The Entry Level #35 Page 2

There's also a preamp/subwoofer output, for mating the D 3020 to additional amplification or connecting a powered sub. If you want even more bass, you can tap the D 3020's Bass EQ button to "boost the overall bass response by at least 6dB," according to the user manual. I didn't try this, if only because I was too preoccupied with everything else the D 3020 offers. Anyway, I didn't need more bass.

The D 3020 does not have a phono stage. To include one would have required a bigger case, some exceedingly clever design to properly shield the analog circuit from the D 3020's switch-mode power supply, and a higher retail price. In short, it would have essentially defeated this model's purpose. But I know you: You want to build your first real system, you want to play LPs, and you don't want to worry about a phono preamplifier. You can still consider the D 3020. Use it with something like the Music Hall USB-1 turntable ($249), which has its own built-in phono preamp. That'll get you started, and keep you happy for a good long while. When you're ready for something more, you can buy an outboard phono preamp and consider another Music Hall 'table, or look to Pro-Ject, Rega, or VPI. Imagine partnering the NAD D 3020 with your laptop, a Music Hall USB-1, Pioneer SP-BS22-LR speakers, and some affordable AudioQuest cables. You can easily have a sweet-looking, awesome-sounding, crazily versatile and forward-looking hi-fi for under $1000.

When I wanted to spin LPs, I sent the audio signal from my Rega P3-24 turntable through either the Parasound Zphono•USB or NAD's own PP3i phono preamp, and then to the D 3020's analog input. That way, I had a number of inputs remaining for digital playback. I tried them all. I used AudioQuest Cinnamon optical and coaxial cables ($79/1.5m) and Big Sur analog interconnects ($109/m). I heard differences among the D 3020's various inputs, but they were small. I'm not entirely convinced that I wasn't imagining them, and I can't tell you whether the differences had to do with the inputs themselves or the cables I was using.

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Occasionally, when sending digital signals from the NAD C 316BEE CD player to the D 3020's coaxial input, I heard a glitchy mechanical noise—sort of like the sound a CD transport makes when a disc skips. Fortunately, this happened only between tracks, never during music. Music passed through the optical input lacked the slightest amount of body and maybe had a less accomplished sense of momentum, but never exhibited any mechanical noise. Ultimately, I preferred the sound of CDs and LPs when played through the D 3020's RCA analog input. I thought it was ever so slightly warmer and bolder, with a more accomplished sense of musical force and touch. Or I might've just been psyching myself out.

In a move that was perhaps as symbolic as it was purposeful, I closed the lid on my turntable, placed my laptop directly atop it, and, using an AudioQuest Cinnamon USB cable ($69/1.5m) to connect the computer to the D 3020's asynchronous-mode USB input, went crazy streaming a ton of music from iTunes.

Daft Punk's Random Access Memories is today's Dark Side of the Moon: immensely popular, and musically and sonically excellent. I couldn't get enough of it through the D 3020 (footnote 5). I began with a low-resolution rip (192kbps from CD, Columbia 88883716862) of "Lose Yourself to Dance." The jubilant handclaps sounded like jubilant real handclaps—a whole crowd of them, fleshy and wet with reverb, and growing larger and larger as the song went on. And the silly robot voices sounded ridiculously awesome. And the drums sounded solid and funky and forceful. And the electric guitar sounded simultaneously clean and dirty—just as it should. And when I couldn't take it anymore, I got up from my seat and did what Pharrell Williams had been imploring me, over and over, to do. I lost myself to dance.

Seriously? This was the most fun I've ever had with hi-fi.

In the middle of my dance, I took a screenshot of my iTunes playlist and posted it to Instagram with the hashtag "work" and a comment: "Sounds way better than it should. WTF?!" I received 23 "likes" in about five seconds. I felt more popular, and way cooler, than Lena Dunham, Zooey Deschanel, or even Duck Dynasty.

In one marathon listening session, I played crappy MP3s of songs by Justin Timberlake, Raime, A$AP Rocky, Earl Sweatshirt, Jenny Hval, Marina Rosenfeld, Moderat, Wale, Zomby, Julia Holter, Julianna Barwick, and Lucrecia Dalt. They all sounded excellent: smooth, warm, detailed, and compelling. Compared to their CD-quality counterparts, MP3s sounded a bit edgier and grainer, with a less accomplished sense of musical force and momentum, but they were still easily enjoyable.

