A legendary 1970s entry-level amp gets reborn in the digital world, and NAD’s diminutive D3020 blows Ash Kramer’s socks right off.
THERE AREN’T TOO many hi-fi products as recognisable as NAD’s original and iconic 3020 integrated amplifier. The 3020 were launched in the late ‘70s and despite a power output that should have been woefully feeble, it sold like hotcakes. Simply put, it offered a touch of high-end audiophile sound at a very reasonable price. That low power output was a red herring, because the 3020 could drive difficult speakers without much hassle, and was quite a dynamic performer.
NAD sold over a million units of the 3020, which explains why it’s so recognisable today. Even people who’ve long since dropped out of hi-fi might remember when they owned one, or heard one at a friend’s place. The memories usually provoke a smile, which is probably why NAD is taking a shot at recapturing those glory days with the 3020’s spiritual successor, the D3020.
The D3020 is billed by NAD as a 21st century 3020, and the company has certainly pushed the concept of the entry-level integrated amplifier quite far into the modern age by being innovative and letting the design team break free of convention.
Features & Construction
The first hint that this isn’t a conventional integrated amp is the size. The review unit arrived with NAD’s VISO HP50 headphones, and much to my surprise, there’s not much of a size difference between their boxes.
At a mere 58 x 186 x 219mm (W x H x D) including the protruding volume knob, this really is a tiny amp, sized more like an external DAC than a full-width stereo component. The small form factor, stylish design and the vertical orientation make a great deal of sense because, unlike most integrated amps, the D3020 is as suited to a desktop environment or to be placed next to a flat screen TV as it is to slot into an audio rack. Heck, it’s even going to fit into a bookshelf if that’s your thing. You can lay it on its side if you’re a bit kinky, but then the display looks odd.
The compact dimensions are made possible by the use of Class D (or digital if you prefer) amplification and a switch mode power supply, both of which are technologies that some audiophiles frown upon. NAD has been doing the Class D thing for a long time, in fact, and some of the company’s top of the range Master Series amps are based on Class D technology, so let’s assume the engineers know their stuff.
Funnily enough, even though Class D amps are usually efficient powerhouses, the D3020 makes do with 30 Watts into 8 Ohms, although in the typical NAD fashion, the focus is on dynamic power, and the dynamic rated power is substantially higher than the 30 Watts. NAD has the following to say about the power output: “NAD rewrote the rules for amplifiers when designing the original 3020. Instead of letting laboratory test equipment have the last word, we made sure that we could properly drive real loudspeakers with real music for the real world. The D 3020 lives up to this promise through a unique implementation of NAD PowerDrive developed by Bjorn Erik Edvardsen, that allows low impedance drive (current) and high dynamic power (voltage) at vanishingly low distortion levels. This refinement of PowerDrive combined with a precision soft clipping circuit, lets the D 3020 sound even more powerful than it already is. An innovative Bass EQ circuit helps small speakers sound big without overdriving or damaging ported woofers”.
The other digital dimension to the D3020 is the focus on digital inputs and connectivity. Even though the amp’s chassis is tiny, you’ll find a 24/96 USB input, two 24/192 optical digital inputs (one is housed in the 3.5mm analogue input – a Toslink mini-adapter is supplied) and a 24/192 coaxial digital input. There’s also built-in aptX Bluetooth connectivity, allowing the D3020 to function as a streamer. The problem with a small form factor and a bunch of digital inputs is that the analogue inputs are sparse, with only one RCA analogue input and the aforementioned 3.5mm aux input.
NAD’s argument is that today’s source of choice is more likely to be a smartphone or a computer, and that’s spot on. For many buyers, the D3020’s design and layout are perfect – as an example, a friend of mine is shopping for some hi-fi gear for his new house and his music all lives on his Mac or is streamed from his phone, so the analogue inputs are superfluous for his purposes. Still, if he ever does get a turntable, then at least he’s got the option of hooking up a phono stage.
There’s a front-mounted 3.5mm headphone jack, which is apparently backed by a dedicated headphone stage. As the manual puts it: “Specially designed low noise headphone circuitry can accommodate a wide range of phones, even 600 Ohm studio models”.
Controls on the D3020 are limited. Actually, make that virtually non-existent. The shiny top panel is home to a touch-sensitive power switch and a source selector, which cycles through the inputs every time it’s tapped. Then there’s the big volume knob and… well, that’s all folks. Actually, there’s one more control hidden round the back, a tiny button marked BASS EQ, which boosts bass response by “at least 6dB”. There’s also a subwoofer output for those who like the idea of matching a sub to small speakers. A small remote control is supplied, and it doesn’t offer too much more – power, volume and source, just like the amp’s on-board controls.
The power cord terminates in one of those silly cloverleaf sockets instead of a standard IEC connector but if we’re being honest, not too many D3020 owners are even going to be aware of the existence of aftermarket power cords.
There’s only room for one pair of speaker connectors, and they’re pretty standard plastic affairs but overall, the D3020’s construction is good, although I’d have expected less resonance from the plastic side panels considering just how small this amp is. Still, bearing in mind how much you’re getting for the money that might just be me being picky.
The D3020’s vertical display is a rudimentary thing but it’s functional – there’s a volume scale on the right hand side, with the various inputs laid out on the left. The bass boost setting is shown on the bottom of the display. Fire up the amp and the display flickers on and off for a few seconds, and then you’re ready to go.
Like the original 3020, the D3020 sounds quite a bit bigger than expected based on the power output and the form factor. As I mentioned in my review of Cambridge Audio’s Minx Xi digital music system (as seen here), form factor can be deceptive because it’s easy to fall into the ‘small box, small sound’ mindset, but this is most assuredly not the case.
