Nad PP3 digital phono/usb preamp
Here’s a way to get your vinyl into your computer without breaking the bank.
SPIN-OFF products present a slew of opportunities, crossselling and up-selling customers to potential gear which, until very recently, was not on anyone’s radar. These days, PCs play such an integral part in everyone’s lives that it was only a matter of time before it encroached into the hallowed grounds of hi-fi in its traditional sense.
Indeed, this is already prevalent and the NAD PP3 phono/USB preamp reviewed here is a prime example of converging technologies and the resultant products that evolve from them.
In the flesh
As with a number of entry-level (and non-entry level for that matter) gear of the present, the PP3 is manufactured in China, looks solidly constructed and in typical NAD fashion, functional.
Dressed in its usual industrial grey hue, the PP3 is diminutive at only 13.5 x 4.3 x 7.2cm (w/h/d) and weighs less than 1kg.
Features are relatively sparse, providing for the usual line-in/lineout and MM/MC selector switch. An extra set of line-level inputs allows the PP3 to act somewhat like a linelevel junction box, useful for those with limited inputs in their amplification, although I feel the beneficiaries will not be many.
A USB port adorns the fascia, together with 2 LEDs indicating power and USB function engaged.
The phono stage provides input impedances of 47k and 100 ohms, with outputs of 5mV and 0.38mV for MM and MC respectively. A built-in 16-bit analogue-to-digital convertor (ADC) running at 48kHz, together with the USB port, are the only extras on an otherwise minimalist box.
A 24V DC wall-wart power supply and connecting USB cable complete the package. As with other manufacturers these days, NAD is also going green and dispenses with instruction manuals. Instead, the required details are printed on the box itself; not a bad idea at all.
The PP3 substituted my Trichord Dino, being fed with a Rega P3-24/ RB301/Couple/Benz Micro MC Gold front end. Amplification used was an Exposure 3010S2 driving a pair of Acoustic Energy Aegis Evo3 floorstanders via Gotham 50025 speaker cables. On standby was also a HRT Music Streamer 2 for digitised music playback comparisons. Interconnects used were an alternate combination of AudioQuest Jade and King Cobra.
The PP3 came with the Vinyl Studio Lite software that needs to be installed for USB applications. Installation on my ThinkPad X100e portable running Windows 7 Home Premium was a breeze – I just needed to follow the on-screen prompts and all the necessary components were installed without fuss.
The PP3 barely needed any running in, sounding energetic and fulsome right out of the box. I had a brief spell with the outgoing PP2 prior to this and the family resemblance was obvious. The NAD signature DNA of a smooth and lush midband, warm high and lows was immediately evident on this latest incarnation.
What the PP3 won on, however, was the extra immediacy, an additional sense of involvement the PP2 never quite managed to achieve. The PP3 created quite an impression – it never pretended to be the absolute last word in transparency or neutrality (my decade-old Trichord would still show it a clean pair of heels) but the sheer enjoyment derived from the PP3’s musicmaking can’t be denied.
I browsed around for more information and gathered that part of the PP3’s design mainstay included creating separate analogue and digital power supplies, effectively executed by its USB bus-powered ADC stage. In practice, this quite possibly translated to the improvements I noticed over what I recalled of the PP2. Going back to immediacy – the PP3 scored a big plus here, sounding very grown up. Even with the slight midrange bias towards lushness, it sustained intricate passages without overtly losing coherence and air.
Plugging on the USB connector to the X100e’s port presented some teething hiccups. Windows picked the USB input, the device was ready but I wasn’t able to adjust recording levels, no matter what I tried. I even removed Vinyl Studio Lite and reinstalled, thinking that it could be a driver issue but to no avail.
After much tinkering, I finally found a manual workaround, which entailed manually selecting the PP3 as the recording device for each recording session. Hardly ideal, but I suspect this was more a limitation of this basic version of the Vinyl Studio software. A quick check on the Web showed updated versions of Vinyl Studio available for download; this might be worth exploring for punters to automate this process as much as possible.
All my digitising efforts were done in 16-bit at the maximum 48KHz sampling and ripped to FLAC. Playing back the recorded vinyl rips showed some discernible compression setting in at the frequency extremes. This could have possibly been minimised by applying a judicious amount of recording level control adjustments but I felt the trade-off was a loss of liveliness to the recording that made it sound too cold and digital.
Granted, digitised playback is not part of the PP3’s intended strong suits, but the same tracks via the Music Streamer 2 sounded comparatively more open and engaging.
Icing on the cake
It is difficult to find sub-RM1,000 gear these days that can comfortably fit into anything beyond an entry-level system and expect it to gel without being found too wanting. I would have hesitated recommending the PP2 for this very reason but feel much more comfortable with the new and improved iteration.
Competition is stiff in this price stratum; the likes of Rega, Project and Cambridge Audio all have something in their arsenal catering to the budget audiophile looking for a phono stage that can withstand at least the next level component upgrade.
But if you, like me, are now exploring digitising your vinyl collection for posterity, the NAD PP3’s USB advantage is a good sounding-board for various archival options before committing to more elaborate set-ups.
Even without the USB feature, the PP3 is pretty good value for what’s on offer. That it is available is the icing on what already is a fairly tasteful cake.
A new dimension: Note the USB port on the NAD PP3 phono/USB preamp.
Busier than usual: And that’s because the PP3 is not just a phono stage.