Finally, I played the absolute lowest-quality recording I own: a mono 24kbps AAC iPhone recording of "Strap It On Me," the first single by my new band, Lip Action. Through the D 3020, even this sounded surprisingly spacious and clear. I could easily envision the rehearsal studio and hear exactly how well the guitar, keys, bass, drums, and voices lock in together and complement one another. Pretty impressive—on our parts, and the NAD's.

I <3 Bluetooth
There's more. The NAD D 3020's most important feature is likely to be its most polarizing. It can wirelessly stream music from any Bluetooth-enabled device—smartphone, laptop, or tablet. Why is this important? Because people, in general, love Bluetooth. Why would it be polarizing? Because audiophiles, in general, hate Bluetooth. This hatred, I guess, has something to do with Bluetooth's history of sucking (footnote 6). Fortunately, audiophiles perfect what the mass market selects, and audio engineers are working hard to improve Bluetooth's capabilities (footnote 7). Like the Musical Fidelity M6DAC ($3000), reviewed by John Atkinson in our June 2013 issue, the NAD D 3020 uses CSR's audio-optimized aptX technology for Bluetooth streaming.

One night, I casually switched the D 3020's input to BT (for Bluetooth) and asked Ms. Little if she had any music on her iPhone.

"Yeah."

"This amplifier is awesome. You can do that thing where you make your iPhone speak to it. You know what I'm talking about? Without wires? Tap-tap-tap?"

"It's called pairing."

It's called pairing. Your girlfriend knows how to do it, your mom and dad know how to do it, your little brothers and sisters know how to do it, your best friends know how to do it.

Ms. Little opened her iPhone's Settings menu, activated Bluetooth, and connected to the NAD, which showed up on her iPhone's screen as "D3020 0105FA." This took two seconds. She knew how to do it.

"Okay," she said.

"Now pick a song."

Very deliberately, she scrolled through her music. The picking of the song took far longer than the pairing of the phone and the D 3020. When she finally tap-tap-tapped, I was not at all surprised to hear Bruno Mars's "Treasure" burst through the hi-fi. It had speed, presence, and detail, and in no way resembled the threadbare, brittle sound you'd expect to get from a phone.

"Wow!" exclaimed Ms. Little. "That was easy! And very cool!"

Compared to CDs, LPs, or digital files streamed via USB, Bluetooth still has a way to go. There were intermittent dropouts. And if Ms. Little's phone went to sleep while wirelessly streaming music from the Internet, the music, too, took a nap. I noted some lower-midrange grit, a more mechanical overall sound. It was as if the music were entering the world reluctantly, instead of pouring forth effortlessly and overwhelmingly. There could have been more body, more stage depth, more air, but there could not have been more fun. Bluetooth isn't yet the quietest, cleanest, most natural playback medium, but it's very cool, very convenient, and it filled our home with joy. Bear in mind, too, that we were listening to lo-rez MP3s. You can easily achieve better sound using lossless files.

Most significant, the D 3020's Bluetooth feature accomplished something that I'd previously assumed was nearly impossible: It got my girlfriend excited about the hi-fi. On a number of occasions, I walked into the apartment to find her happily dancing about.

Weeks later, I told Ms. Little that I had to pack up the D 3020 and send it to Sam Tellig for potential coverage in his column, "Sam's Space." She sighed. "No more Bluetooth for me?"

I felt horrible.

If there's one high-tech, gadgety feature that's going to get the average consumer interested in high-end audio, it's Bluetooth. The NAD D 3020 has it, and implements it far better than any other audio component I've heard.

The New Audio Geeks
Can the success of NAD's 3020 be replicated today? Steven Kurutz's article "The New Audio Geeks, in the July 24, 2013 edition of the New York Times, argues that today's growing high-tech audience is catching on to the appeal of high-fidelity sound. "For years," Kurutz writes, "the typical high-end audio customer has been a white-haired classical music aficionado or an aging rock fan for whom listening to 'Aja' in 1977 on a pair of Altec Lansings was a spiritual experience."

