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It's been a while since I last posted a review, during hibernation I've had time to absorb what the new NAD D 3020 stereo amplifier has to offer and put it through its paces in all everyday areas and bring to you a review from the point of view of a user who appreciates quality sound at a price point that makes it a unique option for those who want an all in one package without sacrificing the good stuff.
Enter the D 3020. Debate is open as to what the D stands for, some reviewers say it's based on the Class D classification of the unit while others note it for the Digital credentials. Whatever it means, NAD left nothing out when marketing it as the modern day 3020.
The original 3020 came out in the late late 1970s and really put NAD on the map. It was affordable and was capable of powering big speakers outputting high quality sound. o much so they sold by the truck load and the 3020 gained a sort of cult status. I never owned one, it was before my time but from what I've seen from my research and what others have told me, it really was a game setter and remained so many years after release.
I've owned a bunch of stereo integrated amps over the years (Cambridge Audio Azure 350, Rotel RA01, NAD C320 Bee, NAD C325 Bee) and a receiver (Technics something something modelnumberIforget). One thing I've always read and even experienced was how "The NAD Sound" stood out from the rest. By stood out I don't mean better or worse than the competition but just different in its own way and I think that's one reason why I and many others stuck with the brand from the moment we got our first NADs. It;s just a pleasing and warm sound with a headphone output that was equally capable and all at a price that didn't break the bank.
So why have NAD called the D 3020 a Hybrid? It's a jack of all trades really. It doesn't excel in any single area but neither does it fall short either. It's good all round and certainly will satisfy newcomers into quality audio as it will seasoned audiophiles looking to add digital connectivity to their already established setup.
Initially NAD were going to send me a review unit as I posed interest in buying one but really wanted to sample one first, what a better way to do that than to get one in for review and kill 2 birds with one stone I thought but sadly as is the case with new gadgets, the review units were out on loan for a long time and I simply could not wait. I found a local Sevenoaks store with them in stock for ?400 and their then deal included a Chord 1 metre optical cable worth ?50 for free. I sold the cable on eBay a week later for ?30. Hello free money ;)
The unit itself is very small, if you have seen a Nintendo Wii in the flesh (let's face it, who hasn't!) then you can pretty much imagine a black Wii and that's the D 3020 right there in pretty much both weight and dimensions.
The front and top of the unit has a single piece of piano black glossy plastic and the sides are rubbery matte with metal air grilles on the lower area of each side. The volume dial is plastic but is dampened and has a nice feel to it when turning, it's smooth and the whole dial itself sits cushioned which feels reassuring and safe.
On top of the amp we have the pair of touch controls. The power button and the Source select button. The power button glows orange in standby mode. Initially he amp would go into standby mode if no signal was being processed for 15 minutes. A firmware update changed this to 30 minutes not long later and added the option to turn auto sleep off which I found very welcome as I was getting a bit tired of returning to my desk to find the unit off as I hit play on music or a video and the player complaining that no audio device was found (I use the USB connection, more on that later).
The rear of the unit houses all the main digital and analogue ins and outs. Each socket is solid in feel and looks high quality. There is a hefty click clunk as you plug in the optical cable, a heavy glide as you insert the USB cable and snug posts for your speaker cables be they banana terminated or bare wire. The mains AC plug uses the Laptop style Mickey mouse head which is different but nothing really abnormal given the size of the unit itself. Thankfully no power bricks to worry about here.
I've been using this on my PC setup and as the primary sound source. I used to have an Asus Xonar Essence STX soundcard in the PC connected to the C325 amp before this but I was so impressed with the D 3020 that once I had used it a month I sold the soundcard and other bits.
Sound quality wise this little thing is splendid. I learnt from a few online sources that the D 3020 uses Hypex components inside and further research revealed Hypex are no small fry. Many established amps carrying their components cost 4 figures.
My unit is connected via Asynchronous USB to the PC and it's powering a pair of Tannoy Mercury V4 floorstanders. The 30 watts per channel is a very conservative figure as is the case with most NAD amps. The sound output pushes way above this limit and I found this amp was capable of pushing these speakers beyond what the C 325 Bee was capable of even though that amp had a higher wattage rating.
I noticed a curious thing with the USB connection too and maybe it's more related to my motherboard than anything else but when setting the sample rate in Windows 7 I noticed that 16bit exhibited a very faint hiss in the background only audible at VERY high volume when there was nothing else playing. It's the kind of hiss reminiscent of an analogue amp when you turn the dial all the way up when nothing is playing and hear a hiss.
