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NAD M33 Streaming Amplifier Review

fcracer

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M33 First Impressions Review

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Hello everyone, thanks to Amir’s review of the NAD M33 (M33), I decided to take the plunge (after donating to this site) and ordered one here in Asia. From the time I ordered it to when I received it was about 1.5 months; I paid a price similar to the USA retail price. I’m not being paid or encouraged to write this review.

I maintain a very small travel and photography blog at www.fcracer.com so this review is written in a similar style. It will be a bit long, but hopefully useful to you. It’s arranged so you can skip to the parts most relevant for your needs.

Context

I think understanding the author’s frame of reference is important when reading people’s reviews, so my current setup consists of a NAD C390DD (390DD) paired with Monitor Audio Silver 6 speakers (predecessor to the current Silver 200), and a Creek Evolution 100A (Creek) paired with Monitor Audio RX6 speakers (predecessor to the Silver 6). Both arrangements have been setup using REW software to get as close to an ideal sound profile as possible, given the usual constraints. The 390DD gets closer to ideal than the Creek due to its built-in bass parametric EQ.

I’ve been very happy with this combination as the 390DD has provided more than seven years of exceptional audio performance, and with all the software updates NAD has provided over those years, the optional BluOS card turned out to be a great value.

The Creek will continue to serve its purpose in a room where a discrete and stylish amplifier is more important than sound quality. I’ve had this amplifier for nearly six years and it’s rather special, mostly due to its exceptional build quality. It’s Made in China of high quality materials and clearly by highly skilled people with a great deal of care and attention. If you want to feel precision and love for details, you owe it to yourself to feel the perfectly designed and dampened volume knob on the Creek.

While I’ve been happy with the above setups, I’ve had them for 6-7 years and wanted to try something new. I also really wanted to see what DSP can do in my acoustically poor room (small space with lots of hard walls, and since I’m overseas in a rented flat, I don’t want to invest any money to make it better). I laid out the features I was looking for:
  • All-in-one box
  • Must have a physical volume knob made of metal
  • Premium construction (prefer metal front plate)
  • Attractive appearance suitable for a main room
  • Streaming capability from a Synology NAS
  • AirPlay, Bluetooth, HDMI and at least one optical input
  • Digital Signal Processing capability
  • High efficiency with low power consumption
I started looking in late 2019 and was pretty set on getting the new Creek Voyage i20, but Creek took a long time to get it to market and at a price point much higher than anticipated (US$7,999). They also, for reasons I don’t understand, removed the voltage selection capability, meaning that I would not be able to use the amplifier if I moved back to North America. While I love their industrial design, I lost interest with the limitations of no DSP and the voltage selection, especially at that price point.

That then left a number of interesting amplifiers from Lyngdorf (the TDAI-3400 at US$7,199), Benchmark (DAC + Amp combination at US$5,199) and NAD (M33 at US$4,999). I was leaning towards the Lyngdorf, but after reading Amir’s review, I felt its price a bit high for amplification technology that appears to be similar to my 390DD, and perhaps even a step backwards; with the M33 featuring Purifi modules, it seemed like a “no regrets” choice to go for the M33. Having owned a number of NAD products (T750, C162/C272, D3020 and C390DD) over the years without any issues, I felt comfortable buying it sight unseen.

With the context set, let’s dive into my first impressions of the M33.

Packaging

I would have never expected to be talking about packaging with an amplifier review, but I think it has to be said that the packaging of the M33 is very well done. There’s an outer box, an inner box (with a cool design pattern) and with no styrofoam. While it isn’t Apple levels of packaging, it’s a welcome change from the usual brown box. The Creek also provides a sturdy box, albeit one that doesn’t come with nearly the protection that the M33 box does.

