Here we are with another couple of products to come out of the Lenbrook Group, the NAD M12 and M22. Having heard what NAD are capable of in the lower end of the market with the pretty awesome D3020 and then beyond that with the very technical M51, it was fair to say I was pretty excited about this pairing. First though I suppose I better talk a little about NAD themselves…

The company was actually founded New Acoustic Dimension in London in 1972 by Dr. Martin L. Borish, an electrical engineer with a passion for sound. They were later acquired by the Danish firm AudioNord in 1991 and subsequently sold in 1999 to the Lenbrook Group based in Pickering, Ontario, Canada along with PSB. They are famously known for the iconic 70s designed NAD 3020, which was a high quality, affordable integrated amplifier; it really was very popular, especially in Britain. The 21st century D3020 had a weight on its shoulders that’s for sure! NAD designs always seem to be packed with features even in their lower models, and the Masters are no different incorporating a host of tech and features that are new, exclusive, interesting or rare at the price.

A quick overview of each product then to get us warmed up shall we?

The M12 Digital PreAmp – £3698.00

It is advertised as a design for the future, and you have to commend them for their efforts, you really do. The M12 is in part a modular design with 6 swappable backplate slots on offer. This is great if you are worried about the rate at which technology is advancing. Having the confidence that modules can be upgraded and added as developments are made and new features become available is brilliant. I think lots of people are unsure about the investment could be swayed to take the plunge because of it. M12 buyers have the option of a DD HDM-1 HDMI Module which has 3 inputs and 1 output including 3D video pass-through meaning it will also integrate easily into your home living room set up too. Some of you will have seen that Sonny went to the press release of NAD’s latest development, BlueOS. This is a network product that has software for network audio music management that is controlled with an iOS or Android device. The DD BluOS Module allows streaming of a variety of music services as well as HD streaming from a NAS device; plus it gives you full control of your music library. The module that owners can choose for M12 has Integrated WiFi / Ethernet and aptX Bluetooth™. The BlueOS option is £399. As future proof the modules are, they aren’t going to be bringing DSD any time soon and I know thats on a lot of peoples lists these days even if they don’t own any.

 

We have asynchronous USB computer inputs and all manner of other USB’s front and back; there is no shortage of connectivity options, believe me. We have opticals, coaxials and AES/EUB inputs for digital and RCA, XLR, and a Phono input for MM and MC. We have digital outputs too, both coax and optical, these sit alongside the two subwoofer outputs with a second order high pass and low pass crossover with selectable frequencies with the flexibility to select different frequency ranges for each filter which will further increase its usability in a living room environment that can be used for movies, TV and all your music.  Analogue outputs are both RCA and XLR so you can connect to a couple of different power amps for a quick AB if you like but it also means whichever power amp you use, connection is easy.

The front panel is free from a strip of buttons, knobs and switches. Instead we have a very helpful touchscreen central unit which controls everything from volume to inputs and EQ, even polarity of outputs can be altered! A system like this is genuinely a very good idea, I will explain more later on. We have a great remote too so some of the functions can be controlled from your seat. The unit has dimensions of 435 x 133 x 383mm and weighs just 8.1kg

The Techy Bit

This all gets a little complicated as whatever the signal, it is converted to digital, yes even from your turntable! The whole process involves a conversion to PWM just like the M51 Sonny reviewed a while back. To quote NAD on the process will prevent any errors in translation so read away…

“DirectDigital™ amplification offers the highest level of performance. The 35-bit data path with 24-bit coefficients and 62-bit accumulation, and dithered truncation back to 35-bits after DSP functions guarantee the overall 24-bit accuracy. With this degree of resolution, all preamp functions can be accomplished with a new level of precision, and all in the digital domain. This eliminates the noise and distortion prone to analogue circuits. Because of the super high resolution, even 24-bit files are processed without truncation or loss of information.”

Now I don’t know about you, but when it comes down to it, I like to stay pretty open minded about technology developments and changes to the norm, so as long as it sounds as it should I don’t mind what happens in there!

Input Impedance is as expected for coaxial and AES/EBU with 75 and 110 Ohms respectively. The digital acceptance obviously includes Hi-Res files with up to 24/192 being catered for. Unfortunately DSD doesn’t get a look in here, which to me is a shame because it is increasing in demand, and it does sound great. Something I do approve of is the 2V output which means it has a more usable range on the volume wheel, something the totaldac struggled with.

