NAD D 3020 integrated amplifier

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 good—unbelievably, 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 birds—the 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 reasonable—not 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 3020—as 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 story—killer sound, perfect set of features, and nothing more—and 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 enjoy—even 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 revelation—a 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 customer—and nobody had ever heard of NAD until they came into a store like ours—they 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 distant—it 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 and Soft Clipping 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 setup—which, 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 has made several technological advances over the last decade—its Master Series components offer state-of-the-art performance both on the test bench and in the listening room—and 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 1). "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 panel—either 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 placement—like 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 control—a 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 2). The D 3020's IHF ratings are 65Wpc into 8 ohms, 105 into 4, and 150 into 2.

Footnote 1: NAD was founded in December 1972. You can see a timeline of the company's history here.

Footnote 2: John Atkinson discussed this in "Must We Test? Yes, We Must!," his "As We See It" for the August 1989 issue.

NAD Electronics International
633 Granite Court
Pickering, Ontario L1W 3K1
(905) 831-6555

tonykaz's picture

Mr. Mejias,

You've pretty much surrounded every detail of 3020's impressive accomplishments.

I recall the LINN dealers using it to break people into a quality audio experience, driving their version of the LS3/5a ( KANN ) explaining the first importance being the Turntable.

I probably owned half dozen of these things over the years, brought as trade-ins ( to my Audio Salon: Esoteric Audio ) for Conrad-Johnson or perhaps Electrocompaniet or some other items.

I'd set them up in a little system and sell em within a week or so, people still love them today, as far as I can tell.

I don't recall there being anything great about these things, they did work well, sounded presentable, were entry level priced, didn't fail requiring service, they were probably the best value in Consumer Audio, they were and still are "reliable". Well, what more could you ask for?: Plenty!

The 3020 acted as a Gateway Drug into Hi-End, into VPI Turntables, Koetsu Phono Carts., MIT 750 Cabling Systems, Full-Range ( power hungry ) Dynamic Speakers with 10" woofers, Magnaplaner MG-3s, Pre-amps and Pre-amp upgrades, Amps and then Reference Amps, Seffield Labs Records ( r.i.p. Doug Sax ) and Reference Recording Records and then ( don't make me say it ) VTL Super Amps and Wilson speakers ( oh-my-gosh ).

A whole bunch of the above began with the lowly 3020!

When people chose the 3020 instead of a Pioneer Receiver they made a choice to pursue music as their Hobby.

These are the people that read Absolute Sound and HP, they chose Belt Drives over JVC direct drive turntables.

The 3020 was the place where the music road split into two different directions. Lots more folks chose the Pioneer road but plenty went the 3020 direction: the "High" road, I'm still on this road today, headphones for me and Schiit instead of 3020 or D-3020.

Nice to read this reporting, you bring back memories.

Tony in Michigan

ednazarko's picture

I had a 3020, purchased one of the first ones to show up at my local audio dealer. (Remember local audio dealers?) Seriously upgraded my college dorm room audio system. Thorens turntable, Tandberg reel to reel deck. I always felt like it had more power than its rating, drove several different speakers including a set of original Advents. Led to several progressively more costly and powerful upgrades, eventually to an NAD power amp and tuner/preamp setup driving a double-Advent tower. But i couldn't let the 3020 go, until it just seemed silly to keep it around unused, about 1998. Well after the Thorens and Tandberg units were abandoned. My audio system addiction continues, continuing at the same level of "really, is this what I SHOULD be doing with this money?" that underpinned my purchase of the 3020.

Reading this review has gotten me thinking about the new 3020 to drive a system in another part of the house where we currently rely on listening to system in an adjacent room. I'm thinking, nice efficient set of open baffle speakers that will love 30wpc, fed streaming audio from a Logitech Touch.

I do wonder at the new 3020D including a DAC and Bluetooth. There seems to be a tendency to design "all in one" kinds of systems. Could the audio stage have been made better with the $$ spent on including a DAC that's probably competent but not great? I've experienced this in a few products the last 10 years, where compromises in the quality of a function were made in the service of cramming in one of everything, and in a couple of cases those quality compromises ended up being unacceptable. I'd end up A/B comparing the Touch's rendering against that of the 3020D. The Touch (one of three I have, plus two Transporters) has won a couple of similar competitions with integrated amp/DAC combinations.

The essence of what made the original 3020 great was that it was stripped down. To a college student (acting major to boot, can there be any student less financially sound?) it seemed that they were being smart about what they did with the money they were taking from me. My one bit of hesitation on the 3020D is exactly that. Am I buying the best $500 integrated amp, or a compromise of amp and DAC? But I am probably not a good representation of "the market".

