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Having established, over the past 40 years, an excellent reputation for manufacturing affordable yet high-quality audio gear, NAD has recently gained the attention of audiophiles with their Masters Series models, most of them priced at a few thousand dollars -- relatively expensive for NAD models, but not when compared to gear from many specialty-audio makers. And, like other NAD products, the Masters Series models have already become known among audiophiles for providing excellent performance and value, even at their higher prices.
One of the newest members of the Masters Series is the M17 surround-sound processor ($5499 USD), a sample of which I received for review along with the M27 seven-channel power amplifier. These and the M12 stereo DAC-preamp and M22 stereo power amp are the latest Masters Series models introduced in 2014. The M27 and M22 boast updated cosmetics and new amplifier topologies, the M17 and M12 slick-looking touchscreen controls.
The Masters Series M17 looks very similar to the M27 multichannel power amp -- it has the same high-quality, heavy-duty case of brushed aluminum with contrasting black panels. At 17”W x 6.1”H x 15.1”D, the M17 is actually slightly larger than the M27, and weighs a solid 24 pounds. It looks different in having only eight square vents on its top panel to the M27’s dozen, and the M17’s front panel adds a single control knob and a cool touchscreen display. In comparison to my reference Anthem Statement D2 surround-sound processor, with its myriad tiny silver buttons and all-black case, the M17 is an epitome of simplicity and elegance that wouldn’t look out of place in a well-appointed, ultramodern living space. It’s one of the best-looking surround-sound processors I’ve seen in a long time.
The M17 has practically all of the features that could be expected in a high-quality SSP, and a few that are unique. Of note is NAD’s use of its Modular Design Construction (MDC). The M17 lacks any video processing of its own; its video circuitry is contained on a removable MDC board that NAD will replace free of charge when the HDMI 2.0-compatible version is available, which will support 4K video and HDCP 2.2 encryption. The M17 supports all of the latest high-resolution multichannel audio formats, but surprisingly includes only Audyssey MultEQ XT instead of the Audyssey’s most advanced room-correction software, MultEQ XT32. NAD does include, however, their own proprietary response curve, to provide what they feel is the ideal in-room response, in addition to MultEQ XT’s standard target curve. NAD’s curve is based on research in room equalization and listener preferences done in the 1980s at the National Research Council of Canada, where the SoundStage! Network has review samples of loudspeakers measured. The NAD curve was developed by Paul Barton, chief designer of NAD’s sister company PSB Speakers, who was involved in the research at the NRC.
A capacitive touch button on the top of the front panel turns the M17 on or puts it in standby mode. The large touchscreen is very informative, indicating the active audio and video inputs, the video resolution and frame rate, the sampling frequency, and the number of audio channels. However, most of that information is displayed in very small type that is unreadable at any distance. Also, I wished that the OSD used for most of the M17’s setup could have been displayed on the touchscreen.
On the rear panel are six HDMI inputs and two HDMI outputs, two component-video and three composite-video inputs, and component- and composite-video monitor outputs. There are seven analog audio inputs, and four each of coaxial and optical digital audio inputs. Preamplifier outputs for all seven channels are provided on both RCA and XLR jacks. For additional connectivity and control, there are an RS-232 port for AMX and Creston compatibility, IR and 12V trigger inputs and outputs, and an Ethernet port for connection to your LAN so that the M17 can be controlled by the iOS app (which I didn’t try). There are also a removable IEC power cord, an unswitched outlet, and a main power switch.
I’ve always liked NAD’s remote handsets, and the M17’s remote is nicely backlit, with learning and macro capability, and a slim, solid-feeling aluminum case. A smaller, simpler remote is provided for control of Zone 2.
Setting up the M17 was easy. Once I got used to navigating the menu, using mostly the left and right arrow keys, I was able to configure one of the source settings to accept the HDMI signal from my Oppo BDP-105 universal Blu-ray player, and another for audio only through a coaxial digital input connected to my Bel Canto Design mLink USB converter, which plays digital audio files stored on my laptop computer. I then connected the provided microphone to the left channel of the first analog input and used the menu system to run Audyssey’s Auto Calibration.
The speakers were my usual 5.1-channel system comprising KEF R900 mains and R600C center, and Definitive Technology BP-8080ST surrounds, all driven by the M27 multichannel power amp, as well as a Paradigm Reference Servo-15 v.2 subwoofer. For two-channel listening, I used a pair of DefTech Mythos ST-Ls. The video display was a Panasonic Viera TC-P60ST60 plasma TV.
