Pros: musical sound; cool, understated cosmetics; effective bass and treble controls; cost-effective
Cons: push buttons kind of noisy
Let me start by saying the above picture is NOT an NAD 1020 preamplifier. That picture got posted in error and Epinions doesn't yet have a way to correct such an error. Here is a link to a picture that shows what a 1020 in decent but not excellent cosmetic condition unit might look like just after you've unpacked your eBay purchase:
The NAD 1020 is a simple, relatively inexpensive, solid state preamplifier that came out in 1979 or 1980. It is actually the preamplifier section of the famous NAD 3020 integrated amplifier, which was a "giant killer" in its time and is now considered a classic. Here is a (sexier) picture of the NAD 3020, which looks almost idential to the 1020 preamplifier reviewed here, except that the 1020 does not have the red power-indicator LEDs in the upper right corner:
The NAD 1020 looks like other early NAD components with its simple, elegant layout and dark grey/almost matte black finish. It has a large volume control to the right, and balance, bass, and treble controls in the lower middle. Four large push buttons allow you to select tuner, aux, phono, or tape. Two more buttons are for mono and "loudness" (the loudness control, popular in the 1970s, boosts treble and bass at low volumes). A headphone jack at the lower left cuts off output to the speakers.
On the back are the corresponding inputs, a switch for MM/MC phono cartridge, and another switch that adjusts the phono loading capacitance to 100, 200 or 300 microfarads. There are two outputs, a regular line level one and a higher level one (which I haven't used).
Look and feel.
The NAD 1020 looks classy and understated next to my other components. In its simplicity, it reminds me of older units like the Dynaco SCA-80 or AR integrated amplifiers (though they had champagne, not matte black, front panels). It's a nice contrast to the tacky "bells and whistles" approach that dominated the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The feel of all controls is smooth, though the push buttons operate with a loud "click" or "snap" sound. The gain of the preamplifier is such that I'm using a fairly wide arc to go from quiet to loud (a good thing). It's not like my old conrad-johnson PV-10, where I wound up using only the first 90 degrees of the volume control's range. The bass and treble controls are excellent: they allow me to boost the frequency extremes wihout making the music boomy or harsh.
Attachment to my other components was easy, though there is one "unusual" aspect of the NAD's layout that caused me to pause for a couple of minutes. The inputs and outputs are not on the back of the unit; they are on a flat "tray" that juts a couple of inches out from the back. It took me an extra check or two to convince myself I was hooking up left and right properly.
Before installing the NAD 1020 into my system, I was using a modded Musical Fidelity preamplifier with my conrad-johnson MF-80 to power my Cambridge Soundworks Towers (as well as my vintage references, including Dynaco A-25s, KLH 6s, ADS 400s, and AR3as). The sound with the Musical Fidelity preamplifier was very clean and relaxed. Could the budget NAD compete?
Immediately upon listening (initially with KLH 6s) I realized that the answer to that question was "yes." The sound of my system with the NAD hooked up was in no way compromised relative to what I had grown used to. The critical midrange was still relaxed and articulate (much less grainy than my old B&K Pro-5 preamplifier), with instruments spread behind the plane of the speakers. Bass had ample heft, perhaps a bit more than with the Musical Fidelity preamplifier, and the trebles were smooth and natural sounding, and never etched (etched is my arch enemy).
As I listened more, the word "musical" kept coming to mind. Whether I listened to FM or CD, the sound was smooth relaxing, and maybe just a tad dark, or "chocolate" as some have described the NAD sound. But fingers on guitar strings, cymbal brushes, and higher piano notes were presented with a surprising degreee of both delicacy and definition. In fact, the overall presentation was, to my ears, just as realistic sounding as through the Musical Fidelity preamplifier. Dynamics also surprised me through the NAD 1020. Microdynamcs (subtle changes in volume and decay that make instruments sound real) were excellent, as was overall dynamic range. Drum rim shots, cymbal attacks and decays, and horn and string subtleties sounded particularly realistic.
The NAD 1020's phono sections has a particularly good reputation, so I was interested to hear how it compared the Musical Fidelity. It was actually a close call, but I can say that the NAD's phono preamplifier (I have only the MM setting) sounds very good. It may actually be a touch more dynamic than the Musical Fidelity's. I tried the capacitance switch on the back and can't honestly say I could hear a difference with different loadings.
A final thing I like about the the NAD is the presence of a decent headphone jack. All of the other "budget high end" preamplifiers I had been using over the past ten years (B&K Pro 5; conrad-johnson PV10; modded Musical Fidelity) had no headphone jack, meaning I had to use either my Nakamichi tape deck or Kenwood KA-3500 integrated amplifier as a "headphone amplifier" for late night listening. The sound quality was compromised with these "fancy" fixes. My Sennheisers sound great through the NAD.
I'm really impressed with this "budget high end" preamplifier. I'm enjoying listening to music with it in my system, and I don't feel the need to switch to anything else. The NAD is on the part of the diminishing returns curve that I like: where spending ten times as much might lead to a tiny positive increment in performance. If you like a bright, etched kind of sound, it's probably not the preamplifier for you. But if you enjoy music that sounds natural, and enjoy a system that doesn't call attention to itself, this could be a great way to go. I've seen them go on eBay from $50 to $200; most go in the $80 price range, which is a real bargain when you consider that a $1000 contemporary preamplifier is considered "moderately priced."