Nad PP3 dig­i­tal phono/usb preamp

Here’s a way to get your vinyl into your com­puter with­out break­ing the bank.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By KHAIRAN NASIR

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.

Im­me­di­ate thrill

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.

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