He's right. Kurutz continues, "But recently, veteran audio companies have started adapting their products to the changing tastes of younger listeners."

Right again—and thank goodness. Kurutz cites McIntosh, Music Hall, and Thiel as traditional high-end companies who have in various ways formally acknowledged the importance of a pretty appearance and the popularity of digital music. But this doesn't mean that high-end audio is selling out; it only means that it's getting smart. It wants to survive, and it sees a marketplace in which it can, in fact, thrive.

For a glimpse of the changing landscape of high-end audio, just look at the products reviewed in recent issues of Stereophile: in August, the Astell&Kern AK100 portable media player and Schiit Audio Bifrost D/A processor; in September, the Meridian Explorer USB D/A processor/headphone amp; in October, the Marantz NA-11S1 media player, the Bryston BDP-2 media server, and two CD players with digital inputs and built-in D/A processors—the Aesthetix Saturn Romulus and Audio Research CD9. Granted, the last two cost a combined $20,000, and if you're a younger listener not named Justin Bieber, you won't be buying either any time soon. But you get the point. Digital audio is happening—and audiophiles aren't the only ones who know about it.

When I started working for Stereophile, in August 2000, I had never heard the word audiophile. Now I can't walk down the street without being bombarded by ads for laptops, headphones, or smartphones promising "audiophile-quality" sound. Most of it's just marketing buzz, but the fact that audiophile-quality is now a term worth buzzing about is itself remarkable.

Not long ago, it seemed that almost no one knew that hi-fi even existed, and those who did know mocked its outrageously high prices and obscure, outdated technologies. Today, because of genuine interest in computer audio, revitalized enthusiasm for vinyl, the popular success of headphones, and, perhaps most important, a sudden storm of hot new products that most people can afford and actually want to buy, hi-fi is again becoming cool. These are undeniably great and exciting times for music, technology, and high-end audio. As Kurutz says in "The New Audio Geeks," today's world is one "in which turntables and McIntosh preamps vie for shelf space with digital media streamers and iPods."

It's too bad Kurutz overlooked NAD—the D 3020 digital integrated amplifier may be just the thing for the new audio geek. Demonstrating its superiority over mass-market audio components should be as easy today as it was in 1978 to demonstrate the superiority of the original 3020. "Hear how much better your music sounds!" In some ways, it should be even easier. Today's customers walk into stores with their music libraries tucked into their pockets and purses. It doesn't matter that they're carrying MP3s. Through the D 3020, even MP3s will sound good—especially to someone who hasn't yet heard better.

Will $499 seem prohibitively expensive to the average consumer? I'm afraid so. If the D 3020 sold for $100 less, I think it'd have a better chance in today's crowded and competitive consumer-electronics market. That's not to say that the D 3020 is a poor value. At $499, I doubt that NAD is making much of a profit on it. And I can't think of another high-end audio product that combines this many digital inputs, does 24/96 asynchronous USB, is Bluetooth-capable, and looks and sounds as good. It's also fair to note that, adjusted for inflation, the price of the original 3020 would be about $535 today.

There are plenty of other things you can buy with $499. A flatscreen TV. A soundbar. An iPad. A Bose Wave Radio. NAD's D 3020 should easily outlive them all. More than just a great value, it's made to provide lasting enjoyment. In an ideal world, it would even be a sort of status symbol. You'd walk into someone's home, see an NAD D 3020, and know that the owner had audio discernment.

Looked at from every angle, the D 3020 intelligently reflects today's musical landscape. Will it be the component that introduces a new generation of music lovers to true high-fidelity sound?

I don't know, but it has every right to be.



Footnote 5 :I think that every purchase of the D 3020 should come with a free hi-rez download of Random Access Memories. Both amplifier and album honor the past while handily exceeding it. Somebody, get on this.

Footnote 6: See Art Dudley's January 2011 review of one of the earliest implementations of Bluetooth for music, the Chord Chordette Gem D/A processor.

Footnote 7: See "Audiophiles Perfect What the Mass Market Selects," Jon Iverson's "As We See It" for the June 2007 issue.

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deckeda's picture
Stephen, consider an Apple Express

It'll make her very happy, because she can AirPlay over to it from her iPhone ... and it'll sound better than BT and connect to anything that has an analog input, or TOSlink input via one of those minijack adapters like the D3020 has.

