The Entry Level #35
In the mornings, just before I leave for work, I power up the system, turn the volume down low, and set the CD player to Repeat. I like to think that if I play calm, soothing music while Ms. Little and I are away, the cats will feel less alone and more relaxed. It's also nice, on returning home from work, to walk into a room filled with music. One evening a few weeks ago, I stepped into the apartment, dropped my bags to the floor, settled down into the couch with my iPhone, and began scrolling through text messages. I'd been seated for only a moment before I had to turn my attention entirely to the sound of the system, which, even at a very low volume, sounded warm, detailed, and unusually goodunbelievably, almost unbearably engaging.
The song had something to do with it, for sure. It was the title track of Sandro Perri's excellent Impossible Spaces (CD, Constellation CST085), which combines finger-picked acoustic guitar, hand percussion, sweet euphonium, and the surprisingly realistic sounds of distant birdsthe last so expertly reproduced that the cats were as startled as I was. I sat there a while, transfixed, feeling almost lost, wishing that all of my friends and family could enjoy this level of sound quality in their homes. In what world, under what circumstances, would that be possible?
The system was mostly familiar: Wharfedale Diamond 10.1 loudspeakers ($349/pair), NAD C 316BEE CD player ($299), and AudioQuest Rocket 33 speaker cables ($329/10' pair) and Big Sur interconnects ($109/m)each component representing extraordinary value and integral to the system's overall sound. Only the integrated amplifier was new. That day, it was NAD's D 3020.
The original NAD 3020
The D 3020 ($499) is a very new type of audio component that takes its name from a classic. In 1978, NAD, then called New Acoustic Dimension, released the original 3020 integrated amplifier, a rather funereal- but purposeful-looking thing with a drab gray chassis and large, blockish buttons. Stripped of all but the most necessary features, it was conservatively rated to deliver a meager 20Wpc and had the kind of cheap plastic speaker-binding clips that too easily break when carelessly used. Still, the 3020 became the best-selling integrated amplifier in the history of high-end audio. Counting its various iterations (3020B, 3020e, 3020i, 302, and 312), well over a million units were sold worldwide.
Why was the 3020 such a success?
Price must have had something to do with it. The amplifier's introductory price of $149 seemed an impossible bargain to most erudite audiophiles, but struck ordinary customers as fairly reasonablenot an insignificant expense, but one within their means. The 3020 was not only an affordable purchase, it was a smart one: Removable jumpers on its rear panel allowed users to tailor the 3020 to their specific needs. Stereophile senior contributing editor Wes Phillips spent lots of time with the 3020as an integrated, as a dedicated preamplifier, and as a spare power amp. He told me via e-mail: "A lot of audiophiles did what I did and bought it expecting to utilize its separate pre- and power-amp sections, typically using it as a preamp when we bought our first power amps." Still, the 3020 wasn't merely a placeholder for something better down the road. "Those of us who moved on to separates usually kept the 3020 around as a backup," Wes added. "Few of us could part with it."
Appearance must also have been a factor. The 3020, modest as it was, was a radical alternative to the glitzier, feature-rich models then coming from Japan; by contrast, it was straightforward, no-nonsense, and entirely unpretentious: the workingman's amplifier. In the 1980s, Stereophile's webmaster, Jon Iverson, sold "boatloads" of them at Audio Ecstasy, in San Luis Obispo, California. "We joked about its military look," he told me, "but it always outperformed any similarly priced receiver. It gave us a secret weapon with a great storykiller sound, perfect set of features, and nothing moreand made customers feel like they'd made a move toward musical enjoyment."
So, sound had something to do with it. I've never actually heard a 3020, but everything I've been told suggests that its sound was entirely inoffensive and easy to enjoyeven impressive, for its special combination of smoothness, warmth, and detail. To those listeners more accustomed to table radios and prepackaged stereos, the NAD 3020 was a revelationa small but important first step into the world of true high-fidelity sound, and an investment in quality. "When our customers bought a 3020, they felt like they had turned the corner and stepped up to caring about sound," Jon said. "I'm guessing it started a high percentage of today's audiophiles on their paths."
