Into another dimension
From a distribution co-operative to an iconic audio brand that brought affordable hi-fi to millions, the growth of the New Acoustic Dimension concept “was a wonderful ride”, as NAD’s late great founder Martin L. Borish put it.
NAD’s audio equipment today is sold in over 80 countries. The company is recognised for pioneering work in amplification from the budget mid-range to the highly-regarded series of Masters series products, among them the M2 ‘Direct Digital’ amplifier recognised in our Sound+Image Ultimate 30 this issue (see p26). With its sister brand Bluesound delivering what is arguably the best experience available in wireless multiroom audio, NAD today is also positioned to lead the new wave of smart streaming audio equipment. And as it pushes to these new heights, its success remains built on core values established by Martin (Marty) L. Borish, who passed away this July, aged 89. Even back in 1963 when he was a humble national high-fidelity sales manager, he was making these views clear, in a “disagreement” reported in Phono-Tape Merchandising, saying: “Customers want equipment that looks good in their homes and doesn’t occupy a lot of space. They want integrated compact component systems that are or can easily be put into cabinets.” In the years to come, Marty Borish would make it just so — and then some.
The idea for ‘a different approach’ to hi-fi was developed further at the start of the 1970s through a small group of international audio distributors looking for marketable electronics “with a non-traditional outlook” — affordable, but truly audio-orientated. Eight European distributors met in Munich, Germany, to discuss the concept, with plans to distribute initially in Germany, Italy, France, Switzerland and UK. They discussed the possibility of working as a co-operative to launch a new brand, and even came up with a name — New Acoustic Dimension, or NAD for short.
And perhaps most enthused among this group, and certainly influential with his ideas, was the gregarious gent at the table representing Acoustic Research in Boston, at the time one of the world’s early true hi-fi speaker makers — Mr Borish again. He was a native of New Jersey, and had followed his father into the family optometry business until his love of music drove him towards the idea of retailing the nascent breed of high fidelity equipment — he would cater to the ears of customers instead of their eyes. In those days of circuits and mods he decided a degree of electronics education would be essential to success, and he completed a Bachelors in
Electrical Engineering alongside the challenge of opening HiFi Haven in 1956, his own retail shop, in New Brunswick, New Jersey. This was a success, but the excitement clearly lay in developing and designing rather than merely selling the ever-improving new hi-fi products that were appearing in increasing quantities and qualities, and he soon decamped to Boston, to become an employee of Acoustic Research, working alongside industry pioneers like Henry Kloss and Edgar Villchur. His combination of enthusiasm and understanding of retailer needs saw him rise over his 11 years with Acoustic Research to become President and CEO, and his contact with the company’s distributors and dealers both in America and overseas led to that landmark co-operative discussion in 1972.
What did the market need? High fidelity at the time was driven by connoisseur classical listeners seeking the highest fidelity to concert performances. But after the musical revolution of the 1960s, the rise of the rock and the importance of the LP over the single as the ‘adult’ way to consume music, there was a clear opportunity to deliver an affordable path to higher quality sound for younger music fans, one that didn’t require wiring your own circuits or building your own speakers — just as Borish had emphasised back in 1963. While there were already pre-built and relatively mass-market products available, the most reputable electronics brands of the time were too pricey for many, while the affordable market was dominated by poor quality imports from global electronics giants. And both types of products had become loaded with functions and complexity that NAD’s founders thought got in the way of the music, and wasted unnecessary funds.
So the gift that Borish and the co-operative committee gave to us all was that their goal was not merely to deliver convenience and affordability, but to focus so intently on audio quality, even if consumers couldn’t see it, or didn’t really know that they wanted it.
From some brief histories of NAD, you’d think that the classic minimalist 3020 amplifier was the immediate result of this new philosophy for mid-range hi-fi. But that was still six years away. The early NAD amplifiers in 1974 and 1975 bear little external resemblance to the classics to come. “Solid craftsmanlike finish” was one of their key selling points for the NAD Model 60 (2 × 35W), the NAD 90 (2 × 55W) and the NAD 200 (2 × 100W ‘with Dolby’), with the flagship festooned with knobs, switches and VU meters presenting just the kind of complexity soon to be stripped away. But the messages of quality and value were clearly expressed in the company’s 1975 catalogue.
“New Acoustic Dimension — NAD for short — is a new concept in top quality high fidelity,” it explained excitedly. “American, European and Japanese engineers working with the leading dealers and distributors in the industry have developed a new design philosophy — to develop and offer equipment
which will reproduce music so that it is as close to the original as the state of modern technology permits, in a price class which sets new international standards for performance.”
