Pros: elegant in its simplicity; mellow, almost tube-like sound; good dynamic capability; surprisingly good bass
Cons: outputs for only one set of speakers; a bit hard to find in the US
The NAD 3020 is probably one of the most famous integrated amplifiers in the history of audio. It was introduced in 1978 or 1979, just as the golden era of hi-fi was starting to wane, and it represented a giant step in the opposite direction from which most makers of audio gear were heading at that time. By the 1980s, the straightforward and good sounding silver-faced amplifiers and receivers of the 1970s had been replaced by black plastic stuff that had multi-band graphic equalizers, digital readouts, flashy lights, and terrible sound. Fewer discrete transistors were used and the integrated circuit reigned supreme. Great brands like Sherwood, Fisher, and Dynaco were themselves in name only.
The NAD 3020 was (and is) a modest sized integrated amplifier rated at only 20 watts per channel. Its only flashy lights are the power indicator red LED above the volume knob on the right side of the front panel. These LEDs were designed to register peak power that the amplifier was delivering while driving speakers. Other than that, the front panel of the NAD 3020 was conservative, even Spartan, by the standards of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
To the far left is an on-off button. To its right is a headphone jack. And then there are bass, treble and balance controls. Four push buttons control function (aux, tuner, phono, tape) and two more control muting (20db) and loudness (boosts lows and highs at low volume). To the right of these is the oversized volume control. That’s it. Everything is a sort of dark chocolate brown/grey/almost black in color, and knobs and pushbuttons look like you could eat them. They have slightly rounded edges, as if they are trying to tell you what the amplifier will sound like, and the overall presentation is understated in the nth degree.
I put together a system for a friend based on the NAD 3020 back in the day, and it’s still one of the best sounding small systems I’ve heard. The speakers we used were Polk 5s, and the turntable was a Dual with a Shure cartridge. I’ve heard other systems driven by the NAD 3020, and the results are always the same: it sounds like you’re listening to music rather than a hi-fi.
Some specifications and other specifics.
The NAD 3020 was rated at 20 watts per channel into 8 ohms from 20 to 20khz at under .02% total harmonic distortion. Just as importantly, it was designed to be able to deliver substantially more power as impedance decreased, and it was rated to deliver twice its rated output for short musical peaks. In the real world, speaker impedances tend to dip at lower frequencies, and sudden transients demand more power than most of the music does. With 3db of dynamic headroom, the NAD 3020 was rated at 40 watts per channel of IHF short-term power at 8 ohms, 58 watts per channel at 4 ohms, and 72 watts per channel at 2 ohms. The 3020 also featured “soft clipping,” which meant that it would not sound harsh or fry tweeters when it was overdriven.
The NAD 3020 came with a high quality phono section as well as inputs for a tuner, aux (where your CD player goes) and a tape deck. It also had preamplifier output and power amplifier inputs on the back, so you could use the NAD as a preamplifier if you needed a more powerful amplifier, or as a power amplifier if you wanted a preamplifier with more features or inputs.
One unusual thing about hooking up the NAD 3020 is that the inputs and outputs are presented on a little “tray” that sticks out an inch or two from the back panel. Figuring out which input/output is left and which is right can be a bit of a pain, but other than that, set-up is pretty straightforward. Speaker attachments are via little plastic spring-loaded connectors (similar to what Marantz used in those days) that limit the gauge of speaker wire you can use, but they work fine. There are outputs for one set of stereo speakers only.
What sold users on the NAD, and ultimately made it famous, was its sound. In an era when amplifiers were sounding increasingly harsh, the NAD sounded a bit dark when you first fired it up. But as you listened, you realized that all of the information was there--it was just presented in a non-aggressive fashion that allowed for relaxed listening over long periods of time.
The bass of the NAD 3020 was surprisingly full and deep for a small, low-powered amplifier, but it was the midrange and treble that seduced most listeners. It was almost tubey, with a total lack of harshness, and a level of detail that was surprising, given its price (and its mellow overall sonic signature). It also handled loud transients with ease.
The bass and treble controls were designed to affect only the frequency extremes without overly boosting the mid-bass or brightness range in the lower treble. We went with a slight bass boost for the Polk 5s, and things sounded great.
The phono section of the NAD 3020 was surprisingly good, especially for an inexpensive unit, and my friend’s Dual/Shure combination always sounded really sweet, whether we were listening to jazz or classical. When CDs became popular during the 1980s, the NAD 3020 actually did a decent job of taming the horrible highs that the new medium brought to the world of audio. We could tell that CDs didn’t sound nearly as musical as records, but listening to CDs wasn’t as much of a fingernail-on-glass experience through my friend’s system as it was on many other systems out there during the mid-1980s.
If I had to find fault with the NAD 3020, it would be that the pushbuttons felt a little clunky when you used them, and often made a loud “clank” noise when you pushed them in. The knobs felt OK, but not as luxurious as those on most high-end components. Some people describe the 3020 as “ugly” but I find it very attractive, given my preference for understatement over visual bombast.
It’s worth mentioning that the preamplifier I currently used in my own budget high-end system is the NAD 1020, which is the preamplifier section of the NAD 3020 integrated amplifier. The sound of the 1020 is neutral and liquid, with a slight tendency toward the warm and mellow. It sounds much less grainy that the B&K Pro-5 that I used for many years, and I think it sounds as good as the high-end Musical Fidelity preamplifier that I was using after that. My hunch is that both the power amplifier and preamplifier sections of the NAD 3020 are well-designed and contribute to the integrated amplifier’s overall excellence.
In other systems I’ve heard through the 3020, the impression is always the same. There’s a warmth and musicality to the presentation that’s really inviting. The 3020 doesn’t have “pin-point imaging,” but it still presents instruments in a fairly deep and expansive soundstage.
I really like the NAD 3020. Its sonic signature errs in exactly the direction I like: smooth and musical over etched and detailed. Plus it has surprisingly tight and robust bass for a 20 watt amplifer, and it can handle dynamic peaks at reasonable volume levels.
I also like its elegant simplicity. It reminds me of classy earlier amplifiers like the Acoustic Research AR Amplifier in that it doesn’t have a lot of features you’ll rarely use, and its looks reflect its functionality.
Lately, the units I’ve seen on eBay have been offered for sale in England, but I’m sure they come up for bid in the US as well. I believe they cost under $200 new, and the current selling price (for a nice sample) seems to be in the $150 range. If I were putting together a small system for a bedroom, or a main system where extremely high volume listening is not a probability, this is one of the first integrated amplifiers I’d look for. Snap up a Kenwood KT-5500 tuner, a cheap CD player, and a pair of Dynaco A-25s, New Large Advents, AR2axs, ADS L400s, Snell E/IIIs, DCM Time Windows or Cambridge Soundworks Tower IIs, and enjoy the music for well under $1000.