When you first see NAD’s VISO 1 ($600), you might be inclined to dismiss it as “yet another iPod speaker.” This would be understandable, since the VISO 1 does indeed provide a readily visible and very nicely executed iPod dock. But the fact is that the VISO 1 is, by design, much more than a garden-variety iPod speaker: in fact, it just might be the most capable and best-sounding one-box audio system ever devised. In this review, we’ll look more deeply at the VISO 1 to understand exactly what it is and can do.
For starters, the VISO 1 is a sleek, medium-large, single-box audio system that provides three audio inputs: an iPod dock (positioned front and center), an aptX Bluetooth interface (which gives “hi-fi” grade wireless connectivity for a wide range of Apple and Android smartphones, tablets, etc.), and a 96/24-capable optical S/PDIF input (which means the VISO 1 can connect to flat panel TVs or to Apple TV interfaces). So, take it as a given that the VISO 1 is pretty versatile, thanks especially to the aptX Bluetooth interface.
But it’s only when you look inside the VISO 1 that you begin to realize how special the product is. First, it helps to know that while branded as an NAD product, the VISO 1 represents a collaborative design effort between NAD and its sister company PSB Speakers. Trust us on this one: Speaker guru Paul Barton’s design thumbprints can be seen and heard all over the VISO 1. In fact, the ever-humble Mr. Barton told me with a shy grin that, “believe it or not, we’ve got the VISO 1 to a point where it delivers flat frequency response from 50Hz on up to 20kHz, ± 1 dB” (which would be an impressive feat for any loudspeaker, let alone a compact one-box system).
What NAD brings to the party is the overall concept for the VISO 1, plus audio electronics know-how and plenty of it. Accordingly, the VISO 1 uses the same sophisticated, proprietary class D amplifier module found in NAD’s $6000 flagship Masters Series M2 Direct Digital Amplifier (though the big amp uses several modules, where the VISO 1 uses just one). NAD’s class D amplifier module is a multichannel device used to provide separate amplification channels for the VISO’s two full-range drive units and woofer driver. But the class D amp module also serves to provide digital crossover functions and to apply driver-specific, DSP-driven, EQ curves to further smooth and fine tune frequency response curves. While the VISO 1 may look simple from the outside, the fact is that it is extremely sophisticated on the inside, which helps explain why NAD confidently describes this product as “the best sounding smart music system in the world. Period.”
VISO 1 Speaker System
•Two x 2.75-inch full-range drivers with aluminum dome/cone diaphragms and what NAD describes as a “dual magnetic drive” system. NAD doesn’t say whether the dome is partially decoupled from the cone or not, but this may be, since an NAD white paper on the VISO 1 refers to the dome as allowing “excellent high frequency dispersion and extension to 28kHz.
•One x 5.75 mid/bass driver (which NAD terms a “Subwoofer”) with “symmetrical magnetic drive.”
•Claimed frequency response is 33Hz – 28kHz (-6dB) Anechoic, 50Hz – 20kHz (± 1dB) Anechoic—where both figures represent performance benchmarks for a one-box music system of this type (actually, the figures would represent excellent performance for almost any type of speaker system, regardless of size or price).
VISO 1 Amplification System
•Powered by proprietary NAD Direct Digital DAC/Amplifier module.
•Amplifier module uses class D technology and provides 35-bit resolution with a switching frequency of 844kHz, with 0.005% THD.
•The amplifier module provides:
oTwo x 15 Wpc amplifiers, one to power each of the 2.75-inch full-range drivers, as above.
oOne x 80-watt amplifier that powers the 5.75-inch woofer, as above.
•The amplifier module also serves as a vehicle to implement the following features/functions:
oSteep, phase correct digital crossovers between the “Subwoofer” and full-range drivers.
oDSP-controlled EQ curves for fine-tuning driver response curves.
oUser-selectable Near Field listening mode (a custom EQ curve that deliberately re-shapes the system’s frequency response for Near Field or very small room listening applications).
oDigital soft clipping, which progressively “throttles” system output to prevent overdriving the system amplifiers or speaker drive units.
oA “bit-perfect digital volume control” that, please note, “does not truncate audible bits, thus maintaining full resolution of the musical signal.”