Aside from the “craftsmanlike finish” and two-year warranty, the key claim for the amplifiers was the achievement of Flat Power Output, so that the rated power output was available from “extreme bass” to “extreme treble”. The response curve shown in the catalogue is ruler-flat from 20Hz to 20kHz.
The range of VU meter-carrying metal-fronted 1975 NAD products also included three receivers, a tape deck, the NAD 100 tuner, and four headphones, including the electrostatic NAD 20 and the planar magnetic RP 18. They received positive reactions from many who heard them, including the press. And critically, says NAD with hindsight, it brought additional investors, which made possible a new beginning for the brand.
The next NAD
That 1975 catalogue had shown a NAD logo (remarkably consistent throughout its 40+ years) positioned next to the logo for
Acoustic Research. But by 1976 Marty Borish was so convinced of NAD’s potential that he resigned his Presidency at Acoustic Research to set up a new NAD headquarters in the UK. The question remained pricing — who could design a high-quality amplifier that could be made at the mid-range prices he wanted to hit?
The answer was Norwegian Bjorn ‘BEE’ Erik Edvardsen (pictured), who it is de rigeur to describe in terms such as “young genius amplifier designer”. Edvardsen had studied in Edinburgh and gathered experience at ITT, Dolby Laboratories and then at Acoustic Research, from whence he had been involved in NAD from its early days as Technical Director, crucially forging a relationship with Taiwan’s Fulet Electronic to achieve low-cost quality-controlled production.
With this advantage, the growing UK-based team of engineers led by Edvardsen experimented and refined their electronics, testing new circuits and new configurations.
But they still did not whip out the 3020 overnight. The next range was finalised in late 1977 and released to what was then a relatively limited distribution network for the brand — mainly highend shops wanting something to compete with those mid-fi Far Eastern brands that dominated the lower price levels.
Those products included the 3030, 3045, 3060 and 3080 integrated amps, their power ratings indicated by the last two numbers of the model numbers… except, confusingly, the 3080, which was rated at 90W per channel. Two tuners were also released, the 4030 and 4080, and three receivers — 7030, 7045, 7060 and the flagship model, the NAD 7080 (again 90W per channel).
Here began NAD’s famous habit of quoting reliable and often understated power ratings; the 3080 in particular is noted as a “world’s first amplifier with FDP into 2 ohms” — FDP being Full Disclosure Power (see panel).
The relatively small numbers of this 1978 range make them a rare find these days, and early reviews were not 100% laudatory; the UK’s David Prakel remembers the publisher of Hi-Fi Sound getting “a letter questioning my parentage” from NAD’s UK distributor following a fairly non-critical review of the 7060 receiver, though this led to a review in Hi-Fi Answers of the 3030 which was far more positive. UK PR legend Andy Giles remembers arranging for journalists to meet the young and enthusiastic Edvardsen in person, and of course by then there was a new model under development, rated at a mere 20W per channel, but with a few tricks behind its shockingly plain fascia.
The people’s amplifier
Famously, the NAD 3020 became the best-selling amplifier in history. Not that its appearance promised such success.
“We joked about its military look,” Stereophile’s Jon Iverson told Stephen Mejias in a 2013 article. Mejias described the original 3020 as “a rather funereal but purposeful-looking thing with a drab gray chassis and large, blockish buttons… and the kind of cheap plastic speaker-binding clips that too easily break when carelessly used.” Yet Iverson sold “boatloads” of them, remembering that “it always outperformed any similarly
priced receiver. It gave us a secret weapon with a great story — killer sound, perfect set of features, and nothing more.”
Critics around the world agreed — there is surely no low-power amplifier in hi-fi history that has received such praise. The 3020’s accuracy, musicality, and seemingly effortless power made it “the people’s amplifier” as well as the hi-fi hub of choice for thousands of students and first-time system builders.
“When our customers bought a 3020, they felt like they had turned the corner and stepped up to caring about sound,” recalled Iverson. “If you walked into someone’s apartment and they had a 3020, you thought to yourself, ‘Yes. This person has audio discernment.’”
That’s a lot of audio discernment, then, given NAD is believed to have sold more than a million 3020s, with its ongoing variants, the 3020A, 3020B, 3020E, 3020i, and through to the radical revisitation of the latest D 3020 compact amplifier bearing its number.
So what made the 3020 such a success? Certainly the simple and unpretentious exterior kept more funds available for the circuits within, and NAD had gone without gimmickry to concentrate on the essentials. Not that the 3020 was shorn of all versatility — quite the opposite, indeed. Removable jumpers on the rear panel allowed users to tailor the 3020 to their specific needs. So the preamp outputs could be used with a different power amp, while for its own power stage there were two sets of inputs, one of which (‘Normal’) filtered both subsonically and infrasonically, the other (‘Lab In’) being direct.
