Introduction to the NAD D 3020 Hybrid Digital Amplifier
In 1978, NAD announced itself to the world of audio with the 3020 Integrated Amplifier. This product redefined what was possible in a value-priced audio component. Prior to that, there wasn’t much in the middle ground between inexpensive receivers and high-end separates. NAD came out with a box that brought that high-end quality to an affordable level and ushered in a whole new legion of audiophiles.
When I left home for college in 1984, I brought my stereo system along. It consisted of a Kenwood receiver, Technics turntable, and a pair of Fisher 3-way speakers. After discovering a few high-end stereo shops in Boston, and having my turntable set up properly; I started shopping for a better amp. My meager funding ruled out separates but the proprietor of a small hi-fi shop pointed me to that now-familiar brown box. I returned to my dorm room clutching a brand-new NAD 3020, for which I believe I paid around $220. My reward was the cleanest sound I’d ever heard, bar none. I used that amp all through college and probably for another 10 years after.
Today, NAD has recreated this amazing product for the digital age. Where we once relied on vinyl and ferrous tape, now it’s all about bits and bytes. The timeless philosophy of clean high-quality sound, versatile operation, and a low price has now given birth to the all-new D 3020 Hybrid Digital Amplifier.
There is in fact, a series of these amps. The leftmost box is the D 7050 with 50 watts per channel and AirPlay. The center unit is the D 1050 desktop DAC. At the right is the D 3020 which is the subject of today’s review.
NAD D 3020 HYBRID DIGITAL AMPLIFIER SPECIFICATIONS
- Design: Two-channel Class D Integrated Amplifier with Eight-channel DAC
- Rated Power: 30 watts @ 8 Ohms
- IHF Dynamic Power: 65 Watts RMS @ 8 Ohms, 105 Watts @ 4 Ohms, 150 Watts @ 2 Ohms
- MFR: 20 Hz – 96 kHz (0 dB to – 0.3 dB)
- THD+N: 0.03%
- Maximum Sample Rate: 24/96
- Inputs: Asynchronous USB, Digital Coax, Toslink Digital Optical, Analog Stereo RCA, Stereo 1/8″ Mini-plug
- Outputs: Five-way Speaker Binding Posts, Subwoofer RCA, Headphone
- Dimensions: 7.3″ H x 2.3″ W x 8.6″ D
- Weight: 4.6 Pounds
- MSRP: $499 USD
- SECRETS Tags: NAD, Digital Amplifiers, Amplifiers, Stereo, Audio
The Design of the NAD D 3020 Hybrid Digital Amplifier
My first impression is that the D 3020 is a very stylish piece of gear which will fit right in with office or living room décor. It’s fairly small in size; about as a large as a hardcover book. The front and top have a flowing fascia of shiny black plastic that is interrupted only by a volume knob and a headphone jack. The sides are flat black with a slightly rubbery feel. At the top are touch-sensitive buttons for power and source toggle. Included in the box are four stick-on feet.
You can lay the unit on its side if you wish but then you’ll be forced to look sideways at the front panel display. It’s arranged in two columns; the left indicates the source and right indicates the volume level. On first glance, increments of 20 dB seem pretty coarse compared to a computer-style bar graph. In operation however, the individual numbers change in brightness to convey a little more information. The volume knob controls an extremely precise attenuator. And its feel is very high quality with just the right level of smooth resistance.
Around back is a complete set of inputs and outputs. Starting from the left, we have a 12v trigger input which can be connected to your source device so the D 3020 comes on with a single button press. Above that is a tiny BassEQ button. Toggling this on will provide a 6 dB boost at 80 Hz. Then there is an input cluster consisting of asynchronous USB, RCA, 1/8″ mini-plug (which doubles as an optical input via an included adapter), digital coax, and TOSLink. Speaker outputs are the same beefy 5-way binding posts you’d find on full-size receiver or amplifier. There is also a subwoofer output in the form of a 1/8″ mini-plug, which is a bit unusual. Rounding out the back panel is a jack for the detachable power cord.
The remote is fairly minimal in nature. The only buttons are on/off, volume, play/pause, forward/reverse, and source next/previous. It works just fine within a wide range of angles when pointed at the D 3020. My only complaint is its black on black design. The button icons are molded in without any sort of contrasting color. It’s difficult to see what the buttons do in anything but bright light. And they are not raised at all so you can’t operate the remote by feel. It’s a little odd but at least you’ll be using only the volume control most of the time. I did like the rubberized finish on the front but the back panel is a shiny piano black that becomes instantly covered with fingerprints. It also has a wide enough base that you can stand it on end if you want.
NAD has packed some terrifically innovative technology into this tiny box. As you’ll see later in my listening impressions, size does not indicate strength here. This is more than a mere desktop amplifier. It is fully capable of anchoring a two-channel system with large full-range speakers; and driving it to extremely high volume levels with vanishingly low distortion. While it is based on the M2 Direct Digital amp, it doesn’t actually do all its processing in the digital domain like that $6,000 component. Analog Class D amps are employed along with a super-simple preamp section. Eight Cirrus anchor the DAC section, mixed down to two channels.
