NAD M55 Universal Disc Player

Category: Digital

NAD M55 Master Series Universal Disc Player
List price: $1799

System used with it:
Pioneer 1120HD Plasma
Zu Definition loudspeakers
Klimo Merlino tube preamp
Audion Black Shadow 845 monoblock amps
Audiopax 88 monoblock amps (alternate)
NAD M55 universal player
Zu Varial interconnects
Zu Ibis speaker cables
Strictly 2 channel

Preferring to find a universal disc player with HDMI video out and sound upgraded from what the mainstream brands can provide, I bought an NAD M55 on speculation. I've had it less than a day and here are first impressions:

I listened to CD, SACD, DVD-A and watched/listened to some movie tracks. I have two tube-based systems and in each have universal players that were $1500 at the time -- Pioneer Elite DV59AVi in one system, and Denon DVD3910 in the other. Both these players are among a small handful of the best at video performance, and deliver the minimum threshold of high-end audio sound on all digital formats. Since my plasma displays have HDMI inputs and to me that is definitely the preferred input for video, I've been reluctant to lose HDMI in order to get better sound from something like the Esoteric universal players. Plus, I don't like the idea of paying $5,000 - $10,000 for digital gear since it plunges in value overnight. So the promise of better sound with HDMI at under $2,000 is perfect for me, and the market. This player replaces the Elite DV59AVi.

The Redbook CD playback quality on the M55 is a much larger improvement over Redbook performance from other universal disc players than I expected. I've heard the McCormack, the Esoterics and of course my own players along with several others. I think this is the best Redbook sound I've heard outside of the excellent Wadia dedicated CD transport/DAC separates. And it's surprisingly close to the Wadia sound for a one-box universal solution at a fraction of Wadia's cost. In fact, it's better than Redbook or SACD on many of the high end SACD players I've heard. I still buy vinyl, and always look for SACD when a title is published on that format, but Redbook CD is the bulk of my library of ~1400 digital disks. This player seriously improves the sound of that collection. Even 20+ year old discs from the bad old early days of CD recording & mastering are much more listenable. I can already tell from a few discs that I'll be pulled back into my less listenable CDs for the music. This player gives CD music better tone, much less strain and grain, and far better soundstaging than I've ever had from that format. Whomever at NAD is responsible for the Redbook CD performance of this player, well done. If SACD and DVD-A were no better than what I have now, the M55 would be worth more than it's list price on CD sound alone.

I don't have many DVD-A discs but that format is the best version of some great music. Four discs that make this true are Miles Davis' "Tutu", Neil Young's "Harvest, "The Marvin Gaye Collection," and The Eagles' "Hotel California." The M55's DVD-A sound is the best I've heard from the format, bar none. And that means that for these particular performances, this is the best way to listen to this music. Really outstanding. As a 4+ decade analog buyer and listener it's not lightly that I say this universal player makes me nearly forget I'm listening to digital when hearing DVD-A.

SACD is excellent as expected, with a quieter noise floor than I've sensed from this format before. However, the margin of improvement over other comparable SACD players is smaller than the margin over other players in Redbook and DVD-A, to me. If SACD were as much better over other players as the Redbook playback is, then it would surpass everything we still like about vinyl. I think the M55 makes small improvements in SACD soundstaging, and in keeping separate simultaneous transient events discrete in dense music. Tone, in the way guitar players think of tone, is meatier. It's very smooth, even on very bright masters. THIS is the SACD player I've been looking for, to do justice to the Dylan SACD reissues, which was the trigger for me to make the move to universal players in the first place, the day that 15-disc set was released. But mainly my sense of this player is that it brings Redbook CD up to SACD standards and DVD-A is now peer to any format.