Jimmy_G's picture
Great topical article

Today I see so many people crying about the death of hifi, that the public is more interested in gadgets than great sound and that manufactures aren't producing products that fit our modern lifestyles.  That mass market retailers and compressed mp3s have killed the industry.  

Hogwash.  I think today is a great time to be an entry level audiophile.  I love the idea of NAD's D 3020 and I'm seriously considering it for my bedroom system.  And there are so many other wonderful new and affordable products as well.  The Brio R and Pro-Ject Carbon jump instantly to mind.   Further down the cost spectrum, Yamaha has a trio of even more affordable integrateds.  Wharfedale and Pioneer along with PSB, Monitor Audio and Paradigm all provide great entry points too. 

Yes, there is certainly a lot of compressed audio and over-engineered "loudness"* out there.  However, there is also greater access to higher quality audio then at any other time in history. The sheer volume of recorded music available at this very moment to anyone willing to seek it out is frankly staggering.  

Thank you for sharing your enthusiasm.  And now if you will please excuse me, I need to go turn up volume.  

*It's not a war, nobody's dying because dynamic range has been neutered.  

BradleyP's picture
AGREED!

I totally agree about this being a great time to be an entry-level audiophile.  While I am not entry level, that's where the fun is, and that's what's on my desktop where I do 95% of my listening.  I love marvelling at how good $600 can sound!  The level of audiophile just below the lunatic fringe drives the market for technological advances that quickly trickle down.  For that reason,  we all need the high end.  With my favorite streaming service, I can explore hundreds of albums, finding and loving talent I'd never have found otherwise, and sometimes buying the HD download.  

When a tablet or phone can transmit a 96/24 signal wirelessly to a good pair of powered speakers, we will have reached our destination.  That will be real hi fi for under a grand, and it will sell like mad.  Hi fi will have gone mainstream again despite its proclivities.  I give it three years.

christopher3393's picture
YOU

Stephen: You give good entry. Don't let the clowns get you down.

dbster's picture
NAD as entry level

The first part of this sounds familiar, since my first real stereo was an NAD 7020 (same integrated amp as the 3020, plus a tuner). It looks very similar to the 3020 in your article, with the addition of the slide-rule tuner dial and a band switch. It was recommended by Al Franklin's Music World in Hartford, which no longer exists. The system I bought also had an ADS L420 bookshelf pair of speakers, a JVC L-A21 turntable,  and a cassette deck that I don't remember.  I bought this two months after a major car accident, mostly because after the accident I thought I should have something I wanted new. I bought the stereo a month before a replacement car (buying my first new one), which in retrospect shows my priorities even back then. Not only does this system still work 30 years later, but the NAD and ADS are now in my oldest son's college dorm room, playing FLAC files. In that time, neither component has been serviced, nor neglected. So we are talking about entry level gear that was well built, solid, and lasting. The heatsink on the NAD that contributed to its weight was a plus to an electrical engineering major.

While my turntable, pre-amp, and amp are somewhat better now, though no where near extravagant, I am still running ADS bookshelf speakers, though the larger brother, the ADS L810.  I have also suggested to people than for new entry level, NAD and its corporate sister PSB are a good start, no matter what decade.

Just thought you'd like to hear a two generation NAD entry level story.

dan m's picture
Nice to see NAD continues the tradition

My first 'serious' integrated was a NAD 314.  It was more than capable of producing great music when paired with some good speakers and an 'entry level' turntable. There seems to be a bit of prejudice against digital amps, but I must say the Wyred4Sound integrated I currently have is doing a great job.  Seems NAD is embracing the new tech. as well and giving the consumer good sound irrespective of what's in the box.

BTW, the back photo seems odd to me - I always thought with RCAs that 'right is red'.

pablolie's picture
right IS red

right IS red

dan m's picture
Not on the analog input!