After a little experimentation, I found that for two-channel listening I preferred the sound of the M17 with no room correction or other audio processing engaged. For film soundtracks, I found that the sound benefited from Audyssey MultEQ XT, but I preferred NAD’s target curve -- it had a slightly richer, more full-bodied sound than the Audyssey curve, which at times sounded slightly thin.
I didn’t find the M17’s lack of video processing to be a problem. My Oppo BDP-105 includes Marvell’s exceptional Qdeo video processing, and all that I require from an SSP is that it pass the Oppo’s pristine video signal unadulterated to my display device. That’s exactly what the M17 did. Blu-ray Discs, such as Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, looked spectacular, the superdetailed, high-definition video transfer making details in background objects easily visible, and giving the CGI effects depth and scale. The final season of the AMC series Breaking Bad also looked fantastic on BD. Interior lighting was very natural, with excellent shadow detail, even though the series -- actually shot on film -- can look a little “digital” at times. With The Dark Knight Rises, the differences in picture quality between the IMAX sequences and the scenes shot on standard 35mm film were readily apparent through the M17. The IMAX scenes were gorgeous and wonderfully film-like, the 35mm scenes noticeably softer, with less fine detail.
Having confirmed that the NAD wasn’t altering the picture quality of the Oppo’s video output, I turned my attention to the M17’s sound. Like NAD’s outstanding M27 multichannel amplifier, the M17 had an exceptionally clean, articulate sound, with excellent imaging. The lossless Dolby TrueHD soundtrack on the BD of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is encoded with Dolby Atmos, but even in my 5.1-channel setup, this disc sounded fantastic through the M17. During the truck chase/avalanche scene, the surrounds were remarkably active, often with as much energy coming from them as from the main speakers. The LFE channel is also used prodigiously throughout. Although this scene includes some extremely high SPLs, the M17 was able to delineate each channel very well, creating a deep, dimensional soundstage. Later, when the TMNTs fight Shredder on a rooftop, the visceral thuds of body blows and the sound of Shredder’s knives flying through the air and clanging against other metal objects in multiple channels combined with some creative surround effects to provide a truly immersive soundfield.
All Is Lost takes place far out at sea, on a damaged sailboat manned by a single elderly sailor (Robert Redford). The film has almost no dialogue, but its sound design is spectacular. The storm scenes -- with howling winds, crashing waves, pelting rain, and thunderous bass -- are impressive, but the quieter scenes were even more involving. With its extremely quiet backgrounds and crystal-clear sound, the M17 provided an enveloping and realistic auditory experience: the sounds of the sailboat’s creaking hull and the waves lapping against it gave me a vivid sense of being inside a small vessel’s cabin.
The M17 was also a very capable DAC and preamp for listening to stereo recordings. The songs performed by Meiko Kaji on the soundtracks of Kill Bill: Vol.1 and Vol.2 (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Maverick/Warner Bros.) sounded excellent for recordings made in the early 1970s. Kaji’s voice was remarkably pure in “The Flower of Carnage,” from the Vol.1 soundtrack, but had a bit more body and weight in the better-recorded “Urami-Bushi,” from Vol.2. The soundstage of “Urami-Bushi” was also wider, deeper, and better defined, as evidenced by the M17’s excellent reproduction of it. The M17 also transitioned easily from the sultry, silky-smooth voice of Nancy Sinatra in “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” to Tomoyasu Hotei’s highly detailed instrumental “Battle Without Honor or Humanity,” without imparting any sonic character of its own that I could hear.
The hi-def downloads of Bruce Springsteen’s early albums aren’t audiophile classics, but these records have never sounded better, and they benefited from the M17’s clean, honest sound. “Thunder Road,” from Born to Run: 30th Anniversary Edition (24/96 FLAC, Columbia) still sounded a little flat, like many other pop/rock albums of the mid-1970s, but the Boss’s voice had good presence. On the more recent (1984) Born in the U.S.A. (24/96 FLAC, Columbia), the soundstage expanded a bit, and the higher quality of the recording was apparent: acoustic instruments in songs such as “My Hometown” had more natural-sounding timbres.
