NAD PP 3 digital phono preamplifier

Even Mikey Fremer is surprised at vinyl's current popularity. Some pundits postulate that eventually CDs will die out, and we'll be faced with the choice of LPs or downloads. (I hope not. I'm just getting used to CDs.) With abundant sources of new pop releases and a wide range of reissues on vinyl, and a variety of used LPs, every audiophile should own a turntable. And with the availability of affordable turntables such as the Pro-Ject Debut III, which I reviewed in the February 2010 Stereophile, the cost of entry to VinylLand is not very dear. The problem is that so few entry-level integrated amplifiers and receivers available today include phono stages. (The Marantz PM5003, which I reviewed in the January 2010 issue, is a notable exception.)

NAD has solved this problem by offering the PP 3 moving-magnet/moving-coil phono stage ($199). The PP 3 has circuitry identical to that of the PP 2 phono stage ($129), but adds a line input and a 16-bit analog-to-digital converter with USB interface, to permit the conversion of LPs to a digital format via a Mac or PC computer. The PP 3 has both MC and MM inputs, as well as a USB output (a USB cable is supplied). NAD also includes the VinylStudio Lite software, to facilitate converting the analog signal to a computer file.

NAD's Greg Stidsen told me that, in order for the PP 3 to perform to the "NAD standards" of ultralow noise, wide dynamic range, high overload margins, accurate RIAA equalization, and low distortion across the entire audioband, NAD included high-quality, audio-specific transistors and capacitors. Moreover, the PP 3's A/D converter is powered by the USB bus, effectively creating separate analog and digital power supplies.

I tested the PP 3 via its MM input using my Rega Planar 3 turntable with Syrinx PU-3 tonearm and Clearaudio Virtuoso Wood cartridge, driving a Creek Destiny integrated amplifier and Epos M5i speakers. (A Follow-Up review of the Epos M5i, an upgrade of the original M5, is in the works.)

I entered this reviewing process with some expectations of what I'd hear from the PP 3. I've enjoyed listening to a wide range of NAD gear over the years, beginning with the 7020 receiver I bought for my wife when we began dating, in the mid-1980s. At the time, I thought NAD electronics had a unique sonic signature: a rich, lush midrange, a slightly warm midbass, and slightly sweetened highs, but not enough HF extension or top-end air. The 218 THX power amplifier I reviewed in the August 1999 Stereophile, although a much more modern design than the earlier products derived from the original 3020 integrated amp, had the same NAD house sound.

So I was surprised to discover that, over a wide range of LPs, the PP 3, used as a regular phono preamp, was a more neutral performer than any other NAD component I'd heard, with extended frequency extremes and quite a bit of air. The midrange exhibited a rich, vibrant, holographic character that made me want to listen to a broad palette of vocalists. Dionne Warwick's voice in Hal David and Burt Bacharach's "Wishin' and Hopin'," from her Golden Hits Part One (LP, Scepter SPM 565), was bathed in a golden ambient glow, and the trumpet counterpoint had a silky metallic sheen. I've always felt the Doors' Jim Morrison was underrated as a ballad singer, and in "The Unknown Soldier," from Waiting for the Sun (LP, Elektra LPZ 2049), the NAD revealed his sultry baritone with all his subtle dynamic inflections intact.

Exploring further up the vocal range brought me to Jack Bruce's original recording of his "Theme for an Imaginary Western," from Songs for a Tailor (LP, Atco SD 33-306). His exploration of his upper register in the song's boisterous bridge was forceful yet silky through the NAD, with no trace of hardness. But the NAD didn't gloss over Tom Waits' guttural growl in his "Big in Japan," from Mule Variations (LP, Anti-/Epitaph 86547-1); all of his dynamic phrasing and pitch inflections were as clear as I've heard them through more expensive phono stages.

The NAD's overall neutrality, delicacy, and resolution of detail made it a good match for well-recorded jazz. In "Gloria's Step," from Bill Evans' Live at the Village Vanguard (LP, Verve 9378), the middle range of his delicate piano playing was reproduced without coloration, and with all his subtle phrasing intact. Moreover, it was very easy to follow all the subtleties of Paul Motian's delicate background drumming in this track, even at low volumes. On "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," from Mingus Ah Um (LP, Columbia KC 65512), Charles Mingus's melodic bass lines were woody, deep, and airy, with no overhang or coloration.

What most floored me about the PP 3's performance was its ability to render lightning-fast transients with a good sense of dynamic slam. Bill Summers' percussion interlude on the bridge of "Palm Grease," from Herbie Hancock's Thrust (LP, Columbia KC 32965), covers a broad range of syncopated percussion textures; with the NAD, the instruments seemed to jump out of the speakers in the front of the stage, giving the tune a lifelike quality. At the delicate end of the transient spectrum, the rapid-fire passages in Artur Rubinstein's readings of Chopin's Scherzos (LP, RCA Living Stereo LSC-2368) retained all their delicacy and speed without a trace of smearing, especially in the more-difficult-to-reproduce upper-register passages.

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