•iPod dock with 30-pin Apple-type connector. The VISO 1 dock provides an ingenious, easy-to-use sliding clamp mechanism that gently but firmly holds iDevices in place and eliminates the need for easily lost docking adapters. A welcome touch is that the dock can position iDevices vertically or horizontally. The iPod dock input is the automatic default choice for the VISO 1, so the user must toggle a selector switch in order to choose other inputs.
•Apple device compatibility: iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS, iPhone 3G; iPod touch—4th generation, iPod touch—3rd generation, iPod touch—2nd generation, iPod touch—1st generation; iPod classic (80GB – 160GB); iPod nano—6th generation, iPod nano—5th generation (video camera), iPod—4th generation, (video), and iPod nano—3rd generation (video).
•aptX Bluetooth wireless interface. According to NAD, the aptX Bluetooth interface “is a ‘hi-fi’ version (of Bluetooth) offering the same performance as a wired connection.”
•96/24-capable optical S/PDIF digital audio input. Note: This connection option allows the VISO 1 to be used with the digital audio outputs of flat-panel TVs or, please note, with Apple TV systems.
•480p/576p-capable component video outputs.
•Optional composite video output (via what would normally be the Pb output jack for the component video outputs).
•USB jack that, please note, is for intended solely for installing software updates.
•Caveat: We think NAD may have missed a golden opportunity by leaving out a USB digital audio input (if offered, a USB input would conceivably allow the VISO 1 to play up to 96/24 digital audio files directly from computers—a very desirable feature).
•Small, sleek, handheld remote provides controls for source selection, muting, volume up/down, track forward/backward, and play/pause.
•David Farrage of the New York-based firm DF-ID developed the industrial design for the VISO 1. We have called the VISO 1 a “one-box” system, but its design actually thoroughly curvaceous. There are virtually no flat surfaces on the VISO 1 enclosure—a touch that not only makes the cabinet look cool, but also helps prevent internal standing waves for better sound.
•At first glance, the VISO 1 gives the impression of having a quasi-cylindrical enclosure that rests on its side. A closer look, though, reveals an upward-angled, semi-flattened face surface that serves as a mounting baffle for the system’s drive units; a curved fabric grill covers the baffle. One end of the enclosure sports a ducted port for the built-in woofer, while the other end provides a subtly recessed power switch.
•Girdling the center of the VISO 1 enclosure is a stylish, satin finished, circular metal hoop that stands several inches in front of the baffle surface and that carries the VISO 1’s iPod docking cradle, a source selection switch, and a volume up/down control.
•Early release VISO models were all produced in black, but a white version will become available shortly.
•A rear-panel I/O bay provides a USB jack (for firmware updates), an optical S/PDIF input, and a set of component video output jacks (one of which can serve double-duty as a composite video output jack).
•The VISO is designed for tabletop use, but can easily be wall-mounted via an optional bracket available from NAD.
EASE OF USE
Part of the joy of the VISO 1, apart from its visual appeal and overall compactness, is that it is dirt-simple to use. Honestly, once you get it unboxed, you can go from 0-to-sound in under a minute. If you’re like me, you might try the VISO 1 with an iPod first, which is the simplest of tasks: you just open the dock clamp, park your iPod on the docking connector, close the clamp, make sure the VISO 1 is turned on, fire up iTunes and start a song playing, and then toggle the VISO 1’s source selection button a few times until you hear music playing. Voilà! Instant hi-fi.
But frankly, the VISO 1’s true character only becomes apparent when you try listening through its aptX Bluetooth interface. If you’ve only ever heard mediocre-sounding early-generation Bluetooth implementations, you’re in for a real surprise in that the aptX Bluetooth interface sounds remarkably much like a wired connection (which is to say it’s really good). As I see it, aptX Bluetooth changes the whole character of the VISO 1 in two ways. First, it means you can use the VISO 1 with pretty much any Bluetooth enabled source, not just with Apple devices, which is great news for Android fans. Second, it frees users to get up and walk around, taking their source components across the room from the VISO 1 (up to 25 feet or 8 meters away) while still preserving legitimate, “hi-fi” grade sound.
