NAD D 3020 integrated amplifier Sam Tellig

Sam Tellig wrote about the D 3020 in December 2013 (Vol.36 No.12):

Years ago, Corey Greenberg wrote a memorable headline: "GO NAD."

NAD, which then stood for New Acoustic Dimension, was founded in 1973 but really got going in 1978, with the 3020 integrated amplifier. Audio stores loved the line because Crazy Eddie didn't sell it and because they no longer had to turn away customers who wouldn't buy expensive stuff.

I well remember the original 3020—so many of my friends owned one. It was one of the first solid-state amplifiers, integrated or otherwise, to lack the sterile transistor sound so beloved of Stereo Review. (Test tones, anyone?) It also offered an alternative to tubes. I believe the original list price was $149.

Today, many of us would probably consider the 3020's sound soft and lacking in resolution. It was rated 20Wpc into 8 ohms, and delivered around 50W into 4 ohms. Still, it was no powerhouse. That's why it was outfitted with a protection circuit, called "soft clipping," that limited the voltage when the current draw became too great. In other words, soft clipping made it almost impossible to blow up the 3020—a perennial problem with certain low-power solid-state amps to this day.

This marks the point where mass-market hi-fi went wrong. I'm not talking about NAD now, but many other once-legendary brands. They piled on more features, and fiddled with the designs to deliver more rated power on critics' test benches. The original NAD 3020 was designed to deliver music, not test tones for Julian Hirsch. Rather like the Croft Phono Integrated, wouldn't you say, JA?

The original NAD 3020 had a pretty good moving-magnet phono stage, too. It was built in Taiwan, where the quality control could be iffy. Its only sonic competition at the time was the Advent 300 receiver.

Fast-forward 35 years.

To mark its 40th anniversary, NAD has introduced the D 3020. Perhaps the D stands for class-D amplification (which isn't digital), or the built-in DAC (which, of course, is). At $499, it costs three times as much as the original; but the original's price of $149 would be $534 in 2013 dollars.

Feature-wise, the D 3020 has little in common with its ancestor. There are no tone controls. There is no phono stage. But there is a similar sound, warm and sweet, which I'll get to in a moment.

NAD calls the D 3020 a "hybrid digital amplifier," by which they mean that not all of its circuitry is in the digital domain. The D 3020 combines a Cirrus Logic DAC (eight channels mixed down to two) with a class-D output stage designed by Hypex, of the Netherlands. According to NAD, the output stages aren't fazed by low-impedance speakers.

The power supply incorporates NAD's proprietary PowerDrive circuit, which can deliver short bursts of high voltage when the music requires. Hats off to the head of the design team, Bjørn Erik Edvardsen—who, not coincidentally, designed the original 3020 in 1978.

It takes a real genius to design a great, inexpensive hi-fi product—a genius with a concern for real-world people. It seems to me that many hi-fi designers just want to pump up their egos (and their profit margins) with ever-more-expensive stuff that doesn't always sound very good. Or even work very well.

The D 3020's rated power output is 30Wpc into 8 ohms, but NAD claims that it can drive "difficult" speakers with relative aplomb. In other words, like the original 3020, the D 3020 should be difficult to blow up. It worked fine with the DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/93s, and with my Harbeth M30.1s.

Yes, I've heard better sound—from the Croft Phono Integrated and my LFD LE IV integrated. But the LFD costs nearly eight times the price of the NAD, and the Croft nearly four times as much, and both lack all of the NAD's useful features.

Right now, NAD's D 3020 is the best bargain in all of hi-fi.

It's a single box measuring 73/8" (186mm) high by 25/16" (58mm) wide by 85/8" (219mm) deep and weighing only 3 lbs (1.4kg). It can be positioned horizontally or vertically. (The amplifier has no feet, but it's designed not to scratch delicate surfaces.) But whether you stand it up (most convenient for changing sources) or lay it down, give it some ventilation—don't squeeze it between two books. In operation, the D 3020 runs slightly warm; in standby (which it slips into automatically after not receiving a signal for a while), it runs cool as a cuke.

Here's what $499 gets you: a 30Wpc power amp, a remote control, a line stage, one RCA coaxial S/PDIF connector, two optical S/PDIF connectors, one asynchronous USB input, one RCA analog input (for a phono stage, turntable, etc.), one mini-jack input (for a smart phone, iPod, etc.), a subwoofer output, a mini-jack headphone output, and . . .


