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Entry-levelling: Andrew Jones Pioneer, NAD D 3020 & Rega Brio-R

  • It’s an all too common scenario: you’re an audiophile but the majority of your friends are not. They think Bose is the bee’s knees whilst simultaneously seeming content with TV speakers or monophonic Bluetooth solutions. They run little white earbuds to and from work.

    Bang the drum for good sound often enough though and the inquiry will eventually arrive: “Alright, so what should I buy?” Well played, you’ve jimmied open the door marked ‘curiosity’. Time to capitalise. But tread carefully – here be monsters.

    Against the contextual backdrop of music now being effectively worthless, we must vault the non-audiophile’s perception that playback hardware needs to arrive in a similarly cheap-as-chips package: for a smartphone or TV, spending a grand is fair game but for audio gear, it’s a small fortune and/or outrage.

    And then there’s box count. It’s but a trivial matter to demonstrate how physically separated loudspeakers utterly trounce the deceptive simplicity of uni-boxes like the Naim Muso and Devialet Phantom on dynamics, detail retrieval and especially soundstage size. The Devialet and Naim are sonically optimised within a pre-established form factor whose primary appeal is one of aesthetics. A more traditional hifi system – particularly at the entry-level – doesn’t arrive with quite such attractiveness but nor does it arrive so loaded to stereophonic compromise.

    Now we’re talking our way toward the US$2000 marker. Woah boy! Taking a cue from Marjorie Baumert’s RMAF 2015 plans, let us draw a hard limit at US$1500.


    Running against the grain of modern life: to achieve better sound at home we must surrender a little convenience. Our non-audiophile must be convinced of the audible value of separates – hello stereo sound!

    Powered loudspeakers that house their own amplification fed by a USB dongle DAC might the most logical starting point beneath US$1K: A pair of Audioengine A5+ (US$399) with an AudioQuest Dragonfly v1.2 DAC (US$149) will set you back a total of US$550 – an outlay than runs close to the Class A/B bi-amped KEF X300A (US$799) whose left and right cabinets both internalise DSP for proximity EQ switching and D/A conversion.

    Need vinyl playback? Add an Audio Technica LP-60 with in-built phono pre-amplifier (US$99) to get up and running with the lowest outlay possible or drop more moulah on a Pro-Ject Debut Carbon (US$399) + Schiit Mani (US$129) to extract a little more something-something from your records’ grooves.

    When putting together an entry-level system, the active speaker sector’s pencil-sharp value quotient holds sway over passive designs. Bringing the amplifier inside the speaker cabinet saves on amp casework cost, shortens signal paths (obviating speaker cable) and the designer can tailor the amplifier to match the transducer’s impedance profile. You often get more for less.

    That said some people like to tinker. That or they prefer the pick n’ mix approach to system configuration through separates.


    Modern entry-level integrateds often arrive with additional connectivity in tow: onboard DAC, phono stage and/or headphone output. What we need to compete with the world of actives is a decent passive loudspeaker that allows our budget breathing room for quality amplification.

    Now our attention can (re)turn to the Pioneer SP-BS22-LR (reviewed here). Designed by TAD’s Andrew Jones, these standmounts keep would be highend-ers grounded. US$129 gets you past the checkout at Best Buy with a pair of bona fide audiophile-grade offerings. Keep one eye on for short-lived but significant price drops.

    Now we ask, “Which amplifier?” I’ve previously reviewed both the Rega Brio-R (US$995) and the NAD D 3020 (US$499) but never had them in the same room at the same time…until now.

    The Pioneers were pulled from storage, unboxed and placed onto Atacama stands. The entry-level amplifiers then placed atop Expedit shelving with AudioQuest Rocket 88 speaker cables. This wire costs as much as each amplifier and loudspeaker combined, a point made not to kick the Irvine cable company’s pricing but to provide context; our focus here leans towards chump change when contextualised within hifi’s high end.