Matched with a set of Cambridge Audio’s 90dB efficient Aero 2 stand mount speakers (review coming soon), the $799 D3020 made the whole digital amplifier controversy totally irrelevant by sounding so smooth that you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s anything but Class D. It’s not overly warm but that inherent smoothness is present regardless of which source is feeding the amp – really good news for people who spend a lot of time listening to streams from Pandora or Spotify and the like. These lo-res streams can sound brittle through equipment that’s a little lean but as hundreds of hours of Bluetooth streaming during the review show, the D3020 is easy to get along with.
I never needed to resort to the bass boost switch because the D3020 has plenty of weight, so the Aero 2’s never sounded at all bass light; quite the opposite in fact. Their spec sheet casually mentions 40Hz as being the low end of their frequency response without clarifying if that’s at -3 or -6dB, but my tone generator revealed a fair amount of bass power in the room at 40Hz. The NAD made the most of this impressive reach (from a pair of stand mounts) with a fast and tight overall sound that once again, sounds like an amp with a bit more grunt under the hood.
With the volume well up, the D3020 can really put on a show, and it’s not at all wrong to use words like slam when describing what I heard with AWOLNation’s ‘Sail’ from Megalithic Symphony playing. I know that Editor Steel is no fan of this music but as a workout track, ‘Sail’ has few equivalents. It’s also a great bass test track – not so much from a weight perspective but rather in how hard the bass can hit when it’s done right. Considering this was a 320kbps track from an iPhone playing into a $799 amp and $699 speakers, this was very much done right – a big sound, with excellent dynamics and bags of that oh so clichéd but elusive audiophile must have – musicality and driving rhythm.
If there were one way to describe the D3020’s sound, it would be enjoyable. It doesn’t seem to matter what’s playing, this little amp just makes it sound good. As an example, my current most played Pandora stations are quite a diverse lot – try seguing through lo-fi streams from Govt Mule to Ice Cube or from Matisyahu to Sarah Blasko in the course of a morning and you need an amp that just plain works without getting fussy. That’s the D3020 in a nutshell.
Lose the lo-res stuff and move to CD quality (or better) files, or even a good CD player and it just ups the game with more of the same. The clarity of the playback improved dramatically with my Marantz SA8260 SACD player hooked up to the D3020’s RCA analogue inputs or to its optical digital input. The bass quality also took a step upwards, and the soundstage became bigger and more distinctly delineated – to the point that I had to seriously wonder how that little sub-$1000 amp was making that music.
Playing ‘Big Eyed Fish’ from the Dave Matthews Band’s Live at Folsom Field double CD had swathes of huge bass pushing into the room, along with a sweet treble that seriously wouldn’t be out of place on a more expensive amp and speaker combination. ‘So Right’ from the same album is a busy track with a treble that’s a little intense but through the D3020, it sounded, dare I say it… so right. I deliberately tried a few tracks that are a bit toppy to see what the NAD/CA pairing would make of them, but in every case the system balance allowed for plenty of detail to be presented without all that harsh treble energy actually getting in the way and prompting a jump for the volume button.
The Marantz sounded better via the analogue inputs than the optical, but there really wasn’t a great deal to choose between the two. Which means that the D3020 would be a good partner for a DVD or Blu-ray player, or even to improve the sound of an older CD player.
Higher resolution and CD quality files from my MacBook Pro were impressively rendered. The D3020 is limited to 24/96 via USB but at the price, that’s hardly an issue because it really does sound good, with the hi-res files having more body, detail and overall insight to them than expected. This really is a revealing little unit, but it‘s got that great ability to reward well recorded music while not harassing the listener when presented with bad recordings or lo-res files. That smoothness has been well judged by the NAD engineers because there’s never any sense that the amp is holding back, just that it’s not being utterly forensic in the way it plays music.
Over the course of the review, it struck me that the D3020 has exceptionally good dynamics, especially considering the price. The way it effortlessly pushes the peaks at you speaks of a well engineered power delivery, and despite the lack of an “audiophile approved” toroidal transformer, and the presence of a switch mode power supply, there’s no lack of power and drive in that little box.
As advertised, the headphone stage is more than an afterthought. It sounded excellent with NAD’s own VISO HP50 ‘phones (review here) and happily drove my Sennheiser HD650’s to huge levels while maintaining its composure. While it’s no replacement for a dedicated head amp like NuForce’s killer HA-200 (review coming soon), it’ll provide hours of isolated musical bliss, which is just another feather in its cap.
Operationally, the D3020 was practically flawless – Bluetooth pairing was quick and easy, with only a few dropouts now and then, and except for two instances right in the beginning of the review period where the amp magically switched inputs with no input from me, it had no issues at all.
So what we have here is a special little amp. It is almost unfeasibly compact, but performs like a full sized component while offering a remarkable feature set at the price. It’ll slot in just about anywhere, it’ll look good while there and it’ll sound pretty damn fine at the same time. It’s a brilliant match with the Aero 2 speakers, but its inherent smoothness means that it’ll go well with a huge range of speakers. I could try to go on at length about the competition but frankly, there really isn’t any for the money, at least in terms of that fine balance between features, flexibility and sound quality.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – it’s a fantastic time to be buying hi-fi gear because even the budget stuff is so damn good. Here’s an example of that – like the original 3020, NAD’s D3020 offers a touch of high-end audiophile sound at a very reasonable price. As long as you don’t want to plug in six analogue sources, this is basically one of the best buys in modern hi-fi. ASHLEY KRAMER