Common to all formats: This player has sensational bass. It's the biggest immediate improvement I noticed on start-up. My speakers, Zu Definitions, are flat to 16Hz, quick and defined, so bass tone is fully revealed for what it is on any recording. I am getting the best bass of any player that has passed through this system, including the various high-end machines that people have brought along to listen to through my system. Bass is so much better that what I thought was a room problem is largely ameliorated. My guess is that all the attention paid to antiresonance measures in the chassis are contributing. The M55 also doesn't get strained and compressed when playing music with dense crescendos. It doesn't pinch a full orchestra, and in dense music individual events blend rather than collide. Irrespective of the recording, vocal sound floats separated from the plane of instruments, as it should. On music and DVD movies, lyrics and dialog are easier to understand because of this. The M55 gives me the best vocal clarity I've ever heard from digital sources in video or audio. The downmix to stereo is the best I've heard from A/V 5.1 hardware. Overall, I go back to big-T TONE. That's the overriding characteristic of this player that makes the deepest impression. It gives digital discs triode-like tonal richness and density, as though there's a high-grade CCa tube circuit in the analog output section and the designer emulated MOSFET bass, 300B midrange and 45 treble in the DACs.

Video performance out of the box with no tweaking is excellent. I am visually-oriented but the physiology of my eyes limits my ability to recognize every fleeting artifact I read obsessives documenting flaws for various DVD players, on the Web. I see wars breaking out over the tiniest transient flashes in the players I own and when I go to the scenes pointed out, I am just as often hard-pressed to notice or care as I am able to recognize the flaw. In any case, video on my Pioneer Elite plasma displays, as good as it is, still isn't film in a theater. On DVD-Video, the M55 certainly compares well to my Elite and Denon players, but it is not better nor worse through HDMI, though it is perhaps a little more nuanced and film-like through component outputs than the others. Menus for video tweaking are less complete and interactive than the more mainstream players, but I don't think video will suffer for it once setup is tweaked.

Things I'd like to see improved: The remote doesn't have a backlight. It needs backlit buttons like the Pioneer's. Video adjustment menus are not interactive with the image in real time. On the Denon and Pioneer units I have, the menus overlay the video image so you can make adjustments and see the results. It is tedious and less effective to have to go back-and-forth, especially to see the effects of a change. The user manual is very light. Compared to the documentation supplied with the Pioneer Elite and Denon units, it's positively sparse, and some functions are unexplained. The transport grinds noisily on initial read and track-to-track transitions on DVD-Audio. This doesn't happen with SACD and Redbook. My Denon player does this but less obviously. The noise subsides during playing of tracks, however. I don't know what it is about DVD-A that changes transport behavior, but NAD hasn't licked it. Also, out of the box, HDMI out did not send signal to my TV. Hence, to see the setup menu, I had to dig out a cable to thread a composite signal to my TV to see the initial setup. HDMI was default ON, but I had to switch HDMI on and off a few times before it would wake up and send video to my TV. I've seen this before on my Pioneer Elite player but not my Denon. So there appears to be a problem getting the software for HDMI to wake up on first use. Beyond the geek market, NAD will get some people returning players over this. Dealers should know to tell people to switch HDMI on/off a few times if it doesn't work out of the box. This should be fixed it in a future version if possible.

Industrial Design: In over 30 years of buying serious audio gear, I've never been willing to put NAD in my systems, even when their products sounded good and I had less money, because the look never seemed worth owning. There was a time I sold a ton of 3020/4020 combinations back in the day; 7020 receivers, cassette decks, etc. But the cheap feel and the not-quite black, dull monkey-sh*t brown cosmetics precluded winning any place in my homes. NAD finally catapulted past that history with the Master series. It looks better in-the-metal than it does in photographs. The faceplate feels like quality and is dimensionally interesting. Switchgear UI is simple and elegant. And the case cover is heavier-gauge steel than most competitors use. The feet are an engineered vibration control solution rather than an afterthought. Everything works. The only physical disappointment is revealed when the drawer slides out for disc access. Like too many drawer-loading players, the plastic tray feels like it will snap off if a heavy butterfly lands on it when extended. This is not specific to NAD. But since they got that the faceplate is a primary venue for addressing perception of quality and pride-of-ownership in the consumer, then I recommend they go one step further and improve the robustness of the drawer tray. It's a materials issue, along with engineering the support of the tray when it's extended. In the same vein of boosting perception of quality, while the remote is very nice, it should be in a case of machined metal. They might not be able to do that and address the other suggestions in this paragraph at an $1800 retail price point. But I doubt they'd sell any fewer of these at $1995, so there's some latitude. Much less essential: NAD chose a single color scheme that attempts to fit into both silver and black themed systems. It doesn't really blend with an all-black system such as mine, but is not dissonant with silver themes. I know it causes inventory problems, but a true black or grey + black gradients alternative would be welcome. The faceplate has enough dimensional interest to avoid the plain-black-box look in black.

