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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).


    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…


    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”).


    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.


    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.


    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 H. Darko

    Written by John H. Darko

    John is the editor of Darko.Audio, from whose ad revenues he derives an income. He is an occasional contributor to 6moons but has previously written pieces for TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Twitter


    1. Off topic here(sorry) but those Atohm GT1.0s caught my attention a while back. At the time their price was what kept me away.
      Planning a review?
      On paper – I could picture myself with a Naim DAC V1, a pair of W4S mAMPs and a pair of those…

      • They’re very lovely sounding standmounts. There’s nothing in your face about them and their very ‘even’ disposition makes them well suited to picking upstream differences.

    2. Yep. Your assessment of D3020 is pretty much the same as mine, especially as the Swiss-Army knife for audio beginners.

      I will be very interested in your review of the D7050, perhaps with some comparisons to NAD’s Master Series M50 Digital Music Player and the 390DD Direct Digital Integrated Amplifier, if possible.

    3. Another off topic question but if you may indulge me for a moment, I would like to inquire how does the Clones 25i amp compare to your previous gain clone reference, the Peter Daniel’s Audiosector Patek in terms of sonic signature? I realize this might be quite an ask of your auditory memory as the Audiosector amp is no longer part of your current system in addition to not auditioning the Clones amp with the 47 Lab lens but I’m curious because Funjoe is supposed to have designed the prototype of the 25i with Pete’s DIY boards built around the same LM 3875.

      • James – if I play my cards right I might be able to get my hands on a Patek again in time for when I write about the Clones amp. You’ll have to wait though…

    4. That would be great if you will be able to secure the aforementioned Patek for comparison purposes with the forthcoming Clones amp review, as I hold that Peter Daniel’s design in high regard especially in terms of bang for the buck. Anyway, will wait with bated breath for the eventual review.

    5. First off, thanks for the great review.

      I recently purchased the NAD D 3020 to go along side a pair of new KEF Q100. This system sounds amazing to me (and my wife)! I don’t have a lot to really comapre it to other than my home thearter system which is nice but doesn’t compete when listening to music through this new pairing.

      I think your assesment of the typical user of the NAD D 3020 is accurate. At least it sounds like me. I have an older Airport Express that streams music via Airplay to the optical input of the NAD D 3020. Convienent and great for everyday listening. For more serious listening I use my laptop (Audirvana +) and USB input and I would say that sounds even better (possibly because of Audirvana +). I am interested in Vinyl and the NAD D 3020 leaves the door open for this. I think you are accurate that the DAC maybe the weakest link (although still really good). I own an Audioquest DragonFly (v1) which I fed into the NAD D 3020 analogue input. It clearly sounds better to me (bigger) and I don’t consider myself to be all that adept at identifying these kind of differences. Although sound quality is top priority for most (as should be) one of the biggest surprises for me and which is understated in the review is the form factor of this little beauty. It is unbelievably small and blends right in on a bookshelf. My headphones (AKG K550) take up more room on the shelf than this amp does. Blows me away everytime I look at how small it is and how great the sound is that comes out of it.

      I’m really curious to find out how some of new Bluesound streaming devices sound (not much on the net). Any plans in the future to review these? Thanks again and keep up the good work.

      • @Dan – Your assessment of the D 3020 indeed chimes with my own. It doesn’t surprise me that you find the AQ Dragonfly to sound better than the NAD’s internal DAC. Still, no biggie. I think the biggest plus is Bluetooth streaming, hence their being more to come on this.

        No plans as yet to investigate the Bluesound gear.

    6. Hi. I’ve bought a D3020 this week to replace my 3020e. The sound is very clear but the base a bit thin to what I’m used to with the 3020e. Would a sub hoofer improve the base?

      • Before you head down the subwoofer path. Did you try the bass boost toggle-switch on the rear of the D 3020? I thought it made a nice difference with lean(er) source material.

    7. Hello,
      Can you help me to choose speakers for this little thing? I am thinking about Dali Zensor 1 or 3, Q Acoustics Concept 20, Acoustic Energy 301 or Kef Q300, or any other suggestions please? 🙂 I mostly listen to dance or pop music, my girl to rock or metal… Thank You very much. 🙂

    8. Does this amplifier will mate up well with Proac Tablette 50’s ? Comparing to an Audion E.T.S.E 12watt EL34 in terms of power?

      • Sorry Nick – no idea. Those Audion amps really pack a punch and – IMHO – sit in a different class to the NAD.

    Astell&Kern Castor and Moon III loudspeakers at CES 2014

    NAD D 3020 review (Part 3 – aptX Bluetooth streaming)