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Stereophile Reviews the PP 3 Digital Phono Preamplifier

October 2, 2010

NAD PP 3 DIGITAL PHONO PREAMPLIFIER

Even Mikey Fremer is surprised at vinyl's current popularity. Some pundits postulate that eventually CDs will die out, and we'll be faced with the choice of LPs or downloads. (I hope not, I'm just getting used to CDs). With abundant sources of new pop releases and a wide range of reissues on vinyl, and a variety of used LPs, every audiophile should own a turntable. And with the availability of affordable turntables such as the Pro-Ject Debut III, which I reviewed in the February 2010 Stereophile, the cost of entry to Vinyl Land is not very dear. The problem is that so few entry-level integrated amplifiers and receivers available today include phono stages. (The Marantz PM5003, which I reviewed in the January 2010 issue, is a notable exception.)

NAD PP 3 DIGITAL PHONO PREAMPLIFIERNAD has solved this problem by offering the PP 3 moving-magnet/moving-coil ($199). The PP 3 has circuitry identical to that of the PP 2 phono stage ($129), but adds a line input and a 16-bit analog-to-digital converter with USB interface, to permit the conversion of LPs to a digital format via a Mac or PC computer. The PP 3 has both MC and MM inputs, as well as a USB output (a USB cable is supplied). NAD also includes the Vinyl Studio Lite software, to facilitate converting the analog signal to a computer file.

NAD's Greg Stidsen told me that, in order for the PP 3 to perform to the "NAD standards" of ultra low noise, wide dynamic range, high overload margins, accurate RIAA equalization, and low distortion across the entire audio band, NAD included high-quality, audio-specific transistors and capacitors. Moreover, the PP 3's A/D converter is powered by the USB bus, effectively creating separate analog and digital power supplies.

I tested the PP 3 via its MM input using my Rega Planar 3 turntable with Syrinx PU-3 tonearm and Clearaudio Virtuoso Wood cartridge, driving a Creek Destiny integrated amplifier and Epos M5i speakers. (A Follow-Up review of the Epos M5i is in the works).

Sound

I entered this reviewing process with some expectations of what I'd hear from the PP 3. I've enjoyed listening to a wide range of NAD gear over the years, beginning with the 7020 receiver I bought for my wife when we began dating, in the Mid-1980s. At the time, I thought NAD electronics had a unique sonic signature: a rich, lush midrange, a slightly warm midbass, and slightly sweetened highs, but not enough HF extension or top-end air. The 218 THX power amplifier I reviewed in the August 1999 Stereophile (www.stereophile.com/solidpoweramps/899nad), although a much more modern design than the earlier products derived from the original 3020 integrated amp, had the same NAD house sound.

So I was surprised to discover that, over a wide range of LPs, the PP 3 used as a regular phono preamps, was a more neutral performer than any other NAD component I'd heard, with extended frequency extremes and quite a bit of air. The midrange exhibited a rich, vibrant, holographic character that made me want to listen to a broad palette of vocalists. Dionne Warwick's voice in Hal David and Burt Bacharach's "Wishin' and Hopin'," from her Golden Hits Part One (LP, Scepter SPM 565), was bathed in a golden ambient glow, and the trumpet counterpoint had a silky metallic sheen. I've always felt the Doors' Jim Morrison was underrated as a ballad singer, and in "The Unknown Soldier," from Waiting for the Sun (LP, Elektra, LPZ 2049), the NAD revealed his sultry baritone with all his subtle dynamic inflections intact. Exploring further up the vocal range brought me to Jack Bruce's original recording of his "Theme for an Imaginary Western," from songs for a Tailor (LP, Atco SD 33-306). His song's boisterous bridge was forceful yet silky through the NAD, with no trace of hardness. But the NAD didn't gloss over Tom Waits' guttural growl in his "Big in Japan," from Mule Variations (LP, Anti-/Epitaph 86547-1); all of his dynamic phrasing and pitch inflections were as clear as I've heard them through more expensive phono stages.

"I can't believe NAD can produce a product of this quality at this price."

The NAD's overall neutrality, delicacy, and resolution of detail made it a good match for well-recorded jazz. In "Gloria's Steps," from Bill Evans' Live at the Village Vanguard (LP, Verve 9378), the middle range of his delicate piano playing was reproduced without coloration, and with all his subtle phrasing intact. Moreover, it was very easy to follow all the subtleties of Paul Motian's delicate background drumming in this track, even at low volumes. On "Goodbye Port Pie Hat," from Mingus Ah Um (LP, Columbia KC 65512), Charlie Mingus's melodic bass lines were woody, deep, and airy, with no overhang or coloration.

What most floored me about the PP 3's performance was its ability to render lightning-fast transients with a good sense of dynamic slam. Bill Summers' percussion interlude on the bridge of "Palm Grease," from Herbie Hancock's Thrust (LP, Columbia KC 32965), covers a broad range of syncopated percussion textures; with the NAD, the instruments seemed to jump out of the speakers in the front of the stage, giving the tune a lifelike quality. At the delicate end of the transient spectrum, the rpaid-fire passages in Artur Rubinstein's readings of Chopin's Scherzos (LP, RCA Living Stereo LSC-2368) retained all their delicacy and speed without a trace of smearing, especially in the more-difficult-to-reproduce upper-register passages.

