Saturday, December 7, 2013

NAD D3020 vs. Nuforce DDA-100

The NAD D3020 has received a lot of high praise. It is the entry level component of our time, possessing a compact size, good sound, and offering a host of features that are relevant to today's music listening habits. The variety of inputs from digital, to analog, to aptX bluetooth, as well as subwoofer outputs makes this a sure winner for most everyone out there. You can connect your iPhone, CD player and PC easily, and with a subwoofer output, there will be no shortage of low end punch for the end user.

NAD D3020

  • 2 x 30W @ 0.00% THD, >100W Dynamic Power @ 4 Ohms
  • aptX Bluetooth Music Streaming
  • Supports bit rate/sample rate up to - 24/192 (via Digital Audio input) up to 24/96 (via USB input)
  • Optical and Coaxial Digital Inputs, analog inputs
  • Subwoofer Output
  • Bass EQ setting
  • Separate Headphone Amplifier
  • Wireless Remote
  • Price: 499.99
Nuforce DDA-100

Features: Nuforce DDA-100
  • Power output: 75W x 2 (4 Ohm), 50W x 2 (8 Ohm)
  • Supports up to 96kHz input sampling rate
  • Built-in DSP operates at 3Gbps to oversample PCM data before applying a digital-domain 24-bit volume control.
  • Inputs (All inputs are digital, there are NO analog inputs): 1 USB (Sampling rates: 44.1, 48, and 96kHz), 1 Coax (Sampling Rates: 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4kHz), 2 Toslink (Sampling Rates: 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4kHz)
  • Digital Outputs: 1 Toslink
  • Wireless Remote
  • Price: $549

Features: NAD D 3020 Hybrid Digital™ Amplifier

The Nuforce DDA-100 goes about things differently than the NAD, and appears to be geared more towards the seasoned music lover. It supports only digital inputs (USB, Optical, and Coaxial) due to the unique amplifier design that was designed to keep the signal in the digital realm until the last possible moment. The advantage of this is better sound. 

In Nuforce's words:
"It doesn't require a typical DAC stage, rather, its PWM amplifier stage is modulated directly by the incoming signal, and the digital to analog conversion takes place at the speaker outputs. Effectively making this a power DAC."

So the tradeoff against the NAD is less flexibility in audio inputs for better sound. Let's see if that holds up.

I set up two listening scenarios for the integrated amps, 1. streaming music from my audio PC to the USB input of the NAD and Nuforce and 2. Streaming music wirelessly via my iPad. For this, I needed to add the Nuforce BTR-100 aptX bluetooth receiver and an optical cable.


My Reference
First, it is really difficult to go from a $9000 pair of monoblocks to a roughly $500 integrated amp. There are obviously going to be tradeoffs and glaring deficiencies in the lower priced products. I have a new appreciation for the professional reviewer who can do this quickly and not mention anything about their reference gear. Like I just did (I'm such an amateur...). So, I dealt with this by leaving the Nuforce and NAD in place over several days, slowly acclimating to their particular sonics.

So this is the associated equipment.

  • A custom built windows 8 audio PC running JRiver
  • Pranawire Photon USB cable
  • Kaplan HE II Power cord to the integrated
  • Plugged in to a Bybee Stealth Power conditioner
  • MG Audio Planus III Speaker cable
  • Vivid Audio B-1 Loudspeakers

The first test was streaming. Connecting to the NAD was straightforward. Switching the input selector to "BT", connecting it to my iPad, and away I go. The second test of streaming music from my PC didn't go so well. I had a difficult time streaming audio from JRiver to the 3020. I had initially just plugged in the 3020 to my Windows 7 OS PC and began streaming Pandora. All appeared to be well. I then shut down Pandora, and started up JRiver. It looked like JRiver recognized the NAD as it was an output option that was available. However, when I began playing music, I got about one note's worth before JRiver stopped playback. I ended up having to uninstall the driver, download the latest one from the NAD website, then reinstall the driver with the 3020 connected. All was well after that. until I tried to make use of the remote from my listening position.

The remote. Where to begin? First, the thing seems to have a narrow operating range. I don't know if this is due to a low battery, but the unit I have is pretty much new and I did not think the battery would arrive nearly dead. Second, the volume control seems to be an all or nothing operator. I either had to click the up or down volume control several times to get very incremental changes, or by holding the button  down, get large changes in the volume. I found this irritating.

The sound however was far from irritating. While not as detailed as the Nuforce, I found it more musically enjoyable in many ways. Vocals had more texture and a natural timbre. The soundstaging was decent, not extending too far beyond the speakers, but the inner imaging and detail was superb.
The Nuforce BTR-100 aptX Bluetooth Receiver
Setting up the Nuforce for streaming involved an additional step of connecting the BTR-100 to the DDA-100, but was as simple and straightforward as the NAD. The first part of the listening session was 16/44 and 24/96 FLAC and WAV files. 

The sound was very pleasant. The bass had impact, reasonable depth and drive, the midrange was pleasant, and the highs were good but with just a hint of splashiness (again, compared to my $9000 monoblocks). Soundstaging was forward of the loudspeakers, with good width and depth. What struck me was the amount of detail and resolution I was getting. In that, the Nuforce punched WAY above it's price class.

The Bottom Line

While the Nuforce had better bass, soundstaging and an amazing amount of detail, to my ears and in my system the sound was a bit splashy, which does not make it a long term listening choice. The NAD, while not possesing the detail of the Nuforce, having woolier bass, and that remote, still to my ears was more musically satisfying. It's a pity for Tweek Geek, as we are not NAD dealers. That, plus the sheer flexibility of inputs, and a subwoofer out makes the NAD a clear winner. Sorry Nuforce.