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Setup

The M33 is a joy to get up and running as long as you read the manual provided on the luxurious USB key. On my first go, I didn’t read the manuals and got stuck in the transition from the NAD setup to the Dirac Live setup. However, after reading the manuals, it became a lot more clear. I wish that companies would take a stand on user manuals, either include the whole lot, or put it all on digital media; this partial approach is irritating because you think the various leaflets and paper manuals included in the box will be sufficient, but then you run into issues that ultimately wastes time.

The touchscreen works really well to get things going and it’s far more responsive than I expected. Think of an iPhone 3GS and you’ll have the right expectations. It’s not fluid like an iPhone 12, but it’s still pretty good and plenty sufficient for using the amplifier on a daily basis. The only negative is that I haven’t figured out how to use the remote to navigate the menus, something that was simple on the 390DD (if anyone knows how to do that, please let me know).

The M33 easily found my network shares and setting up the streaming services was super simple. AirPlay2 was as simple to setup as it always is, and the same with bluetooth. In terms of getting the amplifier out of the box and sending music to the speakers, I can’t think of another amplifier as sophisticated as the M33 that’s this easy to setup. All of the years evolving the BluOS line of consumer products has really helped NAD here.

On my first attempt at setting up the Dirac Live, I made a number of mistakes (albeit with minimal impact on the outcome) because I followed the prompts of the software without reading any user manuals. Two mistakes I made were not providing ideal signal to noise during the volume adjustment procedure, and in making sure the main listening position (MLP) measurement was done absolutely perfectly with careful alignment of the microphone.

The other thing about Dirac Live that is tedious are the number of measurement points. While “Tightly Focused” requires only nine, “Wide” requires 17! If you’re planning on setting this up for the first time, the user manual provided on the USB is well worth the time; in that manual, it indicates to set aside 60 minutes to complete the setup and I’d agree with that.

I’m new to Dirac Live so the above was really down to user error and inexperience, but it felt like a confusing process to get it all up and running, certainly not helped by the Dirac Live software crashing a number of times during the upload of the filters to the M33. It pays off to save your session before uploading the filters.

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Sound quality

Prior to setting up the Dirac Live, there was no discernible difference in sound quality between the M33 and the 390DD. Both have that wonderful inky black silent background with absolutely no hiss at any volume levels. If you held a gun to my head and asked me to be foolishly subjective, I would say that the M33 sounds more fluid, like the notes start and stop more precisely which allows the music to sound smoother and more refined. It may just be mental BS from having spent money or it may be something that can be quantified (if you have advice on how to test this using REW, I’m more than willing to give it a shot).

The other area that I notice a difference is in low to mid volume levels. This is something I noted before in the 390DD vs. Creek comparison; for some reason, the 390DD sounds flat when listened to at low volumes. At the time, I attributed this to the slow ramping of the volume control which means that I’d be listening to the 390DD at lower volumes than the Creek. I noticed right away that the M33 sounds consistent whether it’s at -50db or -20db. It appears NAD has sorted out their digital volume control algorithms to make them operate more like an analogue control.

With the “Focused Imaging” calibration completed, and the recommended Dirac Live curve implemented, the sound was very precise, but lacking weight. Because of my bad room, the software appeared to remove all my room modes and gutted the lower frequencies. A comparison using REW showed not only the room modes reduced, but also the area below 60Hz reduced significantly compared to my previous preference. It turns out that the MLP microphone positioning is crucial t get right because by moving it a few cm from the original position, Dirac Live restored the area under 60Hz while still improving the room modes.

While the Dirac Live curve provides for very good clarity, I still wanted some of my bass back. Somehow, I came across the NAD Curve available on their website. This made a huge improvement to the way I like to listen to music. Further to that, I added even a few db more to the bass and saved a number filters (5 max on the M33) to suit different musical needs. Overall, Dirac Live has provided for the largest gain in sound quality that my ears have experienced in any audio purchase I’ve made.

