Numbers show that the NAD 3020 may be the best-selling integrated amplifier in hi-fi history. NAD's founder, Marty Borish, believes they sold 1.3 million units; of those, 500,000 were sold in Great Britain alone. Certainly it was the most successful product in the UK at the time, from its 1978 introduction at £69.99, and it transformed what was then just another hi-fi company, originally called "New Acoustic Dimension," into one of the most influential brands of the 1980s and 1990s. The phenomenon started in the UK.
• Find receivers to pair with the NAD C315BEE.
Quite how a gutless, unreliable piece of junk like the NAD 3020 became the Heinz Ketchup of amplifiers is easy to understand. When it was launched, the UK market was in the thrall of the press, which consisted of malleable journalists who would swallow any hype thrown at them. Equally, NAD was distributed by "Hi-Fi Markets," a then-omnipotent aggregate of independent retailers. Between them, the timing was as perfect as the iPod's.
Reality was quite different. The sound quality of the NAD 3020 wasn't "superior" to far better budget amps from Trio (Kenwood), Marantz or Sansui. Instead, it was different by virtue of being innocuous - even without the useless "soft clipping" in play. As a result, it sounded euphonic next to far more accurate rivals, softer even than aged valve amps.
Power? It barely drove the small Celestions and KEFs usually paired with it; thankfully, NAD had the foresight to include pre-out facilities so it could later sell a separate power amp to the wattage-bereft customer, concerned because the volume control twisted all the way to the right most of the time. Owners, though, never complained for fear of looking stupid in light of the near-unanimous worship of the 3020 by now-virtually-unemployable audio hacks.
Its input sockets were feeble and easy to snap off, the buttons had a habit of flying across the room and the amps died with alarming frequency. But the scribblers worshipped the 3020 as a stepping-stone along the path to the more costly Linn-Naim system. In 2008, because people have such a weak grasp of history, the lowly NAD 3020 still commands £70 or so on eBay.
Fed by the Marantz CD12/DA12 CD player via Kimber cables, with Yter delivering the signal to PMC DB1+, Sonus faber Guarneri or Rogers LS3/5A speaker systems, the C315BEE's performance continually surprised and enchanted, especially the way it caressed the LS3/5As. Two characteristics marked this standout performance, the most obvious being its real-world power. It could make the LS3/5As clip, but best of all, it could genuinely access the full range of the Guarneri. This is no mean feat: I've heard far costlier, more powerful amplifiers fail to drive the Italian masterwork.
When fed Keb' Mo's "For What It's Worth," the richness and attack of the bass had the same substance I expect from and experienced not long before with massive Krells. While there's no substitute for wattage, the NAD certainly has the right stuff for normal rooms, through probably any speaker in its price class. It was only when hammering the Guarneris that power became an issue.
I am not saying that NAD has defied all reason and come up with a dreadnought of an amplifier for under £200, able to massacre £6000-plus powerhouses. Close scrutiny reveals slight restraint in the absolute dynamic swings, the lowest reaches of the bass will not cause the room to quake and massive drums will reveal its absolute limits. But neither is it so painfully obvious at sane listening levels as to undermine the way this amplifier excels at its price level.
Far more important is the other characteristic that turned me into a champion of this amplifier: a mid-band so lifelike that the textures of vocals, its intimations of warmth, a sort of realistic sibilance presented in the correct context so authentic that even the LS3/5As could not embarrass it. Gravel-throated Johnny Cash at San Quentin, singing with his crystal-clear-voiced wife June Carter Cash, benefited from the amplifier's ability to retain their voices' characteristics even in tandem, as tricky a situation to resolve as any in music playback. To confirm this, I pulled out Lou Rawls' duets with Dianne Reeves and Louis Armstrong's with Ella Fitzgerald to see if these juxtapositions enjoyed the same respectful handling. And so they did: perfect balance.
Forgive my use of politically incorrect stereotypes, but one might posit that most £180 amps end up with students or those newly added to the work force, not ordinarily fans of lounge-style vocals. The good news? The '315 fears no genre. From Prince to Velvet Revolver to the White Stripes, the NAD could deliver hot transients and the requisite crunch. Headroom? In abundance, provided you use the '315 with real-world speaker loads. While there are occasional hints of top-end restraint - shades of the accursed '3020 - the '315 is rarely less than commanding.