But perhaps its two biggest secret weapons were its Soft Clipping circuit, and a variable ‘Loudness’ control. The latter enabled the amplifier to maintain its sense of balance even at low volumes, with lower frequencies still full even under casual use and the amplifier able to deliver its inherent musicality.
The Soft Clipping circuit was Edvardsen’s master stroke. It enabled an amplifier of this price level to perform beyond its natural abilities with just the kind of speakers with which it might be partnered, and in situations where it might be overdriven. Instead of clipping distortion, the Soft Clipping circuit limited the amount of high-frequency energy delivered to the speaker, reining back gently as the point of clipping approached. This not only protected tweeters from frying, it allowed much clearer sound reproduction, and higher volumes than would otherwise be possible. Purists with better speakers didn’t need to use it — it could be switched off. But for party time? Turn it on. It was a perfect implementation for exactly the kind of rock and pop fans NAD had always wished to address.
Our favourite description of the 3020 comes, perhaps appropriately, from another Norwegian, Karl Erik Sylthe, writing on audiophile.no. The 3020 seemed, he says, “apparently a pingle, with its 20 watts. However, tests with speakers accounting for very demanding loads showed that it coped excellently, and served both sound and power adequate for most tasks from its simple and unpretentious cabinet, coupled with the flexibility pre-out/main-in link provided, and a sympathetic low price.” With such abilities, the 3020 became an unlikely status symbol.
A platform for success
So with the 3020, NAD developed a huge customer base, which included a cult-like following enthused by ongoing releases. It also realised funds for ongoing investment in innovation for its stripped-back design and audio-focused engineering.
In 1981 the company’s 6150 C cassette deck was the world’s first to feature Dolby C noise reduction, while the 3140 amplifier was the first with Bass EQ (then called ‘Speaker EQ’ in its manual), providing a 12dB per octave boost below either 45Hz or 70Hz depending on your switch setting. NAD offered three reasons for its inclusion — the rapid bass drop-off of many speakers, the deliberate bass filtering applied during vinyl mastering, and the tendency of listening rooms to bias mid-bass frequencies through standing waves,
requiring a correction in the lower bass. As a fourth reason they could have added “and some people just like more bass”. It’s a preference that has survived — ‘Bass EQ’ still exists on the latest D 3020, though it’s relegated to a small button at the back where it can’t be accidentally activated.
NAD’s first CD player came in 1984, and another new amplifier technology in 1985, NAD’s “Power Envelope”, first appearing in the 2200 power amplifier and evolving into what NAD today calls PowerDrive, a patented amplifier circuit that uses a dual-rail power supply that can “handle the rough terrain, much like an all-wheel drive automobile, slipping automatically into this control only
when needed”. The result is high dynamic power and low impedance drive capability able to continuously drive a four-ohm speaker load at full bandwidth, and with all channels driven simultaneously — or in sonic terms, explosive dynamics and control even with highly demanding speakers.
In 1991 NAD was acquired by its Danish distributor AudioNord, which held the company until 1999. It wasn’t an entirely successful marriage. Although under AudioNord NAD delivered technologies such as NAD LINK and products like the NAD 502 CD player and the 302 and 304 integrated amplifiers, which found acclaim and awards, the new owners continued to focus on stereo offerings at a time when many potential purchasers were looking to expand into home cinema and surround sound. It was 1999 by the time profitability returned, and in May that year AudioNord sold NAD to another NAD distributor, this time in Canada — Lenbrook.
Over to Lenbrook
Thankfully Lenbrook didn’t see NAD as “just a brand”, and clearly Lenbrook didn’t see itself as just a distributor either. NAD came to Lenbrook with its original skill-set intact — Bjorn Erik Edvardsen was still with the company, Marty Borish was still a board member, and under the leadership
of Lenbrook’s Robert Brown and Gregory Stidsen, the new team set out not only to build NAD back to greatness, but to establish a group of innovative audio companies, which now includes the Canadian PSB speakers with legendary designer Paul Barton, and the Lenbrook-developed Bluesound, which launched into the streaming multiroom space as the most accomplished of platforms (and we gather that Marty Borish wasn’t without influence in the development of Bluesound).
But it wasn’t an easy start. By now NAD was producing AV receivers, including in 2002 the Solution Series of all-in-one DVD receivers, but it was playing catch-up with mass-market brands, and had other problems with reliability and overcomplexity. Speaking at the time, Lenbrook’s Chairman and NAD’s President Robert Brown told Forbes, “We’ve had to redesign the whole product line. It cost us millions of dollars. But we didn’t have a choice.” It was only in 2003 that NAD hit its stride in this sector, with the powerful five, six, and seven-channel models of the AVR Series.
