If you're looking to ditch your giant AV receiver for a compact stereo amp, the NAD D 3020 is the one to get.
Integrated amplifiers have been around for decades, but they've quietly become a viable alternative to AV receivers, thanks to TVs that now offer extensive switching capabilities and more integrated amps that include an optical audio input.
That's the context in which we looked at the NAD D 3020 ($500 street), along with several other integrated amplifiers that include an optical audio input. The D 3020 is the best of the bunch, with terrific sound quality, a solid feature set (including built-in Bluetooth) and a handsome, compact design. The D 3020 also sports a dedicated subwoofer output, making it simple to set up a 2.1-channel speaker system, plus there's a USB port, so you can connect it to a computer for high-resolution audio playback. And unlike the Teac A-H01, the D 3020 can be powered on and off from its remote, so it plays nicely with universal remotes.
Cost is the biggest issue with the D 3020. It feels pricey when you compare it with Sony's STR-DN840 ($400 street price), which costs less and offers a lot more functionality, including six HDMI inputs and built-in Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and AirPlay. Ultimately, you're paying for the D 3020's excellent compact design and minimalist simplicity, rather than a big box with a bunch of features you may not ultimately need.
We think that's a worthwhile tradeoff for many buyers, especially if you're tired of bulky, frustrating AV receivers and can live without surround sound. The NAD D 3020 may be expensive, but it's a potent little box that can power your living room for years.
Design: A smaller, prettier black box
The NAD D 3020 isn't the smallest integrated amp we've looked at, but it still feels wonderfully compact, sitting 2.31 inches tall, 7.38 inches wide and 8.63 inches deep. It can be placed in the more traditional horizontal orientation, but you can also stand it up vertically and NAD includes some grippy rubber feet to keep it stable. The D 3020's 3-pound weight is a good one, feeling heavy enough to be a "serious" piece of audio equipment, but light enough that it's easy to install in your living room.
It's also a nice-looking box, wrapped in a glossy finish around two sides, with the rest of the amp covered in a textured matte black finish. Turn the amp on and its front-panel display lights up, showing you the volume level and the selected input in sleek white lettering. Overall, the D 3020 certainly doesn't compete with the gorgeous curved wood of the Peachtree Audio Decco65 and it's arguable that the ultraminimalist NuForce DDA-100 looks even better, but the D 3020 is still a sleek, stylish amp, especially compared with a full-size AV receiver.
From the front there appear to be no buttons on the amp at all, only a headphone jack and a volume button. Around the side, you'll find two touch-sensitive buttons: one for power, one for cycling through sources. The side placement isn't ideal in either horizontal or vertical orientation, but the D 3020 is small enough that you'll likely be able to get to them in most cabinets.
You can also control the D 3020 using the included remote. It has a good size and shape, feeling substantial in your hand, but the button's labels are the exact same color as the buttons, making them very difficult to see. You'll also notice there's no dedicated mute button, which seems like an oversight. If you're using the D 3020 in your living room, you'd be smart to replace the clicker with a solid universal remote.
Features: Plenty of inputs and built-in Bluetooth
The D 3020 has four inputs on the back: two digital audio inputs (one optical, one coaxial), one analog input, and one "mixed used" input that can function as either an additional optical input (using an adapter cable) or a minijack input. That's a healthy set of ports for an integrated amp, even for living-room use, as you can use your TV as a switcher and connect its optical output to the D 3020.
Those intending to use the D 3020 in the living room should also note the lack of onboard decoding for Dolby Digital or DTS bit stream formats. In most cases, that shouldn't be a problem, as most TVs "dumb down" incoming surround soundtracks to stereo PCM anyway, which means you don't need any decoding. If your TV does pass on "bit stream" audio signals, you'll want to adjust the settings so that it doesn't or configure your source devices (such as your Blu-ray player) to decode to PCM.
There's also a USB port on the back that you can use to connect a computer directly to the amp, after installing the correct drivers. We tried using the NAD with a MacBook Pro and it worked perfectly, letting us listen to our iTunes music collections as well as high-resolution tracks.
Another perk is the D 3020 includes a dedicated subwoofer output, which many of its competitors don't have, including the Onkyo A-5VL, NuForce Dia, and NuForce DDA-100. You can still connect those amplifiers to subwoofers that have speaker-level inputs, like the budget Dayton Sub 800, but a dedicated subwoofer output is more convenient and makes for considerably less wire clutter. Note that the subwoofer output is a somewhat unusual minijack connector, so again you'll probably have to buy an adapter.
