“A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” So said Laozi (not Confucius) in the Dao De Jing. And so it is with the journey of building an audio system, or a record collection.
Anyone who cares about audio knows that vinyl has returned with a vengeance over the past decade. Records were for decades consigned as novelties to the back corners of music stores; vinyl now outsells CDs (as a percentage of overall physical format sales), and the shiny mirrored discs languish in dusty bins next to DVDs while records occupy the front walls and racks of music stores all around the globe.
Consumers purchased 27.5 million LPs in the United States in 2020. Incredibly, vinyl LP sales comprised 40.5% of all physical albums sold in the U.S. CDs were 94% of the market in 2004. They barely hit 5% in 2020. The 2021 H1 numbers were even better with 20 million new records sold in the United States alone.
The vinyl resurgence, and popularity of original pressings and audiophile reissues of classic rock and jazz, has coincided with an uptick in interest in vintage audio equipment. The vinyl vibe pairs well acoustically and visually with receivers, amps, speakers, turntables and other equipment from HiFi’s “Golden Age” of the 1960s and 1970s.
As should be obvious already, I too am smitten with the vintage esthetic. One of the pieces that first piqued my interest was the NAD 3020. I’ve been enamored with this device – considered one of the most important components in the history of high fidelity audio (as per Wikipedia) – since it burst onto the audio scene in the late ‘70s. NAD sold over one million 3020 integrated amplifiers during its run – making it one of the most successful audio components in history.
The 3020 has certainly been my grail amp for as long as I can remember, since well before it was even considered “vintage.” I remember reading the reviews of this iconic, 20-watt David when it first came out, but hadn’t actually heard one until an audio event at the Audio Room in Calgary in 2017 to celebrate the 3020’s 45th anniversary. Listening conditions were not ideal, but it impressed, and made my desire to have one even greater.
I’ve been a Mac user since the mid ‘90s when I got a PowerBook 145b. I’ve always liked the Apple design esthetic and “Think Different” mantra, and some of that love of scaled-down design can be attributed to the design of the 3020. No bells, no whistles, just clean and functional simplicity.
For those who bought the 3020 when it first came out (half a million in its first three years of production), the attraction was part design, part price ($135) and part performance.
And what performance! Rated at only 20 watts per channel, the 3020 was quite capable of double that in short bursts. It played well with the demands of low-impedance speakers that could trip up far more powerful and expensive amplifiers. And sound quality punched well above what was available from budget amps of the time.
When I think about the 3020, and all early NAD equipment, I imagine Apple and Jeep getting together and having an audio lovechild. Simply designed, no-frills, four-wheel-drive audio. Beauty and the Beast.
Three years ago, I thought I’d secured my grail. I purchased a 3020 off Kijiji (Canada’s Craig’s List) but was gutted when it arrived DOA. Thankfully I was able to get my money back, but I also got to keep the carcass. I gave the case, innards and face plate to a friend who was rebuilding a 3020 of his own, but for some reason kept all the knobs and buttons. Premonition?
A few months later I bought a pair of Klipsch Quartet speakers (since replaced with KLF 30s), and the seller threw in (!!!) a NAD 3140. Had that recapped, and fell in love with its dark background, sweet midrange and inherent warmth. Rated at double the 3020’s power (and benching close to 100 watts per channel when tested after recap), this was the first amp I owned to boss my beloved (and notoriously inefficient) KEF Calindas. More points scored for the NAD.
About a year ago, a friend in Calgary contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in his NAD 2600 power amplifier. We had talked previously about my desire to throw some big power at the Calindas. I read up on the 2600 online and reviews were universally positive and impressive. With that, and knowing what the 3140 could do, I jumped at the opportunity.
The Calindas were transformed. The 3140 had handled them well, but with 150 watts per channel and high damping factor (a mark of an amplifier’s ability to control a speaker, not only getting it moving, but also stopping its travel), the Calindas were tamed, controlled, and a delight to the ears. NAD love burnished yet again.
Fast forward to two weeks ago. Browsing Facebook Marketplace, a NAD 3020. Could this be the one? Would my quest be complete? In good shape and at a good price (a highly desirable combination, considering how vintage prices have exploded in the past couple of years). Messaged, set a time to visit, picked it up, brought it home, hooked it up, posted to Instagram, and almost immediately got a message from an Instagram follower asking if I was the guy who had just bought his amp. Small world!
Why the reasonable price? One of the speaker jacks was broken, and two of the push-buttons were missing. Speaker jacks will be repaired down the road (will have it serviced to make sure everything is ship-shape). As for the buttons, I still had those spares from before, so that was an easy fix and cosmetically we’re at a 9.5/10.
For now, I’m using the 3020 as a pre-amplifier with the 2600, and I’ve been very impressed. Driving my Klipsch KLFs, the sound is superb. All the warmth I expected, with a sweet, detailed sound, thundering bass and great control. Good things come to those who wait, and this is very good. Mission accomplished, and I’m a happy listener.
Calgary is not an audio equipment hotbed. I can count the number of specialist high-end stereo stores (never mind vintage) on one hand. There’s not a lot of opportunity to try-before-you-buy (particularly during a pandemic), so many of my vintage purchases have been based on online reviews and discussions, with a little prayer thrown in.
That may sound like a strategy doomed to failure, but one of the great things about vintage is that If you don’t like something, you can usually sell it pretty easily without having to worry about depreciation (which happens very quickly with new equipment). If anything, as popularity increases, so does equipment value, and you may even come out ahead if you don’t like something or decide to upgrade down the road.
And now back to building a vintage system. The journey begins with one step. If you’re just dipping your toe in the water with your first vintage system, and working within a tight budget for turntable, amp and speakers (or even just amp and speakers for a streaming system), you may not want to dive in too deep until you know better what you like and what’s out there.
You can start simple and still have an excellent system, and to me that is where a NAD amp can fit beautifully. You’ll get solid, functional equipment at a good price, and the power to handle pretty much whatever speaker you choose to go with it. And if you end up with a 3020, you get a piece of history to boot.