    The Rega Brio-R’s half-width chassis sits with a sleeker, lower profile next to the attention-standing NAD. The internal toroidal that powers the Rega’s 50 Class A/B wpc also piles the weight onto an already sturdy metal box. In one’s hands, the Brio-R feels like money well spent.

    Not so the NAD – even at half the RRP, a need for upright positioning, matte/’rubberized’ side panels and plastic chassis do little to imbue tactile-led confidence. Compared to the Rega, the D 3020’s volume feels comparatively cheap too. A UcD/Hypex 30wpc Class D output stage means there’s no need for a heavy internal power supply here – at around 3kgs, the Canadian NAD is half the weight of its Brit rival. With a full complement of cables loaded into rear the D 3020 comes close to tipping backwards.

    Functionality wise, the Rega is an altogether simpler, more traditional affair. The circuit board’s jocular annotation of “a nice drop of old school audio mojo” admits as much. Five line-level inputs, a very good MM phono input and a ‘Record out’. And that’s all she wrote. BYO DAC is mandatory for the Brio-R-centred system. I went with the AudioQuest Dragonfly v1.2 (US$149) so as not to puncture the US$1500 budget ceiling.


    Whilst the NAD might not arrive turntable ready, one could easily connect an external phono-pre amplifier to one of its two analogue inputs, the twin RCA being the more obvious choice over the 3.5mm socket. The D 3020’s internal DAC is on par with most $100 solutions. You can feed it via USB, optical, coaxial or aptX Bluetooth but it is obviously outclassed once D/A conversion is deferred to a Resonessence Labs Concero HD. Even the AudioQuest USB dongle sounds better. External DACs bring greater musical presence and alertness.

    And a little tenacity is precisely what the little Pioneers need to get up and at ya’. Despite being well extended in both directions they can sometimes sound a little reticent. That’s me nit-picking but it’s crucial when calling out the better amplifier match. Like their original DAC, the Rega’s thicker mid-bass lends it a richer tonality that at times proves to be too much of a good thing when driving the Andrew Jones-designed standmounts. Perhaps this Brit felt that the majority of amplifiers likely to be hooked up to his affordable boxes would present on with a more etched upper frequencies – he’d not be wrong – and in this sense the Rega is to be cherished for refusing the path to en-white-enment of the treble.

    The Rega is the choice for those who like to listen through thicker air. If seductive female vocal or smokey jazz is your thing, I won’t argue. For a kick in the pants from raucous rock n’ roll or Ravey-Davey-dayglo-techno, it’s NAD all the way. The D 3020’s talents with polished window clarity are most obvious when immediately swapping over to it from the Brio-R. Even when a Pro-Ject Debut Carbon turntable – here equipped with the Australian-supplied but micro-dynamically challenged Ortofon OM10 cartridge – fronts a Schiit Mani phono pre, the little NAD has the nouse to lend the overall presentation more chutzpah than the Rega. In the context of our Pioneer speakers, that’s nothing but a good thing.

    The fizz and more lively intoxication brought by a vodka, lime and soda – that’s the NAD. The Rega plays it woozier with a heavy-headed Shiraz. I dig uppers more than downers so the NAD exuberance gets the nod. It’s livelier sounding than the Rega but it isn’t what I’d call bright. Besides, bright is a word burdened with negative connotations? Let’s just say that its effervescence never plays it too intrusive or cool.


    Moreover, the D 3020’s deeper illumination and player separation even steps up to bat at lower listening levels. From Brian Eno to Björk to Howe Gelb to Ben Salter, I hear further into the music, channel separation is more overt and textural information – sometimes nudged out of focus by the Rega – is conveyed with greater lucidity. These qualities sum to a more immersive entertainment experience.

    Driving its budget sensitive advantage home, the NAD also comes with a more than capable headphone output that, like many other integrated amps built on a short R&D cost leash, has an inherent power limitation. Only portable-friendly cans need apply. Think of the NAD’s 3.5mm output socket as sonically on par with an Apple iPhone and you won’t go far wrong. I achieved good results with both the Master&Dynamic MH40 (US$399) and the OPPO PM-3 (US$349), each of which can be added to our system without breaking the US$1500 limit. The HiFiMAN HE-400S (US$299) could save us a further fifty sheets whilst bringing open-back headphone listening into the picture.