The M22 Power Amp

The interesting features of the Masters extend to the M22, NAD have opted to use the nCore™ amplification tech which is licensed from Hypex. It is a pretty hyped technology actually that is a type of class D amplification that has been developed from the UcD circuitry developed by Hypex in 2001. The technology was designed to increase the simplicity in circuitry whilst out-measuring the rest in terms of output impedance, high-frequency THD performance and sheer sound quality. That is something you need to understand about this technology, it’s all about mathematics and measurements. If you are interested in specifics of the technology and exactly how it works, you’ve got to get yourself over to the Hypex website but for those of you interested in a quick snippet I will quote NAD directly.

“The M22 is using the latest nCore™ amplifier technology licensed from Hypex to provide a nearly ideal amplifier with distortion below measurement, ultra-high damping factor, and unconditional stability with any speaker. Tight, detailed sound with amazing control and transparency gets the best performance available. With nCore, Hypex has refined their UcD concept to new levels of perfection by improving the modulator for more accurate feedback subtraction and PWM generation. The all-discrete driver and output stage have also been improved for lower open-loop THD as well as lower idling losses, normally conflicting requirements with conventional IC driver circuitry. An added control loop incorporating an integrator with adaptive clipping enables 20dB more feedback to be used across the audio band because of its extremely low-phase shift resulting in a dramatic reduction in distortion across the audio band. This is added to UcD’s already amazing characteristics of load invariance and high current capability, common characteristics of great-sounding amplifiers”

To be fair, the numbers are pretty impressive. We get a minimum of 250 Wpc and dynamic reserves of up to 640W into 4 ohms from this relatively small power amp (435 x 103 x 379mm) which really is impressive; it only weighs 9kg too! Something else I like is that the idle power consumption is less than 40w and the standby consumption under 0.5w!

Hopefully the M22 is able to perform as well sonically as it measures, NAD are certainly confident in this class D technology.

Packaging, Accessories and Basic Setup

The Masters are packaged beautifully, I wouldn’t normally mention it, and I actually haven’t ever done so while talking full size gear. Each unit comes in a rather attractive black cardboard box with the standard cardboard brown being left for the highlights and writing. The basic outline of the product inside is on each box and they just generally look very high quality.  In terms of packaging inside they use very well formed cardboard and ‘egg box’ material again black and with ‘NAD Masters’ taking the attention to the quality of the product. These do look pretty nice but they are also there to offer stability for the unit and to cleverly house each small accessories box within it (one on top one bottom). Once you lift this off, the M12/22 is in a black NAD cloth draw string bag, a nice touch especially compared to the squishy plastic sleeve alternative that seems to be the most common. You really do feel like you are the lucky owner of a very high quality product, I think this is a genuinely important factor for companies to consider as it’s the first impression of the product to a buyer getting it into their own home. Obviously it’s not a reason to buy something but it does make a difference to your purchase satisfaction.

What do we get in the box then? Well with the M12 we receive a power cable, 4 magnetic feet, a cleaning cloth, a remote control but no manual? Well there is a good reason for that, and it’s because we get a very nice NAD USB drive finished in brushed aluminium, the same as the faceplate on the products themselves. The stick is slotted into a simple yet high quality leather pouch. Once again this just adds to the premium, luxurious experience of the product packaging. A great idea I think! The M22 comes boxed with the same cleaning cloth, power cable, magnetic feet and its own USB drive containing the quick set up guide and manual etc. everything about the packaging I approve of, it’s really nice to see a company offering attention to detail beyond the electronics themselves. I suppose this benefit is largely due to the fact the Lenbrook group is such a large company compared to lots of brands in this industry; maybe they have more say and control on packaging design, whatever the reason, I like it.

Setting up could not be simpler actually, the pre-amp bundled with all its features might be a bit daunting when you think about everything you could possibly use it for, but seriously if you isolate it to what you actually need, it’s pretty good indeed. I was able to get a couple of external DAC’s hooked up with one coming in via XLR and one via RCA easily with clear labelling on the back. Sonos connect plugs straight in via optical and your cd player could in via coax to let the DAC in the M12 take over your conversion needs from less capable equipment. This is the case the majority of the time, but it just highlights that there are enough inputs and options for 99% of us. Connection to the M22 is simple of course with both XLR and RCA inputs and a very nice set of speaker taps at each side. I do have one complaint here. I was using different pre-amps from different sources while I was enjoying these products and I needed to be able to switch between the single ended and balanced inputs. Unfortunately you have to go to the back of your rack and physically flick a switch to or from each input to change it. I would like a single switch on the front or even better a remote controllable switch with a light indicator to tell you what input you are on would be fantastic. I found it a little frustrating that from the very modern and innovative screen on the Pre-amp I can control everything from input and output to EQ, yet I have to go to the back of the product and reach for some switches on the power amp! It seemed a little lazy to me, it didn’t seem to match the very user friendly M12.