Masters of sound
Meanwhile in two-channel, Brown hinted at what was to come — “a fancy alternative that appeals to music lovers”. Forbes noted that audio snobs didn’t consider NAD to be truly high-end, while NAD’s “mid-fi market is
crowded with rivals, including premium brands that Onkyo, Pioneer and Sony have created, the same way Toyota created
Lexus.” Brown was having none of it. “All those people who bought their big TVs will come back, and their next purchase is going to be in audio,” he told
Forbes. “We can survive and prosper.” And in 2005 came the first Masters series, announced as the ultimate achievement of NAD’s legendary engineer.
“Bjorn Erik Edvardsen”, read the announcement. “Over decades his work has earned 5-Star reviews. But the new Masters Series is his new benchmark for superiority”. It was based on three principles: “proprietary thinking, technological breakthroughs and unsurpassed specifications,” said the company, so defining a new, more challenging level of engineering. “The Masters Series is built far better than systems have to be. It has massive quality within. Nothing was spared, from the use of one-of-kind “Holmgren” transformers, to special ‘wave form’ heat sinks and housings of thick high-grade steel. Instead of mere build quality, we call it NAD Build-Artistry.”
As today it included both stereo and multichannel solutions, and it did what Brown wanted, defining a new level of performance for NAD. But the secret weapon was still to come.
In 2009 NAD’s M2 amplifier swept away any conceptions still clinging from the classics that NAD was a company that made budget amplifiers. It had the ‘Masters’ tag and stylishly purposeful design, but the M2’s boldest shout-out was the prominence given to its use of ‘Direct Digital’ amplification, included as part of the model name, no less, at a time when the use of “digital” amplification was still being greeted by your average high-end aficionado with not so much a raised eyebrow as a raised cross.
NAD was one of the first companies to investigate alternative new amplification types and to decide in their favour, and it was certainly the most prominent to emblazon its decision on the resulting product at the very top of the features list as a big bold benefit. Equally interestingly, though, NAD clearly agreed with the criticisms laid at the door of Class D amplification in general. A white paper released with the M2 had NAD’s Greg Stidsen and Diode Zetex’s Craig Bell coming together to highlight all the problems of Class D, while explaining why Direct Digital wasn’t like that.
The Direct Digital method converts PCM digital signals to 3V pulse-width modulated (PWM) signals — pulses of fixed height but varying width, as opposed to fixed width but variable value. This can be amplified directly by FET transistors up to ±50V, before passing through a rather critical tuning filter to drive the speaker outputs pretty much directly, as the name suggests. According to NAD it is the implementation of digital feedback at this filter point that allows the Direct Digital to do so much better than standard Class D, accurately correcting timing errors in the pulses every 10 nanoseconds. This “reinvented feedback”, as the engineers put it, delivered essentially a computer-controlled DAC which also amplified.
Today the Masters range includes the M32 Direct Digital integrated DAC-amplifier (pictured right), which offers 150 of those understated NAD watts, plus a stereo combination, the M12 preamplifier and M22 stereo power amplifier, the latter promising more than 250 watts per channel (continuous, full frequency range, both channels driven, with THD below 0.003% — an unimpeachable set of power rating declarations).
The Masters series also still has multichannel products — the M17 AV preamplifier and the M27 multichannel power amplifier, which delivers seven channels of 180 watts each.
Interestingly neither the M27 nor the M22 use ‘Direct Digital’ amplification; only the M32 retains that first development, though the Direct Digital process, without its high-power stage, is also a core technology in the M12 preamp/DAC. The other power amplifiers use what NAD calls ‘Hybrid Digital’, which it employs on models right down to its lower product ranges thanks to the ability to draw on two versions of the Hypex amplification used in Hybrid Digital (see panel). The top models use Hypex’s Ncore modules, increasingly found in the most high-end of amplifier brands which have clearly followed NAD’s lead in appreciating the technology’s strengths. But the earlier and slightly simpler Hypex UcD (Universal Class-D) technology still delivers remarkably flat frequency response irrespective of load impedance, and this is ideal for use in amplifiers right down to the latest C 338, released this year as the first hi-fi amplifier to come with Chromecast built in. We considered it a little blinder of a performer and featured it on our April 2017 Sound+Image cover; we are pleased to learn it has just won itself an EISA Award in recognition of its value and performance.
Indeed the C 338 seems very much the modern successor to that 3020. And with higher models increasingly offering the option of Bluesound’s BluOS to bring networking and multiroom abilities, and with NAD’s Modular Design Construction giving its higher-end units quick and easy upgradeability, NAD’s core values seem as central as ever to the continuing evolution of this unique brand. ‘A wonderful ride’, as the company’s late founder Marty Borish put it.