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NAD 3020

[NAD 3020]
[Italian version]

20 is a magic number for HiFi amplifiers. Many budget good-sounding amplifier had (or still have) that number has a part of their name.
Just to name few examples: the Rotel 820 and 920 (plus various versions of these), the AMC 3020, the Proton 820B, and a pletora of NAD amplifiers.
Coincidences? Well, not exactly. All these budget amplifiers have been designed having in mind a model: a small integrated which sounded better than any other amp almost 20 years ago: her Majesty the NAD 3020!!!
The NAD 3020 has been the first integrated built to sound like a hi-quality amplifier, with outstanding driving capabilities and a sound that put it into a league of its own.
And, surprisingly, all this came at a very low price.

Why am I going to test listen an amplifier that no longer exists and that is even difficult to find second-hand?
First of all I'd like to know if its glory and fame were well-deserved.
Then I'd like to listen to it when compared with modern budget amplifiers, in order to discover whether (and how) these can be considered a real step forward or not.

The 3020 was born almost 20 years ago, between '78 and 79, and quickly became the most famous and sold amplifier in the history of HiFi.
It was ugly, cheap and with a poor level of finishing, the components used were fair but, clearly, the man behind its design knew what he was doing pretty well.
The NAD 3020 had a claimed power rating of 28 watts @ 8 Ohms (20-20 KHz), an extremely well designed phono stage (only a little bit noisy) very good driving capabilities even under heavy loads (till 3 Ohms!) all inside a cabinet designed with the clear wish to save costs.
It had tone controls, loudness (it was a must at the time), pre-out/main-in connectors, anti-clipping circuit and 5 red leds as power output indicator.

The NAD 3020 was cheap 20 years ago so it's easy to buy it today for as low as 50/100 US $, depending on the conditions (mint, very good, fair etc.)

The Sound of twenty years ago

The NAD 3020 is one of those amplifiers that you can detect into an hifi system just at a first listening.
It is indeed very peculiar: it sounds warm and a bit dark though the mid range is still clear and detailed.
It does have a certain roll-off in the highs, which is (was) very, very welcomed with cheap loudspeakers of that time.
It is the kind of sound that is easy to enjoy, even for hours and hours. Of course you should avoid to ask too much: after all it is a little 20 watter, it can't play miracles!
It has a sweet and sensual mid range, very enjoyable and natural, especially with voices: a bit of the feeling of the best HiFi amplifiers around. Incredible, for that price.
The high range is less attractive, since sometimes the roll-off is way too evident. It is sweet, sometimes too sweet!
And IF this is a PLUS when coupled with aggressive CD players and speakers, it becomes a drawback with neutral systems, since you start wondering where the LIFE of your Music has gone.
The bass range is stunning for such a little and cheap amplifier: powerful and well extended.
No, not a miracle, since the bass is sometimes boomy and lazy, giving you, once more, the feeling of a warm and ultra smooth musical reproduction.
Also "well-extended" here means "very well extended given the kind of the amplifier", that is to say you shouldn't expect a lot of energy below 40 Hz. But, hey, the big problem here is the bass extension of the cheap and tiny loudspeakers the 3020 will be matched with.

Overall dynamics

The 3020 owes a lot of its fame to its stunning dynamic capabilities: yes, it is a 20 watter but it can drive even the most difficult loudspeaker with ease...it can sound very loud and you wouldn't believe it's such a cheap and old amp.
Despite these very good macro-dynamics capabilities, the NAD 3020 is a bit lazy with micro-dynamics that is to say those tiny, crisp musical variations that don't require plenty of power but a very agile performance.
Can we forgive this? Yes, Virginia, this amplifier is so incredibly good at reproducing Music with a natural sense of pace and timing that we can easily forgive these tiny drawbacks. Do you remember how much does it cost?

3D Imaging

The NAD 3020, as said before, isn't exactly razor-sharp: this, of course, influences the focus and the precision of the virtual soundstage: big but out-of-focus...you can't have it all!
I'd say that every aspect of the 3020 aims to give you the illusion of a bigger amplifier: bass, dynamics, and 3D soundstage are bigger than one could expect from such a tiny amp.
So imaging is enjoyable even if not too precise and focused, but please consider that at the time its competitors didn't even know WHAT a virtual soundstage was.
So this lovely amop is rather crafty: he tends to sound as it was bigger and less cheap than it is.

Some advices

Well, given that it is rather old your NAD 3020 (or the one you're going to buy) need some servicing: the RCA connectors, for example, were on the cheap side so some cleaning could be necessary (they were not gold-plated...).
Then check the switches: press and depress several times to ensure a clean electrical contact.

Then, please, listen to it only after 2 hours of burn-in: it needs to be warm before giving its best: otherwise it will sound dull and shut-in.
After two hours it will start to sing. And this is exactly what happened to me: I let the 3020 playing Music in my living-room while I was typing at this PC in a near room.
After two hours or so I started to hear Clair Marlo's voice (Sheffield Labs "Let it go") as she was into my listening room. I couldn't resist: I turned off the Pentium and spent a couple of hours enjoying the lovely voice of this magic amplifier.
The 3020 invites you to high volume listenings, higher than you'd expect. There's no need for the anti-clipping circuit, just use your ears to decide when too much is too much.
So the advices are: avoid the anti-clipping circuit like the plague and avoid the tone controls and the loudness circuit (clearly the 3020 doesn't need these!!!).


So our first question was: did the 3020 deserve all the fame it had?
Well, I'd say yes, it was (and still is) a quite incredible amplifier.
When compared to its competitors of the time (I have some of these at home) it simply destroyed 'em hands off. Period.
When compared with modern competitors its drawbacks appear evidently: even the cheaper (I mean the cheaper of the Rotel family) Rotel 920 AX sounds faster, more detailed and more musical overall.
But the 3020 has a feeling that modern amplifiers lack: it sounds natural, probably not neutral, but amazingly sweet.
Less HiFi, more Music.

So, if you're in the market for a little amplifier to build a second or third HiFi system (for your bed-room or garage :-) ) please consider the 3020 as an excellent option. It costs almost nothing and it could surprise you.
Also, if you need a decent phono stage for your TT and you're not willing to spend tons of your hard earned cash on a Hi-End gizmo, please consider the excellent phono stage of this amp.
It has been a reference phono stage for budget amplifiers for years.

Long story short, the 3020 is a piece of history and still sounds amazingly well. It costs almost nothing, so I can admit it's an absolute bargain.

Copyright © 1998 Lucio Cadeddu

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