    Let’s tot up what we have so far:

    • Pioneer SP-BS22-LR (US$129)
    • NAD D 3020 (US$499)
    • OPPO PM-3 (US$349)
    • Schiit Mani phono pre-amplifier (US$129)
    • Pro-Ject Debut Carbon DC (US$399)

    TOTAL: US$1505

    With Brio-R returned to the system and the NAD’s external phono-pre swapped out for USB DAC, our wallet no longer accommodates the Debut Carbon. Pushing down the Pro-Ject range to an Elemental (US$275) still tips the scales a little too hard – the total comes in at US$1548. Time to return to the US$99 Audio Technica LP-60 whose rear panel allows for switching between line (pre-amplified) and phono (not pre-amplified) output levels.


    A bonus can be netted from this turntable quality sacrifice. There’s now enough slack in the dollars department for the Schiit Vali (US$129), a hybrid headphone amplifier that runs rings around both the NAD’s onboard solution and the Dragonfly’s 3.5mm output. Connect it to the ‘Record out’ on the rear of the Brio-R and all manner of headphones can come out to play.

    • Pioneer SP-BS22-LR (US$129)
    • Rega Brio-R (US$995)
    • AudioQuest Dragonfly (US$149)
    • Audio Technica LP60 (US$99)
    • Schiit Vali (US129)

    TOTAL: US$1501

    Then there’s the NAD aptX-compatible Bluetooth input. No need to hook visiting friends into one’s home wifi network when a smartphone can be paired with the NAD directly for instant phone-to-amp digital audio streaming. How’s that for show- and store-demo accessibility? Don’t sweat the fact that Bluetooth’s lossy transmission system doesn’t sound as wholesome as going USB direct with lossless files; it’s the NAD integrated’s accessibility that matters most here.

    From Bluetooth’s base camp with smartphone or tablet the upgrade path points ever upwards. Next stop might be an Apple TV connected via optical. NAD understands that it’s Toslink – and not coaxial – that dominates the world of consumer electronics. A USB-lassoed computer sits further still along our upgrade trail. For the entry-leveller, lowering the computer’s jitter with a USB-S/PDIF converter or applying an electrical noise filter to its USB output comes later.

    The point is that terrific sound can be had from the get go with a US$500 integrated amplifier and US$129 loudspeakers. This NAD/Pioneer combo rivals the KEF X300A on performance and surpasses it on functionality, all for less cash down. What’s not to like about that?

    Further information: NAD | Rega | Pioneer @ Best Buy

    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


    1. Nice write up. Most audiophiles started with budget systems, especially those of a mature age when every electrical store had a HIFI section, even though the word HI-FI was often miss used during the 1970’s. I think this is why HIFI shows are frequented mostly by the middle aged as the exposure currently just isn’t there. Low cost good sounding lifestyle components may just be the way to tempt a new generation of music lovers on the path towards good sound, I say path because anyone with higher budget audiophile system will know just how much detail is lost in a low budget system which detract from the enjoyment of music and we all know a good system can bring a tear to the eye with enjoyment. We need components like NAD and Pioneer but we also need a joint strategy to market these things, if not HIFI will be for the lucky few who have followed the path by chance and found Nirvana.

      • But those just starting out with entry-level systems are more likely to be amazed by their new acquisitions than they are concerned about any loss vis a vis high-end solution. That is unless their expectations are way off.

    2. Anybody who isn’t afflicted by the ”disease” would probably be more than happy with any of these turnkey combos.
      I’m already thinking what if I swapped the Brio-R for an Arcam A19 or maybe a Yamaha A-S801 or the D3020 for a Denon PMA-50. Or wait a minute…what about the Sony HAP-S1 integrated amp/network player with built in hard drive.
      And what if I stretched the speaker budget a tad…
      This is what I have been going through since my brother in law asked me for advice on a $1500 system. A system that he intends on being buried with no matter what. No room for mistakes.