Finally, with cranked-up rock tunes, the PP 3 exhibited a strong sense of coherences, pacing, and rhythmic consistency, whether reproducing such simple arrangements as Ten Years After's "Love Like a Man," from Greatest Hits (LP, London LC 50008), or more elaborate, densely packed tracks such as Genesis' "Dance on a Volcano," from A Trick of the Tail (LP, ATCO SD-36-129). Listening to either of these tunes, I found it hard to sit still—I itched to twitch, grab a partner, and dance around the room. But my wife wasn't home, and neither of the dogs was interested.

Comparisons

I compared the NAD PP 3 with the phono stage included in the Marantz PM5003 integrated amplifier via the Creek Destiny's Aux input, as well as with the Destiny's MM phono board (a $500 option).

The Marantz and the NAD resolved similar amounts of detail, but the former had a silkier midrange. The Marantz's high frequencies were somewhat less refined than the NAD's, but I felt its dynamics were slightly better. The Creek phono stage, however, was in an entirely different league. The Destiny's more detailed midrange was more holographic and rich than that of either of the two other phono stages, with a much greater sense of purity in the highs. The Creek also exhibited more subtle gradations of low-level dynamic articulation and a more natural sense of bloom.

Computer

I looked forward to the USB portion of the testing for a number of reasons. First, I've been looking for an easier way to transfer some of my 12,000 LPs to my wife's iPod. Up till now, the only way I could do it was to transfer the albums to CD using my Marantz professional CD recorder, which means playing the entire album, and manually advancing each track during the track breaks in a real time. This process is so tedious that I've taken the lazy way out, buying a copy on CD and loading that into iTunes.

But I'm a Luddite who has little patience with computer programs I don't know; in short, everything except Microsoft Word, Microsoft Outlook and Make Music's superb music-composition software, Finale. Even iTunes intimidates me. I lack the patience to read manuals; basically, software has to tech me how to use it as I go along, with no glitches or confusion. In that regard, the Vinyl Studio Lite software, which NAD includes with the PP 3, was a dream to use. (The full version, which offers a greater choice of file types and other options, is downloadable from www.alpinesoft.co.uk; it costs $29.95 and is available in both PC and Mac versions.)

After I'd connected the PP 3 to my teenage son's very basic IBM/Lenovo T61 laptop, the software walked me through the steps. First, I checked the levels to make sure I wasn't overdriving the input of the A/D converter. Then I set the Needle Down input level control (which recognizes the track's minimum signal level) and the Needle Up delay time (how long the program keeps recording when the music ends), and proceeded to record the title track of Steely Dan's Aja (LP, ABC AA 1006). The idea is that, once you hit the Record button and go to play the LP, the software knows when to begin and end the recording, based on the Needle Down and Needle Up settings. I hit Record.

Immediately, the software scolded me for two mistakes I'd made. It had noticed that the zero signal level was higher than it should have been, and correctly deduced that there was hum in the system. It turned out that the combination of lighting up my workstation with a halogen lamp and the tonearm's ground wire accidentally slipping off the Creek's ground post was the problem. I fixed it. Thanks, Vinyl Studio Lite.

"dynamic phrasing and pitch inflections were as clear as I've heard them through more expensive phono stages"

The software then noticed that my son's computer was set to record in low-resolution mono. I got an error message that said, in effect, "Don't you really want a stereo 44.1kHz WAV file?" (MP3 is also an option) Well, now I was cooking. As I was recording only a single track, I declined to use the program's seemingly convenient track-separation feature, which displays a visual depiction of the album's signal wave-form, making it easy to use the mouse to divide an album's worth of music into individual tracks.

After the track was finished, I burned a CD from the WAV file, sat down, and compared that version of "Aja" with the original vinyl. Yes, there was a noticeable difference. The original vinyl had silkier highs, a richer midrange, and a slightly warmer midbass. I also felt the CD copy subtracted a bit of air, and there was a subtle, crisp tension where the upper midrange and lower highs meet. This manifested itself as drummer Steve Gadd's hi-hat sounding slightly splashier than normal. However, none of these deficiencies was significant, as the file I had recorded with the NAD PP 3 and Vinyl Studio Lite left the original's harmonic and dynamic signatures pretty much intact, and there was no sense of fatigue or strain. For copying vinyl to an iPod, well, it was good enough. My son's laptop has no I/O devices with any audiophile pretensions; if you have a more serious computer, you may get somewhat better results.

Conclusion

In the PP 3 phono preamplifier, NAD has produced a detailed, uncolored, and dynamic performer. It's A/D converter is fairly impressive, and its USB recording function is a breeze to use with the Vinyl Studio Lite software, even for this Luddite. In fact, it was so easy that I plan to purchase the review sample, just in case my wife decides she wants to add the first Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys album to her iPod. (I may want to add some Xavier Cugat.)

By even the most critical audiophile standards, the PP 3 has no meaningful flaws; I can't believe NAD can produce a product of this quality at this price. So, all of you out there: Go pick up one of these puppies to match with a Pro-Ject or Music Hall turntable, and grab one of those Fremer-endorsed Spin Clean record-cleaning machines. Then hit every yard sale you can find, load your spoils into your computer, and you'll have the hippest iPod in town!

Stereophile - October 2010 - Robert J. Reina

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