NAD PP 3i Phono Preamplifier

Now that it costs about $75 to gas up your car, a $199 phono preamplifier is a real bargain, especially one that digitizes your vinyl collection via the onboard USB connection.. If that isn’t enough, the NAD PP 3i even has a line input so that you can digitize your cassette collection (and 8-tracks). The PP 3i comes with Mac/PC compatible AlpineSoft’s VinylStudio Lite software or it can be downloaded with a quick visit to the NAD website , allowing you to save WAV files of your favorite albums; that’s another review for another day.

The PP 3i is powered by an included 24-volt wall wart and is always on. It only draws a couple of watts from the power line, so those worried about being green can sleep easily, knowing that leaving the PP 3i on 24/7 won’t cause glacial meltdown. Setup is straightforward, with no switches or added ephemera. You just power it up, plug in your turntable, and roll.

Begin Your Vinyl Journey

If you are just dipping your toe into the waters of analog, the PP 3i is a great place to begin building your budget analog front end. The PP 3i has inputs for MM and MC cartridges, surprising given this price. While there are only a handful of budget MC cartridges on the market, the NAD’s match with Denon’s DL-110 ($139) proved amazingly good.

Three budget turntable/cartridge combinations put the PP 3i through its paces: The AudioTechnica AT-LP120 (now discontinued for a new model with a phono preamp/USB link built-in) with Denon DL-110 MC cartridge; the new Rega RP1 turntable with stock Ortofon OM5e MM cartridge; and a freshly refurbished Dual 1219 from Fix My Dual, fitted with a brand-new Grado Red cartridge. A pair of Audio Art IC-3 interconnects ($110) transferred the signal to the Croft pre and power amplifier combination, both played through the latest Klipsch Heresy III loudspeakers.

What Does $199 Get You?

Amazingly, a lot more than I expected.  While we won’t be having a detailed discussion about finesse, air and extension, this little box did a very respectable job at getting the analog essence to the speakers. The onboard phonostage in the Croft preamp was still miles better than the little NAD, so I did what any self-respecting slacker would, and lowered my standards.

Swapping the Croft amp and preamp for a few vintage 70s receivers revealed that the NAD outperformed a couple (the Pioneer SX -424 and 535), was on par with another (Harmon Kardon 330), and fell a bit short of what was on board with the Marantz 2230. Honestly, in the day where four- and even five-figure cartridges are more commonplace than one might think, just the fact that this thing even plays music for $199 is pretty impressive.

Excels With Digital Transfers

While you might get a little bit more soundstage depth with something like the Bellari VP130, it costs more, is a lot noisier, and it won’t digitize your vinyl. Even if you don’t use the PP 3i to play music in the context of a budget hi-fi system, which it does well, its real strength is its ability to capture some of your favorite LPs for enjoyment in your car or on your iPod. So shell out another 30 bucks (or half a tank of gas) for the full version of VinylStudio and get to work.

And this is the real strength of the PP 3i, folks. If you are a true vinyl enthusiast, you will obviously end up going for much more, but ripping a stack of your favorite LPs to your iTunes library couldn’t be easier. VinylStudio makes it painless to chop your tracks up into album format and add metadata. Surprisingly, less-than-audiophile-quality records transferred to iTunes in the Apple Lossless format sounded as good if not a little better than ripping their CD counterparts, at least on a budget system.

The fun didn’t stop there. Digitizing some of my favorite hip-hop treasures from cassette yielded results that were as equally as good as the vinyl rips. Not only is Cash Money’s Where’s the Party At? now available in my iTunes library, I’m revisiting K-Tel’s Super Hits of 75 from my 8-track collection, too. Plug your 8-track deck into the high-level input and connect the PP 3i to your laptop via USB, and you are in business.

You Need It

No matter the degree of your vinyl obsession, I suggest buying the NAD PP 3i. It’s a perfect entry-level phonostage with benefits for the neophyte, and it works well to digitize some of your analog rarities. Plus, it comes in handy should your megabucks phonostage have to make a return to the factory for repairs. Some music is always better than none.  -Jeff Dorgay