To say that the NAD Masters Series M55 is something of a departure for NAD is a big understatement. Gone is dull-as-dishwater design and drab-grey finish, gone are the budget underpinnings to hit low price points and gone is the NAD house sound.
The M55 is a true universal disc-spinner with full multichannel DVD-A and Super Audio CD playback, and is built solidly enough to withstand the rigours of everyday use for about two centuries. The casework is a mix of steel panels, extruded aluminium and die-cast zinc alloy sitting on vibration absorbing silicone rubber feet.
Inside is no less beautiful, with a pristine layout of high-tech glass-epoxy circuit boards and serious power supplies. The features count is not left wanting, with the full complement of Dolby and DTS modes, MP3, WMA and JPEG file support and video- scaling up to 1080i resolution. Upgradeable architecture means that 1080p scaling is only a firmware update away.
Setup is via an onscreen menu system that comes second only to Yamaha's top-flight DVD players for sheer visual splendour. The OSD is available through the HDMI output, the remote navigates smoothly through the options and there are plenty of video tweaking options. So where's the catch? Well, the disc mechanism is a little noisy when loading... but that's about it.
The picture straight out of the crate is crisp, colourful and smooth. Motion flows like water and there is not the merest hint of player-born processing errors or artefacts even when upscaled to 1080i.
Using the HDMI and 720p scaling to an HD Ready projector gives a rich and warm balance that oozes you into the scene without sand-papering your eyeballs. Skin tones have a natural look with a healthy glow, and the high contrast gives a very good perspective of depth. This sumptuous picture can seem a little shy of impact initially, but it forgoes the overt wow-factor in favour of a well-balanced image that will keep you smiling long into an all-nighter of back-to-back Lord of the Rings. (Trust me, I tried it.). Trimming both the gamma and colour saturation controls offers a cooler look with more intense blues, but all of the picture trims suffer from controls that are simply too coarse for really fine tuning.
The digital audio feed from the M55 to a processor has to be wired in electrical or optical digital cable rather than break-out of the HDMI lead unfortunately, but I have found this is a better option acoustically anyway. Certainly fed into a handy Arcam AVR-350 the M55 proves to offer a sound just as large and as polished as the casework. Like the picture, the sound is a grower - not an immediate aural syringing but smooth, weighty and detailed with long-term appeal. The M55 and the Arcam both possess a certain laid-back charm but the combination might be just a little too refined and safe for some.
Not so when the M55 is plugged into its sibling M15 processor. There is a massive synergy that seems to elicit the best of both components in a way that mixing and matching only tends to achieve on a luck basis. The sound is more immediate and crisp but looses none of its weight or authority. Even using a more modestly powered amplifier than the matching M25, the soundstage is simply huge and there is a crushing presence to soundtracks that will absolutely delight those who enjoy cinema-realistic volume levels - and I do!
The analogue outputs on the M55 offer more of the same weighty and refined sound with rock-solid bass and timing that many decent CD players would love to boast. The overall balance is not as flat- neutral or as stark with stereo music as perhaps audio purists would like, but the robust character and huge dynamic range certainly gets a thumbs up.
There is no shortage of competition at around £1300 for universal disc-spinners but the NAD M55 can hold its disc-drawer high against any contender. It is better put together than most, offers all the features you could want, and a performance that is bang on the money. Arcam, Denon, Pioneer et all, beware. The NAD Masters Series is coming to get you. Richard Stevenson