NAD’s Masters Series (not Master Series or Master’s Series… think tennis) is a high-end brand from a down-to-earth company. The range is small and select; two disc players, a tuner, a stereo integrated and a seven-channel processor/power amp. Of that range, the M55 is the ‘universal player’, designed for hi-fi and home cinema use.
The quotes are unfortunately necessary because time has moved on for the universal player; we now seem to have the choice of a universal player that plays high-res music, or one that plays high-res video. The M55 falls very much on the audio side of things, supporting Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio, alongside the usual slew of DVDVideo and CD formats. By way of contrast, NAD’s upcoming T587 plays the latest Blu-ray HD video discs, but doesn’t support SACD or DVDAudio. Sadly, this rift between audio and video sides doesn’t appear to have a resolution as yet. It’s also an indicator of how eroded the price of video has become; £1,300 is a bargain for an audiophile universal player, but the £850 asked for the T587 is looked upon as being excessive. Some of this is also agerelated; the M55 is very much a 2006 product, reflecting the pinnacle of development at that time; but if you want to handle SACD and especially if you have a legacy collection of DVD-Audio discs, 2006’s products represent the top of the tree.
Enough of the philosophising; the M55 is styled in the company’s high-end livery, befitting the Masters Series range. It’s a grey-on-silver fronted heavyweight with a centremounted tray and minimal buttons on the front. The back of the player is every inch the video machine, with both composite and component video, S-Video, SCART (Remember SCART?), HDMI and VGA output alongside the coaxial and optical digital connections and fixed stereo and 5.1 channel analogue outputs. NAD is one of the front runners in implementing products into custom install solutions (doubtless a strong reason for UK distributor Armour HE to take on the distribution, given Armour’s strong CI presence), and the M55 sports a switchable 12V trigger, RS232 port and an IR control jack socket, for passing remote control info at one remove.
On the audio side, the player uses Analog Devices 24-bit, 192kHz DACs to process the datastream; however, unlike the NAD M5 CD/SACD player, the M55 doesn’t appear to process SACD qua SACD. So, instead of delivering a frequency response from DC to 100kHz, the M55 rolls off at a suggested 41kHz and bottoms out at a claimed 10Hz. As this renders the claimed response limits of the format lower than DVD-Audio, it suggests both are processed identically and SACD will typically come off worse under this scenario.
On the video side, the Analog Devices 12-bit, 216 MHz video DACs for Component output and the Cirrus Logic 10-bit, 27 MHz video DACs for Composite and S-Video are very handy, while the Faroudja DCDi upscales standard DVD video HDTV 720p or 1080i standards when through the HDCP-compatible HDMI lead. This represents about the pinnacle of DVDVideo development (although there are 14-bit DACs available).
Because this player has feet in both audio and video camps, it was used through two distinctly different systems. On the two-channel side, it went through a Sugden A21SE integrated amp to a pair of ProAc Studio 140 floorstanders, while on the video side it went into both the digital and analogue stages of an Onkyo receiver, and out through a septet of KEF iQ series loudspeakers (four iQ50, two iQ10 and a centre) plus the matching sub-woofer.
For a purist audio user, there is a significant issue that isn’t easy to resolve. If you need to switch from CD to SACD (or select the rate and number of channels for DVD-Audio), the only way to access this is via the on-screen display. That might not sit comfortably with those who don’t want a screen in the listening room. There’s not even a display on the front panel signifying how many channels are playing on a specific disc; it’s not impossible to think you are listening to a two-channel disc but in fact it’s playing in six-channel. Either check the OSD or hope for the best.
When the DVD-Audio/SACD debate was still raging, a universal player was the ideal answer. It also seemed the two formats split almost evenly across a musical divide, with DVDAudio having a stronger presence in the modern rock market, SACD commanding the classical field. With DVD-Audio out the way, it seems that was the case, because high-res rock recordings have all but disappeared. So, playing the M55 gave us a chance to have a pleasant revisit of what could have happened with rock and pop music; listening to Driving with the King, by Eric Clapton and BB King shows just how good the format was. This is not a good album by any means – arguably Clapton has been phoning in most of his post-1970s work and, while always entertaining to listen to, King is not on top form here, making the whole thing sound like something cooked up at one of Jools Holland’s Hootenanny gigs.
Nevertheless, the sound is beyond reproach and shows just how much we lose by going back to CD. There’s a shimmer to the DVD-Audio disc that makes it seem like you are in the middle of a live event, where the CD version sounds flatter and less exciting. Put on Neil Young’s Harvest, Randy Newman’s Little Criminals or any of the handful of DVD-Audio discs that still remain in the collection and you get the same effect. SACD is a less profound experience, mostly because the winner of that early 21st Century format war is better handled elsewhere. That being said, it’s still a notch above regular CD sound, just not as eyeopening as some of the dedicated CD/SACD players (especially stereo CD/SACD players) from the likes of Pioneer, Sony and Yamaha. Once again, it’s best to compare recordings both on the SACD and CD layer with an original CD issue, so in this case we’re looking mostly at classic Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan re-issues, and Dark Side of the Moon. Of these, in stereo ‘Hurricane’ from Dylan’s Desire album was the most insightful. The SACD layer helped isolate the fiddle player from the rest of the mix (as it was on the original LP), where the CD tended to blur this into Dylan’s nasal vocal whine. The CD layer of the SACD handled this worst of all, muddying the mix still further. Interestingly, the same muddied mix applies to many CD layers of SACD when played on SACD players, but doesn’t seem as profound when played on a good CD player… but we’ve absolutely no idea why that should be the case.
A shift back to multi-channel yielded interesting results on Dark Side of the Moon. Multichannel SACD has been on a considerable back foot in recent years, with most releases stressing the high-res stereo qualities instead. The Pink Floyd cut (from a more enlightened time when music was a vital component of many people’s home lives and Quadraphonic might have stood a chance) shows what we are all missing. The sound is at once enveloping as it is disturbing (for all the right reasons; the music sounds oppressive and brooding) and really adds to the experience. Whether this is better or worse than other multi-channel players is almost moot; the experience is rare enough these days to pass comment for its own sake.
The M55 does have a last ace up its sleeve; it handles CD very well for a universal player. It falls very much in the high-end player camp on this one. Discs are loaded up fast, the sound is very well separated, dynamic and musically entertaining, albeit with a slight softening at the top end and a slightly woolly bass (itself streets ahead of the peaky all-top, all-bottom sound commonly heard through surviving cheaper universals). This may not put it on a par with similarly priced CD players (that seem more detailed), but does make it a good performer nonetheless.
NAD’s M55 fits will into the NAD Masters Series concept, but I can’t help feeling that outside that domain, it faces some very stiff opposition that has eclipsed its performance since its introduction, especially from stereo-only CD/SACD players on the music front and Blu-ray for HDTV. That said, playing through those DVD-Audio discs was a joy and an increasingly rare one at that. If you want to exploit them, the robust M55 will last and last… and that’s an offer unlikely to be repeated.