Other than this it’s as simple as you would hope for such a feature packed unit.

Build Quality

Both units are finished beautifully actually; everything feels extremely well made and finished. The magnetic feet are an example of the extra steps NAD have taken to make these feel like a premium product, they look fantastic, they isolate the unit and they are solid as anything. The actual point on the feet is visibly made from a different material to ensure the tip doesn’t blunt over time, it sits perfectly (and fairly securely actually), right in each magnetic foot. The rubberised bottom ensures they won’t move about while you are pressing the screen for example, it really is very well thought through.

The brushed aluminium faceplate is a great contrast to the black and it is perfectly milled and finished, both units benefit from this very simple colour scheme and it does give them a very contemporary design, a modern high end look for sure. I think they look great, managing to achieve the right balance between subtlety and attention grabbing.

Everything from speaker taps to the touchscreen is really well made and finished, I can’t fault NAD here, you can absolutely tell it is their flagship series with the attention to detail and consistency. Seriously though what else did you expect from NAD?

Usability

I think it’s important to quickly mention this area because of how different this product is when compared to other Pre-Amps especially in terms of controls. The touchscreen is obviously the area that is most different to the traditional DAC/Pre unit. Having been through countless units offering both these functions, some far more expensive, some less expensive, I have never had a touch screen before. Totaldac just offers a very simple display and remote control with no buttons on the unit whatsoever, while the Antelope Zodiac series have a very small screen like a calculator display and the buttons are on the unit and are very complicated, the same goes for the Exogal Comet. All of these units have one thing in common; the controls all have their weaknesses. On the Exogal both the screen and remote control are terrible, the totaldac remote control isn’t good quality and in no way resembles the design of the DAC itself, and the Zodiac Platinum has menu’s that aren’t in the manual therefore they aren’t explained, and it also has very silly ways of accessing those menus.

You get my point. Once you have it set up and they are working, you can just leave them alone and I think that’s why we don’t complain more about these faults that aren’t really acceptable, especially when you are paying several thousands of pounds.

NAD has done things differently. Everything we do these days is on a phone, a tablet, or computer and even certain laptops are touch screen now. Everybody is used to technology with touch controls; this is why the screen is such a useful addition. All of your controls are there on a large screen with a very responsive touch screen; they are well laid out and extremely user friendly, it’s just so easy, anybody could do it. It also means there are absolutely no buttons cluttering the front panel, just the screen, the NAD logo, and a volume knob (which is great in design and feel by the way).

Not only this but the remote control is very good too, it follows the same design style as the units themselves and it is of the same high standard of finish. It’s rechargeable too, so you don’t have to worry about changing batteries which might be drained a little faster due to the intelligent backlight function. It really is a high quality tool. Obviously you can’t control all the functions, I think this would be an area for improvement actually, but I like it, and I like the touchscreen too, it’s familiar and well executed, well done NAD.

I’ve said it already I know but I just wish you could switch the balanced and SE outputs on the power amp without having to go to the rear of the product, that is my only real frustration.

Sound

I’m going to split this into two separate sound reviews, 1, because I think both products offer different levels of value and performance and 2, they deserve it. I will start with my least preferred of the two (but still pretty good) so we can build to a climax I think. The M12 shall be kicking off the proceedings then!

With the M12 having the BluOS module the price goes up to £3700 which we can all agree is not cheap by any means for a Pre amp. I was expecting big things from the get go as the Parasound P5 was under a third of the price and left a lasting impression, as did the offerings from Music First. The NAD Pre also needed to impress against the M51 predecessor we reviewed a little while ago, a little lean and analytical, but we liked it, and this is it’s far more costly replacement in the Master range.