The 3020 became an unlikely status symbol, one that both diehard audiophiles and ordinary consumers could appreciate. "When we were able to sell one to a customerand nobody had ever heard of NAD until they came into a store like oursthey then loved us and became a customer for life," Jon recalled. "If you walked into someone's apartment and they had a 3020, you thought to yourself, 'Yes. This person has audio discernment.'"
The 3020 wasn't perfect. "The sum was greater than the parts," Wes said. "Used separately, both the pre's and power amp's faults were more glaring than when connected. But the 3020 wasn't tizzy or flat or distantit got you right into the music."
Could the 3020's success have been partially due to the state of the music industry and the popular music of the late 1970s and early '80s? Wes thinks so. "We had LPs then. Today, people have MP3s, so their music is stunted before it reaches the next stage. Demonstrating the superiority of the 3020 was easy: 'Hear how much better your music sounds!' Today, it's 'Well, your music sounds worse, because every file you own sucks!' A much harder sell.
"Plus, you had albums that stood out even from the average LP: Steely Dan's Aja, Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, pretty much every Lyrita recording, and so on. These were immensely popular, they sounded great on crappy gear, and better and better as the gear got better.
"Who wants to hear that all of their music sounds crappy?"
Probably not too many people; certainly not a million of them.
The 3020 may have lacked most bells and whistles, but it did have two interesting features: a variable Loudness control and a Soft Clipping circuit. Custom A/V installer Robert Saglio, who sold plenty of 3020s during his time at Stereo Lab, in New London, Connecticut, believes the Loudness control and Soft Clipping circuit had much to do with the 3020's success. The former is intended to maintain music's natural tonal balance at low volume levels; generally speaking, the highs will still have sparkle, and the lows will still have impact. More intriguing was the Soft Clipping circuit, which cleverly limited the amount of high-frequency energy delivered to a loudspeaker, protecting the tweeter from damage and the listener from unpleasant distortion. Considering the inexpensive, easily agitated speakers typically partnered with the 3020 three decades ago, Soft Clipping now seems brilliant. If purist audiophiles didn't care for what Soft Clipping did to the overall sound, they didn't need to use it: Their speakers were fine. Others, however, could drive their cheap speakers to unusually high levels while getting completely lost in Dark Side.
Stereophile senior contributing editor Kalman Rubinson married into a 3020. Before she got to live with his big B&Ws and multichannel system, Kal's wife partnered her 3020 with a Bang & Olufsen turntable and a pair of small RadioShack speakers. "I remember the sound as uncommonly smooth and warm in this setupwhich, considering the speakers, is remarkable," Kal told me.
NAD's 312 integrated amplifier, the last to use the 3020's audio circuitry, was discontinued in 1998. To this day, however, hi-fi collectors and enthusiasts still seek original 3020s. As I type, a handful of samples are for sale on eBay, some gently used, others downright abused. The cleanest of the bunch looks practically new, includes the original box and manual, and is said to be in perfect working condition. You can buy it now for $250. Steve Guttenberg, a Stereophile contributor and writer of CNET's The Audiophiliac blog, bought his first 3020 from an eBay dealer just two years ago for $66. Driving a pair of new Wharfedale Diamond 10.1 loudspeakers, the old NAD sounded rich, sweet, and unusually powerful, said Steve. "I doubt any of today's receivers or entry-level integrateds can handle low-impedance speakers as well as the 3020."
In November 2002, to celebrate its 40th year of continuous publication, Stereophile published "The Hot 100 Products," a list of the 100 most important hi-fi components of all time, chosen by the magazine's editors and writers. The NAD 3020 integrated amplifier was ranked No.19. John Atkinson wrote: "The ridiculously inexpensive 3020 showed that an amplifier didn't need machined faceplates, intimidating heatsinks, or technically glamorous components to be able to drive real-world speakers. It put NAD on the map, but they never matched the 3020's overall achievement."
