NAD D 3020 Integrated Amplifier Review
Sometimes a model designation is more than just a number
What is the NAD D 3020?When we look at desirable products across a wide variety of categories, sometimes the brand on its own is the marketable element of the process. As I covered in the recent Shure SE112 review, the Shure bit of the naming is important rather than the derivation itself. In the same way, only keen horologists are likely to get excited over a particular model of Patek Phillipe, Jaeger LeCoutre or Girard-Perregaux as pretty much everything they make is singularly special.
In other cases though, it is a particular model that carries the kudos and desirability. Car manufacturers are particularly good at this. There’s nothing wrong with any BMW but an M3 and M5 carry a clout that an ordinary 3 or 5 Series just don’t (although BMW’s insistence on smearing M Badges on almost anything is perhaps not the best long term strategy at keeping it that way). Other manufacturers keep certain badges in reserve for special products - Ferrari with GTO, Ford, Porsche and Audi with RS and Honda with Type-R. These badges aren’t tied to a particular model, they are simply used with to denote a special version of a more mainstream product.
In the audio industry, the use of special model numbers is rarer and is often complicated by the product wearing the badge staying in production for a very long time - Linn’s LP12 being a fine example. As a result there are fewer really famous model numbers in this category - Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series, Focal’s Utopia and Quad’s ESL are a few that count. Sometimes however, a famous model number is resurrected from the past to live again and what you see here might be one of the ultimate expressions of that happening. NAD has reused perhaps their most iconic model number for their latest amplifier. Can the D 3020 live up the standards of one of the most important amps ever made?
NAD D 3020 DesignSo what’s the big deal about the number 3020? Put simply, it is very hard to overstate the importance of the little NAD integrated launched in 1978 bearing that designation. It was an amp that dispensed with things you didn’t need to give you the things you did at a cost of £80. Four inputs, a moving magnet phono stage, some tone controls and a utilitarian casework in the trademark battleship grey (a silver one was apparently also available but I’ve never seen a real one) were the summation of the features but it was the performance that caught the attention. Although the 20W output seemed a little feeble, the 3020 was designed to work with the emerging market of small monitor speakers with lower impedance and sensitivity than what had gone before. Press and public loved it - it was the right product at the right price at the right time.
That NAD has waited this long to use 3020 again is significant. The least expensive integrated in the range has usually had a ‘32’ prefix but never aped the classic number and they have been slowly moving further away from rather than closer to the 3020 code. The decision to use it here is deliberate and the amplifier it is attached to is a deliberate choice too. The D 3020 is not a battleship grey box but is instead a compact black one that has more in common with the styling of the VISO range of components. The D3020 is designed to be placed upright and when used in this fashion is very compact indeed. This is not a traditional amplifier and neither is it a cynical cashing in on a design from 1978.
Nowhere is this more apparent than the inputs fitted. The D 3020 has a single analogue RCA input that represents the declining importance of this connection and as you might expect, a phono stage is conspicuous by its absence. Instead, NAD has fitted the D 3020 with a USB-B connection, one optical, one coaxial and a curious hybrid 3.5mm connection that can be used either as an analogue or optical input (and for which an adapter is supplied). This is then complemented by Apt-X capable Bluetooth. The result is an amplifier that is very much designed with modern users in mind. A 3.5mm headphone socket rounds off the connectivity which is a useful addition to the amp. The only connection that might legitimately be useful is a subwoofer output to use with 2.1 speaker systems. A more complex D 7050 is also available that adds streaming, AirPlay and Spotify Connect but this doubles the asking price and puts it in competition with some equally clever rival products.
The actual amplification is also decidedly of the moment too. The D 3020 makes use of a 30W class D amplifier mated to a switch mode power supply. This might not sound like the sort of thing that gets audiophile pulses racing but it means that the D 3020 can be smaller and far more energy efficient than would otherwise be the case. We are also far enough into the development of both that I’ve heard some excellent implementations of this technology and NAD has been tinkering with Class D for a while now.
This is not a traditional amplifier and neither is it a cynical cashing in on a design from 1978.
As alluded to earlier, the D 3020 doesn’t really look like a NAD amp but it does look rather smart. The compact casework is dominated by a single control which is a volume knob. Supply the NAD with power and it will light up a standby indicator on the top panel. Press it and a front panel displays volume and source indicators while an ‘S’ below the standby selector allows you to select the input control. The design is bold, elegant and clever but stumbles slightly at the implementation stage. Neither of the touch sensitive controls is quite as responsive as you might ideally want and sadly, the remote control on the review sample wasn’t desperately sensitive either. The black buttons with black legends on a black background doesn’t exactly scream easy to use in anything other than strong sunlight.
Build is good though. The choice of materials on the casework is convincing and the whole amplifier feels very modern. The inputs also all work as they should with the USB and Bluetooth connections working flawlessly and the digital inputs also proving fuss free. You can buy more spectacular looking amps for £400 but very few of them offer the flexibility that the NAD does or the small form factor. There will be some people undoubtedly thinking that £400 doesn’t have quite the same everyman price appeal as the £80 original did but interestingly (and I’m sure not entirely coincidentally), if you run £80 from 1978 into an inflation calculator, you get £401.66 - a figure that is a discussion point in itself about how much of our income we devote to audio - but one that also shows that the D 3020 is in keeping with its ancestor.