How easy is the VISO 1 to use? A personal anecdote may prove illustrative. Over the years, my family members have seen dozens if not hundreds of pieces review gear come and go through our home. To date, the VISO 1 is the only audio system—absolutely the only one—my wife found friendly, accessible, and desirable enough that she chose to use it on her own, without no guidance from me at all. That speaks volumes for the sheer usability of the VISO 1.
The VISO 1 lends itself to two different listening applications. First, it can serve very effectively as a whole room audio system for use in small to mid-size rooms—and one with unexpectedly high output capabilities. Second, the VISO 1 can also work well for up close or near field listening, provided you make a point of engaging NAD’s Near Field listening mode. The normal (default) voicing curve for the VISO 1 is geared for whole room applications where listeners typically would stand well back from the system. For listening at close range, however, a different voicing curve—one that slightly reduces treble output—is desirable, which is just what the Near Field mode provides.
Before I offer any comments on the VISO 1’s sound, let me set some context for our discussion by reminding listeners that the system measures 18.9” high x 10.25” high x 11.8” deep. In short, the VISO 1 is a bit larger than some competing “iPod speakers”, but nowhere near as a large as full-size (or even compact) component-based hi-fi system.
Several things about the VISO 1 immediately jump out at first-time listeners, the first of which is the VISO 1’s unusually full-bodied (and full-range) sound. Most iPod speakers sound, in some sense, small—probably because they are small. But the VISO 1 is different, so that, if you listened with your eyes closed, you might easily imagine it to be a mid-sized component-based system, or even something larger than that.
Next, the system’s bass consistently wows listeners with its depth, power, and punch. While I wouldn’t say the VISO 1 low-end is fully the equal of today’s better mid-priced floorstanders, it’s not terribly far off from their general level of performance. In particular, the VISO 1’s mid-bass is nicely weighted and authoritative—never thin or anemic, so that the only time you might notice the NAD’s low-end limitations is if you either play a steady stream of pipe organ music or attempt to listen at unrealistically high volume levels (at which point the VISO will start to sound a bit overworked). But most of the time, and on most types of music, the low frequency output is very satisfying.
Third, in contrast to the often-pronounced sonic colorations exhibited by most iPod speaker systems, the VISO 1 offers astonishingly smooth, even, and neutrally balanced response from top to bottom. These qualities of evenness, neutrality, and balance are, in my view, the VISO 1’s greatest strengths—the qualities that set it apart as something special. Part of the credit goes to the VISO 1’s PSB-developed drivers (and custom DSP-driven EQ curves), while part goes to NAD’s very low distortion class D amplifier modules. Either way, the whole, here, is greater than the sum of the parts.
The VISO 1 does a good, though perhaps not great job of getting sound “off the box” while producing enjoyable soundstages. Granted those stages are not as wide as they might be with a conventional stereo speaker system, but the system’s soundstaging is impressive nonetheless when you consider that the VISO 1 is less than two feet wide. More to the point, the VISO 1 will work—and work well—in environments (such as kitchens, breakfast nooks, workrooms, etc.) where a conventional stereo system would never fit in.
Early on, I would have said the VISO 1 worked far better for whole-room applications than for listening from up close—as in, say, a desktop environment. This is true partly because the system’s standard voicing can seem a little too bright when heard at very close range, but also because the system’s sound doesn’t seem to “gel” as well for only a few feet away. However, the VISO 1 Owner’s Manual contains a well-kept secret, which is that NAD offers an optional Near Field listening mode, which can help a lot, NAD describes the Near Field mode as “a special feature that subtly reduces the amount of high frequency power to optimize performance for ‘near field’ listening.” To my ears, the Near Field mode did, as advertised, tame the problem of excess brightness, but it also improved the close-range coherency of the system for better imaging and soundstaging.