. . . aptX Bluetooth.

I'm buying the D 3020 to make it my reference integrated amp. I can't bear to part with it. My son bought one, too. He's getting tired of tube tsuris. He can pack up the D 3020 in a case and take it back and forth between his city digs and his country dacha. His reaction so far? Astonishment that it can drive his Harbeth HL5 speakers so well (though he intends to use the D 3020 with smaller speakers).

Yes, the sound quality. You would ask about that. I no longer care about sound quality. It can only mean trouble. (Just kidding.)

The D 3020's sound quality is just fine, unless you're an audiophile fussbudget or ostentatiously filthy rich.

For starters, and as with the original 3020 of 1978, I found the D 3020's sound completely nonfatiguing and non-irritating. Tonally, the sound seemed natural, with not quite the presence of a great tube amp . . . like the Croft. But does the Croft have remote control? A USB input? A DAC? aptX Bluetooth? A headphone output? Nyet.

Using my Harbeth M 30.1 monitors, I noted that the bass was surprisingly rich and full, more like a Harbeth HL5. Turning to a different beast, the DeVore Orangutan O/93, I thought the bass could be slightly . . . well, plump. I perused NAD's white paper on the D 3020:

"Because we expect this amplifier will often be used with smaller speakers that have limited bass extension, we have brought back NAD's BassEQ feature, a low Q filter centered on 80Hz with about 7dB boost. This gives just the right amount of 'heft' to small bookshelf speakers without adding chesty coloration to male voices."

Ah-ha! Well, as the late J. Gordon Holt wrote, "Down with flat!"

Want more bass? The D 3020's subwoofer output engages a high-pass filter for the amp's outputs. (The BassEQ is defeatable.) I thought this was just on the edge of causing problems in our living room with the DeVore Orangutans. The Harbeth M 30.1s seemed to love the bass boost.

Musically, the D 3020 was most enjoyable: warm and only just a bit fuzzy compared with amplifiers costing, say, six times as much. You want more power, more punch? A more expensive NAD model won't drain your bank account, either.

Common sense will tell you not to use the D 3020 in a large room with insensitive, extremely "difficult" speakers. NAD has plenty of products that can handle that. In a pinch, though, the D 3020 could probably drive almost anything to moderate volume levels. I'd like to try it with, say, a $60,000 pair of speakers.

Nah. Better yet, with a $1500 pair.

Yikes! Stephen was right.
It was Stephen Mejias who suggested I listen to NAD's D 3020 in the first place. He also suggested that I try it with my KEF LS50 monitors.

A splendid combination, said he.

Perfect. The NAD D 3020 was fully up to driving the KEFs in my listening room, and the bass boost warmed up their sound just right.

The great feature of the KEFs is that UniQ concentric driver, with the tweeter placed, in effect, inside the mid/woofer's cone. This driver delivers sound comparable in coherence to that from a single-driver loudspeaker. It seems seamless.

Despite my slightly lame ankle, I swapped in Triangle's Comète Anniversaire speakers. Again, the added warmth struck me as just right, making the speakers sound bigger than they are—and the D 3020 much more powerful than 30Wpc.

Another thing. The D 3020 seemed to be particularly well suited to Internet radio.

I remember something my Uncle Stan told me. A bank teller by day, he sold radios nights and weekends. Most customers shopping for a radio, he said, wanted a "beautiful tone," not a flat frequency response. Stan himself was a big fan of wind-up Victrolas.

More mischief.

I had a houseful of Russians over for the weekend and needed a little time to myself. I hied me up to my listening room and used the finest headphones I have: the Audio-Technica ATH-W3300 ANVs, now discontinued. The D 3020's bass boost was generally welcome. The sound had few shortcomings—mostly a lack of ultimate delicacy and detail, along with diminished dynamics. But compared to what—a separate headphone amp that alone costs more than the D 3020? The NAD's remote volume control was a blessing.

And the D 3020 was a superb sonic match with my somewhat lean Pioneer MJ 591 headphones.

Even if you own far more expensive gear, you might find it fun to have the NAD. Bluetooth background listening is ideal in the kitchen or dining area, office or waiting room. The NAD makes a splendid backup for almost your entire system. It's easily transportable. It makes an ideal holiday gift and comes nicely boxed, rather like an Apple product. At $499, it's practically a gift for yourself.—Sam Tellig

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!