaucho, but unlike that much older recording, Morph has all the richness and highly detailed sound of today’s best hi-rez recordings. In DTS, the silky-smooth vocals on “H Gang” were wonderfully contrasted with occasional jazzy horn riffs, and while the surround channels were very active, there was a nice balance to the soundstage in all directions. In hi-rez stereo PCM, the title track was even better defined and more articulate, though it lacked the surround envelopment of the DTS version. In particular, the bass was deeper and more taut, and the voices sounded even sweeter.

Playing standard-resolution 16/44.1 stereo PCM from CDs or from my laptop through the Trends Audio UD-10.1 USB converter was also very satisfying. There was a dimensionality and smoothness to the sound that reminded me of a really good CD player or dedicated DAC. The piano on Jackson Browne’s “Sky Blue and Black,” from The Next Voice You Hear: The Best of Jackson Browne (CD, Elektra 7559621522), had a fullness, especially in the lower registers, and an unforced quality to Browne’s unhurried singing. The pinpoint imaging of “Lives in the Balance” was appropriately holographic. If, like most people, you have a lot of standard-rez digital stereo recordings, you won’t be disappointed in the T 175’s reproduction of them.

Comparison

The NAD T 175 doesn’t have the multitude of setup options of my reference A/V processor, the Anthem Statement D2, or the Anthem’s high level of transparency -- but neither does it have the much higher price of the D2 ($7499 when available). When I listened to “Heart of Gold,” from Neil Young Archives, Vol.1: 1963-1972 (CD, Reprise 0093624996057), the Anthem was better able to convey a sense of energy from this live recording. There was a darker background, and more smoothness to Young’s harmonica, in addition to an authenticity in his voice, that just sounded more alive. The NAD still sounded excellent with music-only recordings, and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to both standard- and hi-rez two-channel recordings through it. Overall, I preferred the sound of the Anthem Statement D2, but considering that the NAD T 175 costs less than half as much, it came surprisingly close.

I preferred NAD’s own EQ curve to Audyssey’s target curve -- it had a bit more bass, and a fuller sound that didn’t sacrifice bass definition. However, the reduced HF energy in the NAD curve, as described by Paul Barton, might explain that perception. “Putting Out the Fire,” from Inglourious Basterds, sounded a little thinner with the Audyssey curve; switching back to the NAD curve resulted in a richer sound with no loss of detail. Even so, the differences were fairly subtle; some might prefer the Audyssey curve, but I commend NAD for providing another option.

"...picture quality through the Sigma Designs VXP video processor was outstanding. Native 1080p material from Blu-ray Discs looked immaculate. The plentiful inky blacks in The Dark Knight were beautifully reproduced with superb shadow detail, and outdoor scenes, especially those presented in the 1:78 aspect ratio, had outstanding clarity and detail."

I was disappointed by the T 175’s paucity of video adjustments. That said, many users don’t want to contend with complex video adjustments, and won’t use them even if they’re provided. And Sigma Designs’ VXP is still considered one of the best video processors available. With the high-quality ABT processing built into the Oppo BDP-83 and the earlier generation of VXP processing in the Anthem Statement D2, the three components I was comparing had nearly indistinguishable picture qualities. At times I thought the NAD outperformed the Oppo and Anthem in HQV Benchmark’s “Jaggies Tests,” but its scaling and deinterlacing of the standard-def DVD of Cars looked a bit soft. Still, these differences were relatively minor and fleeting; images from all three components looked very good, whether they were processing 480i video from DVDs or simply passing along 1080p signals to my 56” RPTV.

The inclusion of MDC in the T 175 is no insignificant feature. The original T 175 didn’t have VXP video processing, or the ability to decode Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio. Hopefully, NAD will continue to upgrade its MDC modules so that T 175 owners will be able to take advantage of the latest technologies -- such as HDMI 1.4 (which appears to be required for 3D video), or Audyssey DSX or Dolby Pro Logic IIz.

Conclusion

The NAD T 175 may lack some features and flexibility, but it’s still an excellent performer. It includes the latest VXP video processing, and has exceptional sound with both movie soundtracks and music, all for a reasonable price of $2999. Assuming continuing MDC upgrades, the T 175 should remain a solid recommendation well into the future -- something that can’t be said for many other surround-sound processors.

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