NAD Master Series M12 Preamp, M22 Stereo Amplifier Review
NAD started back in 1972 with the intention of creating products that had an emphasis on sound quality, first and foremost. They were trying to distance themselves from the exaggerated marketing hype that was prevalent in the day and focus on the things that really mattered. In 1978 they released the now iconic NAD 3020 integrated amplifier. This product was a game changer for NAD with its outstanding value and sound quality. It sold almost half a million units in just 3 years. By 1998, the NAD 3020 had become the best known and best-selling audio amplifier in history. My brother still owns one, and it’s still working well and sounding fantastic.
Fast forward to today and NAD have built many, many amplifiers and have accumulated much knowledge and experience in building good sounding, high value amps. So when they release a “Master” series of products it’s worth paying attention.
Just a year ago StereoNET attended an exclusive launch and preview of the Master series in Melbourne, and we were fortunate enough to have some one-on-one time to chat with Greg Stidsen, Director of Technology & Product Planning for Lenbrook International, the parent company overseeing brands including Bluesound, PSB Speakers and of course, NAD.
Right away, we expressed our interest to review the NAD Master series in closer detail. While it did take twelve months to get them in our hands, it's been well worth the wait.
The subject of this review is the M12 Digital Preamp DAC (RRP $6,999) and the matching M22 Stereo Power Amplifier (RRP $5,499). They sit at the top of the tree for ‘stereo’ units. NAD also makes a couple of AV surround sound processors and a couple of seven channel power amplifiers in the Master range, for those who need full integration with the visual arts. But here we are sticking with a pair of stereo sound devices. I have to say that usually I don’t like to review two components at a time, but in this case it makes sense, as that is the way that most people will use it and the fact that they are more or less a matched pair.
NAD is actually an acronym for “New Acoustic Dimension”, just in case you were wondering. They have produced a couple of extremely well made enclosures to house all the electronics in. As you can see from the photos, they are very smart looking and are sure to look good in anyone’s listening room. The M12 has a central 11cm color touch display panel that controls and displays the settings. It is dimmable, but not able to be turned off. There is a hidden flush mount on/off switch at the top centre edge of the front panel and the small NAD logo is backlit from amber (Standby) to a bright white (On), which is very nice to use and highlights that this is certainly not entry level from NAD. Otherwise the only other control is the large rotating volume control. It is very smooth to use and is well weighted. The volume is controlled in 0.5db increments, which is available with slow turns of the dial, otherwise with fast turns it seems to know that you want to get somewhere quickly and it cooperates very well. The M22 power amplifier has the same standby/on feature as the M12 and is the only control on the front facia.
The remote control that is included with the M12 is a work of art and is a pleasure to use. It is a full size remote, not out of place in a good TV/AV system. It’s unusual to find this type of controller with a preamp/DAC, but I believe that it seems perfectly in tune with the overall place in the market that NAD is promoting these Master series products. It is a learning remote, so it can be used to control your entire AV system. In use, I really liked that it sensed that you are using the remote in a darkened room and the backlight is automatically enabled.
The M12 has been created to become the hub of your entertainment system, with a myriad of connection possibilities thanks to its Modular Design Construction (MDC). The idea is to essentially future proof the device by allowing modular upgrades in the future should the need arise. There are 3 spare slots available for additional modules.
Modular Design Construction (MDC) - does away with obsolescence by providing a simple upgrade path to add future features and functionality. M12 owners can add an optional DD HDM-1 HDMI Module with 3 inputs and 1 output (3D video passthrough) and/or the soon to be released network audio module, DD BluOS, with music management software that is controlled with an iOS or Android device. The DD BluOS MDC Module allows streaming of a variety of music services, HD streaming from a NAS device, and TuneIn radio; plus it gives you full control of your music library. Integrated WiFi/Ethernet and aptX Bluetooth™ connections are also offered with the DD BluOS Module.
I found that the M12 has plenty of inbuilt connectivity without the need for an immediate upgrade. Digital connections include AES/EBU, asynchronous 24/192 USB, coaxial and optical digital inputs. It is not compatible with DSD files. There are both balanced and unbalanced single-ended line level inputs and a versatile MC/MM phono stage. Also included are IR repeaters, 12V triggers, and a serial port to make integration with advanced control systems a snap. Should you want to add a subwoofer to the system, the M12 includes a second order high pass and low pass crossover with selectable frequency. You can even select different frequency slope for each filter. A good read of the detailed owner’s manual is recommended to really appreciate the amount of flexibility and detail work taken on by NAD to bring this product to fruition.