Anyway, good job NAD. Since 1978 I've loved you and periodically, when my addiction hits, blamed you...

fetuso's picture

I've had the D3020 for about a month now and I love it. Maybe I'm missing something, but the remote isn't the problem many have made it out to be. There are six buttons of consequence and I had their locations memorized in about 2 minutes. I don't think I've actually had to look down at the remote in weeks. It's ridiculously simple and it fits nicely in the hand.

Actually, the remote is a harbinger of the unit itself in that it is elegantly simple and couldn't be easier to live with. Like I said, I've had it for a month and I have yet to look at the owner's manual. I read the manual on line before I purchased it and haven't looked at it since. The touch buttons are easy to operate, but occasionally it does fail to respond as I expected and I need to press it again. No big deal. It's a quirk of the device that I find kind of charming. Anyway, I mostly use the remote.

Overall I'm very happy with the D3020 and I hope to enjoy it for years to come.

tonykaz's picture

Right there is all the review any normal person needs.

Thanks for pitching-in here.

Tony in Michigan

olc's picture

I'm also happy overall with my D3020 but there are some annoying things. Sound-wise it's good with all the speakers I've thrown at it, a wide variety of them with a $500 budget (this is for my bedroom). It has plenty of inputs, and I got to put away my aptX Bluetooth receiver. But some of the ergonomics are not up to what one would expect. The front penal is just an array of lights indicating volume and input selected, and not touchscreen. The on/off touch control is fussy, requiring 2 or 3 attempts to get it to do its thing. The volume control is cheesy and the volume increases much with even a small twist. The black-on-black remote can't be seen except in strong light, especially a problem in the bedroom (but NAD is now distributing the D3020 with a white-on-black remote and if you call and push for it they will send you one). The better solution is a Harmony remote because you can directly select inputs from it.

Ergonomically the D3020 is a mess, but the performance and features outweigh that. I'm keeping it.

wadeh911's picture

Several years ago I ditched my Yamaha receiver to move up into the separate component world of Classe Parasound get the point. When that happened I lost my source and amp for my patio speakers as I didn't have the room in my rack. So my wife and i have been using bluetooth wireless speakers paired with either my iPhone or iPad streaming Pandora. Yesterday in our backyard with Yuengling Lights, we found our beach. Even the music from our new Bose Bluetooth speaker was thumpin, and then I walked back into the family room where my B&W 803 Diamonds were playing Led Zeppelin. Something had to be done.

I remembered reading a couple of Stereophile reviews about some of the small 2 channel class D receivers like the Sprout and the D3020, that offered bluetooth. So I dug up the old issues on Zinio and did some more reading. The D3020 seemed perfect except it was missing an ethernet connection as I detest dropouts, plus I needed DLNA compatibility to use JRiver to stream my digital music to it as a Renderer. JA's excellent technical measurements of the D3020 gave me the confidence the D7050 would be at least equal.

But at $795 for the D7050 new, I tried my best to find it used on Audiogon and ebay with no luck. Finally found a Reconditioned unit with factory warranty for $595 and bought it. Can't wait for the D7050 to arrive so I can fire it us. Thank you Stereophile for your good equipment reviews. I get my Stereophile in the mail, but really like the Zinio electronic subscription for back copies or when I'm traveling.

Would love to see NAD D7050 get a full review as it really seems to fit a need with all digital inputs and all wired and wireless interfaces.

partain's picture

I've had my D7050 for a year now , it sounds awesome , but the remote will ruin your day.
My problem is that I cannot find out if there's a way to add MQA processing to this amp. Can you bypass the internal DAC ?
I listen to TIDAL , to me the MQA sounds good. I want to get the full decode.

shorewalker's picture

I'm impressed that Mejias and Saglio both experienced a version of the NAD 3020 with a variable loudness control. I had no idea such a thing existed. My 7020e receiver variant from 1988 doesn't have one. Actually, I can't find a photo of a 3020 that had one either. I always see just four knobs: bass, treble, balance, volume.

Are people somehow confusing it with the Yamaha CR-3020 that had such a control?

FWIW, the 7020e - basically a 3020e with a tuner - still sounds terrific to me at 30 years of age. It's been in use all that time and not a thing has gone wrong. It's also easy to operate one-handed, since all the controls are easy-press physical buttons or easy-turn knobs.

I have it paired with NAD 8020e speakers which were made by KEF, and plugged into my computer. After three decades, I'm adding a Dragonfly DAC. It seems possible that this lot can make their half-century. The return on investment has been extraordinary.

I hope the D 3020 can do as well, and I would love to buy one, but sadly NAD has provided me no excuse to do so.

vicsay's picture

Great review!

I'm interesting to buy a D3020 for a pair of KEF Q100, but I'm afraid about the 20w :( if is enough power, also I have reading that the C316BEE is a good option from NAD, but what about the sound quality between these two Amps. Can you help me? Many thanks!