Not on the analog input!

pablolie's picture
The big question mid-term

The big question mid-term is... where does the DAC belong? the speaker? the integrated amp? a separate stand-alone? NAD has always known how to make clean sounding equipment, always a safe bet. to me the big question is as to the future of "integrated". it used to be phone, pre- and power-amplifier and one. i own an Accuphase E-306v i *worship* sound-wise, but i am not sure it is the mid-term answer to my future audio needs. i like the concept of vanishing components in general.

ideally i'd like a preamp with a fantastic DA at under $2k feeding into active bookshelf speakers (better imaging than towers every time in most real world listening rooms, really) with -oh heresy- a musically designed sub to complement the lowest lows. the old rule of thumb was speakers ought to be 2-3x the price of the amplification.

with a DA-preamp like the Benchmark DAC2 that means $8k for the entire backend, amplifying and speakers. given the fact the entry end is so seductively well-designed, i think that poses a huge challenge and a yet to be truly filled market need for the partial chain behind the DA-preamp.

the NAD design discussed here seems to indicate that the DAC is the new MC-MM phono component in the IA. is *that* the right answer?

it is an interesting time to be an an auidiophile because we are (a) an endangered species (admittedly because very decent audio has become very attainable), and (b) because innovative designs are constantly throwing utter curveballs at our old preconceptions. it is a Saturday night, and i am listening to a 320k MP3 of a John Coltrane album through a sub $1k chain that sounds so incredibly superior to my first $10k system in the mid 80s it is not even funny. TEAC 6030S was my main source back then... remember? what is the optimal component mix in the future? things have *never* been that murky in that respect. we used to know, it was easy: a source, then the big debate about IA or separate pre and power amps... now it is wow. what will we settle for? personally i think it will be active speakers. but it is an adoptions thing.

mixpro's picture
Great affordable choices now!

Well pablolie, I've had great fun with a Benchmark DAC1 lately, from my Mac via Toslink running iTunes with Amarra. While it's true you would need the DAC2 to support analog, the original DAC1 sounds fantastic and DAC1 USB is an option if you have to have USB. $600-800 used. I've been spending a lot of time away from my main system listening to the DAC1 through Sennheiser HD-598's. I have to say the Amarra was a marked improvement over standard Apple Core Audio (iTunes)  and better than the same music via coax from the CD player. My ears say that with Amarra, Toslink is better than USB so I'm trying not to get sucked into all that. For analog I'm using an NAD 316BEE in this second system, but it's headphone amp sucks. For me, Amarra made the whole thing come together although it's hard to justify the $189 for software.

donunus's picture
What is the difference

What is the difference between the dac in this unit and NAD's DAC only unit that looks the same as this?

JoeinNC's picture
go, NAD

I bought a NAD 3120 integrated amp in the very early '80s (just like the 3020B, but with binding posts, no tone controls or power meter), and used it for more than twenty years. It was an awesome little amp, and I regret giving it away to a family member. 

Johan B's picture
out of the box

Buy 2 and biwire them to 2 speakers?

Et Quelle's picture
D 3020

The new D3020 definitely fits the onthego digital music lover; tiny

Andrew R's picture
Comparables

Great article and fun read. In the introduction, you mentioned that upon arriving home to your system, it had sounded better than usual with this the D 3020. I wanted to know if you think that the sonic figerprint is as neutral or better than to your Nad C 316bee when using it for analog music such as your turntable? Would this provide an equal listening experiance without compromising sound for versatility to the audiophile who prefers LPs?  

PJDubyaM's picture
I had mine arrive yesterday.

I had mine arrive yesterday. I switched from saving up for a Peachtree Nova 125 to this because of a single chunk of the Stereophile review:

"[...] 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, [...]"

Before I start, some context: I'm a bit of an entry-level audiophile - I appreciate decent bits of kit, but am convinced that differences between much of the higher-up stuff is pure psychology, so I draw my line earlier than most ardent audiophiles. (and even if it's *not* pure psychology, the fact that *I think it is* means that my brain is primed *not* to tell the difference between different bits of equipment... Damn you, brain.)

I'm running an old Mac Mini as a headless HTPC, with my 14000-strong iTunes library (all CDs ripped to ALAC, or - over the last couple of years - wavs downloaded direct from the labels) freshly transferred onto a Synology NAS. The Mac is plugged directly in to the D 3020's USB port, to take advantage of the latter's DAC and jitter correction. And on the other side of the D3020 are a pair of Kef's LS50s.

