NAD Masters Series M3 Integrated Amplifier

Equipment report
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Integrated amplifiers
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NAD Master Series M3
NAD Masters Series M3 Integrated Amplifier

Have you ever met anyone who doesn’t admire and respect NAD electronics? For decades they’ve been the gold standard for “budget” high-end audio, combining brick-solid engineering, clean execution, and performance to burn. And therein lies the dilemma. It’s easy to be a big fan of NAD gear because it’s great…for the money. Fact is, justified or not, its blue-plate, bargainbasement, “value-added” reputation looms like a big fat asterisk attached to a baseball stat; it only garners provisional r-e-s-p-e-ct from the audiophile cognoscenti. So the big question has lingered for years: What would happen if NAD let its designers create a no-holds-barred highend integrated amplifier? The answer is the Masters Series M3.

From any angle the M3 is a flat-out, eye-popping dreamboat. Its front panel is a combination of extruded aluminum and die-cast zinc with chassis plates of 2mm steel. No wonder the M3 tips the scales at over fifty pounds. NAD is justifiably proud of the immaculate interior layout. It’s an imposing engine room that generates 180Wpc of pure dual-mono power, boasting a matched pair of Holmgren toroidal transformers, separate digital and analog power supplies, and discrete Class A gain modules. Fit and finish are jewellike, right down to the M3’s hefty isolation footers—anti-resonant devices of aluminum and silicon rubber.

But NAD hasn’t settled for the traditional integrated amp approach. By drawing from its experience in the home-theater domain, it has ensured that the M3 satisfies today’s more techno-savvy buyers, too. For example, the M3 offers not just one but two preamp outputs, a dedicated full-range output, and a second one that is selectable for full-range or as an analog high-pass filter. The latter is especially useful for partnering with a subwoofer— rather than the sub’s electronics setting the high-pass to the sats, the M3 preamp section sets the crossover point (adjustable from 40–100Hz) and redirects the signal back into the M3 amp section from the second preamp output.

The M3 includes an advanced stepped-attenuator volume control (adjustable in 0.5dB increments), which uses an array of precision resistors to create a wide 91.5dB of gain, improving the signal-to-noise ratio at lower volumes. There are tone controls and a Spectrum Tilt control (both defeatable). The latter simultaneously increases bass and decreases treble, or vice versa, so it can either take the edge off an aggressive treble or brighten up a dull, bass-heavy disc. Volume, tone, and tilt are all digital microprocessor- controlled. There are seven inputs (including a balanced one), and they can be renamed as well. The Record output has independent source selection, and includes a second remote handset with separate IR codes, allowing this output to be used as a feed to a second zone.

There are a couple of ergonomic speed bumps. Paradoxically, for an amp of this caliber, the front-panel display is too tiny to be of much use from any normal (or pre-Lasik) distance. The safetyshielded plastic “wing-nut” speaker terminals make it difficult to insert the larger spade lugs of premium cabling. And—come on, NAD–today’s remote controls deserve backlighting!

Sonically, the M3 perpetuates NAD family values—that is, complete musical engagement, with the bonuses of far greater power reserves, a lower noise floor, and superior tonal finesse at the spectral extremes. The M3’s easy-going neutrality and cushiony refinement defines its midrange. A built-in warmth factor, a lushness that underscores the lower mids and bass, imparts weight and dimension to an orchestra’s basses and lower brass and winds. Baritone voices also share this richness. There’s a honey-like sweetness in the treble, and a softness around transient edges. While upper-frequency air and bloom are perceivable, they aren’t present in quite the same effortless way of some other premium amps. (More on this later.) Bass response in all circumstances is well controlled and as extended as any integrated amp I’ve ever auditioned. For instance, on Jennifer Warnes’ “Way Down Deep” from The Hunter [Private], the talking drums and conga were rich in dynamics and textural details. And under no circumstances did the M3 ever run out of breath even when confronted with the challenging demands that the MBL 121 and ATC SCM20-2 presented.

The M3’s noise floor is exceedingly low, and this allows it to pick up microlevel cues and tiny details that lesser amps struggle to reproduce. For instance, the last little exhalation of breath as Ricki Lee Jones sings “love” (the last word of the lyric to Lyle Lovett’s “North Dakota” on Joshua Judges Ruth [MCA]) has an inflection and warmth that are easily missed by amplifiers in this range. Or the vibratolike ripple of the brushed cymbals during the intro to Elton John’s “Madman Across The Water” on his Tumbleweed Connection [MCA]. But it’s not just micro-information that makes the M3 special. Its dynamic range is also exceptional. That same Elton John song is introduced with a thrashing guitar and piano that are soon joined by the aforementioned cymbals, and well-defined electric bass. A few bars later the drums enter with a jolt that, with the right system, never fails to make my heart skip a couple of beats. My advice to soon-to-be M3 owners: wear a pacemaker.

But the M3 is ultimately an amplifier of subtleties. “The Briar and the Rose,” a recording on Holly Cole’s Temptation [Alert Records], begins with a small brass ensemble (including tuba) that through lesser gear can sound like an undifferentiated mash of synthesized howls. The better the amp (and supporting audio chain), the more natural and individually focused these instruments become. You begin to hear the mouthpieces of the brasses, the colorful timbral distinctions among instruments. Extracting these low-level cues and micro-dynamics was one of the great strengths of the M3.

Images are also very well defined and individuated, but sidle a wee bit closer to one another than they do through my reference. And the air that frames the multiple images of Mark Knopfler’s vocal and the accompanying guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and bass during the title track to All The Roadrunning [Warner Bros.] seems thinned out, missing some of the spaciousness that lives in these margins. Strings sections are ever so slightly velvetized, layered groupings of violins a bit vague, and during the final moments of Tchaikovsky’s Variations On A Rococo Theme, Opus 33 [Channel Classics SACD] the last, sustained notes from Peter Wispelwey’s cello seemed lightly damped, not fully conveying the etchy attack of rosiny-bow-upon-string. Similarly vocal sibilance is less than prise tine. These hard-striking consonants don’t bite or chafe, but they lack the cleanly defined edges that vanish as quickly as they are sung.

While the M3 compares strongly with much pricier amps (on hand were models from MBL, Chapter, and conradjohnson), it comes up just a couple shingles short of a roof in two areas that typify performance at the summit. The first is the immediacy factor—the sense that music is like a large group of sprinters flying out the blocks just behind the recoil of the starter’s pistol. While the M3 can be stirringly beautiful I sometimes wished for a bit more electricity off the line. This feeds into the second point—upper-frequency bloom. There’s a general “inwardness” to the presentation that reduces the element of “surprise” in the performance. For example, it’s not constriction per se that I hear in Bryn Terfel’s wide-open baritone, but rather a containment of scale and buoyancy that reduces overall transparency.

Am I being too tough? Just the opposite—it’s a credit to the M3’s execution that it bears comparison to the very best. Its performance was top of the heap in its class and gave some Olympian-amp competition a strong run. The Masters Series M3 is a NAD that deserves unconditional respect. Except for one thing—in spite of their best efforts, the good folks at NAD just couldn’t help produce another bargain. &