- Written by Chris Eberle
- Published on 12 December 2013
The NAD D 3020 Hybrid Digital Amplifier In Use
First off, as we all know, size matters in audio right? I mean, what's better than a huge stack of amps and black boxes driving an enormous pair of speakers? If the lights don't dim when you turn it on, you aren't consuming enough power! I couldn't help but laugh at the sight of this tiny book-sized amplifier perched atop my rack knowing that it and my disc player were the only two boxes sending electrons to my four-foot tall speakers.
Well let's just say that from the first moment, my head remained in a forward and locked position and I didn't think about what was happening in my rack for even one split second!
I started with a few rock CDs; and I tried to select recordings that I knew would vary in quality. Chris Daughtry's new album Baptized, is very enjoyable to listen to but is also the perfect example of an over-processed mix. It isn't too compressed but the instrumental accompaniment tends toward the mushy side. Only Daughtry's voice is treated with the loving care it deserves. Fidelity aside, I was immediately impressed with the tremendous and well-controlled bass energy coming from my LRF1100s. The D 3020 obviously has no problem passing the full signal with nary a hint of rolloff either high or low. I listened to a few tracks via Bluetooth to make a comparison. While there was no loss of detail that I could detect, the sound became a little more polite and perhaps thinly veiled as well. aptX is clearly superior in sound quality to regular Bluetooth but it is still a compressed format. I think in a less well-treated environment than my listening room, the difference would not be noticed.
Moving on to a superior recording, I cued up Foo Fighters' Wasting Light. This album was recorded using analog tape in Dave Grohl's 606 Studio. Now I could really hear what the D 3020 was capable of! I've used this recording for reference before but I was definitely hearing greater channel separation and delineation of instruments than usual. The balance was phenomenal and there seemed to be no volume limit. I cranked it beyond my usual comfort level yet it never became harsh or unfocussed. Layered guitar parts were resolved beautifully and I could really hear the pick attacks in White Limo. It was also easy to hear where instruments were placed in the amazingly wide soundstage.
Back to a wall-of-sound compressed recording, I spun Five Finger Death Punch's latest, The Wrong Side of Heaven and The Righteous Side of Hell, Volume 2. There is only one way to listen to this CD – LOUD! The distorted guitars were, well, distorted; but I was really struck by Ivan Moody's vocal track. He raps most of the verses from his throat and is therefore really hard to understand. This time, I had little trouble picking out every bit of profanity, and profundity in the lyrics. I also enjoyed the drum sound immensely with the kick drum sounding like it was right in the room with me.
I finished my rock listening with Nirvana's Nevermind. This album was recorded at Sound City using the now-famous Neve console. If you don't know what I'm talking about, pick up a copy of Dave Grohl's documentary Sound City Reel to Real. It's one of the best rock history films I've seen to date. An interesting factoid about this album is how producer Butch Vig had to coach the band members to play more accurately and precisely. They were used to playing live and weren't really prepared for the way a recording exposes every tiny flaw. As great as this record is, the D 3020 had no trouble showing me all those flaws. Honestly, it made Nirvana sound more human and more real than I'd ever heard them. It was never artificial in any way. This album doesn't have the Pro Tools fixes that are so common today. Thanks to that, you can hear every harmonic, every chord change, and every rhythm error. It's so much more engaging to listen to a CD that way. I certainly enjoy Nirvana piped through my iPod and into headphones but the D 3020 and LFR1100 combo brought it to a whole new level.
After a couple of hours listening to rock at very high SPLs, I expected to feel some heat from the D 3020's diminutive side vent. Well, this amazing little box was barely warm to the touch. I placed my palms fully on both sides and was able to hold them there indefinitely. This is one efficient amplifier!
Turning to classical recordings, I wanted to hear a bassoon sound through the NAD. This instrument is notoriously difficult to record. Judith LeClair, NY Philharmonic principal bassoon, plays with a definitive tone that I am very familiar with. Her chamber music recording, New York Legends, sounds very much like it was performed in a studio. The bassoon sounds like it's in the back of the mix during the Telemann Quartet. I chalked this up as an example of the D 3020's honesty. Like all NAD's products, what goes in comes out without alteration.
She sounded much better in her performance of Five Sacred Trees with the London Symphony. This John Williams concerto pits the lone bassoon against a massive orchestra. I never had trouble discerning the soloist in the mix no matter how load the orchestra played. This CD turns to mush on many systems but the D 3020 played a perfect referee between the bassoon and legions of brass and percussion.
I finished with the St. Louis Symphony's performance of Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin. This recording isn't a benchmark but there were moments of real tactility; which is something I rarely hear from any orchestral recording. You could literally feel the brass and percussion during the louder passages.
For the headphone portion of my listening, I moved to my office and employed the D 3020's USB connection. The source files were Apple Lossless tracks from my iTunes library and I used the same music as in the previous listening session. The 'phones were Etymotics ER-4P in-ear monitors as pictured above, except with foam inserts instead of rubber.
My reference was to plug the headphones directly into an iPod. I'm accustomed to a certain edginess that creates a volume limit beyond which pain ensues. Plus the iPod's extremely coarse volume control makes finding a sweet spot difficult if not impossible with some material.
By using the D 3020 as a USB interface and connecting the ER-4Ps to it, I was rewarded with a warmer sound that was much more full-bodied. The net result was I could turn up the volume a bit without fatigue. And the extremely fine attenuator on the NAD made it a breeze to find the perfect level for every album I tried. I'm not a frequent headphone user but this level of resolution and the superior sound quality is enough to make me don the cans a little more often. This was by far my best headphone experience to date.