The amplifier section is not your typical Class D module. It’s called UcD and is a unique patent licensed from the Dutch company Hypex. It is optimized for high current and low impedance; which explains its ability to drive four ohm speakers with ease. NAD adds in its own refinements to the Hypex technology. One example is PowerDrive which throttles power supply output based on actual load. This leaves plenty of headroom when a quick spike in volume demands greater voltage. This also accounts for its high efficiency and low heat output.
Here are the UcD amp’s chief benefits, as highlighted in a white paper I obtained from NAD:
- Load invariance, meaning it doesn’t change sound with different speaker impedances
- Unaffected by very low impedances
- Loop gain is constant over the full audio frequency range leading to low distortion even at high frequencies
- Ability to be constructed with all discrete parts (no expensive control ICs)
- Excellent EMC (electro-magnetic compatibility) performance
- Low, flat output impedance for good bass control
- Flat response in all loads
- Distortion that is extremely low even into low impedance at the highest frequencies
As you’ll see later in my listening comments, I heard clear examples of all these things.
Setup of the NAD D 3020 Hybrid Digital Amplifier
You will undoubtedly read other reviews of the D 3020; and the majority of them will highlight its abilities as a desktop amp. It has after all, the perfect form factor for that purpose and its styling is right at home in the modern workspace. Well, as it turns out, I don’t have a decent pair of desktop speakers in my office. As much as I enjoy the convenience of storing music on my computer, I do that solely as a service to my iPod. When I listen to music, it’s in a dedicated room with the best equipment I can afford. And it comes from a good ‘ole CD.
So I decided to do something different with the D 3020. My reference room is equipped with a pair of Axiom’s LFR1100 towers driven by an Emotiva XPA-5 and an Integra DHC-80.1 processor. After confirming with NAD that this little amp would drive four-ohm speakers without issue, I decided to make it the anchor for my otherwise gargantuan system. Normally the LFRs require four channels of amplification but they can be driven by two if you give up the rear-firing driver array. That makes them more or less equivalent to a pair of Axiom’s M100 towers.
I also decided to evaluate its abilities as a headphone amp. I used a pair of Etymotics ER-4P in-ear monitors for this. They are pretty easy to drive and they usually sound great plugged straight into my iPod. I used this opportunity to try out the USB input of the D 3020. To make this work, I had to download drivers from NAD’s website and install them. After connecting to a USB 3.0 port on my Windows 7 PC, I was up and running.
For sources, I connected an Oppo BDP-93 via coax to the D 3020’s digital input. I also streamed music from my iPhone using the Bluetooth function. That was a piece of cake to enable. All I had to do was turn Bluetooth on in the phone. The D 3020 appeared in the list within a few seconds and I was done. Thank you NAD for not requiring me to dive into the manual for a four-digit code! All cables were from Bluejeans.
The NAD D 3020 Hybrid Digital Amplifier In Use
First off, as we all know, size matters in audio right? I mean, what’s better than a huge stack of amps and black boxes driving an enormous pair of speakers? If the lights don’t dim when you turn it on, you aren’t consuming enough power! I couldn’t help but laugh at the sight of this tiny book-sized amplifier perched atop my rack knowing that it and my disc player were the only two boxes sending electrons to my four-foot tall speakers.
Well let’s just say that from the first moment, my head remained in a forward and locked position and I didn’t think about what was happening in my rack for even one split second!
I started with a few rock CDs; and I tried to select recordings that I knew would vary in quality. Chris Daughtry’s new album Baptized, is very enjoyable to listen to but is also the perfect example of an over-processed mix. It isn’t too compressed but the instrumental accompaniment tends toward the mushy side. Only Daughtry’s voice is treated with the loving care it deserves. Fidelity aside, I was immediately impressed with the tremendous and well-controlled bass energy coming from my LRF1100s. The D 3020 obviously has no problem passing the full signal with nary a hint of rolloff either high or low. I listened to a few tracks via Bluetooth to make a comparison. While there was no loss of detail that I could detect, the sound became a little more polite and perhaps thinly veiled as well. aptX is clearly superior in sound quality to regular Bluetooth but it is still a compressed format. I think in a less well-treated environment than my listening room, the difference would not be noticed.
Moving on to a superior recording, I cued up Foo Fighters’ Wasting Light. This album was recorded using analog tape in Dave Grohl’s 606 Studio. Now I could really hear what the D 3020 was capable of! I’ve used this recording for reference before but I was definitely hearing greater channel separation and delineation of instruments than usual. The balance was phenomenal and there seemed to be no volume limit. I cranked it beyond my usual comfort level yet it never became harsh or unfocussed. Layered guitar parts were resolved beautifully and I could really hear the pick attacks in White Limo. It was also easy to hear where instruments were placed in the amazingly wide soundstage.
