Every once in a while Lady Luck dressed in DHL courier garb brings a particularly notable product to the front door. I had no intention of evaluating the Nash phono preamplifier by Italian design house M2Tech until our Editor Jason Kennedy invited me to take a look at the sample he had received. He’d visited M2Tech in September last year, met with the company’s founder and chief designer Marco Manunta, and clearly came away impressed.
The Nash turned out to be a real sonic surprise – one of those relatively rare products that punches above its price-point and leaves listeners with a feeling of mild disbelief. It weighs around 2kg (without power supply) but is tiny; from above it’s about the same size as a hard-back book and from the side not much thicker. The consequent relative lack of rear-panel real-estate has led Manunta to opt for single-ended inputs and outputs only, rather than bulkier XLR connections. Owners with fat fingers will find the brass grounding post disconcertingly close to the two miniature rotary knobs that allow moving coil cartridge loading and amplifier gain to be adjusted, but it’s do-able nonetheless. There are dedicated RCA sockets for moving coil and moving magnet cartridges and a bank of DIP switches to allow moving magnet resistance and capacitance to be set. Also on the rear panel we find the input for the standard wall-wart power supply, a single four-pin socket for M2Tech’s optional Van Der Graaf MkII desktop power supply, plus a 12V trigger socket and a miniature Bluetooth antenna. A surprising bonus that some users might welcome is the presence of two single-ended line-level inputs. These are direct pass-through with no processing, allowing the Nash to be used as a switching hub if the household pre/amplifier has insufficient spare inputs.
The Bluetooth card allows the Nash to be controlled via Android, but I was quite content to drive the phono stage using the provided remote control and the front-panel rotary encoder. A dimmable display confirms input selection, the choice of three levels of pre-set gain – 55dB, 60dB and 65dB – from the Nash’s two moving magnet amplification stages, and the application of a 16 Hz high-pass filter. Select the moving coil input and the miniature rotary adjuster on the rear panel comes into play to control a third stage of amplification with up to 30dB of additional gain for a whopping possible total of 95dB. That should see right just about every moving coil cartridge, all without the faff and expense of an interceding step-up transformer.
To illustrate the point, if we take a moving coil cartridge with an output of 0.05mV (yes, they exist) the Nash on its own with 65dB of fixed gain and 29dB dialled in on the back will turn that into 2.5Vrms which, as Manunta correctly points out is the rated output of most modern domestic line-level sources. Would the sonic results be as good as with a step-up transformer and a lower gain setting? Of course not. No matter how we slice it, more active gain means a higher noise floor. But, that’s not what M2Tech’s Nash is about. It’s about delivering flexibility and sonic value for the ££££s.
I used the Nash to equalise and amplify the 0.4mV output of my reference Soundsmith Paua II moving iron cartridge. Loaded with at least 470 Ohms the Soundsmith has a +/-1dB response from 20Hz to 20kHz – no high band rolloff here. The Soundsmith hangs from a Funk Firm FX3 arm, fitted to an Audio Note TT-Three tri-motor turntable, energised by AN’s PSU4. In all, it’s the best vinyl rig that I’ve owned, uncoloured, dynamically very powerful, timing impeccable and bandwidth properly wide.
Despite being in such relatively lofty company, the Nash did not disgrace itself by spilling wine on the tablecloth, insulting the host, using the wrong cutlery or talking with its mouth full. In fact, it stayed impressively quiet, did not impose its own personality on the proceedings and allowed the better components in the audio chain to do the talking. I’m afraid that’s where my dinner party analogy falls apart, but I hope readers get the idea; the Nash is an easy house guest.
The presence of the rear-panel socket for M2Tech’s more grunty optional power supply might suggest that in its standard guise, powered by the wall wart, the Nash is a bit of a limp thing with no get up and go. But actually, it is not. Even if we rely on the wall wart Manunta’s creation exhibits strong measures of dynamic agility, and dynamic power, tonal and textural detail, capped off with solid timing.
In order to evaluate the Nash I temporarily set aside my own PS Audio Stellar phono stage, a device which when I reviewed it some two years ago forced me to recalibrate my expectations of sonic value. With a then current price-point of £2,500 the Stellar had outperformed a £13,000 phono stage, and while I’m not about to suggest that the Nash could do quite the same trick, Manunta’s little creation is a proper disrupter at its own price point.
I dug out Van Morrison’s 1983 release Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart to see what the Nash could make of the keyed bass notes on the track Connswater, and it did not disappoint, delivering them with a degree of sonorous texture and dynamic power that has mostly eluded quite a few of the more costly alternatives that I have had through my hands in recent times. In fact the Nash brought a similar sense of veracity to the entire audio band, rendering voices with a true-to-recording degree of intimacy, subtle dynamics and texture that again belied its relatively modest price-point.
Reclining in the listening chair late one evening, playing a copy of David Gilmour’s Live At Pompeii and pondering in particular the track A Boat Lies Waiting, written in tribute to Pink Floyd’s late keyboard player Richard Wright, I was suddenly struck by two things. It was clear from an interview given shortly after Wright’s death in 2008 that Gilmour felt the loss at a deep personal level. Nearly ten years later, singing at Pompeii, his voice reveals that he carries that loss still.
I wondered how the Nash had allowed me to hear this when some other more costly phono stages had rendered the track with matter-of-fact, almost indifference. Then it struck me; the Nash’s ability to tap into the listener’s emotional centre reminds me of the engagement abilities of the Allnic series of LCR-based phono stages that use coils for the RIAA correction rather than a passive resistor network or other technique. LCR is tough to do well, but when it is, it brings a superior level of dynamic agility and power that makes music seem somehow more extant, more alive, more vital. How Manunta has managed to achieve such a strong sonic result with the regular passive RIAA network in the Nash is for him to know and other designers to guess. But achieve it he has.
A while back I was very nicely told off by one of my betters in audio journalism for a rather gushing review of an amplifier. The criticism was fair, and I decided to practise a degree of moderation from then on. However, the M2Tech Nash poses a real challenge to this resolution. I hope readers will forgive my nod of approval towards Manunta. His Nash phono stage is a cracker of a product.