In 1978, a little-known manufacturer launched an amplifier, dubbed the 3020. In its day a sub-£80 amplifier, the 3020 raised the bar for high performance budget integrated amplifiers – selling more than 1 million units worldwide.
A musical amplifier with the capability to drive difficult loads and make just about any source component shine, the NAD 3020 quickly became a classic.
Fast forward to today, and the digital age. The iPod is the most popular music player on the market, and downloads are taking the world by storm. However, more and more people are again realising the benefits of traditional hi-fi components – Greater flexibility, and of course, better sound.
However, not everybody can, or will, accommodate a traditional hi-fi system. Modern living spaces aren’t designed to accommodate large, bulky hi-fi separates, and the average user doesn’t require analogue sources – their iPod, smartphone, or computer are their main sources for music.
Realizing this, NAD (including Bjorn Erik Edvardsen, the designer of the original 3020) are again re-inventing the wheel. Meet – the NAD D3020 hybrid digital integrated amplifier.
A true hub for all of your music sources, The D3020 combines a 30W per channel (8O) class D amplifier, a low noise headphone amp and a fully featured DAC (digital to analogue converter) in its tiny 7”x8” casing. Thanks to its tiny footprint, it’s perfect for areas where space is an issue – for example, in a modern entertainment cabinet, on a computer desk, or a tiny bedroom setup.
The D3020 features NAD’s ‘Power Drive’ technology. By adding a second high-voltage rail to the power supply, the amplifier is able to nearly double its continuous power output on a short-term basis. This enables the D3020 to drive difficult loads – in fact, where most of today’s integrated amplifiers are designed to drive speakers with 4Ohm impedance or higher, the D3020 is quite happy driving a 2 Ohm load – with 150W of power.
The D3020 features several digital inputs – 2 optical and 1 coaxial, supporting sampling rates of up to 24/192 KHZ. There’s an asynchronous USB input for connection of a computer, allowing you to stream up to 24/96 studio master content. There’s a free driver for Windows users that can be downloaded from NAD’s website; the USB functionality works out-of-the-box under Mac OS X and many Linux distributions.
Last but certainly not least, Bluetooth is built right in – and supports the high quality apt-x codec for the best possible sound quality. This is important; many people use Bluetooth-enabled devices such as tablets, laptops, smartphones – and even some desktop computers. While Bluetooth still doesn’t offer the same sound quality as a physical wired connection, it’s great for casual listening or for streaming low quality lossless audio files.
There are also 2 analogue inputs, for older, non-digital devices such as a turntable (with the use of an external phono stage), an FM/AM tuner, cassette deck, etc.
When the D3020 showed up at my door, I thought there’d been a mistake. Surely there’s no way this can be an integrated amp? It’s tiny!
Sure enough, opening the inner box reveals the D3020 in its felt bag, resting in a cardboard insert. Neatly situated to the right of the unit itself, you’ll find a box containing the AC power cable, some stick-on rubber feet, A CR-2025 battery for the remote, and an optical adapter.
And finally, in yet another box, you’ll find the remote itself. It’s simple, effective packaging – it doesn’t have the same level of fit and finish as some – the remote box, for example, rests under the edge of the cardboard insert, rather than slotting into a designated gap. The stick-on protectors that keep the finish glossy attract so much dirt when removed, that it’s impossible to reuse them.
Due to the lack of foam and polystyrene, the packaging is 100% recyclable (though NAD do recommend keeping hold of the box, in case the unit should need to be transported). But hey… who cares about the box?
The D3020 is well put together – though the rubber-textured finish is a magnet for dirt and fingermarks, as is the plastic top and front. This is an amp you're going to be cleaning regularly to keep it looking its best. I’m not a fan of this finish – I prefer a simple metal box.