Which is, I suppose, a back-handed compliment. Saying that a system can
resolve Rage Against the Machine is like saying you have a fine crystal
goblet that also does justice to Red Bull. An area where the old '3020
won the hearts of the many was the way it rarely sounded putridly,
teeth-jarringly bad. Boring, weak, cloudy - perhaps. But it never
exactly drove you from the room, probably because it was so bland: it's
hard to object violently to a meringue. The '315 possesses this same
ability to seem continuously euphonic, but not by acting like the audio
equivalent of air-brushing out zits from a photo. The '315 does not
obscure textures, dynamics, tonal hues. It does not homogenize.
Mountain's Masters of War (Big Rack Records), by Leslie West's
still-active powerhouse band, almost 40 years on. West has delivered
the weirdest Bob Dylan homage yet, everything from acoustic blues to HM
interpretations of Dylan's early protest classics. Via the NAD, the
set's varying textures, including fuzz-tone guitar and the sort of
electro-acoustic picking used by Jimmy Page during Led Zep's quieter
moments, serve up stunning contrasts. They attested to the '315's
speed, clarity, coherence and attack - four qualities missing from its
West is possibly the most underrated
guitarist of the rock era, remembered mainly for the riff from
"Mississippi Queen." His mastery of everything from raw blues to heavy
metal to intricate finger-picking warrants placement alongside Randy
California and Jeff Beck. He swings from delicate to thunderous, subtle
to in-yer-face, within a single phrase. The NAD took his axe-wielding
in its stride, sliding from cool-to-hot, mellow-to-acidic, with utter
Best of all, it captured the rasp of West's anguished
vocals, which I first heard live in 1966 when he was with the Vagrants.
It bears a rawness possessed by the most tormented of bluesmen,
powerful enough to rival an amplified instrument. The NAD dared not
Amusingly, the dumbest number on the CD - Corky
Laing's drum-and-vocal "Like a Rolling Stone" - was possibly the best
demo track: the NAD kept the rap-like delivery of the lyrics perfectly
separated from the taut, dry percussion. Even more revealing of the
NAD's merits, via this track, was the spatial presentation, deeper,
wider and more real than any soundstage the '3020 ever attempted to
Competition and Comparison
You can compare the NAD C315BEE against other amplifiers by reading our reviews for the ROTEL RB-1092 amplifier and the Outlaw Audio RR2150 amplifier. You can also read the NAD C 725BEE amplifier review to compare the two NAD products. For more information, please visit our Amplifier section.
It's this which makes the C315BEE so rewarding, in
true high-end form. It allows the listener to "get inside the music,"
involved with an intimacy denied to most components of sub- 200 price
tags. For some, detail is of the utmost importance, for others, tonal
neutrality is crucial. If you adore mono, then soundstage recreation
means little. But when you hear how big the '315 can sound - dimensions
rather than mere level - you will appreciate how its performance defies
its price category.
Every time NAD launches a budget integrated
amplifier, they bill it as "the new NAD 3020." As I said, the 3020 was
probably the most successful entry-level-integrated amp of all time. It
started more Brits on the hi-fi path than anything after Rogers or
Leak, and swung US budget audiophile tastes from AM/FM receivers into
tuner-less integrateds. Thus it's no surprise NAD wants the world to
regard the C315BEE as the heir to that particular throne. But to crown
it "the NAD 3020 of the Noughties" is to insult the C315BEE, which is
better in every way imaginable, including value.
I adore this
amp, so much so that I would fight tooth and nail for it to win both
"Amplifier Under $1000" and "Product of the Year" awards. Yes, it's
that good. What else would I like to see? An "SE" version, with an IEC
mains socket and NAD's phono stage built in, for, say, 249/$500. And
what would that do? Probably destroy the market for all amps south of
$1000. But, damn, suddenly you would find hordes of very happy,
fiscally-challenged music lovers out there.