With high-resolution multichannel recordings, such as Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms: 20th Anniversary Edition (SACD/CD, Universal), the M17 extracted a highly resolved, dynamic, yet relaxed soundfield from “So Far Away,” one of my favorite cuts. The mix of “Money for Nothing” is a bit more gimmicky -- sounds are smoothly panned from the front to the rear speakers -- but the M17’s sound was very transparent in all channels.
As good as the M17 was, it wasn’t the equal of my reference surround-sound processor, Anthem’s original Statement D2, which cost $7500 when available (the current version, the D2v 3D, goes for $9500). Although the Anthem’s basic design is now more than ten years old, its high-quality DACs and DSP still make its sound competitive with today’s very best SSPs. Add to this the company’s proprietary Anthem Room Correction (ARC) and high-quality VXP video processing by Gennum (now Sigma), and the Statement D2 is still hard to beat. It simply sounded better than the much less expensive M17 with both multi- and two-channel recordings, though the differences weren’t great. The two models had similar levels of detail retrieval, but the D2 generally put a little more air around instruments and voices, and its sound was smoother overall.
A fairer comparison was with my reference universal Blu-ray player, the Oppo BDP-105 ($1199), which has excellent multichannel DAC and preamplifier sections. Using two of ESS Technology’s ES9018 Sabre32 Reference 32-bit, eight-channel audio DAC chips, it competes way above its price class as both a source component and as a basic SSP. With film soundtracks, the M17’s Audyssey-corrected multichannel sound had the edge, providing a more coherent sound throughout the audioband. The storm scenes of All Is Lost were more impactful, with fewer gaps in the sound from front to back and from left to right, and the 360-degree soundfield was more solid and contiguous in subtle but noticeable ways.
But the Oppo had the edge with two-channel recordings sent through its dedicated stereo outputs. With voices, the M17’s clear sound was as grainless and transparent as the BDP-105’s, but it sounded leaner with instruments -- such as the piano in “Somebody’s Baby,” from Jackson Browne’s Solo Acoustic Vol.2 (16/44.1 FLAC, Inside). Through the Oppo, the piano was more resonant and forceful, nicely filling in the quiet background. And while Willie Nelson’s voice on his To All the Girls . . . (16/44.1 FLAC, Columbia/Legacy) was quite natural through either the Oppo or the NAD, the BDP-105 did a better job of smoothing out Carrie Underwood’s close-miked voice in “Always On My Mind.” Although the Oppo sounds excellent with two-channel recordings and is no slouch with multichannel film soundtracks, its feature set is somewhat limited compared to that of a full-fledged SSP such as the M17 -- it has few inputs, XLR connections only for its dedicated stereo outputs, and lacks room correction. These are all factors that should be considered before choosing the BDP-105 as the control center of a multichannel audio system over a dedicated SSP like the Masters Series M17.
The M17 surround-sound processor fully deserves to be included in NAD’s high-performance but reasonably priced Masters Series line. It offers all of the functionality required by almost anyone contemplating the purchase of a modern SSP, with impressive sound to match. It’s also one of the most attractive-looking A/V components in recent memory. Combined with NAD’s matching Masters Series M27 seven-channel power amplifier -- or, for that matter, any high-quality power amp -- the M17 should provide excellent performance with both multichannel and stereo recordings.
. . . Roger Kanno
- Speakers -- KEF R900 (mains) and R600C (center), Definitive Technology BP-8080ST (surrounds), Paradigm Reference Servo-15 v.2 subwoofers (2); Definitive Technology Mythos ST-L (two-channel listening)
- Amplifiers -- Anthem Statement M1, NAD Masters Series M27, Parasound Halo A 31
- A/V processor -- Anthem Statement D2
- Sources -- Oppo BDP-105 universal Blu-ray player, Asus Aspire One 722 computer running Windows 7 and foobar2000, Bel Canto Design mLink USB converter
- Cables -- Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval interconnects and Black Oval 9 speaker cables, DH Labs Silver Sonic DV-75 digital interconnect, AudioQuest Carbon USB cable
- Power cords -- Essential Sound Products MusicCord-Pro ES
- Power conditioners -- Blue Circle Audio Peed Al Sea Thingee, Zero Surge 1MOD15WI
NAD Masters Series M17 Surround-Sound Processor
Price: $5499 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
NAD Electronics International
633 Granite Court
Pickering, Ontario L1W 3K1
Phone: (905) 831-6555
Fax: (905) 837-6357