NAD (footnote 1) has made several technological advances over the last decadeits Master Series components offer state-of-the-art performance both on the test bench and in the listening roomand the company continues to produce exceptional entry-level products. Is the 3020 still NAD's greatest success?
"Yes," JA told me recently. "The 3020 was so good and so cheap that later NAD amps, though objectively better, never achieved that combination of value for money and sound quality." Echoing Steve Guttenberg's comments, JA added: "The original 3020 could drive big speakers with difficult impedances with aplomb."
"It was understated and underspecced and it overperformed," Robert Saglio summarized. "With its variable loudness control and soft-clipping feature, people could play pop music louder than expected, and it would still sound good. I think NAD could have made it forever. All they'd have to do today is add an iPod input."
With the new D 3020, NAD has done that and more.
Rethinking the 3020
Why now? Many of NAD's recent budget amplifiers, including my own C 316BEE ($380), have been marketed as descendants of the great 3020, but none has borne its name. Why was this the right time to finally resurrect the hallowed 3020 model number?
"The D 3020 started as a way to celebrate our 40th anniversary," Greg Stidsen, NAD's director of technology and product planning, told me (footnote 2). "Instead of gold-plating a C 326BEE and squeezing another micron of performance out of the very mature analog technology, we decided to rethink the elements that made the 3020 so relevant in its day and re-create the concept using today's most advanced digital technology."
The D 3020 was unveiled to a limited audience at NAD's 40th Anniversary Distributor Conference, held in Munich in spring 2011. "The response we received from our distribution partners was intensely positive," said Stidsen.
"Meeting the objectives of price, performance, size, and efficiency was something else," added Bjørn Erik Edvardsen, NAD's longtime designer and the man chiefly responsible for the original 3020 and now the D 3020. "The challenge led to some new ideas and the application of some really advanced technology." NAD spent another two years developing the D 3020's audio circuitry. "We rejected promising circuits that didn't meet the performance targets," said Edvardsen. "I wouldn't sign off on it until we got it exactly right."
In terms of appearance and features, the D 3020 bears almost no resemblance to its namesake. You might not recognize it as an integrated amplifier at all. The industrial design was conceived by David Farrage, whose DF-ID firm boasts a client list that includes Donna Karan, Movado, and Lamborghini. The D 3020 is sleek, shiny, and minimalist, made to look right at home with today's personal computers, smartphones, and other high-tech devices. Uncommonly sensuous for a hi-fi component, with a textured volume knob and soft, smooth side panels, the D 3020 practically begs to be touched. In fact, it features a touchscreen that occupies all of its front panel and extends through one entire side paneleither its topmost or right-hand side, depending on how you orient the chassis.
Weighing just 3 lbs (1.4kg) and measuring an unusual 73?8" (186mm) high by 25?16" (58mm) wide by 85?8" (219mm) deep, the D 3020 can be placed horizontally, like a traditional component, or stood upright, like a modem or hard drive. This aspect of the D 3020's physical design may be cool and unique, but struck me as unnecessary and ultimately compromised. For it to really work, the visual display would have to automatically reorient itself to the amplifier's placementlike an iPhone's or iPad's display, which adapts to the user's needs by assuming a landscape view when held horizontally, a portrait view when turned upright. The D 3020's display is static.
Placing the D 3020 horizontally within a standard component cabinet, as I initially did, calls for some awkward craning of the neck when reading the volume level, and does no justice to the amplifier's good looks. Several times while switching cables I accidentally tapped the D 3020's power button, thus knocking the amplifier out of sleep. And, for some reason, though I could reliably power up the amp via its touchscreen, I could turn it off only by using its remote controla mild annoyance. For its part, the uncluttered remote is perfectly suited to the D 3020, with the same pleasantly smooth feel and a similarly distinct look. You won't want to lose it. That such a considered remote can be included with a $499 product leaves me wondering why so many far more expensive components come equipped with unwieldy plastic afterthoughts.