As previously mentioned, it's truly tiny – and very neat, with only a single protruding control (the volume control) on display. There's a narrow slit, replicated on both the top and bottom panels, allowing the heatsink to dissipate heat. Considering its size, the heat generated during testing was minimal – At normal listening levels, the MacBook Pro and the iPhone that were providing the tunes were considerably hotter to the touch.
The amplifier itself features 1 physical control – the volume control. The remaining buttons are touch-sensitive, and located on the top panel (or the right-hand side, if you use the amp horizontally). I'm not a fan of touch controls – especially on a hi-fi component.
The volume control also feels a little wobbly; this is something that few manufacturers get right, especially in this day and age with cheap digital encoders replacing good quality potentiometers. It sticks out too far, and flexes from side to side when pushed.
The back panel of the D3020 features a whole host of connections. There's the socket for the included AC power cable, and a pair of sturdy screw-type speaker terminals that can accept spades, banana plugs or bare wire.
The unit features RCA and 3.5" analogue inputs, as well as a mono sub woofer output. the optical inputs (1 of which a 3.5" jack that can be used with the output of a Mac or the included optical adapter) are joined by the coaxial input and USB input for the computer. Finally, there's a 12V trigger in, which can be used to remotely power cycle the D3020 from other components.
It's nice to see NAD opted for screw-type terminals, rather than the spring clips usually found on smaller, cheaper amplifiers. The connectors are solid too – with no flexing when inserting or removing plugs. The D3020 has all the connections you could need – accept, perhaps, a stereo line-level output which would be a welcome addition
The D3020 includes a simple minimalistic remote that features only those controls necessary to operate the amplifier (and a couple for, interestingly, a nad tuner). Thanks to its shape, it fits nicely in the hand, and the buttons have a nice tactile click when pressed.
It uses a single CR2025 battery – inserting and removing this battery is nothing short of a nightmare. There's no 'push to release' mechanism – you must locate an object thin enough to insert into a tiny hole on the end of the remote (such as a paperclip or tiny screwdriver). This causes the battery tray to slide out, allowing you to insert the battery. It's an unnecessary frustration – especially seeing as the remote is plenty large enough to accommodate standard AAA batteries.
The D3020 is designed to be flexible enough to integrate into any setup, from a simple desktop PC setup to a home entertainment centre or hi-fi rack. The amp can be positioned horizontally or stand vertically – meaning it can fit into the tightest spaces. 4 Stick-on rubber feet are provided to prevent the amp rocking if stood vertically; even if using the amp horizontally, it’s advisable to install them on the bottom panel for better airflow.
Setup and Usage
Setting up the D3020 is as easy as it gets. Simply connect up your speakers and sources and you’re ready to go. There are no complicated configuration menus and no DAC settings to mess with.
Using the D3020 can, at times, become frustrating. This is mainly due to the inaccurate controls – as noted by other reviewers, the controls aren’t as accurate as they should be. The touch sensitive controls on the unit itself are difficult to operate – working only when they feel the need. The controls on the remote are better, but not by much – the volume, in particular, is flaky. Several times during the review I’d attempt to raise the volume with the remote – and, rather than the expected gradual increase, it jumped considerably resulting in a feeling in my stomach not unlike that felt when dropping in a lift. The front control was better in this regard.
The D3020 includes a USB port for connection your computer. Setup is simple – connect a USB A-B cable between the D3020 and your computer, and on most systems you’ll be good to go. NAD do offer a free driver for windows, which I installed – but it wasn’t necessary to get sound.
I did experience some issues with the USB interface. When connected to one of my computer’s USB 3.0 ports, the sound would frequently drop out. It wasn’t until connected to a USB 2.0 port (which required me to purchase a PCI slot bracket for my PC) that things worked as expected.
The original 3020 was characterised as having a warm, bold sound – and the D3020 is no different. It’s not in your face though – it’s well-controlled, and makes vocals (particularly female vocals) sound stunning.
The amp presents a broad 3-dimensional sound stage, and the positioning is spot on – pin-pointing a musicians location is easy, particularly when playing well-recorded live albums.