Obviously, great job on the M55. This player is a real contribution to better digital sound at a sensible price. Only distribution and NAD's ability to communicate the attributes of the Master Series to a wider market will limit their appeal, and if the rest of the line is as competitive as this player is, they have winners across the board . For those of us who want a single player for everything digital, this player ought to outsell every other above $1,000 on the merits, if everyone knew about it and where to buy it. More to the point, its Redbook performance should make it the preferred disc player for anyone spending over $1,500 for a CD player. There is now no reason to buy a dedicated Redbook player, nor any reason to be without the option of buying music on DVD-A and SACD.

Phil, thank you very much for the detailed review. For reasons of budget and practicality, I am looking for a universal disc player, rather than spreading my limited resources over a separate music and home theatre system. On the one hand, I am leery of the mass market brands because of CD sound quality. On the other hand, having regard to the video side of things, I don't want to get too expensive a player until it is sorted out what is going to happen with Blu-Ray and HD DVD formats. Balancing these interests, players like the NAD are ones that atteact the most interest from me. Perhaps many other audio or videophiles are in the same boat. In view of this, the information provided in your review is very helpful. Thanks again.

Personally, I don't advise people who ask to spend more than $2,000 on a disc player this year. Fortunately, with the M55 you don't have to. There's an Onkyo I haven't heard but this beats the Elites, Denons, Marantzes and unlike most of the pure audiophile step-ups, has HDMI video out and meets them toe-to-toe on sound quality, even besting some regardless of price. Pioneer and Denon can certainly match or exceed it for video PQ and are more tweakable, but not by much. On the full balance of factors an audiophile music lover who also enjoys movies with high visual fidelity cares about, this is as good as it gets now, and you won't mind the price you paid in the meantime when the next format settles. Someone who prioritizes more to nth degree video might prefer the Elite DV79AVi or the Denon DVD-3910. Both are excellent units. But if you're music-biased in a single disc player mixed-use system, the NAD is your machine.

Great comments all. I am very interested in this machine because I too want a one box unit, but one that does HDCD as well, which the NAD does.

Has anyone played any HDCD discs on this, and if so, how doe they sound?
I used the NAD M55 to replace my Lexicon RT10 which I love, but doesn't have HDMI. The NAD is silkier, smoother, and I agree - it's got the tone right. It's seductive, and just sound's right.

Biggest downside is that it takes forever to read a disc, and makes a lot of noise as it does. After that, though, everything is great.

I found out through their technical support guy (which was great, just send an email through NAD's website), is that you can switch layers on an SACD by pressing the forwardand reverse buttons on the remote. This should have been in the manual as well as a bunch of other stuff, but it's nearly bullit proof in operation, and sounds and looks great.
Very thoughtful review. Nice job. Phil (anyone), have you heard the M5...? I wonder how it compares to the M55...
I second the request of comparing with the M5.
I have a friend who praises his M5 but i would like to have dvd-audio as well.
I bought an M5 last weekend. I was looking to replace my Denon 2910 universal player, which died. (That's the 2d one that's died on me.) I would've looked at the M55, had I known about it, but the store I visited was a former NAD dealer and they only had one piece left - a floor model M5 for $850. So, although it doesn't play DVD-As, I gave it a listen. And wound up replacing my Marantz 63SE CD player instead of the Denon. What Phil wrote above about the CD sound of the M55 certainly applies to the M5. I've not heard CD performance I enjoyed more. Especially on older CDs like Led Zeppelin and the Doors. (And I've recently heard the AR Reference player, the Rega Apollo, the Ayre CD player, and a dcs DAC hooked into a Sonos streamer.) SACD and HDCD are icing on the cake. Of course I still can't play DVD-As (or DVDs, for that matter), which is a drag because Yes's Fragile and Phish's high rez downloads are staples. But for $850, it was a no-brainer. I do wonder if the M5 plays CDs any different than the M55, considering they're the same price... Does the M55 give up anything? Heck, maybe it sounds better. Anyway, I'm pretty happy with the purchase and recommend listening to the M5 or M55 if you're looking for a new player.