That little lot is replacing what I had the previous day: the Mac in a different room, beaming to an Airport Express wired into a NAD C350.

Although I've not listened much (only a few hours in so far), I'm very impressed. There seems to be a lightness and an airiness there that wasn't there before - a sense of there being more space. The C350 always struck me as a big bruiser, and coloured the music accordingly. The D3020 seems to bring with it a delicacy that I rather like. It's still got punch, and can still go loud (although I may be detecting a bit of strain up there; further listening needed to see if it's down to the box-fresh equipment, or if I'm imagining it or not). Even Mrs M, who tolerates rather than celebrates my low-level audiophilia, thought it sounded immediately better.

Very glad I went for it. Love the design of it as well - not only visual, but tactile. I'm a real fan of things that are 'confidently ugly' (the LS50s being a glorious case in point). The design isn't *quite* right (in my opinion, the fact that they've labelled the volume knob 'volume' is something that spoils its aesthetics more than you'd think), but it's an awful lot better than most out there.

Recommended.

dan_rc3's picture
Love this article!

Fantastic story, I loved reading the history as well as the enthusiasm for a fun product. Wonderful article.

pablolie's picture
Indeed...

...and to echo what many have said, it is a fantastic time to be an audiophile .. And what we call entry level delivers on a price-performance that is mind-boggling to those of us that have tried to cobble together music shrines for over 20 years. I have 4k speakers from 93 that struggle and lose out with many entry level speakers these days. 

Thats why I love Stephens column. It is very relevant. And the KEF LS50s are stunning -at any price level.

skris88's picture
Great review but, "....Daft

Great review but, "....Daft Punk's Random Access Memories is today's Dark Side of the Moon: immensely popular, and musically and sonically excellent"? Hmmmm..... Good album, but comparable to Dark Side Of The Moon?  Nah!  ;-)

More seriously though, re the original Loudness control I wonder how many actually used it, and - with varying input levels, how it could have been correctly calibrated, if at all?

Loudness of sorts (Dynamic EQ) is also available with the new Audyssey systems, and I worry as to what people are listening to since most tracks are recorded hard against the 100db max that digital music can be stored at (wasting all that dynamic range).  My digital files are ReplayGained to 85db as I've found over 90% of my downloads are 15db too high. I suspect DACs must overload with these inputs too, about time Stereophile did a proper test. Re my own system, I can hear (or am I imagining it?) improved dynamics and lower distortion (these ARE MP3s after all) when I do so, than if I left my digital purchases as is.

Cheers
skris

John Atkinson's picture
Clipping DACs?

skris88 wrote:
most tracks are recorded hard against the 100db max that digital music can be stored at (wasting all that dynamic range).

Actually, as long as the peaks reach 100%, you are maximizing the dynamic range capability of the medium. If you are talking about compression of the music, that is an independent issue and is not related to the digital level.

 

skris88 wrote:
My digital files are ReplayGained to 85db as I've found over 90% of my downloads are 15db too high

I don't understand why you would do that. You are throwing away 2.5 bits of resolution. Why not just turn down your analog volume control, which will preserve low-level digital resolution?

skris88 wrote:
I suspect DACs must overload with these inputs too, about time Stereophile did a proper test.

I have only rarely found a DAC that clips, whic is why I almost never discuss the issue. Yes, it is always possible for the reconstructed signal to peak above 0dBFS between samples, but this is something that mastering engineers strive to avoid these days - meters that correctly display inter-sample overs have been around for 20 years now.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

3MaJ's picture
D3020 + MartinLogan Electromotion ESL?

Great review!

Any chance we can see some measurements, like you guys usually do with other amplifiers? I'm interested if D3020 can be used to drive MartinLogan Electromotion ESL (91dB efficiency, 6ohm nominal, 1.6ohm min. at 20kHz)... The D3020 datasheet does mention dynamic power at 2ohms, and Hypex Class-D amplifiers (which are at the core of this model I guess) are 2ohm-stable, so it should be possible in theory...

It is just so compelling to have this single (wonderfully desinged) tiny box instead of a huge set of separates that perform 10% better and cost 5x more.

I'm interested in "normal" (mostly for jazz) listening levels at around 3.5 m distance.

Thanks!
Djordje

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