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NAD 3020: Vintage hi-fi that still sounds great

You can pick up a great-sounding vintage hi-fi at a yard sale or on eBay, and put together an awesome-sounding system for a few hundred bucks.

The NAD 3020 amplifier
Tone Audio

I recently bought a NAD 3020 integrated amplifier on eBay for $66. The little amp was a smash hit in 1980 and instantly put NAD on the map. While the amp made its reputation as a giant killer, it's not very big--just 16 by 3.75 by 10 inches. And the look is bare-bones basic. The sound is something else again; as soon as I fired it up I remembered why budget-minded audiophiles bought more than a half million 3020s in about three years, making it the best-selling integrated amp of all time.

It was rated at just 20 watts per channel into 8 ohms, but it can deliver as much as 58 watts into 4 ohms, and 72 watts into 2 ohm speakers! I doubt any of today's receivers can handle low impedance (4 or less ohm) or difficult to drive speakers as well as the 3020 can. It was designed to sound great; today's gear is sold on features like auto-setup, GUI menus, Air Play, home networking, iPod docks, Bluetooth, HDMI switching, Dolby and DTS processing, and other goodies. Those features aren't "free," and a significant portion of today's receiver's design budget resources are directed to features, not sound quality.

The Ramones' debut record from 1976 seemed like an appropriate way to get reacquainted with the 3020. The Ramones sound best turned up nice and loud, and their sound immediately plastered a big, fat smile across my face. I remembered listening to a lot of Ramones, Talking Heads ,and Television LPs when the 3020 was the new kid on the block, and those bands still sound great today.

Returning to 2011 with Beyonce's "I Miss You," taken at a room-filling volume with my PSB Alpha B speakers (used pairs go for around $125) wasn't as satisfying, mostly because Beyonce's CD isn't a particularly good-sounding recording. The soundstage is flat and two-dimensional. Then again, other than Beyonce, it doesn't sound like there are too many actual instruments on the CD.

The more acoustic Monsters of Folk sounded more natural. Conor Oberst's crooning vocal on "Temazcal" was gorgeous, and the bass drum hits felt remarkably solid. At this point I switched over to my Wharfedale Diamond 10.1 speakers, and the sound filled out, and Oberst's vocal had even more body and soul. The drums sounded even more defined and present. The 10.1 speaker is the best speaker I've heard for $350 a pair, and the 3020 was taking full advantage of the speaker's capabilities.

Or was I just hearing the sound of a great speaker and crediting the 3020? So I swapped out the 3020 for an Audioengine N22 amp ($199), and it produced a smaller and flatter soundstage. Bass didn't reach as deep, definition went south, treble detail coarsened, and the vocals thinned out. The 30-year-old amp clobbered the N22 on every count.

I also auditioned the 3020's sound with my Sennheiser HD 650 headphones. Again, the little amp proved to be an exceptional performer. There was almost a vacuum tube like warmth to the sound, but it was perfectly pure and clear. To finish up I hooked up my VPI Classic turntable to the 3020 and my records sounded wonderful. If you're just now getting into vinyl, pick up a 3020--you won't be sorry.

Buying old hi-fi, or any used gear isn't without risk. Ask a lot of questions before buying used electronics, starting with: does it work? With an amp, has it recently been hooked up to speakers and played? Does it make any strange noises? Do all the inputs work? If the seller can't answer those questions, don't buy.

There's a lot of awesome-sounding budget hi-fi gear from the past to choose from. The Adcom GFA-555 power amp was legendary in its time, and 20-year-old Marantz receivers are still quite nice. Rega Planar and Thorens turntables are worth checking out, and same for early Denon and Marantz CD players. It shouldn't be too hard to find cheap and cheerful Boston Acoustic A40 and Paradigm Atom speakers. The Dynaco Stereo 70 tube amplifier was another huge seller and still sounds wonderful. My friend Mike bought a NAD 1020 (the preamp version of the 3020) at a Los Angeles swap meet for $9 a few years ago. There are deals to be had. With a little effort you can put together a really nice-sounding system for a few hundred dollars.