Naturally the NAD’s ability to convey the subtle nuances of an instrument is excellent – the delayed ringing of a ride cymbal, the breath before a woodwind note, or the deep resonating throb of a large floor tom are all delivered with precision with a great sense of timing. It’s hard to believe the D3020 only has 30W under its belt – and 30W of class D power, at that.
Queen’s ‘A Winter’s Tale’ from the Made in Heaven album shows the NAD’s willingness to kick back and relax when the music demands. A slow, dreamy ballad which the NAD delivers meticulously, transporting the listener into the midst of a fully 3-dimensional sound stage. The mix of classical orchestra and rock ballad flow around the listener – the summarizing line, ‘Oooh – it’s bliss’ sums up the performance perfectly.
‘Wild ones’ from You Me At Sixes cavalier Youth album is a track with some clean guitars, and massive floor toms. The NAD rises to the challenge, delivering a power-packed performance. It stays organized when the mix becomes more complex, and the way this tiny amplifier manages to keep control of the drivers during those massive floor tom hits is quite something.
Of course, one of the D3020’s selling points is the on board Apt-X Bluetooth support; It works well – stream ‘sweet things’ from the pretty reckless’s Going to Hell album, and the overall sound of the D3020 remains the same. There’s a slight loss of detail when compared to a hard-wired connection, and the sound stage shrinks considerably. Nevertheless, it’s still an enjoyable performance – and perfectly adequate for playing low-res internet radio or Spotify streams.
While I never experienced any Bluetooth dropouts, I did notice the Bluetooth audio took longer to process than usual. Once a track was playing, streaming was faultless – however, notification sounds from the phone were choppy, and occasionally I had to attempt connection twice to get my phone to recognise, and connect to, the D3020.
Onto the headphone stage. The D3020 claims to have a low-noise, 600 Ohm capable headphone stage built-in – an unusual feature on an amp of this price. And, as expected, it’s better than the headphone output that comes as standard with most desktop or laptop computers – there’s more power and a much lower noise floor. In fact, the noise floor is virtually non-existent, allowing you to hear more detail in your favourite tracks.
The low noise floor means that the tape hiss present in tracks such as ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ from the 2009 remaster of Abbey Road is present and perfectly audible, something which I think adds to the sound of the track. Nirvana’s ‘All Apologies’ is delivered with power, just as it should be – in fact, the entire MTV Unplugged album sounds stunning. The noise floor is low enough that the quiet, spoken passages between the tracks are more audible than they usually are – making the album a more enjoyable to listen to. Everything, from the crackle of a loose lead in an amp, to the squeaking of a chair, is brought to the forefront.
Sound played back via the NAD’s USB connection is just as impressive – I particularly liked how the volume control in the operating system is disabled when using the onboard interface, allowing the NAD to control the overall volume of the sound. This is a nice touch – There’s no chance of overdriving the amp which results in the best possible sound. I’d like to see the ability to skip tracks using the tuner buttons on the remote – the D3020 has no onboard tuner, and chances are D3020 users will choose internet radio over an analogue tuner, especially given the built-in Bluetooth and the hundreds of excellent internet radio smartphone apps that are available.
What NAD have achieved with the D3020 is to create another iconic amplifier. It’s iconic in terms of its design, which is flexible enough to fit almost any setup. It bridges the gap between analogue and digital, by offering an analogue amplifier, excellent DAC and awesome headphone stage in 1 tiny, relatively cheap package. And, somehow, NAD have managed to make a class D amplifier that sounds good, while remaining efficient.
There are a few negatives. The terrible, dirt-magnet finish. The annoying, and unnecessary, touch controls. And, most frustrating of all, the remote. If you prefer traditional hi-fi separates, the D3020 probably isn’t for you. But all negatives aside, it’s a great product.
So if you need a compact amp/DAC for your computer, entertainment system or even for a second system, the D3020 should be on your shortlist.