Power

After letting the amplifier warm up (it was -11C when it was delivered so I wanted to get it up to operating temperature), I gave it the beans, and just like the 390DD, this bad boy can dish it out. Even at police visit levels of sound pressure, the amplifier sounds super clean with no audible clipping or distortion. The higher the volume knob is turned, the greater the sound pressure, simple as that. I played some heavy electronic music and I can’t fathom any household needing more power than the M33 delivers.

Ease of use

The M33 is definitely easier to use than the 390DD, because of the excellent touch screen and more consistent user experience. The 390DD was from an era where NAD was transitioning to using more BluOS and things felt like they were patched together. The M33 feels like an amplifier built around BluOS. However, there’s one issue here with an amplifier built around BluOS, and that’s the APP and remote control. Both the APP and the remote control are poorly designed; the APP has horrible navigation, and the remote control is way too big and heavy, and doesn’t seem to do much on the M33.

Perhaps if I had a family of electronics, I could utilize the remote more, but as it stands, the remote is a letdown. I even had the embarrassing situation of a battery getting stuck inside the M33 remote, which required vigorous shaking to get it out (don’t use Panasonic Eneloop batteries in your M33 remote or they might get stuck). Even after trying every button on the remote, I can’t figure out how to access the menu system from the remote, nor have I been able to figure out why the source button does nothing, but the up down arrows change the source selection.

Besides the functionality of the remote which may be down to user error, the two major issues with it are the fragile and poorly designed battery door (who let that past the prototype phase?) that feels like you’re about to make a $300 remote useless by breaking a $0.05 plastic hinge, and the poor range*; sitting about 3m away from the M33, it doesn’t consistently respond to requests. I know this is the remote because when I use another brand’s programmable remote to control the M33, it works fine and has excellent range.

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* Subsequent to writing this, NAD said this is not normal behaviour with the remote and have ordered a replacement.

Build quality

I accepted the simple build quality on the 390DD because I knew I was getting a lot of amplifier for the money, but for the M33, I expect build quality to be several notches higher. To some extent, the M33 delivers, but in other ways, it misses the mark. The top case is a work of art and very well put together with the exposed bolts and the gorgeous air vents; those air vents are so beautiful to look at that I’m going to move the M33 outside of the cabinet just so I can see them more often.

Having a physical volume knob is important to me. I want to get that pleasure from “turning up the dial” and feeling the sound pressure increase. On the Creek, the volume knob and its engineering bring tremendous joy to using the amplifier. The very first thing I touched on the M33 was the volume knob, and unfortunately, that was my first disappointment. While it’s made of metal, the spindle to which it’s attached, is clearly not affixed sufficiently to the amplifier structure, which allows for some radial play. Further, and even more annoying, the potentiometer has not been affixed perfectly square to the chassis, so the knob turns in an ellipse pattern rather than circular.

Turning our attention to the front and back. The LCD screen is very high quality with good resolution and very good brightness, and as mentioned earlier, it’s responsive and does its job well. The connections on the back are a step above budget grade, but are nothing special. The speaker terminals especially seem a bit cheap for this price point (I could feel them straining with some heavy speaker cables, and one is slightly loose from the factory).

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Appearance

This is highly subjective so you really have to see it for yourself whether you like it or not. While I love the top vent casing, I feel the front of the M33 is unnecessarily over-designed. I love the mix of the aluminum and black, but I dislike the curved plastic panels that protrude from the front to meet with the screen. I’d much rather have the cleaner look of the new NAD T778. The perfect chassis would be to take the M33, reduce its height, flatten the front, and pack it into an aluminum fronted enclosure that looks like the T778.

Other than the external appearance, I can’t end this review without mentioning the fun VU meters. NAD went back in time and recreated the VU meters from the olden days. While they’re super cool to show to friends, there’s a negative that I didn’t realize before I bought the M33, they don’t actually show the power being used! They only show input db, so even when you put the amplifier into mute mode, they still show the digital needles dancing to the non-existent beat. Hopefully they improve this with a firmware update one day.