    3. What about the LS50 and the 3020 combo? Better amp maybe? What are the options you would consider for the KEF?

    4. Articles like this are why this site is the best out there! I can imagine this type of article is harder to put together, but in my opinion, it is far more interesting and valuable than just a straight up product review. I appreciate the effort!

      You’re bang on with your NAD setup. Someone starting their audio journey could not go wrong with that setup. I can vouch given I own pretty much all the same gear. You could have saved me a lot of time had you written this article 2 years earlier 😉

      I own:
      NAD D 3020
      Pro-Ject Debut Carbon (2M Blue Cart, Acrylic Platter)
      Schiit Mani
      Audioquest Dragon Fly V1.2 (being fed by a SBT into NAD D 3020)
      KEF Q100 Speakers (like a passive version of the KEF X300 powered speakers)
      KEF Cube Subwoofer
      Audioquest Tower Cables
      * Pioneer SP BS22 (I swap these in for the KEFs every so often for fun and a change of pace. Crazy Good Sound for the price!)

      I originally started off with the KEF Q100’s, NAD D 3020 and an Apple Airport Express. That is it. Total cost was well below $1500. It sounded amazing right from the start! Game Changer for me. The first night with this simple setup, my wife and I stayed up until 3AM (on a work night) listening to all our favorite tunes. This is a common occurrence for us now (albeit on the weekends). One of the best purchases I have ever made. I have been suffering from upgrade-itis ever since.

      Speaking of my upgrade-itis, I would love to know if you have had a chance to pair the NAD D3020 with the LS50’s as it looks like you have them both in house right now. Reading a lot of conflicting opinions out there so I would be interested in yours?

      • Not yet. Next step for the D 3020 is Magnepan MMG. Might hook up the KEFs after that.

    5. Have you heard the devialiet phantoms?

      What Ive read so far (not heard for myself yet) is that they’re very much not compromised, easily the equal (often better) of similarly priced separates in terms of both sound and build quality.

    6. I think runing $1,370 worth of electronics through $130 worth of speakers is a bit misguided. I know the Pioneers are highly thought of, but with something like the NAD 316bee available for under $400, you could spend more on the speakers. In fact, you could get the 316 and Wharfedale 10.1s for less than the cost of the Rega.

      I understand you have to start out with some limits and assumptions, but if you end up spending less than 10 percent of your money on speakers I think you need to relook your assumptions.

      • So this would be audiophile approved if the Pioneers were price out at $400? The whole point of including them is because they are an INSANE bargain rendering the disproportionate spend on electronics all but inevitable.

    7. So 90% on sources and amps, 10% on speakers. Man you are going to drive the audio objectivists NUTS with that one lol. Don’t you know that all non-clipping solid state amplifiers sound the same John? Can you not read charts? Lol.

      When we’re talking budgets this small, I think there is definitely such a thing as spreading yourself too thin, and if you’re buying an Audio-Technica LP60, you’ve passed that point. One could argue that the $299 (sometimes cheaper) LP120 is better than bargain basement belt drives, but the LP60 definitely is not, and in an age when records cost $25-40 a pop, buying a $99 turntable is just dumb. Nevermind the fact that the fixed tracking force (if I recall correctly) may very well murder your records’ grooves like a Crosley does. If you’re going to take the vinyl plunge, be prepared to spend more than a hundred bucks. Otherwise just don’t do it.

    8. Hi John,
      I think your focus on affordable entry level systems of late is terrific. Keep up the good work.

    9. Really enjoy your bargain articles John – I’m stoked with the Xiaomi $30 in-ear headphones I bought after reading about them in your annual highlights article, which have since replaced my ill-judged Marleys. Must find an excuse to get my hands on a pair of those bargain Pioneer speakers!

      Re the Kef LS50 & NAD3020 combo requested above … I tried it myself instore (to see if I could save some money!) and was underwhelmed … no shame to the NAD, just didn’t have the power reserves IMHO.