To appreciate how powerful and convincing low (or at least low-ish) bass can sound through the VISO 1, put on the track “Power of Denial” from Thomas Newman’s magnificent sound track for the film American Beauty [Dreamworks]. The track opens with a powerful, plunging low-frequency glissando that lands on very low note that is allowed to sustain for a few seconds, providing underlayment for the rest of the song to follow (this motif will repeat at several points in the track). On most small systems this passage sounds, well, weak and under-nourished, but not so the NAD. It sounds surprisingly full bodied and, for the most part, at ease when delivering low bass at relatively high output levels—a fact noted with real surprise by several first-time listeners. True, if you are a low-bass connoisseur, you might find the VISO 1’s bass sounds slightly under-damped (though never really “loose” or “wooly”-sounding). But frankly, this slightly under-damped quality is a very small price to pay for a compact one-box system that provides genuinely room-filling sound—low frequencies included.
The song “Senia’s Lament” from Jerry Douglas’ Lookout for Hope [Sugarhill] makes a good vehicle for showing off both the VISO 1’s overall sophistication and full-range sound. The engine that drives this song forward is plaintive, soulful sound of Douglas’ Dobro, which carries the main melodic theme and serves as the center of gravity around which the other instruments revolve. The VISO did a beautiful job with upward-reaching twang of the Dobro, nicely revealing the instrument’s many moods and, if you will, voices within voices. But as the song evolves and unfolds, it becomes much richer and more complex when midrange percussion, and then low-frequency percussion, enter the mix—accompanied the deep, earthy voice of an acoustic bass. Indeed, there is one distinctive point where the bass and kick drum double one another as the voice of the Dobro floats high overhead. It’s one of those delicious but also challenging moments where the music asks the audio system to do two things at once: in this case, to play low with articulacy and power, while simultaneously playing with delicacy, nuance and control much higher up. The NAD pulls this off—again at satisfying, room-filling volume levels—without any sense of becoming confused, compressed, or overtaxed. The beauty, here, is that the VISO 1 looks like (and is) a compact one-box music system, yet it sounds much more like a full fledged mid-size hi-fi system. Who says you can’t have the best of two worlds?
Consider this system if:
•You want one the two best sounding one-box, wireless, iPod-compatible music systems being built today (the other is the identically-priced Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air).
•You want a system that offers aptX Bluetooth connectivity, and thus can work with any Bluetooth-enabled device, not just with Apple products. Note, too, that the aptX Bluetooth implementation sounds terrific—very much like a wired connection.
•You want a system that is compact and highly portable, yet comes very close to offering big-system richness and dynamic oomph.
•You want a system that is equally at home in whole room and near-field listening applications.
•You like a system with sleek, distinctive, and yet not overly radical styling
Look further if:
•You’d willingly trade off aptX Bluetooth connectivity (the VISO 1’s advantage) in exchange for Apple AirPlay connectivity and a USB digital audio input (the B&W Zeppelin Air’s advantages).
•You like product styling that is dramatic, perhaps even in a slightly controversial way—a description that fits B&W’s Zeppelin Air to a “T”.
•Down deep, you’d prefer an affordable, wireless-capable, compact audio system that provides separate Left/Right speakers that can be placed several feet apart (in which case, look at the Focal Bird system).
SPECS & PRICING
NAD VISO 1 Wireless Digital Music System
Driver complement: two 2.75-inch full range drivers with aluminum dome/cone diaphragms, one 5.75-inch “subwoofer” driver.
Integrated amplifier power: Two x 15 Wpc amplifiers for full-range drivers, one 80-watt amplifier for the subwoofer. Amplifiers use class D technology with 35-bit resolution and a switching frequency of 844kHz, with 0.005% THD. Amplifier module is also used to implement a non-bit-reducing digital volume control, custom EQ curves for drivers, digital crossovers for the speaker system, and a soft clipping feature.
Frequency response: 33Hz – 28kHz (-6dB) Anechoic, 50Hz – 20kHz (± 1dB) Anechoic.
Inputs: One 30-pin iPod-type docking connector, one wireless aptX Bluetooth interface, one 96/24-capable optical S/PDIF interface, one USB port (for firmware updates only).
Outputs: One set of component video outputs (via RCA jacks), optional composite video output (re-purposes the Pb component video output jack as a composite video jack)
Dimensions: (H x W x D) 10.25” x 18.9” x 11.8”
Weight: 12.34 lbs.
Warranty: 2 year, parts and labor.