A C.H.E. (Classic, Heritage, Exotic) look back at the NAD 3020A
By Steve Graham
Well, right off it’s not exotic. Far from it, but that’s the point. The NAD 3020, introduced in the late 1970s, was surely a reaction to the receiver power wars that began in the same decade. The big Japanese manufacturers were trying to outdo one another with monster receivers sporting power outputs of 250, or more, watts per channel. The NAD 3020’s 20 watts per channel into 8 ohms (but capable of more power into lower impedances) was the anthesis of the behemoth receivers.
NAD took a different tack, touting quality watts over quantity watts. Wrapped in a plain package (no champagne gold anodized front panel full of switches and knobs) it caught the attention of many seeking decent fidelity at a super-reasonable price. NAD brought high-end sensibilities to mid-fi price levels.
The 3020A seen here, the first revision of the 3020, corrected a few circuit anomalies of the original. Later revisions featured upgraded speaker connectors, and a purist version that dispensed with tone controls. A stand-alone preamp based on the preamp section of the 3020 was also offered. There’s a Wikipedia page dedicated to the 3020 for those seeking more detail.
A peek inside the enclosure reveals an all-discreet component design, no IC’s. The power supply was a step ahead of the 3020’s contemporaries, in that there are two separate power transformer secondary windings. The preamp section and power amp section are fed from totally separate DC supplies. The reasoning was that a preamp section needs a stable voltage for best performance. The current drawn by the power amp section varies considerably while following the music signal. This in turn would cause DC voltages to vary, inducing distortion in the preamp section. Employing discreet supplies eliminates this source of non-linearity. Most amps of this era, the mid-fi ones anyway, used a single supply for both preamp and power amp circuitry.
Beyond this there is nothing especially noteworthy. Just good conservative engineering. No frills and no unnecessary “features”. Some higher-end manufacturers remove part numbers from some components in an attempt to protect their designs. While understandable, it frustrates repair, especially if said manufacturer goes belly-up. The component designations are intact on the 3020’s bits and pieces and in many instances are marked on the circuit board as well. Other than the cheapish looking speaker connectors (corrected on the B version) there’s not much to criticize.
Now some of you might be ready to fire off a comment mentioning say, the Musical Fidelity A-series amps or other decent British amps of this era. Hold on a minute. Yes, there were some great amps from Britain – but they cost more, had spotty distribution and were often sold by the types that seemed unapproachable to Joe Average looking for decent, uncomplicated gear. NAD gear was sold from London to Los Angeles, all points in between, and further afield as well. It was easy to buy, and easily accessible fidelity for ‘philes, potential ‘philes and music lovers on a strict budget. When a manufacturer offers above average fidelity for the cash-strapped, people will form a line and happily plunk down their money.
So where does that leave us now? Can a 3020A deliver decent fidelity in the context of contemporary amplification? And if decent, what’s a fair price to pay for one?
Let’s start with the easy one, the sound. Sure, it would be nice to have a 3020A that had been in cryogenic storage for the past 30 years, but that’s never going to happen. The 3020A seen here is in, what I would estimate to be, above average condition. I couldn’t see any rust or corrosion, and there is barely a dent or scratch anywhere on the case. The balance control was acting slightly wonky, but a shot of contact cleaner sorted it out. All other controls got a shot as well just for good measure.
For a price-appropriate pairing I moved the Triangle BR-02 speakers from my workshop into the main listening room, and placed them on my homebrew speaker stands. I don’t have a contemporary solid-state amp to use for comparison, so my workshop EL84 amp was moved to my main room too. It’s the third best EL84 I’ve heard. First place goes to the Finalé Audio F-7189 II Integrated Amplifier. A close second is the WOS new build EL84 project amp.
For a digital source I used my NAD 50.2/PS Audio DirectStream combo. Granted, this is far above the quality of source likely to be used with these amps and speakers. Why not use the best source available so we’ll get a better fix on the amp’s capabilities? That way the evaluation won’t be limited by the source, at least in relative terms. And besides, due mostly to laziness, I didn’t feel like moving my Raspberry Pi-based source normally used with the BR-02 speakers.
Southern Cross, from:
The first 9 minutes of:
Om Sweet Om, from:
Granted, these have been on my play list a lot recently but this familiarity makes it easy to cut to the chase, in SQ terms. (I listened to many more tracks from a wide variety artists as well.)
And the chase? In a nutshell, things played out along the stereotypical tubes versus transistors scenarios of yesteryear. On its own, the 3020A sounded fine. It made a decent match with the Triangle BR-02 speakers, producing acceptable to reasonably loud volumes without the 3020A having to beak a sweat. Actually, the speakers seemed to run out of gas before the amp did.
Switching over to the tube amp was not a huge change, but a noticeable one nonetheless. The spectral balance was about the same, however the 3020A had a bit better grip on the woofers, yielding bass that was tauter with slightly better pace. The tube amp definitely had sweeter mid frequencies. This was especially noticeable on voices. Male and female vocals were just that little bit more alive and glowing.
The highs were a closer contest. Neither amp offended, but neither was the last word on clarity and extension. Both were a bit on the polite side of neutral, which, with inexpensive amplification is more preferable than bright and fatiguing.