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Summary

The M33 does exactly what every NAD before it has done. It provides exceptional value for the money and it’s clear that not a penny has been spent where it doesn’t help improve sound quality, convenience and usability, the attributes that made NAD famous. For the money I spent, I’m very happy with the M33, however I do wish NAD could improve on a few items for the next version, even if it means increasing the price.

Pros:
  • High value for money, with exceptional sound quality and an absolutely silent noise floor
  • The do-it-all, all-in-one wonder, with an excellent balance of useful features like BluOS and Dirac Live
  • Great constant and dynamic power available while making efficient use of power
Cons:
  • Useless remote control with poor range and an odd combination of excessive and poor design
  • Build quality lacks in some areas, specifically the volume knob structure and speaker connectors
  • Dirac Live setup is split from the M33 setup procedure which makes it confusing for first-time users
If I could go back and choose again, I would still choose the M33. It provides everything a household could want, in an attractive, small, and reasonably well built all-in-one package. Just add speakers and about two hours of setup time, and you’re set. For a chunk more money however, the Lyngdorf might make for an interesting alternative once they move to the (speculated) Purifu modules in a future version. I’ve never touched a modern Lyngdorf so I don’t know if the build quality would meet my expectations; it appears to have had a lot of thought put into its design, which usually indicates that someone will put an equal amount of effort into its manufacture.

I see that the M33 has a lot of interest online, as indicated by the long wait lists stretching into March in some countries, so I wanted to provide a thorough first impressions for those patiently waiting, and those on the fence still deciding. I hope that you’ve found the above useful; let me know if you have any questions, I’m happy to do my best to answer them.
 
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Thanks for your review. I have considered this unit in the past and your review helped me decide to pass on it. I am glad it sounds great but I highly value looks and build quality. I am old and have that pride of ownership thing. thanks again and Take care.
 

deannepal

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I have had an M33 on order in Australia from July and hopefully will receive it in the next month according to the importer. I was able to get a discount of 15% on the RPP of $8999 AUD. Do you know whether you can connect a streamer/server like an Innuos Zen (no DAC) via USB directly to the M33 as the Innuous only has filtered USB out.
 

Kal Rubinson

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Thanks Kal, so I would need to wait for NAD to develop a USB MDC module for it that would have a USB-B input?
I am unfamiliar with the Innuous but I was able to stream to the M33 from Roon.
 
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FCRACER, great review of the M33. Really appreciate that. I too am considering upgrading from the NAD C-390DD. I've had it since it was released and it's just been nothing but rock solid. First was using with KEF LS-50s and now driving Dynaudio Special 40s and the sound is just incredible. My problem is my upstream because I'm using a Sonos Port which while not terrible, is less than ideal. I'd go for the BluSound MDC upgrade but thinking of skipping it in favor of going the Roon route with a future amp upgrade.

I'm also considering a Naim Uniti Nova, Hegel H390, and even a Luxman model though of all of them, the NAD M33 is the "easiest". I was surprised when you stated that pre-DIRAC the difference between the C-390 and M33 was marginal. I also agree with you about the C-390 being flat at low volume. I need to crank it up a bit to get the best dynamics from it (much to the chagrin of my wife and daughter). So the M33 really came into its own only after the DIRAC curves were dialed in, huh? That's very good to know.

Once again, great review and gives me much to think of. One big take away from this is just how much I've taken this underdog C-390 for granted.

Craig
New Orleans, LA
 

Beershaun

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Huh.

For me, this was expected to hear.
+1 room correction is going to be the biggest improvement you can make to sound quality firest. Everything else will get lost in the "noise" of the room modes until room correction is properly applied.
 

Beershaun

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@fcracer Thanks for the great review. I personally love this product because I think it ticks all the modern hifi boxes at the right price point, is well engineered according to Amir's measurements, and moves the industry forward on to a more modern design aesthetic. If I had 5K to spend on a Hifi solution it would without a doubt be the M33.