Back to a wall-of-sound compressed recording, I spun Five Finger Death Punch’s latest, The Wrong Side of Heaven and The Righteous Side of Hell, Volume 2. There is only one way to listen to this CD – LOUD! The distorted guitars were, well, distorted; but I was really struck by Ivan Moody’s vocal track. He raps most of the verses from his throat and is therefore really hard to understand. This time, I had little trouble picking out every bit of profanity, and profundity in the lyrics. I also enjoyed the drum sound immensely with the kick drum sounding like it was right in the room with me.
I finished my rock listening with Nirvana’s Nevermind. This album was recorded at Sound City using the now-famous Neve console. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, pick up a copy of Dave Grohl’s documentary Sound City Reel to Real. It’s one of the best rock history films I’ve seen to date. An interesting factoid about this album is how producer Butch Vig had to coach the band members to play more accurately and precisely. They were used to playing live and weren’t really prepared for the way a recording exposes every tiny flaw. As great as this record is, the D 3020 had no trouble showing me all those flaws. Honestly, it made Nirvana sound more human and more real than I’d ever heard them. It was never artificial in any way. This album doesn’t have the Pro Tools fixes that are so common today. Thanks to that, you can hear every harmonic, every chord change, and every rhythm error. It’s so much more engaging to listen to a CD that way. I certainly enjoy Nirvana piped through my iPod and into headphones but the D 3020 and LFR1100 combo brought it to a whole new level.
After a couple of hours listening to rock at very high SPLs, I expected to feel some heat from the D 3020’s diminutive side vent. Well, this amazing little box was barely warm to the touch. I placed my palms fully on both sides and was able to hold them there indefinitely. This is one efficient amplifier!
Turning to classical recordings, I wanted to hear a bassoon sound through the NAD. This instrument is notoriously difficult to record. Judith LeClair, NY Philharmonic principal bassoon, plays with a definitive tone that I am very familiar with. Her chamber music recording, New York Legends, sounds very much like it was performed in a studio. The bassoon sounds like it’s in the back of the mix during the Telemann Quartet. I chalked this up as an example of the D 3020’s honesty. Like all NAD’s products, what goes in comes out without alteration.
She sounded much better in her performance of Five Sacred Trees with the London Symphony. This John Williams concerto pits the lone bassoon against a massive orchestra. I never had trouble discerning the soloist in the mix no matter how load the orchestra played. This CD turns to mush on many systems but the D 3020 played a perfect referee between the bassoon and legions of brass and percussion.
I finished with the St. Louis Symphony’s performance of Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin. This recording isn’t a benchmark but there were moments of real tactility; which is something I rarely hear from any orchestral recording. You could literally feel the brass and percussion during the louder passages.
For the headphone portion of my listening, I moved to my office and employed the D 3020’s USB connection. The source files were Apple Lossless tracks from my iTunes library and I used the same music as in the previous listening session. The ‘phones were Etymotics ER-4P in-ear monitors as pictured above, except with foam inserts instead of rubber.
My reference was to plug the headphones directly into an iPod. I’m accustomed to a certain edginess that creates a volume limit beyond which pain ensues. Plus the iPod’s extremely coarse volume control makes finding a sweet spot difficult if not impossible with some material.
By using the D 3020 as a USB interface and connecting the ER-4Ps to it, I was rewarded with a warmer sound that was much more full-bodied. The net result was I could turn up the volume a bit without fatigue. And the extremely fine attenuator on the NAD made it a breeze to find the perfect level for every album I tried. I’m not a frequent headphone user but this level of resolution and the superior sound quality is enough to make me don the cans a little more often. This was by far my best headphone experience to date.
Conclusions about the NAD D 3020 Hybrid Digital Amplifier
If it isn’t already obvious, I was supremely impressed by the D 3020. Its ability to drive a pair of large four-ohm speakers as stoutly as a 75-pound Emotiva amplifier is nothing short of astounding. It may only be rated at 30 watts per channel but it might as well be 130 given the results I experienced. And to achieve that level of fortitude, while retaining full detail, at only $500 is even more amazing. Granted, I’m not running a super-expensive rack but the D 3020 still undercuts the cost of my boxes by $2900!
I did wish for the inclusion of AirPlay, but wait! You can get that on the D 7050 (the tall one next to the iPad), which has 50 watts per channel. Of course, that’ll double the price of entry. Value-wise, the D 3020 is pretty much unbeatable.
And that’s what made the original 3020 such a ground-breaking product. For around $220, you got a small integrated amp that just killed its higher-priced competition. You didn’t need to lust for expensive separates once you put one in your rack. While today’s D 3020 bears no resemblance electronically to the original, its function is the same. It accepts digital and analog sources and will drive pretty much any pair of speakers you care to connect. And it will sound amazing. And it only costs $500. What’s not to love?
After bringing my head out of the clouds long enough to write this review, I give the NAD D 3020 my absolute highest recommendation as it now fills a more permanent role on my desktop!