    10. Why only integrated’s? A multichannel receiver I think is a better option for getting a non audiophile into better sound – “It’ll make your movies better”. Not only do they get the benefit of better music, but their xbox / bluray player / media streamer can be hooked up. Hell they can even airplay and rock out to their streaming service of choice. You have to play them at their own game. Hell, I’m using a multichannel receiver for *everything*. Sounds great to me. If that doesn’t bait them, nothing will. I think 2-channel is a tad last year for most non audiophiles. As an audiophile myself, I cannot imagine life without a receiver. If they crave more after that – hello pre-outs. Stereo only is asking them to miss out on too much IMHO. Hard sell bro.

      • Why only integrateds? Because these are two of the most popular entry-level units on the scene right now, I *have* them at home (bought with my own cash) and I chose to keep the selection narrow in order to provide sufficiently deep insight. Besides, these two amps are reviewed here in the context of the Andrew Jones Pioneers. 🙂

        “2-channel is a tad last year for most non audiophiles.” Really? I’m not sure I agree. Non-audiophiles curious about good sound (hopefully) won’t yet have built up such prejudices or allegiances for/against one camp or another.

    11. you can get great results with a trends audio latest model integrated t amp.i use mine with the dragonfly and the hatefully polite harbeth shoeboxes.which also play in my all nagra rig.the t-amp dragonfly combo is nothing to be ashamed of for a grand total of some 350 euros.
      from rome
      p.s. try out audirvana free,money for nothing .

      • ‘Hatefully polite Harbeth’? Would that be the P3ESR? If so, I’m with ya.

    12. Hey John,

      Nice review. I have a small entry level bedroom system. Denon Sc-Cx101 Speakers $300 deal at ListenUp (msrp $700) , Emotiva Xda2 DAC at $199, roadshow sale, Emotiva Mini X-A100 amp, $ 199 Emotiva direct wesite sale, Logitech Squeezebox Touch, $199, direct buy from Logitech with a coupon, Kabeldirect RCA cables from Amazon $9.99 , Philips TOS link $15 from Amazon. 14 Guage OFC speaker cable that came with the Denon speakers. UE 6000 head phones, $100. Total price, $1025. Even with MSRP on the DAC and SBT, would be $200 more. Amazing sound quality, very satisfying results even with some of the low bit rate streaming. Wish the SBT got Tidal updates.
      Any thoughts on this one?

    13. Nice write-up! Thought I’d pass along information about a modified version of the Pioneer Andrew Jones speakers offered by Philharmonic Audio: their Affordable Accuracy line.

      Basically they replace the tweeter with one by Vifa, rework the crossover, and add internal damping. Total cost for the standmounts raises the cost less than $50, to $175. Center and floorstanding options also offered.

      I haven’t tried them, but they are on my short list to replace my Maggies should I need a more “kid-friendly” option in the future.

    14. and let’s not forget the excellent VFM and “hipster cool” factor of vintage gear. There are more varibles to be sure, but if the stars align, a modern digital source + vintage amplification and speakers are often a better deal. My system costs roughly 1.8k USD. It consists of a Meridian Explorer as source, a vintage Luxman amp , vintage technics SL-1200 mk1, and JBL 4425 horn speakers, hooked up with hand me down cardas cables. The whole system cost less than the ATC bookshelves I originally had. It not a bad system by any means 😉

      • Yes. Agreed. However, the inconsistent supply and pricing variations associated with vintage gear precludes it from inclusion in this type of post. My intention is almost always to write about hardware that ANYONE with the intent and the funds could go out and buy without foraging too hard.

    15. Worthwhile article. But I think it still shows too much the perspective of someone who doesn’t think twice about $1,000 phono cartridges and $800 cables. $1,500 still is a good chunk of change for most people.

      If one is willing to promote the Jones-designed speakers because their sound surpasses the audiophile connotation of the Pioneer brand, then one should be willing to find other “mass-market” items which punch above their weight.

