The NAD 3020 was something of an icon. The starter amp of the late 70s and early 80s, it established a whole new category of product, budget audiophilia. A modest 20-watter, blessed with an uncommonly decent pre-amp section (which could feed an external power amp by removing a pair of jumpers on the rear panel) and a mellow musicality very much at odds with the standard, mostly Japanese, fare of the time, the little NAD was the darling of dealers and the hi-fi press, and rightly so. NAD claim the 3020 is the best-selling hi-fi amplifier of all time, with 1.4 million units sold worldwide, a claim I’m not inclined to dispute. There have been various iterations of the baby NAD amplifier over the years, some with more power, some with updated designs and componentry, plus source components of various hues, but I think it would be fair to say that NAD have spent the last 20 years trying to repeat the success of the product that made the company, a feat made all the harder because nowadays there are a few more companies following their blueprint. NAD remains a serious player in the budget and mid-priced audio and AV market, but they are no longer shooting at an open goal.
The Masters Series is something of a departure, avowedly high-end in aspiration and appearance and sold in a price bracket hitherto unexplored by NAD products. The range encompasses AV components, and a dedicated two-channel audio range of M3 integrated amplifier and M5 CD/SACD player. Massively and exquisitely constructed, they bear visual comparison with products many times their price. Provided you don’t look at the badge, that is; imagine if Skoda made a Mercedes E-class equivalent. Brand snobs should look away now, though, because the £1900 M3 integrated amplifier is something of a gem. NAD, it seems, are determined to shake off their budget-only image, while retaining their reputation for value.
Conservatively rated at 180 Watts per channel, the fully dualmono M3’s specification includes a pair of massive toroidal transformers, which evidently contribute to the substantial 23.5kg weight, and ensures the NAD, on paper at least, can hold its head up among other entrylevel high-end heavyweights from the likes of Bryston or Krell. Other serious touches include a stepped attenuator using discrete high-precision resistor networks and a set of balanced inputs. The substantial two-tone front is constructed from separately anodised, thick aluminium plates and powdercoated zinc panels. User-friendliness extends to switchable bass and treble tone controls, operating not unlike the classic Quad ‘tilt’ facility, and the NAD trademark pre-amp out jumpers on the back panel which make bi-amping or upgrading to a pre-power combo a doddle. There’s even an active crossover option should you want to incorporate a sub-woofer into your system. Who says high-end has to be hair-shirt?
Connected between the Rega Saturn CD player and the excellent ELAC FS210 Anniversary loudspeakers reviewed by RG in issue 52, the M3 made an early favourable impression. My faithful NVA 60-watt integrated was having trouble controlling the ELACs’ bass in my smallish, squarish listening room so the firm grip of the NAD made for an immediate and significant improvement. I confess, I came to this review with a few preconceptions. Muscular amps are all about moving air: dynamics and slam rather than delicacy and subtlety, aren’t they? Tellingly, the NAD ceded none of the silky, valve-like unctuousness of the NVA while adding, for its part, a level of control, pace and flow the NVA couldn’t hope to match. Lesson learned, then. Changing the CD player for the £500 Creek Evo was particularly instructive, the differing character of the two players was never more apparent. The NAD brought a level of faithfulness to the source which was, on occasion, a little uncomfortable. The Saturn, for example, is detailed and blessed with a beautifully clear, treble and an enveloping, noiseless background, but while it improves on the Jupiter for sheer gusto, it is the baby Creek which shows the way forward if musicianship, pace and timing are your thing. Through the NAD, however, the Creek also betrays its £500 side more clearly: the grain, greyness and general levels of hash, are in stark comparison to the Saturn, and far more apparent. Beware, then, prospective purchasers of the NAD M3; your source had better be up to scratch.
In hi-fi terms, the amp delivers plenty. Bass depth and control? Tick! Open and sweet treble; liquid midrange? Absolutely. Dynamics and slam? Take a wild guess. I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised at the levels of grace and subtlety, nor the fact that such a powerful amplifier was so light on its feet. This ability to convey a mood, atmosphere, or a sense of acoustic space indicates a delicacy and finesse more commonly claimed for the low-power brigade, but here’s one powerful amp which doesn’t deserve to be classed as a bit of a bruiser. For example, Schubert’s ‘Doppelgänger’ (Hyperion CDJ33037) creates a vivid sense of tension and dread through strongly tactile quiet passages, while the crescendo of voice and piano rises to natural and emphatic levels with no hint of strain or effort, retaining all sense of structure and flow. ‘Melted Matter’ from Tord Gustavsen’s contemplative album Changing Places (ECM 1834) has some subtle brushwork which pretty much defines the piece and shows the NAD to be slightly more damped than my somewhat loose-limbed NVA but, in terms of bass control, this is a valuable, and minor, trade-off. In fact, these two pieces also illustrate one of the NAD’s great strengths: piano tone and structure is extraordinarily good - weighty and sonorous bass counterpoints percussive, bell-like treble. Its control also comes into its own when showing clearly where the music is being driven by the bass player, tuneful, agile bass can be heard to push along the pace, where lesser amps might let you assume it was the percussion doing the job. You’d also expect large-scale music to benefit from the power available and you’d be right: ‘In Paradisum’ from the Fauré Requiem (EMI 7423 5 66894 2 8) shows a very good balance of musical forces, voices and orchestra well positioned in space with swells carefully controlled, thereby retaining the pervading sense of calm and release so central to this piece. If you want drama, Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphonie (EMI 7423 5 69752 2 4) has plenty of full-blooded dynamics without loss of delicacy, and a strong sense of music flowing around the orchestra.
So, having established the amp’s undoubted hi-fi credentials, what’s it doing with the music? Well, it was so obvious that the NAD would benefit from a better source than the ones I had to hand that, risking a lifetime of lower back pain on your behalf, I lugged the amp down to my local dealers, to test its mettle against more deserving opponents. We settled on the £4K Accuphase DP500 CD player, and stuck in the £2K Accuphase E213 integrated amp as an interesting comparative exercise. The NAD immediately bested the Accuphase amp on sheer grunt, its 180 Watts clearly offering better bass control and depth than the Accuphase’s 90, but the Accuphase edged it in terms of sheer musicality and communication. Whereas the NAD was gutsy, dynamic and imperious in its nonchalant control, the Accuphase had a hint more tonal colour, openness and a longer, deeper decay to notes which made it more sensitive to nuance than the M3. Crucially, the area where the NAD had to concede most was in terms of musical interaction: small-scale, intimate bands like Pink Martini sounded far tighter and more together through the Accuphase; through the NAD the music was wonderfully lush and expressive, but the Accuphase made the sheer quality of their musicianship more obvious, albeit in a system built around its strengths and needs. That the NAD competes so well means that in the real world it should be taken very seriously indeed.
There is a final caveat. Like many powerful amps, the NAD M3 likes to be put to work. At lower levels it feels like it is idling, (which it probably is), the speed, smoothness and sophistication are still there, but the gravitas and the dynamics recede unless you open it up, such that you might just miss the point. If quiet, late-night listening is your thing, or you live in close proximity to your neighbours, the M3 might fail to impress because you’re not asking enough of it. Find an opportunity to stretch it, however, and there is little to touch it at anything like the price. NAD’s reputation for value continues, undiminished, at a whole new price level. Cojones indeed.