The difficulty is that as a reviewer, I have to bear in mind I’m not actually reviewing the sound of a £3700 DAC/Pre am I? It’s a streaming device, it’s a phono-stage for both MM and MC, it can access external storage, it’s an EQ, and it can alter polarity of terminals, Bluetooth, and so on and so forth. From this perspective I have to take into account what you are getting as well as the sound quality and then evaluate the sound at a price point that is substantially less than £3700. I will tell you now, and I cannot stress it enough, if all you want is a DAC/Pre this isn’t worth £3700, but as the feature filled product it is, I think it most definitely is in the right ballpark with this retail price.

Bearing that in mind, let’s move on.

The signature of the M12 is actually pretty different from any of the models I’ve mentioned above. The M12 offers a warm, natural sound that genuinely was a bit of a surprise for me as I was expecting just a refined version of the M51 with a bag full of new features. Thankfully we have a lively and somewhat energetic tendency to prevent the negatives that can so easily come with a warmer pre amp.  It offers enough detail consistently, top to bottom to keep the sound informative and insightful but not to the extent that it becomes a critical or overwhelming in its detail retrieval. You won’t need to worry about it ripping your low res streaming apart or even your badly recorded red-books for that matter, it isn’t overly transparent. I sometimes wonder if this was intentional from NAD as it is geared up for streaming and enjoyment not just for high end sources like lots of products are at this price. If it is intentional, I think it could be pretty smart, if it isn’t, it works out beneficial for those buyers who would use it to play everything and anything through.  Cleverly though, it manages to have a bit of a forgiving nature while not sacrificing other technical capabilities like soundstage, frequency extension and timbre.

Bass

As a warmer, more forgiving product bass does have a slight emphasis. It’s best described as engulfing and atmospheric in a way that isn’t usually achieved, it gives depth and realism to the bottom end in genres all the way from R&B to orchestral. It’s pretty enjoyable to be quite honest, I normally prefer the leaner presentation but I have to concede that I can be a sucker for a little extra oomph down below when it’s done right. We extend brilliantly as well as maintaining great texture and really impressive rhythmical capabilities thanks to a youthful bounce in the mid bass. Obviously not everyone will be cheering at the bass capabilities, for example; it isn’t as impactful as some others and people may find it a little less pronounced and defined than they would like.

Mids

Vocals specifically tend to tell a reviewer a great deal about the mid band as they cover such a broad spectrum and something the M12 does very well is maintaining a consistently attractive tone to them. Males and females have a soft, natural edge that gives a more realistic rendition of the artist’s intentions; it’s a very ‘analogue’ sound. The warmth continues from the bass which is another contributing factor to the analogue sound, its genuinely really enjoyable and makes critical listens a genuine pleasure, if not always being a demonstration of technical marvel.The M12’s ability to position vocals in its own space very well is without doubt a very important factor in keeping the product from just being just another smooth, warm Pre amp. The isolation adds a little reminder that this is a darn capable Pre if you consider how much this thing does; because it’s not just a DAC/Pre remember!

Treble

Harshness is simply not a concern with the M12, like the rest of the band the treble is smooth and has a softness to it which means it integrates brilliantly. Don’t misunderstand and think it lacks any form of excitement though because we do extend well with a very nice timbre to match; it’s just that it doesn’t ever draw attention to itself negatively. The best examples come from bells and rings which on inferior equipment will often be uncomfortable at best. Sometimes I feel a little more of a sparkle and shimmer would certainly open things up a little more and I cannot deny I prefer my top end a little more spacious.

Moving On

As I emphasised earlier, this cannot be thought of as simply a DAC/Pre, it’s unfair to pin it into that category and expect it to stand up to against products that offer less features for the same money. But obviously, I had to see for myself and I will give you a quick idea of what I found.

I have an Antelope Zodiac Platinum with Voltikus and Atomic Clock to hand at the moment and if you knock the external clock out of the way the standard Platinum and Voltikus combo is available from StudioCare for £3575.00 slightly less than the M12. Sonically the Zodiac makes the M12 sound closed and a little uneventful. Instrument separation isn’t as good either. The NAD offers less impact and a much less spacious presentation but the softer more wholesome sound of the NAD will appeal to some. Both technically speaking and from my personal preference the Antelope is SONICALLY on a different playing field to the M12.

Then if I return to being a little fairer to the M12 and compare to the Exogal Comet and PSU at around £2500, in short, I far prefer the M12 sound; it offers a far more realistic all round presentation. The comet offers huge width but in a somewhat artificial manor. M12 for me!

