NAD M51 DAC & Digital Preamp (Full Review)

Written by on October 2, 2012 in Latest Auditions - No comments

NAD M51 Front

We all have an old CD-player lying around. We all have a DVD player or Blu-Ray player. Did you know how incredible these often cheap digital machines can be made to sound if put through an external DAC? A new world awaits! Hook e’m all up digitally to the NAD (Master Series) M51 DAC/digital preamp and see what happens. Yes see, because unlike before, your soundstage will become visible with tangibly 3D resolution! No need for an expensive preamp (although the best ones do make a substantial improvement as they should costing R150K and up). The NAD does both and it’s fully remote controllable with volume, balance and even absolute phase. For the past four weeks I’ve been listening to my CD’s through the new NAD M51 and I’m confident to say I didn’t entirely miss my R100K Audio Research Reference CD-player…

To sum-up the new M51’s sound in one phrase would be difficult. It has such a lovable character that keeps seducing instead of continually trying to impress. One aspect of its accomplished sound however particularly made an impression on me without it being ‘impressive’ sounding as this statement can lead one to believe. It characterized my entire outlook on this lovable gem. The NAD simply has the ability to render typical digital glare and brightness all but completely obsolete. If you know the sound of the Benchmark DAC1, this is the opposite. It is beautifully smooth without the typical lifeless rendition often associated with smoother sounding digital gear.

The NAD presents a full bodied (but never ripe) sound with flesh-on-the-bones realism through the midrange quite unique at this sub R20,000 price-level. There is a welcome roundness of tone that will impress most lovers of good old analogue and perhaps those in search of getting a handle on a more energetic solid state amp will also rejoice. NAD’s engineers undoubtedly managed to get the fundamentals of this Master Series model particularly right. Previous generations of digital gear dubbed ‘analogue-like’ in presentation more often than not also sounded artificially smooth, smeared, dull and lifeless. These usually lacked vital excitement and the inner glow characteristics of analogue, the exact ingredients of which is the product of live music’s appeal. The NAD M51 is revealing of inner detail and musical excitement while maintaining an undoubted sonic ease all the same. Even the not so great recordings all sound distinctly less irritatingly “hard” than before. In-fact I found the otherwise ‘ruff stuff’ suddenly becoming a lot more listenable, even enjoyable through the M51.

A prime example of what I would call a ‘ruff’ recording is that of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ album where the CD sounds bright and brittle at best. Through the NAD, the unit’s clean and neutral mid to high range never allowed the formation of commonly found digital compounding effects of negatives when playing weak recordings. The nett result is a balance far more natural, transparent and inviting and it afforded me new discoveries within the complex threads of program material on ‘Born in the USA’. The NAD’s sophisticated balance allowed deeper midrange perspective than experienced before with this CD. I came to realize a lot of the residual glare on this album as heard through more ordinary CD-players are actually caused by the machines not being able to properly separate (discern or make sense of) the direct sound from the somewhat excessive yet natural acoustic reverb-tails.

Born in the USA were mostly recorded in the large open studio A section of the legendary Power Station facility in New York City (now know as Avatar Studio’s) where the natural reverberation was cleverly designed to resemble a massive hall. Careful and precise microphone technique is of utmost importance in such a large open-plan recording venue. Not that there’s anything wrong with the way Born in the USA was recorded, I’m just of opinion that the digital medium could have been too young at the time to make proper sense of the complex mixtures of direct and reverberating sounds. Interestingly, the NAD M51, despite the age and difficulty of the recording, managed to dissect ‘Born in the USA’ in a way that allowed the beautiful sense of the reverberant acoustic space to come into its own. On ‘Dancing in the Dark’ Bruce’s voice and the drums echo deep and wide within the soundstage made-up almost exclusively of lively acoustic space definition. Another aspect of the NAD-sound worthy of praise is the clean and extended treble range paying dividends in the refinement department where it compliments the natural midrange handsomely.

When I initially started listening to the NAD M51, I hooked it up with the same interconnect I used on my now departed Audio Research Reference CD-7 with custom power supply upgrade I developed. That interconnect worked well on the CD-7 with its valve output stage, but within a few days of listening to the NAD I became aware of a slight graininess in the mid-treble I was not accustomed to hearing so blatantly. My immediate thoughts were that the affordable NAD had to be giving something away against the mighty Audio Research and I almost simultaneously made peace with the fact because it was not detracting from the overall musically satisfying whole. A change of power amplifier during the time I was actively busy with the review however freed-up a set of AudioQuest Colarado balanced XLR leads and I decided to try this set between the DAC and my Audio Research Reference 5SE preamp. Incidentally this change caused the running of an exclusive complimentary cable line-up of AudioQuest’s three top cables in my system namely, Colarado, Niagara & Sky.

Good old analogue remains my ultimate reference for source material. Those who read my blogs regularly will know how I fancy the Manley Steelhead RC reference phono-stage and how this device coupled with a perfectly matched cartridge can throw a sound-stage from wall to wall across the front of my 9m wide listening area. The NAD struck me as getting a great deal of this very ideal perspective correct. Out of phase information is skillfully projected way past speaker boundaries either sides of the speakers (remember Q-Sound?), a quality very reminding of my experience of analogue sound through the Manley phono-stage when driving the MM stage with suitable MC cartridge.

It is evident throughout this review that I loved the time spent in the presence of the NAD M51. It is a highly accomplished device capable of punching way above it’s price level. It has since become one of our “go to” products as solution for so many of our clients, even some with truly high-end setups.

For a tailored personalized demonstration feel free to contact us.

M51 Rear

About the Author

Audio Engineer, Critic & Retailer twenty-seven years in the making.

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