What really sets the D 3020 apart from many of the other integrated amps on the market is built-in Bluetooth, including support for the better-sounding aptX codec. It's a nice perk for instant-gratification listening, letting you wirelessly stream audio from nearly any mobile device. While it's easy to add wireless functionality to other integrated amps using an Apple TV ($100) or Bluetooth receiver ($20), it's certainly nice to have that capability without an add-on.
Sound quality: Big sound from a little box
Sound quality evaluations of amplifiers are controversial. Some say all properly designed AV receivers sound the same, others disagree, and we're not likely to settle that argument anytime soon.
What we can say is that amplifier sound quality has much, much less effect on overall sound quality than speakers or room acoustics, so it's typically not worth sweating the sonic differences between amps when you can focus your attention on the factors that make a much larger difference.
We started listening to the D 3020 with PSB Image T6 tower speakers, paired with an Oppo BDP-93 Blu-ray player. The little D 3020 had no trouble driving the big speakers; their awesome low-end bass power was on full display, stereo imaging was spacious, deep and broad, and overall transparency was excellent. (Not terribly surprising, given that this is an update of the classic NAD 3020.) The volume ramps up and down very quickly from the remote, maybe even a little too quickly for our tastes, as we frequently overshot when making adjustments.
To put the D 3020's sound in perspective, we compared it with the Teac A-H01 integrated amplifier and listened to a number of movies and music selections. We started with soul and Gospel singer Mavis Staples' new high-resolution download album "One True Vine" from HDtracks. (Disclosure: contributor Steve Guttenberg, who co-authored this review, occasionally works for HDtracks). We put the 96kHz/24-bit files on a thumb drive, and played them on the Oppo, but used the digital converters in the A-H01 and D 3020 amplifiers.
Both amps sounded wonderful, but the D 3020 was more natural, with Staples' vocals sounding more present, like she was in the room with us. The guitars, bass, and drums' clarity really shone over the D 3020, with bass definition also firmed up. The Teac also flattened soundstage depth relative to the D 3020 and overall the D 3020 seemed to make the T6s sound like better speakers, which is impressive as the A-H01 is a good-sounding amp in its own right.
Using the two amps in a stereo home theater context, the train derailment scene in "Super 8" maxed out the dynamic jolts better on the D 3020, while the A-H01 was less intense, less exciting. Back on the D 3020, dialogue was focused between the two T6 speakers, so the lack of a center channel wasn't a concern for listeners seated in line with the TV. Dialogue clarity was fine for listeners over to the right or left side of the CNET room, although listeners will tend to hear the dialogue coming from the speaker they are closest to. That's always the case with stereo home theater systems, so we can't blame the D 3020.
We finished up our listening tests with some of our better pairs of headphones, like the HiFiMan HE-400 and V-Moda M100, and the sound quality was above par. In a scene from "Stoker," an unsettling psychological thriller, one character drives his motorcycle off into the distance, and the sound appeared to come from farther and farther away. That sort of out-of-head imaging made it easier to forget we were wearing headphones and concentrate on the story.
What are the alternatives?
For home theater use, Sony's STR-DN840 ($400) has a lot going for it. Sure, it's much bigger and bulkier, but you get a lot more features. It's a 7.2-channel receiver, so you can run a full surround-sound setup, including dual subwoofers if you'd like. There are also six HDMI inputs, so it's a better choice if you have a lot of living-room devices. And it had even more wireless functionality, with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and AirPlay, making it perfect for instant-gratification listening. If you've got the space and don't mind the "big black box" aesthetics, it's hard to argue against the STR-DN840 from a value perspective.
If you're convinced a simple integrated amp is the way to go, the D 3020 is our favorite overall pick, although some of the alternatives are compelling. The NuForce Dia ($200 street) is unbelievably tiny and can suffice in smaller rooms, although it's not of the same caliber as the D 3020. There's also aforementioned Peachtree Audio Decco65, which is significantly more expensive, but has jaw-dropping good looks if you're looking for a piece of equipment to show off.
Conclusion: A cut above the other integrated amps
When you compare the available integrated amps on the market feature for feature, the NAD D 3020 undeniably stands out: it's the only model with built-in Bluetooth and it packs a lot of other niceties like a dedicated subwoofer output, a USB input, and plenty of other inputs. Pair that up with a sleek design and excellent sound, and you've got a winning combination. If you've got the money and don't want a traditional AV receiver, the NAD D 3020 is an excellent choice for powering your living-room speakers.