Moving on to focus on the M22 power amplifier, it is based on nCore™ amplifier technology licensed from Hypex. NAD have worked hard to adapt the modules into their architecture using open-loop bandwidth, DC coupled throughout, from input to output, low-phase shift, high current capability, low output impedance with the resulting high damping factor of greater than 800. The M22 offers a minimum of 250W per channel and is capable of >300W dynamic power per channel into 8 ohms, and >600W into 2 ohms. It is also a “green” product with less than 0.5w of power used when in standby and being a switching amp, it is very efficient when in use.
Both units have very nice metal pointed feet that come with magnetic cups, which are drawn to each other to stay attached. It uses the mechanical diode principle of draining internal vibration energy away from the chassis. They are a nice touch and again reaffirm the quality look and feel of the products. In fact both units appear to be extremely well made in aluminium and are finished immaculately, in keeping with their cost.
The review pair of amps that I received have previously been demo units in many product demonstrations, trade shows etc. and have no doubt had a hard life before making their way to me. In all the time that I used the NAD combo, they never became hot, even in heavy use, or misbehaved in any way, leaving me with a very positive consumer experience.
Like many products we come across, I found they benefited from being left powered on continuously. The ‘stand-by’ mode has been created to circumvent the need to remove power all together from the units and to use the remote control to start them up again. I made the connections between the units using balanced XLR cables, particularly as they are a balanced design and benefit from this configuration. I used a number of brands; including the outstanding Kubala-Sosna Elation XLR interconnect which proved a great match. Connection to the speaker cables is via multiway binding posts of good quality.
Switching on the units, the front panel of the M12 allows you to choose the input, either digital or analogue, and it’s ready to play. There is a raft of menus and sub menus, but it’s very easy to use and is logically laid out without the need to consult a manual. At the rear of the M22 power amp, there are small switches that are used to indicate either balanced or unbalanced inputs.
All of the music that I used for the review were digital files, from both a CD transport into various DACs and also streamed off a MOON MiND network player, directly into the on-board DAC within the M12. I used all of the digital inputs including AES/EBU, coax and optical. They were similar in sound quality, but overall I preferred the balanced digital input. I really like the flexibility afforded by the range of digital inputs, choice is always a good thing.
QualiFi, the Australian importer and distributor of NAD suggested that the Master series be used with high quality and neutral sounding loudspeakers, in order to really get an accurate take on the sonic signature of the amps. Being happy to comply, I used a variety of speakers, including the large and expensive Brodmann JB205 and the excellent Wilson Benesch Vector loudspeakers.
So how does it sound? Feeding music to the on-board DAC, firstly through the Wilson Benesch Vectors, I lined up Antonio Forcione & Neil Stacey “Talking Hands”. This is a happy upbeat tune, with brilliant guitar work and well recorded by the Naim label back in 1997. The NAD combo immediately impresses with plenty of detail, quiet backgrounds and good drive, allowing the natural dynamics of each guitar to wash over you. The wooden body of the guitar vibrates in unison with the strings getting a work out and all the harmonics coming off the sound board are faithfully relayed, in a natural and convincing manner. There is a nice sense of touch and physicality with the guitar recording and the NAD combo has no trouble getting out of the way and staying nice and neutral.
The sound was very clean and distinct in “Game of Clocks” by the Smoke and Mirrors Percussion Ensemble. All of the instruments had their own place in the soundstage, which extended far beyond the borders of the speakers, both in height and width. From the small triangles to the large timpani drum, everything sounds just as it should, with no blurring or exaggeration of the dynamics. The xylophone sounds just as it should, like wooden bars being struck, each note has its own decay and is very pleasant to listen to. The tone and reverb of the xylophone changes with the use of either hard or softer tips on the mallets and the NAD combo allows that distinction easy to pick up. The snare drum’s reproduction was nice and fast with the notes starting and stopping very well, with good distinction between the individual hits.
Frank Vignola and Friends version of “Besame Mucho” highlights what a low coloration combination this is. The female vocal is entirely relaxed and natural sounding, along with the quite strong and extended bass from a big drum that keeps it interesting. The guitar, bongo’s, triangle, in fact everything, just sounds right.
