NAD 3020 vs. NuForce Dia: An analog-digital amplifier showdown

Can a 32-year-old all-analog NAD 3020 amp blow away a shiny-new NuForce Dia all-digital amp?

The NAD 3020 (left) and the NuForce Dia (right)

No doubt about it, Nuforce makes audiophile products that don't conform to the old paradigms. Take a look at the Dia digital integrated amplifier. It's downright tiny, accepts only digital sources like CD, DVD, or Blu-ray players, or an Apple TV, flat-screen TV, game, or cable box. How tiny is the Dia? Just 6 inches by 4.5 inches by 1 inch; and man that's really small. It has one RCA coaxial and two Toslink optical digital inputs. The onboard digital-to analog converter accepts up to 192kHz/24-bit sources, and the analog switching stereo 24 watt per channel amplifier runs cool to the touch. I assumed the front panel's 3.5 mm jack was for headphones, but no, it's a subwoofer/line-level output. The $299 Dia weighs 1 pound. Nice!

We live in a time where most people take it on faith that new technology is always better than old tech. I don't subscribe to that theory. To my ears good-sounding LPs sound better than most CDs but what about amplifiers? How do old amps compare with the latest gear? For this shootout I compared the Dia with a 32-year-old NAD 3020 integrated amp I bought on eBay last year for $66. The 3020 is 16 inches by 3.75 inches by 10 inches and is rated at 20 watts a channel. The little Dia delivers 24 watts per channel, so despite the gigantic size differential the two amps were fairly matched. I used a pair of Dynaudio Contour 1.1 speakers for all of my listening tests.

The Dia sounded really nice, sweet, and not at all "digital" with a broad range of music. The tonal balance was slightly warm, which I like, but my only concern about the sound was it lacked get up and go. The dynamics were laid back and a bit blah for my tastes. Switching over to the 3020, the sound was livelier, and more three-dimensional and therefore more realistic. The 3020's bass definition was better, so I could hear more of the "pluck" on jazz recordings with acoustic basses. The Dia was softer and mellower, which wasn't what I expected. Acoustic guitars sounded more like themselves over the 3020. The music engaged me more, so one tune led to the next. I respected what the Dia did--the little thing is so cute--but on an emotional basis, sorry, I'd rather spend time with the 3020.

The NuForce Dia's rear panel NuForce

Those impressions were based on listening to CDs, so I went ahead and tried some high-resolution 96 KHz/24-bit recordings, like Paul Simon's recent "So Beautiful or So What" album. The Dia was decidedly brighter and more forward sounding; the 3020 was richer. I had an even stronger preference for the 3020 with high-resolution audio (that was decoded by my Oppo BDP-95 Blu-ray player). So in any case I'd rather listen to the NAD 3020, which also has a really nice built-in phono preamp. Yes, the 3020 is a lot bigger than the Dia. It runs hotter, doesn't have a remote, and finding a working 3020 isn't necessarily easy. But newer vintage all-analog amps from NAD, Rotel, Creek, and Onkyo won't be too hard to find. Of course, they would be even bigger than the 3020; the Dia was designed for folks looking for something that doesn't take up a lot of valuable shelf space.

The Dia is a very competent performer and would probably make more sense for most people, I don't doubt that, but if sound quality is a higher priority, consider an all-analog amp.

About the author

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Home Theater, Inner Fidelity, Tone Audio, and Stereophile.

 

Join the discussion

Conversation powered by Livefyre

Show Comments Hide Comments
Latest Galleries from CNET
15 crazy old phones from a Korean museum (pictures)
10 gloriously geeky highlights from 2014 (pictures)
2015.5 Volvo XC60: updated tech, understated design
Busted! CNET readers show us their broken devices (pictures)
Take a closer look at the BlackBerry Classic (pictures)