Setting the sample rate to 24bit removed this hiss completely and it was as pure and clean a sound as can be. I've since set the Windows output to 24bit 48KHz. There's no need to set it any higher for playback means. Human ears cannot hear above 44.1KHz but I figure why downsample 48KHz audio as found in movies when it can be transmitted without change. Audible difference or not the option was there so it's being used.
For headphone connectivity at the time of purchase I owned the Sennheiser HD595 but I then upgraded to the HD598 and also bought the fairly new Philips Fidelio X1 and decided I would keep whichever was the better of the two. I kept the X1. For headphones the D 3020 is no slouch either. The X1s are rated at 30ohms so easy to drive in the first place but what is really surprising is how well they match with this amp. The sound is natural, full of life and warm. The bass goes low, very low but remains tight and completely detailed. The experience is really sublime. Details are crystal clear and this was one area that more technical reviews online praised the D 3020, the level of detail it brings out in music and movies is staggering given how small the unit is.
If I had not heard about this amp and someone walked me into a room with just a pair of floorstanders in view and the amp hidden away I'd have sworn it was something big powering them. Something that carried a 4 figure price tag.
I feel I may have waffled on a bit and haven't even touched on the other features. Bluetooth connection is supported and it uses the apt-x codec for near CD quality sound transmission from a compatible device. if your device does not support this codec then you'll just use normal Bluetooth which is also fine on the most part but really apt-x is where it's at. Thankfully most new smartphones and tablets should support this. I used it with a Samsung Galaxy Note 2 and 3 and the quality was exactly as CSR advertise on their apt-x technical pages. When I decided to buy this amp the bluetooth feature was one big selling point and I was happy to see it lived up to expectations.
The remote control NAD give with this (which can be seen in the middle of the first photo in the review) is powered by a CR2032 battery and is infrared (NAD say just "Wireless" on their site leading you to assume it's Bluetooth or RF). The remote has all the controls the amp has with the addition of muting the volume. I find using the remote a more pleasant experience because the touch panel buttons don't really do anything for me and you end up with finger smudges all over that nice glossy panel.
Sevenoaks told me their in store demo unit took about 2 weeks to break in and sound proper. Others who purchased around the same time I did on other forums noted a few weeks of burn in time too and I cannot confirm or deny with 100% certainty that break in has occurred on mine or not but I do feel that the sound I'm hearing now is richer and the bass goes lower than what it did during the first week of usage.
It's worth noting that some of this may well be attributed to the warming up of components inside the amp and I'll tell you one thing, the D 3020 certainly warms up. If no headphones are connected then both sides will get quite hot. You can still touch without burning yourself but I found that none of my other amps got so hot. With headphones plugged in the amp does not heat up quite so much and merely only gets as warm as a modern computer monitor does.
Gaming. I play mostly STEAM titles and for online I play TF2. I found no issues or major differences using the D 3020 over the Essence STX here. All the games I play have dedicated Stereo options in their audio settings. I also have a PS3 connected via optical and the same carries over here. Use stereo mode and enjoy nice sound, well, as nice as the sound the game has anyway :p
To conclude I am happy to say that after some months of owning this amp I really don't have any major negatives to report. Yes the touch buttons are more gimmicky than functional but the remote solves the problem of having to smear smudges all over what is essentially a piece of desktop art - No touching!
I think for ?400 people are getting an all in one package that's very hard to beat and will very easily last several years at least providing you intend on staying 2 channel. I have no problem with this and in most instances I actually prefer 2 channel for my computer audio.
It's also nice to see NAD have listened to users and provided a couple of firmware updates to fix bugs and add features. Also regarding the update process, all done via the USB cable and no different to updating the firmware on a smartphone or other USB connected device, just a few clicks and it's all done.
NAD also provide the remote codes should you wish to input them into a media centre remote or one of those universal all in one remotes if you don't like having multiple controllers lying around.
Overall I would give the D 3020 a solid 9 out of 10. A point lost for the touch buttons really but I'm nitpicking here as I really cannot fault it anywhere else.
Footnote: I thought I'd add that I have had 2 D 3020s, this is the 2nd one. The first one had a pretty obvious fault whereby the source select cycled all on its own randomly. I took it back to Sevenoaks who were really helpful and understanding and even in store it was doing it. A direct swap later and this one is perfect. I have not read of the same issue online with anyone else so looks like I just got unlucky that time.