That said, I am annoyed that at this price point there are material quality and fit/finish compromises. I feel like there is an implied "well you have to pay $XXK more if you really expect to get high quality materials in HiFi components from manufacturers" when I see material and fit and finish compromises as described above.

It's like the $100K-$150K car market segment. Top end Mercedes, Aston Martins, Porsches, Land Rovers, etc have amazing capabilities and are more car than anyone needs, and wonderful to drive, but there are still crazy fit/finish, material quality, basic reliability compromises and problems that cheaper mass market cars have all solved. It's like the more you pay the less you are entitled to for your money. That feeling irks me when I see 100% luxury items like 5k+ hifi audio components exposing fit/finish and material quality compromises to their customers.
 

watchnerd

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That feeling irks me when I see 100% luxury items like 5k+ hifi audio components exposing fit/finish and material quality compromises to their customers.
I think one has to look outside NAD to really get that.

They've never really been known for audio jewelry and a high level of fit and finish. Quite the opposite, actually, with a long history of plain black boxes and plastic buttons that sounded good, but looked and felt utilitarian.
 

Kal Rubinson

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I think one has to look outside NAD to really get that.

They've never really been known for audio jewelry and a high level of fit and finish. Quite the opposite, actually, with a long history of plain black boxes and plastic buttons that sounded good, but looked and felt utilitarian.
OTOH, I would also argue that any cosmetics beyond the NAD Master series is superfluous.
 

wwenze

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It's a marketing trick. There are people who think the less you spend on looks, the more the value is spent on performance.

A related trick is, just because it comes from China, it must be value for money.

Both tricks have been exploited.
 

fcracer

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FCRACER, great review of the M33. Really appreciate that. I too am considering upgrading from the NAD C-390DD. I've had it since it was released and it's just been nothing but rock solid. First was using with KEF LS-50s and now driving Dynaudio Special 40s and the sound is just incredible. My problem is my upstream because I'm using a Sonos Port which while not terrible, is less than ideal. I'd go for the BluSound MDC upgrade but thinking of skipping it in favor of going the Roon route with a future amp upgrade.

I'm also considering a Naim Uniti Nova, Hegel H390, and even a Luxman model though of all of them, the NAD M33 is the "easiest". I was surprised when you stated that pre-DIRAC the difference between the C-390 and M33 was marginal. I also agree with you about the C-390 being flat at low volume. I need to crank it up a bit to get the best dynamics from it (much to the chagrin of my wife and daughter). So the M33 really came into its own only after the DIRAC curves were dialed in, huh? That's very good to know.

Once again, great review and gives me much to think of. One big take away from this is just how much I've taken this underdog C-390 for granted.

Craig
New Orleans, LA
The single biggest improvement came from setting Dirac up. The C390DD has some basic PEQ that can be dialled in, but it doesn’t come close to what Dirac does. I’m now 100% sold on room correction. The M33 does however sound better at low volumes than the C390DD with or without Dirac, given the strange propensity for the C390DD to sound flat at low volumes.

Beyond sound, I’m really loving the convenience of the M33. As much as I like to think I’m an audio person that would only feed my equipment the best files and quality, the reality has turned out to be quite different. The convenience of Airplay2 means that I’ve been using Apple Music to stream to the M33 most of the time! I tell Siri to “put some music on” and he finds me appropriate music. Love it!
 

fcracer

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@fcracer Thanks for the great review. I personally love this product because I think it ticks all the modern hifi boxes at the right price point, is well engineered according to Amir's measurements, and moves the industry forward on to a more modern design aesthetic. If I had 5K to spend on a Hifi solution it would without a doubt be the M33.

That said, I am annoyed that at this price point there are material quality and fit/finish compromises. I feel like there is an implied "well you have to pay $XXK more if you really expect to get high quality materials in HiFi components from manufacturers" when I see material and fit and finish compromises as described above.