In any case, the D 3020 wants to stand upright, out in the open, where it can be easily seen and touched. Furthermore, a vertical orientation will provide the best dissipation of heat. Placed horizontally in a rack, the D 3020 ran warm but not alarmingly so. It uses an energy-efficient class-D output stage rated to deliver 30Wpc into a standard 8 ohms. NAD has always placed greater emphasis on their products' more impressive IHF "Dynamic Power" ratings, however (footnote 3). The D 3020's IHF ratings are 65Wpc into 8 ohms, 105 into 4, and 150 into 2.
I almost forgot to mention the outer box, a very attractive slipcase. Right out of it, the D 3020 sounded clean, clear, and resolving, if a bit small and bass shy. After only a day or so of use, however, the D 3020 sounded far bigger and more powerful than its size and weight would suggest.
For the most part, I partnered the D 3020 with small, affordable loudspeakersPSB Alpha B1 ($299/pair), Pioneer SP-BS22-LR ($129/pair), Wharfedale Diamond 10.1 ($349/pair)but toward the end of the listening period I hooked it up to a pair of glorious KEF LS50s ($1499/pair) and turned the volume up high. I was bowled over by the sound, which easily matched the best I'd ever heard at home, and reminded me in many ways of what I'd recently experienced with the tubed Croft Phono Integrated ($1895).
If there was a weakness in my system, it was not the NAD.
Digital ins and outs
The D 3020 is a decidedly modern integrated amplifier for the modern listener. With its coaxial and optical digital inputs, users can connect satellite and cable receivers, integrate content-management devices such as the Apple TV media streamer, or process the digital signal from a CD or DVD player. But if you really want to get the best sound from your CDs, you should rip them to your computer using something like X Lossless Decoder (for Macs) or Exact Audio Copy (for PCs), then send the signal to the D 3020's 24-bit/96kHzcapable asynchronous-mode USB input, thus bypassing your laptop's own compromised audio circuitry. Or forget about CDs altogether and instead take advantage of the growing number of online retailers now providing music in high-resolution and CD-quality digital formats. A few of my favorite download sites are Bleep, Boomkat, and HDtracks, but there are many others. Specialized media-player softwares, such as Amarra (Macs) or JRiver Media Center (PCs), should work seamlessly with Apple's ubiquitous iTunes, but will provide automatic sample-rate switching and better sound (footnote 4). You'll want to know that you're getting out of the NAD D 3020 exactly what you're putting in.
The D 3020's rear-panel iPod input is a sign of our times, but is also the amplifier's least impressive feature. I suspect NAD thought so, too, which is why they've included a TosLink mini-adapter to convert it to an additional optical input, which will also accept the digital-audio output from a MacBook Pro. The D 3020 has only one traditional (RCA) analog input, a fact that I at first mourneduntil I realized that one was all I really needed. Do I need a Disc input? No. Do I need an Aux input? No. Do I even know what a Tape input is? No.
I do want a headphone output. Do I need one? Not really, nofor the most part, I listen to headphones outdoors, on the go. The D 3020 has onea front-panel minijack, perfect for use in a desktop system with today's popular headphones. You won't be able to use the D 3020 to drive old-fashioned cans that have ¼" phone plugs (unless you employ an adaptor), but you can use it right away with your Skullcandy Aviator, B&W P3, Harman/Kardon CL, Grado SR60i, Sennheiser Momentum, Monster DNA, Beats Solo HD, or any of the other exotic, colorful, celebrity-endorsed 'phones.
Footnote 1: NAD Electronics International, 633 Granite Court, Pickering, Ontario L1W 3K1, Canada. Tel: (905) 831-6555. Web: www.nadelectronics.com.
Footnote 2: NAD was founded in December 1972. You can see a timeline of the company's history here.
Footnote 3: John Atkinson discussed this in "Must We Test? Yes, We Must!," his "As We See It" for the August 1989 issue.
Footnote 4: For a comprehensive list of download sites and invaluable information about digital-music hardware and software, visit the "How-To" sections at AudioStream.