      We’re talking compromise here, from the get-go. More-modestly-priced equipment may fall short of ultimate audiophile standards (as do, I’m sure, the Pioneer speakers and Pro-Ject turntable). So why not pare down the budget to include, say, a Class-T amp or a two-channel receiver from the likes of Onkyo? Forget the outboard DACs — or at least make them optional. You’re asking people to make a quantum leap from their playback device wirelessly connected to an unobtrusive speaker to a shelf full of electronics and a price to match. $1,500 will be the price for some, sure. But $1,000 or even $600 might draw far more people into the audiophile tent.

    16. Thank you for this excellent article and resulting comments. The topic of quality systems for $1000 could be its own site! To that end, I have a comment and a question. I feel that if just a few things fall into place, we are near delivery of high quality sound to the itunes masses. MQA, high quality streaming, improvements to Bluetooth, if Apple would play along! The opportunity for everyone to hear quality files through affordable quality dacs, integrateds, and speakers is close at hand and a huge potential market boost. Today’s mp3s and Beats phones could be next week’s hi-res and awesome $500 systems!

      I am considering a small system that must be wireless. I would appreciate thoughts on NAD D3020 (combines wireless, dac, and amp) vs separates — maybe NAD326BEE with Aries Mini or Shiit dac and Apple TV? Thinking of advantages of upgradeable dac or the old receiver vs separates considerations? Thanks everyone!!

      • I *think* you might get higher current delivery from the NAD 326BEE but you’ll need to check. Jeez, I’m guessing here but as an amplifier it might best the D 3020 whose main advantage is rolling everything into one tidy package.

        If I were a betting man, I’d fancy the separate NAD amp and Schiit DAC as sounding better than the D 3020 (whose DAC is it’s weakest feauture).

        Have you considered Aries Mini into a pair of actives?

    17. Thank you! Sick idea and would be so simple and elegant. I’ll have to research more active options, but off the top of my head, AudioEngine A5+ or KEF X300. The KEFs have DACs and also available wireless. If I was planning $1200 – $2000, I could spend up to $1500 with the Aries..

    18. I stumbled upon you article whilst idly doodling through the internet. What a revelation! Full of the hype over the NAD3020 I linked it to a Cocktail X12 via coaxial digital sending to Martin Logan Motion 4s and got acceptable but unexciting sound. I know this is over-budget for your article, but please bear with me. Just for fun I linked up an old parametric equaliser by Greg Ball, using non-audiophile interconnects and the line out on the Cocktail server. Amazing increase in clarity, life and MUSIC. More fiddling demonstrated that the weak link had been the NAD DAC. Your site seems to be the only one highlighting this. Lack of this knowledge in the general population has probably lost some converts to audiophilomania.

    19. Maybe we should have this entire conversation at a “lower common denominator” that so many articles and reviews seem to avoid — a $500 or $1000 setup that specifically excels at lossy, itunes MP3s, wireless….

    20. I just purchased the A5+ / B1 combo last week. In ten minutes, I was listening to itunes files; the sound was surprisingly not bad! Not CD quality, but much better than I expected. In ten more minutes, I subscribed / set up Tidal hifi. I immediately A/B tested and there was a significant improvement, But again, itunes files sounded pretty good and that is a really important point. I bought white A5s and had a 10% off coupon, so my total was $538. I run an iMac, so no aptX. I experienced ZERO dropouts with the B1. My previous systems included Adcom, Sony ES, Nakamichi, Snell, so I have decent expectations for sound quality. This system proves that the new generation can learn to appreciate convenient entry-level, gateway-to-audiophile sound for about $500. It also begs that aptX and soundfile quality upgrades from Apple would contribute in a big way. I was concerned about the stabilty of bluetooth, the sound quality of mp3s and the hype of Tidal performance on a system of this level. I may even move forward with a higher performance system now and really will consider it, if Apple steps up. Tidal through the B1, with maybe B&W 685s and some NAD power for $1500 should really kill it!

    Apple Music launches to the sound of indifference

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