It's like the $100K-$150K car market segment. Top end Mercedes, Aston Martins, Porsches, Land Rovers, etc have amazing capabilities and are more car than anyone needs, and wonderful to drive, but there are still crazy fit/finish, material quality, basic reliability compromises and problems that cheaper mass market cars have all solved. It's like the more you pay the less you are entitled to for your money. That feeling irks me when I see 100% luxury items like 5k+ hifi audio components exposing fit/finish and material quality compromises to their customers.
You hit the nail on the head! My father’s Honda Accord has better fit and finish than my Porsche GT3 has. I think it comes down to priorities. Having designed services and products in my career, I know that we always had to make trade offs. If I’m designing a GT3, I’d tell my engineers, while it’s not ideal, if we have finite time and we need to allocate it, make sure the driving dynamics are supreme and everything else becomes subordinate. Perhaps it’s the same in the Hi-Fi world.

I think we have to look at the M33 build quality in two ways: Materials and build quality. I’m happy with the materials choices with the aluminum front plate and the beautiful casework, but I feel somewhat let down by the poorly installed/anchored volume knob and the slightly loose speaker terminal. If properly attached and firmly anchored, I would be fine with both material choices. I see this as a manufacturing issue rather than a design issue.

Even the C390DD, with the exception of the horrible plastic knob, which I promptly replaced with a beautiful aluminum one from aliexpress (cost USD$6), and the typical un-dampened casework in that price segment, the actual manufacturing build quality on it was perhaps better than the M33. They both use the same speaker terminals and none are loose on the C390DD after seven years, and the replacement metal knob feels rock solid on its spindle.

Having said all of that, the NADs seem to be engineered well when it comes to sound quality. I’ve run REW sweeps on both and don’t see any issues. On my Creek Evo100, which is a very well built integrated amplifier, I have a severe high frequency roll off that seems to be inherent in the design. Since I can’t hear at that frequency anyhow, I let it be, but at that price point, I’d expect a flat curve to 20KHz... maybe the money for the nice casework came at the expense of the sound engineering...
 

Beershaun

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You hit the nail on the head! My father’s Honda Accord has better fit and finish than my Porsche GT3 has. I think it comes down to priorities. Having designed services and products in my career, I know that we always had to make trade offs. If I’m designing a GT3, I’d tell my engineers, while it’s not ideal, if we have finite time and we need to allocate it, make sure the driving dynamics are supreme and everything else becomes subordinate. Perhaps it’s the same in the Hi-Fi world.

I think we have to look at the M33 build quality in two ways: Materials and build quality. I’m happy with the materials choices with the aluminum front plate and the beautiful casework, but I feel somewhat let down by the poorly installed/anchored volume knob and the slightly loose speaker terminal. If properly attached and firmly anchored, I would be fine with both material choices. I see this as a manufacturing issue rather than a design issue.

Even the C390DD, with the exception of the horrible plastic knob, which I promptly replaced with a beautiful aluminum one from aliexpress (cost USD$6), and the typical un-dampened casework in that price segment, the actual manufacturing build quality on it was perhaps better than the M33. They both use the same speaker terminals and none are loose on the C390DD after seven years, and the replacement metal knob feels rock solid on its spindle.

Having said all of that, the NADs seem to be engineered well when it comes to sound quality. I’ve run REW sweeps on both and don’t see any issues. On my Creek Evo100, which is a very well built integrated amplifier, I have a severe high frequency roll off that seems to be inherent in the design. Since I can’t hear at that frequency anyhow, I let it be, but at that price point, I’d expect a flat curve to 20KHz... maybe the money for the nice casework came at the expense of the sound engineering...
Yeah. That's exactly my point. You spent $6 retail for a better knob. It would have cost them a quarter to a tenth of that to do that themselves. My H/K avr-20ii, Onkyo txds-787, and Denon avr-x3100w all have solid, precise knobs and controls even today. You shouldn't have to give that tactile quality up as you step up in price and performance.
 
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