High-end tuners are thin on the ground. I suspect it’s the influence of DAB, because it didn’t used to be like this. Not so very long ago, Accuphase, Linn, Naim, Day Sequerra and Magnum Dynalab all had seriously no-compromise tuners on sale. Until recently, that list dropped to just Accuphase and Magnum Dynalab, but surprisingly NAD has changed all that.
The company’s new £1,438 M4 arguably completes the brand’s Masters Series – its top end, built like a tank range of audio and home cinema electronics. The M4 is a combination DAB and AM/FM affair, designed to fit snugly into a system comprising M3 dual mono integrated amp and M5 stereo CD/SACD player. As a consequence, with its grey on silver livery and steel case, the tuner is one of the biggest, most hard-looking tuners around – only the aforementioned Magnum Dynalab from Canada does ‘butch’ better.
The controls are exactly as you might expect from a NAD Masters. Simple, to the point, with a multi-way controller (think the controller on the back of a Canon camera) an array of seven buttons beneath the blue scrolling dot-matrix display, and one solitary power buttons on the opposite panel. The rear panel shows just how flexible this tuner is; no combi aerial connector here – there’s a separate connection for AM (two spring clips), FM and DAB (75-ohm coax connectors). There’s also digital coaxial and optical outputs for those who want to hook the M4 to a DAC, a pair of gold phono connectors and an array of trigger and RS232 hook-ups for custom installers. And yes, you can beef up the mains lead if you want, because it has a two-pin IEC connector. Okay, no balanced outputs (both the M3 and M5 sport XLR links), but this represents about as good as it gets in the crazy, wacky world of audiophile tuners today, from a connectivity standing at least.
This is matched by a M4 remote, which neatly clones the features and functionality of the front panel, with the added bonus of glowy buttons for late night listening. And, like the rest of the tuner behaves, it itself extremely well. No hiccoughs in moving from band to band, storing presets is easy and quick and the display can easily turn its hand to the usual variety of informational activities (except some of the more traffic-oriented subroutines of RDS). This sounds like a natural function of any good tuner, but experience shows that as you go up the price band so occasionally the tuner gets quirky. None of that here; no three finger power chord to switch from FM to DAB, no defaulting to Latvian in the set-up routine, no turning the power on and off just to get into ‘preset’ mode. It is even undemanding of FM signal feed – so many posh FM tuners demand the best possible signal, but here the FM sound hits stereo and is quiet with even the humble copper Model T supplied with the majority of tuners. In other words, this is as easy to operate as any good budget tuner, and is all the better for that.
NAD has been canny with this tuner. In many respects, it’s similar to more budget models in the range (like the C445) sharing as it does tuner front ends, which takes advantage of the common functionality and operational control. This is because there’s no need to reinvent the wheel… You just make a better class of wheel. So, higher spec chips and a IF stage with three ceramic filters have been specified in the FM tuner stage, while the DAB section has a higher grade of shielding and a very acceptable Burr Brown DAC (coupled with op-amps from the same chip fabber) that wouldn’t look out of place in a CD player in the signal path. Speaking of clever, the same chassis is used in the US as well, this time replacing the DB-1 DAB module with an XM satellite radio head. Common once again to all the NAD Masters range, the tuner has a seriously beefy power supply in the box; overkill in a tuner, but falls under the ‘if a job’s worth doing…’ remit deployed throughout high-end audio.
In the interest of completeness, AM radio through the M4 is, well, pretty dreadful, just like AM radio routinely sounds when mistakenly amplified through a stereo system. The M4 tries to make the best of a (very) bad job, by seeming to eliminate some of the worst hiss, but as the only surviving reason for AM replay is cricket coverage and that’s largely solved by DAB, it would have been no great omission. Still, at least it’s good to have it there in times of national emergency.
FM is a much better served. It offers both a useful ‘blend’ mode to knock out some hiss from fringe stations by making a station not-quite-mono at the high frequencies, and it has tighter tuning steps (12.5kHz) than most from its shielded MOSFET RF stage. This is a godsend in a metropolis, as a nasty sideband from a pirate house music station used to butt in over BBC Radio 3 at regular intervals, and TheToday Programme is not improved by having a Soca backbeat.