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NAD D 3020 review (Part 2 – digital decoding)

  • In Part 1 of this review I assessed the NAD D 3020’s (AU$699) talents as an entry-level amplifier using only its analogue input. Time now to get a handle on its digital dealing. I started by considering the NAD as a possible rival to the Wadia 151PowerDAC Mini. The latter keeps everything digital from woe to go whereas the D 3020 takes a digital input to analogue and then back to digital for amplification. (Note: the NAD D 7050 is topologically closer to the Wadia).

    NAD_D_3020_digital_6

    The Wadia is the bigger sounding unit: punchier, wider and taller. It’s also the more detailed of the two. However, the NAD counters with kindness and affection. It’s emphatically softer, contrasting the Wadia as a tad hard in the midrange. The Wadia mines deeper bass but the NAD serves up the meatier acoustic mass. It’s also worth reminding ourselves that the Wadia omits 88.2kHz capability over USB and the NAD doesn’t. You’ll need a USB to S/PDIF converter to plug the gap in the Wadia’s sample rate supply.

    The outcome of adding the Wyred4Sound uLINK to the NAD’s digital input chain is predictable: more life, vitality, tonal density and colour. Idealists should factor such an appendage into their budgets. Entry-levellers (more than likely) won’t bring my comparative thoroughness to bare on this particular black box. But here we go anyway…

    NAD_D_3020_digital_4

    The mini NAD’s core success revolves around its digital inputs. In trying to establish where to notch it on the D/A converter totem pole I began a day’s listening session without it. A baseline was established with the Clones Audio 25i all-analogue integrated and Resonessence Labs INVICTA Mirus DAC. Loudspeakers: Atohm Audio’s GT1.0 standmounts. The sound? Elegant, colourful, coherent, punchy.

    Out went the Clones and in came the D 3020. The Clones’ superior poise and image focus lock took a knock. The NAD subbed in more detail and but less drama which, as per the above Wadia comparo, seems to directly correlate with amplifier output power. Also creeping into the picture was a splash of digital glare in the lower treble.

    Dig!! Lazarus Dig!! Removing the $5k decoder and going USB direct into the NAD highlighted the relative weakness of USB implementations strangled by bean counters’ understandable need to bring an all-in-one digitally fuelled amplifier to market for under US$500. Switching from INVICTA Mirus to NAD’s own USB caused one lung to collapse on Nick Cave’s bountiful baritone and an all-round loss of conviction from the Bad Seeds. (“We called upon the author to explain”).

    NAD_D_3020_digital_2

    Resuscitation came from the Resonessence Labs Concero HD S/PDIF converter. It returned some (but not all) fortitude and a dollop of textural information. Tonal colour enjoyed some chair lift also. Deploying the Concero HD as DAC (into the NAD’s analogue input): aaaaaah, exhale – now that was more like it. Best configuration since dropping the Mirus.

    Going Schiit Bifrost Uber w/ Gen 2 USB + NAD D 3020 was better still. More expensive/resolving amplifiers (W4S trio or REDGUM RGi60) had previously exposed a wider gulf between the Schiit and the top flight RL INVICTA Mirus but not here – a gnat’s dick of a difference separated the two.

    NAD_D_3020_digital_7

    Clearly the NAD’s internal digitals sat below that of the best budget decoders. No shame there though. The NAD packs amplifier, headphone staging and aptX Bluetooth streaming for the less cashish than either the Bifrost Uber or Concero HD. Only when pushing downmarket to Schiit’s hundred buck Modi did I find the NAD’s digital level.

    Doubling down. To confirm the NAD’s analogue superiority over its digital inputs, I brought PS Audio’s NuWave Phono Converter (NPC) into the picture; its analogue (2 x RCA) and digital outputs (coaxial) were both mainlined into the back of the D 3020, primed for A/B switching. At the front of the chain a Clearaudio Concept w/ Zu DL-103r cart spun Caribou’s Andorra. The analogue feed sounded meaty-beaty and communicated more textural information and colour density. The digital input resolved a more diluted version of the same. Close, but no cigar. Proof that you need a considerably better D/A converter to level the playing field between the analogue output of the NPC and its on-the-fly encoded 24/96 digital stream.

    NAD_D_3020_digital_8

    The kicker here is you don’t buy and all-in-one unit only to offshore the digital decoding. That’d be like strapping a side car to a bus. The D 3020’s core appeal is its inclusiveness. A feature set where the analogue inputs are presumably included to keep turntablists in the picture. A smart move! When asking myself to which buyer the D 3020 is best suited, I envisaged owners of entry-level turntables, who also wanna spruce up their Apple TV SQ and USB Spotify listening on the side, as the bullseye of NAD’s target market. You can’t* spin vinyl through the Wadia 151PowerDAC Mini nor the similarly PCM-PWM converting NAD D 7050 amplifier-DAC-streamer (which is where I’m most likely headed next in NAD’s budget digital range).

    The NAD D 3020 might not be a definitive solution for super-seasoned audiophiles…but know that I’m being super picky. I’d rank its talents in descending order thusly: amplifier first by some margin (where it exceeds price expectations), headphone amplifier, aptX Bluetooth streamer and DAC. Its gutsy presentation and wide-ranging connectivity make it an easy recommendation for newcomers.  I’d give the nod to this all-in-oner to anyone whose budget sat below $1k and, moving upstream, to the Peachtree Decco65 if there’s more to spend. With the new iteration of the 3020 NAD have shown that convenience and feature set inclusion doesn’t necessitate a major compromise on sonics. Entry-levellers would struggle to find anything better for the money.

    One final thought. I have more to say on this NAD’s aptX Bluetooth connectivity here. Consider it a previously unplanned piece to round out this trilogy of D 3020 coverage.

    *Not 100% true. You can listen to records if you tap the digital output stream of a PS Audio NuWave Phono Converter.

    Associated Equipment

    • PS Audio PowerBase
    • PS Audio NuWave Phono Converter
    • Clearaudio Concept w/ Zu DL-103r
    • Wyred4Sound uLINK
    • Resonessence Labs INVICTA Mirus
    • Resonessence Labs Concero HD
    • Resonessence Labs Herus
    • Schiit Bifrost Uber w/ Gen 2 USB
    • Schiit Modi
    • Wadia 151PowerDAC Mini
    • Clones Audio 25i
    • Atohm GT1.0

    Audition Music

    • Dan Deacon – America (2012)
    • Dan Deacon – Bromst (2009)
    • Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Dig!! Lazarus Dig!! (2012 remaster)
    • Caribou – Andorra (2012 white vinyl reissue)
    • Steely Dan – Gaucho (1980)

    Further information:

    John Darko

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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