July 2012

Reviewers' ChoiceNAD T 787It was 20 years ago today, Sgt. Pepper -- oh, wait, that’s a different review.

Anyway, it was 40 years ago that NAD hit the market with a concept: Deliver great sound and modern design at rock-bottom prices. They would use really good circuit designers and Scandinavian commercial artists, then send the results off to China to be cheaply built. Their first great success was a sweet little integrated amplifier, the 3020. It sounded great on its own, but designer Bjørn Erik Edvardsen dropped the 1970s equivalent of an Easter egg into this little work of art: you could separate the preamp section from the amplifier section. This was a gift to destitute audiophiles everywhere; the 3020’s preamp, and especially its moving-magnet phono stage, were sonically up there with some of the very finest-sounding equipment made. As a matter of fact, my great-grandfather used to talk about his setup, a Linn Sondek LP12 (no one had ever heard of these turntables then) driving a 3020 connected to two Kenwood L07M monoblocks strapped to two Magneplanar Tympani 1D speakers. He says it rocked like a mofo, whether he was listening to the Boss or Donna Summer.

Now, there was nothing wrong with the sound of the 3020’s power-amp section. The problem lay in its inability to roar. That "20" at the end stands for 20W, and that’s not many watts. The 3020 was designed over on the continent of Europe, where, apparently, everyone lives in small flats and listens to music in 7’ x 8’ rooms with paper-thin walls. They didn’t design the 3020 for huge US homes. Nonetheless, the 3020’s little amp sounded very sweet. In fact, my great-granddad’s old 3020 is still driving a stereo system in an attorney’s office in Dallas.

Time moves on, and so does management. The newest folks in town are the Lenbrook Group, owners of NAD since 1999. They’ve diverged from NAD’s original budget-conscious concept and now state their goals as being "performance, value, and simplicity," and their driving philosophy as being "music first." Lenbrook, as you may know, also owns speaker maker PSB, a group well loved across the SoundStage! Network.

Let’s start with a quick look at the T 787 surround-sound receiver ($3999.99 USD). First, it’s a back breaker. NAD says it weighs 56 pounds, but I schlep multiple 45-pound weights around the gym all the time, and if this is 56 pounds, something about the NAD brand makes me weak in the knees before I even plug it in. Carrying it from garage to home theater, about 250’, felt like my workout for the day. Lifting it onto its shelf felt like my workout for the next day.

The T 787’s looks are elegant or plain, depending on your taste. The finish is dark enough that it’s hard to see its lines in a home theater. It has a kind of iPod button on the left with no label or identification of what it does. The source is easy to pick using the two Source buttons, and the volume control is simple to find: it’s the big knob at upper left. Eight buttons of identical size are spread across the bottom, but labeled poorly enough that they’re hard to see in anything but bright light. But don’t worry -- you’ll never need to use those front-panel buttons, because the T 787 has the single best remote control ever used with a component chez Marshall.

One other thing: The cheesiest little plastic flap at the lower right hides the T 787’s front-panel inputs. It falls off at the slightest provocation, and is not in any way appropriate for a $4000 electronic component. Whoever is responsible for it needs to be sent back to design school.

NAD T 787 rear

Around back, the T 787 is a model of clean design. For something with so many inputs and outputs, everything is remarkably easy to find, and even my stubby fingers could get into most of the tiny spaces. One startling omission: no balanced ins or outs. You’ll have to decide if that’s important to you. Two merely surprising omissions: Despite NAD’s reputation for excellent phono stages, they’ve decided to include none here. It certainly isn’t because of flagging sales, for God’s sake, and their PP 3i digital phono preamp is a piece of genius design with superb sound and a neat way to take a USB feed out to your computer, should you want to defile your precious LPs by making them into CDs. Why didn’t they just take its guts and put it in the T 787? Also, their IPD 2 Dock for the iPod (and, presumably, the iPhone), a wonderful accessory that would have made for some nice and inexpensive added value.

Kudos, by the way, to the designer of the T 787’s amplifier terminals. You can screw them down very tightly without breaking your fingers or resorting to the old monkey wrench. Nice job.

Setup was very simple, but not so simple that I didn’t need to carefully follow the instructions. In fact, run from any reviewer who writes something like "I didn’t even have to refer to the manual to perform the setup. It was so easy!" They are fools. In this day and age, setting up any electronic device requires care, and especially if you’re reviewing it. Briar patches abound; and even if you’re lucky, you’ll still miss out on most of what the device is capable of. If you’re not lucky, you’ll break something. NAD dances to their own drummer, so in their case, more than with most brands, you must follow the manual carefully.

If you do, you’ll find three nice surprises in the T 787. First, for Zone 2 aficionados, you can now feed your second zone with any digital source you please. No more having to set up a CD player as both digital and analog so you can listen to it in the main area and in Zone 2. Second, for fans of Audyssey or other room-correction softwares, NAD has spent precious time developing their own response curves, which, they feel, are superior to Audyssey’s. You’re welcome to use either, but I can tell you that NAD’s are quite easy on the ears. Finally, you’ll discover that NAD’s setup menu allows you to place any source on any input. Those of you who own Oppo BDP-95 universal Blu-ray players, for instance, can now have one input for BDs and DVDs, another for digital music discs, and another for using the superior analog outputs of your Oppo. Yes, it uses up three inputs, but I can’t tell you how often I get letters from Oppo owners wondering exactly how to take care of this very problem. Here’s the solution!