NAD D 3020 SetupThe NAD was connected to a pair of Mordaunt-Short Mezzo 1 standmounts and was used with my Lenovo T530 ThinkPad via USB and Bluetooth, an iPad 3 via Bluetooth, an Arcam airDAC via RCA and a Panasonic GT60 via optical. Material used included lossless and high res FLAC, compressed material such as Spotify and Grooveshark and two channel stereo material from Netflix and iPlayer from the Panasonic directly.
Sound QualityLet me start by getting something vaguely heretical out of the way. Much as I admire the original NAD 3020, I never really got that excited by the way it sounded. I’ve no doubt it was revelatory at the time it came out as it could drive the new wave of bookshelf speakers in a way that many other amps of the period couldn’t but this doesn’t translate into 21st century greatness where I think it sounds a little soft and safe. Any attempt by NAD to make the D 3020 ape the sound of the original is unlikely to blow my frock up much.
As such, it is with some relief that I can report that the D 3020 is a rather more contemporary sounding amp but despite all the new technology contained within it, one that still sounds like a NAD product. With my ThinkPad connected (a painless process that didn’t need any driver installation) and The Social Network soundtrack selected, the NAD quickly reveals a few traits that after extended listening are present almost regardless of input or genre. The D 3020 is really rather beautifully tonally balanced with no part of the frequency response sounding anything other than well integrated with a near total absence of harshness or aggression. This means that for better or worse you tend to find yourself driving the bolts out of it because simply put, the louder you drive it, the better it gets.
With 30 watts at your disposal, the NAD is never going to sound like a PA system but this is an amp that sounds more and more entertaining as you increase the volume and through the only averagely sensitive Mordaunt Short Mezzos, it manages to generate sound levels that could border on the anti-social. As it does so, the pleasing propulsive energy that the D 3020 has with any form of bass line or rhythm is shown to excellent effect. The NAD is a curious counterpoint to the relaxed and effortlessly powerful Harman Kardon that preceded it through the test process. Where the Harman produces vast soundstages that ooze refinement, the D 3020 produces a narrower, more focussed and more exciting presentation. If you live on a diet of big orchestral pieces, the Harman holds most of the cards, if you like me, you enjoy a bit of electronica and rock of your life, the NAD simply sounds more fun while it does so.
In keeping with a number of products tested recently, the NAD does not sound wildly different when you use the analogue input rather than the digital ones. This could be down to the amp possibly handling parts of volume control in the digital domain regardless of the input used or simply because there is more in the way of performance traits that could be recognised as imparting character in the amp section but nonetheless, connecting the Arcam irDAC and streaming through that sounds little different to using the USB connection with the ThinkPad. This means that if you have a top notch source (and I regard the Arcam as one), you might find that NAD a little disappointing. Equally, if you are connecting the sort of equipment that I believe NAD expects to being used with the D 3020, this little amp’s ability to get results out of laptops, tablets and other mainstream equipment is consistently impressive.
Simply put, the louder you drive it, the better it gets.
The final test phase involved using the NAD connected to a Panasonic GT60 over optical and testing the performance with TV and film. Here, some of the aspects that make the NAD very satisfying with music are a little less successful with film and TV. Running the NAD as loud as it seems to prefer with TV is simply a noisier and rather less pleasant experience with Masterchef than it is with music. The narrower soundstage doesn’t give film soundtracks the same air and space that the Harman can and the lack of subwoofer leaves them sounding a bit less powerful. If you intend to routinely listen to TV through the NAD, it is merely capable (although still several thousand times better than the speaker in your average flat panel these days) rather than great but it is more than up to the job of giving you a little more oomph in your programming when you need it.
- Lively and entertaining sound
- Clever feature set
- Compact and well built
- Some limits to connectivity
- Controls not as slick as they could be
- Better with music than TV
NAD D 3020 Integrated Amplifier ReviewThere is a temptation amongst two channel fans in particular to talk about the good old days of Hi-Fi and ignore the less appealing aspects of whatever period you happen to be referring to. I don’t doubt that in 1978, the audio community was larger, compressed music effectively began and ended with cassette and there was a decent music shop in every town. We have come a long way from the world of the original NAD 3020 but I’m not sure I’m sad about that. The laptop I’m writing this on is also streaming music to the NAD at a sampling rate that was simply beyond comprehension thirty six years ago. Music is more accessible and convenient than ever before and I for one wouldn’t ever change that.
This is what makes the D 3020 a very clever and very appealing device indeed. This is not dewy eyed nostalgia on the part of NAD. This is an amp that gives you exactly what you need to enjoy music in 2014, just like its ancestor did in 1978. That it looks and behaves totally differently to the original 3020 is a reflection that the game has changed in terms of sources and source material. Like the original, the D 3020 is all the amp you need to enjoy a truly engrossing sound and will hopefully set a new generation of people on the path of high quality audio.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £400.00
Ease of use9
Value for money8
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