The 3020A was not grating or harsh, quite listenable in fact. It was just a little dry-sounding in the midrange compared to the tube amp. I suppose I’m picking nits but hey, that’s what I do in the service of audiophilia.
On the analogue side my neglected-of-late Pro-Ject ‘table with Ortofon Quintet Bronze cartridge was pressed into service. As the Orto is a low output MC, my K&K Premium SUT with Lundahl transformers was dusted off. Like the digital source, this is a better setup than will likely ever see service with a NAD 3020A amp. Now some of you might be saying, “Wait a minute. The 3020A will accept low output MCs.” Yes, that’s true. But for a comparison I wanted to fire up my prototype tube DIY phono amp from 2018, and it needs a SUT. This may be an unfair comparison. The TubeCad Tetra phono preamp punches way above its weight, but I needed a known performer to compare and evaluate the 3020A’s phono capabilities.
Blue in Green, from:
I listened to more tracks than these, some guilty pleasures included, but familiarity – maybe even overfamiliarity – with the two above allows for a quick SQ eval.
Yes, the tubed phono pre (connected to the NAD’s auxiliary input) sounded better than the 3020A’s phono stage. Brass sounded brassier, the Stones sounded rawer. One audio writer, I forget who, described it as, “The ineffable magic of tubes.” In this instance it certainly applies. Interestingly, the soundstage was bigger when using the tubed stage, but the placement of instruments and voices on the stage was more precise when using the phono stage in the NAD.
I can’t really criticize the NAD’s phono stage. It’s quiet, doesn’t emphasize any part of the spectrum over another, and in concert with the rest of the amp gets the job done in a pleasant-sounding way. I’d hazard a guess that the NAD’s phono section might even be a slight bit better that its line and power amp stages. The demeanor of the amp when playing vinyl was similar to that playing music from digital sources. Could the phono section performance be constricted by the circuitry after it? I guess I could have spun some vinyl and used the NAD’s tape output jacks connected to the tube amp to test this speculation, but even I have a life beyond audio. [see Footnote 1 – Ed.] At any rate, the performance of the NAD’s phono section and the rest of the circuitry seems a well-judged match.
Is the NAD 3020A the holy grail of affordable solid-state amps? In its day, quite possibly – maybe even most definitely. Today, not really. But one in good shape and performing well could be a decent entry-level amp, subject to pricing as discussed below. There are new bargain amps, some of them from NAD, that are likely destined to be future classics. But if funds are extremely tight and a NAD 3020 in decent shape at a good price crosses your path, grab it.
This is perhaps even more subjective than a sound quality evaluation, but here goes:
- If you see a 3020, of any vintage, at a thrift store or yard sale, look it over carefully for signs of physical abuse. Have a close look at the case. If it has been out of service for a while in someone’s damp garage or basement, have a very close look for signs of rust or corrosion. All the same, if plugging it in and verifying operation isn’t possible, I wouldn’t pay any more than about 40 bucks CDN (30 USD) for it. You’re just sort of playing the lottery.
- Buying on eBay. You just don’t know what you’re getting and you’ll have to pay shipping on top of the purchase price. Let’s face it, these amps are getting old and they won’t last forever. At some point they’ll need to have their electrolytic caps replaced. Only if you are willing to DIY does it make economic sense to consider capacitor replacement viable. Paying an amp tech to breathe new life into a bargain deal on a vintage Levinson or Krell makes sense. An old entry level NAD, not so much.
- Purchasing a 3020 in good physical condition with a satisfactory audition. In this case I’d splash out maybe 100 to 120 dollars CDN (70 to 85 USD). Again, it’s an old amp. But if trying all the inputs, pushing all the buttons and turning all the knobs doesn’t throw up any glitches, it could be a decent deal.
- A real cherry 3020A or later vintage. Excellent physical condition, all controls functioning properly, good sounding AND removal of the top cover to look for any funky stuff i.e., no corrosion on the circuit board and no leaks from any of the electrolytic capacitors. With the option of returning for a refund within say a week of purchase, I’d likely pay up to 200 bucks CDN (140 USD). Like any of the above options, it might serve you well for several years or it mighty expire in six months.
Value is difficult and a very personal thing to assign. You may take the above with a large grain of salt if you wish.
Buying vintage gear is a gamble. Entry-level vintage gear like the NAD 3020 is perhaps a gamble worth taking, if the condition and price are right. You might not want it for yourself, but it could form the heart of a system for an impoverished music lover of your acquaintance. In the case of the one reviewed here; it’s going to a former colleague whose ancient receiver has expired beyond repair.
I almost forgot. Classic? Definitely! Heritage? Sure, why not. The 3020 might not have started the less-is-more, bargain price, audiophile-worthy genre, but NAD took the ball and ran with it.
Footnote 1: While this unit was in my possession, I did those comparisons. The phono section is definitely the star of this show: I got better analog results when I bypassed the power amp with a NAD 2150, and even better when bypassing both the line stage and power amp stage – using the 2150 and the Aikido Louis line stage. Having said that – as Steve concluded, the whole package here “works”, and an integrated like this could be a great value for someone looking to get a lot of bang for their 100-200 bucks. -Noam
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