The Entry Level #35 Page 2
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 ZphonoUSB 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.
Occasionally, when sending digital signals from the NAD C 316BEE CD player to the D 3020's coaxial input, I heard a glitchy mechanical noisesort 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 ($69/1.5m) to connect the computer to the D 3020's asynchronous-mode USB input, went crazy streaming a ton of music from iTunes.
Daft Punk's Random Access Memories is today's Dark Side of the Moon: immensely popular, and musically and sonically excellent. I couldn't get enough of it through the D 3020 (footnote 5). I began with a low-resolution rip (192kbps from CD, Columbia 88883716862) of "Lose Yourself to Dance." The jubilant handclaps sounded like jubilant real handclapsa whole crowd of them, fleshy and wet with reverb, and growing larger and larger as the song went on. And the silly robot voices sounded ridiculously awesome. And the drums sounded solid and funky and forceful. And the electric guitar sounded simultaneously clean and dirtyjust as it should. And when I couldn't take it anymore, I got up from my seat and did what Pharrell Williams had been imploring me, over and over, to do. I lost myself to dance.
Seriously? This was the most fun I've ever had with hi-fi.
In the middle of my dance, I took a screenshot of my iTunes playlist and posted it to Instagram with the hashtag "work" and a comment: "Sounds way better than it should. WTF?!" I received 23 "likes" in about five seconds. I felt more popular, and way cooler, than Lena Dunham, Zooey Deschanel, or even Duck Dynasty.
In one marathon listening session, I played crappy MP3s of songs by Justin Timberlake, Raime, A$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 impressiveon 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 devicesmartphone, 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.
"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 againand 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 processorsthe 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 happeningand 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 NADthe 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 goodespecially 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.