Concluding the M12

So here is your choice, if you are after a one unit solution to pretty much every audio need you have, and are probably ever likely to have (thanks to its modular “upgradeable” design), I can’t see another product that offers such a complete, professional, modern, polished, impressive, real, bouncy, versatile and technically complete option for you. If you want just a great DAC/Pre at this price then I would suggest looking elsewhere but I really do have a lot of respect for what NAD is doing to push the boundaries and give people an option and importantly execution above and beyond the competition. With build and usability as good as this it really is the complete package, NAD has a lot to be proud of with the M12, it is well worthy of the Master status.

The M22 Power Amp: It is £2700 of Value

Things might get a bit gushy now, and I apologise for that, but it doesn’t happen often. I absolutely love the M22, everything about it sonically has defied my expectations not only as for how it actually sounds but also because of the class D technology from Hypex and I’m not the only one either! We have a distributor that lives very near and we often have listening sessions when each of us gets something new in house and he vocalised his reservations about class D tech sounding a bit less impactful and weak than the alternative SS solutions. This destroyed that prejudice and he genuinely seemed shocked by the effortless weight and dynamism this amp was able to give music. And this is just the start.

To a certain extent some of the characteristics are shared between the M12 and M22 such as the fact the M22 never adds any fatiguing nature to the input, it is smooth and very realistic on the general presentation of the music; from here though we do diverge a little. For a start, the M22 is far more transparent than I was expecting making it very easy to differentiate between DAC’s and Pre’s. The biggest area of success is the ability to replicate the size and scale of the recordings, if the earlier components in the chain allow it of course. Part of this is to do with the massive dynamic capabilities of the M22 which gives such excitement and realism to all genres but is most noticeably impressive on Hi-res orchestral. Obviously the shed load of power you have at your disposal can help dynamism too, but the way the M22 handles its power is so admirable, it is such a versatile performer in this respect. The Audioplan Kontrast MK5 is a seaker that doesn’t like beefy amps, usually 30 Watts is all it really likes, and to be honest they usually sound far from ‘good’ on anything over this. This wasn’t the case with the 250 Watt NAD though it seemed to keep the subtlety and effortlessness that these great speakers lose with too much untamed power. Both myself and the Audioplan distributor were very impressed.

Bass 

Boy do we have some extension down low! It remains controlled and massively textured throughout passages that contain a lot of low end information. It is warm and it is powerful, but you don’t lose the technical qualities like speed and detail, it’s really impressive believe me.

Mid

The transparency shines here with the detail exposure being so effortless and just plain impressive. The separation gives such well-defined edges that give you a genuine insight into your music, it’s just more realistic than I was expecting for £2700. The dynamic nature gives the upper mids some energy to keep everything exciting and enjoyable. Can you tell I think this is a great product?!

Treble

Open, airy, sparkly, extended and detailed when you feed it properly but it can also be less inspiring if you don’t take care with your sources. The most impressive aspect in the treble for me is how defined and precise every note is. The decay is so short and there is no unwanted metallic ringing, it is a very refined sounding top end and it is the transparency that gives you the sheer quality up top.

The M22 Conclusion:

The better you input, the better it outputs it’s that simple. Even with equipment as good as the totaldac and Zodiac Platinum with Atomic Clock, both costing 3x the price the M22 doesn’t seem to hit a ceiling, it doesn’t become the limiting factor in the system, it just continues to deliver. I think it is an outstanding product and great value too.

The New NAD Masters Pairing: Final Verdict 

If you are after a do it all, future proof product that will get several of your rack components into one sleek looking unit, look no further than the M12 BUT if you are after purely a very good DAC/Pre there are better alternatives on the market. If it didn’t have such a strong feature set it would be easy to criticise at the asking price as far as sound goes when up against strong rivals in this area, but when you appreciate the unit as a whole you have to admire NAD for the efforts.

The M22 is an extremely impressive power amp and at £2700 it is good value too! Versatility and effortlessness are great qualities to possess alongside refinement and it has just that. I’m going to miss the M22 I have enjoyed every minute with it.

As a pairing I see these products as a modern solution rather than a rack addition; the M12 brings convenience and innovation to an audiophile moving with the times and maybe with a lack of space and the pure quality of the M22 gives you a great sounding product and a very nice system.

Josh Coleby