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NAD Electronics D 3020 Hybrid Digital Amplifier review: The best AV receiver alternative

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.

NAD D 3020
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Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

NAD D 3020
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Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sony STR-DN840
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If you don't mind the size, the Sony STR-DN840 offers a lot more functionality for less money.

NAD D 3020

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.

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