Throughout the review process, it was apparent that the voicing of the M12 and the M22 was done in unison as they both have common sound qualities and traits. Even the built in DAC sounds quite similar and added to the overall impression of the pairing.
Back in February I reviewed the AURALiC pre/power combo of TAURUS and MERAK. Of interest was the common use of the Hypex nCore™ module for the output stage in the power amplifiers. I don’t have the review pair any longer, but the memory of the sound is still vivid in my audio memory, plus I have good notes to rely upon. In many ways they are quite different sounding amplifiers, albeit with some common traits. The MERAK mono’s had faster and slightly more aggressive snap, quicker rise times and overall a more dynamically forward sound. It appeared to sound more powerful than the NAD and have bottomless reserves. Some would say that this description is quite typical of class D switching amps. The NAD M22 actually has 50 W of additional output power and the same damping factor specification, but is smoother, more approachable, somehow softer and rounder in the initial transient of each note. It doesn’t sound like a switching amplifier to me, in the way that the MERAK does. Mind you it also has seemingly bottomless reserves of power available, but it doesn’t sound as if it’s working hard to deliver the music. I would easily conclude that the M22 is the more neutral and musical sounding of the two.
For the next set of comparisons, I used the M12 / M22 pair with the large Brodmann JB205 loudspeakers. The M22 was probably not quite as comfortable with the JB205 or as an ideal combination when compared to the Wilson Benesch Vectors, but still sounded fine. I used the Cyrus CDi transport into the M12’s DAC.
I used the track “Broken” from Melbourne singer/songwriter Cailah Ashlee, also known by her stage name CAS. Her debut EP is “The Problem With Manners”. It has been well recorded and her voice shines with maturity and control. It has a bit of everything that a reviewer likes to hear. Listening to the internal DAC vs an external Rega DAC-R, it was apparent that the inbuilt DAC in the M12 was considerably better. There was much more space around all of the instruments and her voice, the soundstage was considerably larger and there was far more control at the frequency extremes. The next track on the EP is “Clock Piece” with a few old clocks ticking away, until a piano and violin start to join. It’s a favourite of mine and is just beautiful. So, it was an obvious choice to stick with the NAD’s internal DAC. It’s quite likely as good as anything in a stand-alone DAC under a few thousand dollars. The Line-in input of the M12 was nice and neutral and in keeping with the overall sound of the M12 and the internal DAC.
Eva Cassidy and “Fields of Gold” recorded live for the album “Live at Blues Alley” is a favourite test track of mine. The ambiance of the guitars is nicely portrayed without being overdone. You can easily hear the audience, the amount of reverb added to her voice, and all the detail is right there in her phrasing and breathing. She has a delicate voice that can really fire up with power when she wants to, and the NAD combination doesn’t artificially compress her voice or the band when you play a louder track like “Take Me to the River”.
Plugging a USB stick into the front port of the M12 (there is also a rear port available), I discovered the remote control also allows music selection. What a great function! I loved being able to select albums displayed on the touch screen and play them. I lined up “I’m a Believer” by Barb Jungr. It happily accepts 24bit FLAC files to 48kHz, and MP3/WMA to 48kHz, but sadly not WAV files or higher res files. Barb’s voice was just lovely, natural and unstressed. The tone of the cello was fantastic and to me the highlight of the track. Emotionally the track was convincing and involving.
It is apparent to me that NAD has really put some thought into their “Master” series and they have pulled out all the stops to make this a top shelf product. With the winning combination of high quality construction, good looks, a modular design that future proofs your purchase, as well as excellent functionality and overall ease of use, you certainly get what you pay for, and more! The level of experience and maturity of the company is clearly seen when they focus on making the best they can and the M12 / M22 pair is a shining example of that principle at work.
The transparency, openness and sheer power of the combination is stunning. With well recorded music, the dynamics, soundstage and lack of coloration of the NAD combination makes a very good play for high end audio at a reasonable cost. At all times, the music is natural, smooth and relaxed, allowing you to unwind and drift along in tune. Alternatively with a heavier track, it will get your feet moving and it’s hard to sit still. This combination from NAD is your doorway to first class listening pleasure.
NAD is distributed in Australia by Qualifi.
Great sound quality, features, flexibility, power, quality remote control, upgradable.
Lack of DSD playback
For full specifications visit NAD.
Starting his first audio consultancy business in the early ’80s whilst also working professionally in the electronics industry, Mark now splits his time between professional reviewing and AV consultancy.