Once you’ve read the manual and followed the instructions (which -- thank you, NAD -- seem to have been written in English), setup is relatively straightforward. One other little hidden gem I was happy to find was the T 787’s video handling. We get lots of letters about this; the writers always ask, "Which device should I let handle the video processing: the player, the receiver, or the display?" The answer is always whichever does the best job, but that is almost always the display. The folks at NAD have decided to (mostly) get out of the way of the question and punt to the display. Now, if you send it an inferior signal, like a videotape, the T 787 will do what it can before digitizing and sending it on to the display, but by and large, they prefer purity over jimmying with the signal. Hallelujah.

As for performance, the T 787 did everything I could have hoped for. I began by trying a bypass test, running an HDMI cable directly to the Oppo, or to the NAD with an Oppo feed. There was never a discernible difference. I checked several times on the ending of Another Earth, my pick for Indie Movie of 2011, and one of the best films I’ve ever seen on the topic of redemption. (This type of film should be shown to high-schoolers everywhere, followed by discussions of the implications of making very bad mistakes that can’t be taken back. Alas, it never will. Too much sex. If you know a teenager you care about, show it to him or her, then discuss it. It won’t be easy, but it will be important. Sorry for the soapbox, but great movies deserve attention.) The nice thing about most indie films is their lack of effects; they’re just pure photography. The scene was luminous both through the T 787 and with it bypassed. On the other side, Super 8 includes a job of acting by Elle Fanning that ranks with Kate Hudson’s slow epiphany in Almost Famous. Fanning is asked by the young director of the film within the film to show some emotion in a scene, and if you’ve got a heart and she doesn’t grab it, someone else already has. And, of course, two seconds later comes the greatest train crash in the history of film. Through the T 787, it sounded like the wrath of God.

Speaking of the wrath of God, Boito came close to summoning the sounds of His unhappiness over Satan’s shenanigans in his opera Mefistofele. The video version from the San Francisco Opera, conducted by Maurizio Arena and with Samuel Ramey as il Diavolo (DVD, Kultur 24), looks terrible, but the sound is excellent, and the depiction of Heaven’s hosts in full rampage is breathtaking. Again, the T 787 produced beautiful sounds, with a check going to the NAD’s sound over the straight Audyssey. I also tried some straight CDs, most excitingly Simon Rattle’s recent recording, with the Berlin Philharmonic, of Bruckner’s Symphony No.9 with the latest edition of the completion of the fourth movement by Samale, Mazzuca, Phillips, and Cohrs (CD, EMI 52969). I’ve been hesitant to pay attention to any prior reconstructions or completions of the Finale, but after hearing Rattle’s convincing lecture and this recording, I’ve completely changed my mind. I won’t throw out my beloved Bruno Walter recording of the three-movement version, but Rattle’s now goes to the top. This symphony varies from late-winter massive to early-spring delicate, and the T 787 never revealed its presence -- which is all you can ask of a receiver.

With recordings with true depth of soundstage, such as William Mathias’s Dance Overture, as performed by David Atherton and the London Symphony (CD, Lyrita 328), through its analog bypass the T 787 had all the delicacy and depth that any two-channel audiophile could want. Another lovely example of a real soundstage was "How It Felt (To Kiss You)," from Mara Carlyle’s Floreat (CD, Ancient & Modern AMCD001), a wistful song with the sweetest caress of graceful sound across the ears. Any electronic component that can do justice to both the train wreck in Super 8 and Carlyle’s song is OK by me.

NAD remote control

Speaking of OK by me, send the person who invented this remote control a bottle of Champagne, and make it the good stuff. The HTR 8, as NAD calls it, has got enough heft to feel classy in the hand. The buttons are all different sizes and shapes, so they’re easy to track down. The volume control is as quick as a Hill Country jackrabbit, and . . . the lights come on when you touch or jiggle it. The damn lights come on when I open its drawer. I love this thing.

Three questions immediately come to mind: 1) Can I make this remote work with everything I own? 2) Can I keep it? 3) Why can’t Universal or Logitech make something this good?

The answers:

  1. The HTR 8 is completely programmable. Almost all of its keys can be programmed as macros, each covering up to 64 steps. It handles toggle functions for game boxes. It has a USB port, and a free program from NAD that allows easy programming.
  2. Yes, I can keep it, for $130 -- a stone bargain when you look at its competition. And it comes free with the T 787.
  3. Who knows? But the HTR 8 is a great piece of design. Way to go, NAD.

I can’t end without discussing money. NAD’s T 787 costs more than most A/V receivers from Japan and some from North America. A higher price doesn’t mean it’s not still brilliant value for the buyer’s hard-earned cash, but $4000 is a lot of money when you think about the Anthem 700 ($2000), Yamaha RX-A3020 ($2200), Marantz SR 7007 ($1800), Pioneer Elite SC-68 ($2500), or Onkyo TX-NR5009 ($2900). Then again, NAD does have their Modular Design Construction program (MDC) available. As they put it, "With MDC, your T 787 can be easily upgraded to include future digital formats without replacing the entire AV receiver." I hope they’ll be able to offer upgrades to the T 787 in perpetuity, or at least what passes for perpetuity in home-theater years.

But there’s no way the fine folks at NAD can predict a shift of paradigms. Are you ready for 3840x2160 displays? How about 5040x2160? They’re coming, sure as sunrise. Do they constitute a "future digital format" or a paradigm shift? My skepticism has nothing to do with NAD (or Lenbrook, for that matter), which I count as one of the good-guy companies. I just think the whole world of home theater is such a fast-moving target that it’s tough to make long-term promises. Ultimately, only you can decide how to spend your money.

I can tell you this. The T 787 is a magnificent surround-sound receiver. NAD’s design team has another winner on its hands.

. . . Wes Marshall

NAD Electronics International
633 Granite Court
Pickering, Ontario L1W 3K1
Phone: (905) 831-6555

Website: www.nadelectronics.com