Moon by Simaudio Neo 230HAD D/A headphone amplifier

I am a lucky person. Who gets to be an artist, an aspiring griot, and a Stereophile reporter? Who gets to stay at home in paint-smeared pajamas, draw pictures of teapots and barn owls . . . and then, on top of everything, gets paid to listen to music made by Henryk Szeryng, Eugene Hütz, and Winston Reedy? C'est moi!

I have groovy friends, too: other eccentric artists, scruffy musicians, recording and mastering engineers, beekeepers, authors and editors, art and junk collectors, tube wizards, turntable savants, DJs, Mensa-type amp designers, bat-shit-crazy poet-philosophers, and unrepentant hoarders.

But none of these extraordinary beings exceeds my old friend David Chesky (of Chesky Records and HDtracks) in natural energy, lovable humility, and flat-out creative force. David is a high-talent pianist who composes classical, jazz, and avant-garde music in abundance. I could go on forever extolling his virtues (loving father, never needs fashion tips, etc.), but most important, David is a master record producer who has taught me a lot about what to listen for in recorded music.

Lately, I've been attending a lot of Chesky recording sessions, and when I'm not sitting behind the binaural microphone head, I'm sitting at a work table on which are a half dozen high-quality headphones, all plugged into the same live microphone feed. I can switch from one headphone brand or model to another and compare them to what I've just heard in the nave of a former church—now the Hirsch Center, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn—where David makes binaural recordings for his label, Chesky Records. Not long afterward, I get to sit at home (in my pajamas) with almost the same half-dozen or so high-quality headphones and listen to the completely uncompressed, high-resolution recording of what I experienced in the Hirsch.

During most of last year, I enjoyed these recordings via the Simaudio Moon Neo 230HAD headphone amp/DAC/line-level preamplifier ($1499).

The most obvious lesson I learned from all this privileged listening was: Every combination of headphone and headphone amplifier sounds unsubtly different. Not so much better or worse—or, as you might imagine, more or less accurate—just different.

Between takes
I have also discovered that my summary judgments are frequently incorrect. As soon as I think, from my seat by the dummy head, Ah-ha, this headphone sounds the most accurate, the least colored, the most like what I heard, some lowly headphone I'd previously judged as unexceptional sounds so completely lifelike that it startles me, making me think, for a prolonged moment, Someone from the band is actually standing close to me, speaking directly to me! Startled, I open my eyes and look up, only to realize that—just for that moment—my head had become the dummy head.

This is heart-pounding audio verity.

Those of you who believe that audio gear should be valued according to how faithfully it mimics the sound of live acoustic music will find that, despite the skull-wrapping encumbrance, headphones—even some affordable ones—can sound more like live than box speakers at ten times the price. This effect of uncanny realness, along with the extreme intimacy factor, define a new and fast-mutating audio phenomenon that my friend Steve Guttenberg, aka the Audiophiliac on CNET.com, calls "the headspace experience."

Description
The Simaudio Moon Neo 230HAD is a fusion product—one of today's many cost-effective, space-saving mashups of DACs, line stages, headphone amplifiers, and sometimes even speaker amplifiers. These mashups don't fit the traditional categories of receiver, integrated amplifier, or separates. For example, should we call the 230HAD a headphone amp? Maybe . . . but right now I'm using it as a line-level preamp driving a First Watt J2 (by Nelson Pass) stereo amplifier (review to come) and Zu Audio's floorstanding Soul Supreme speakers. A Parasound Halo JC 3+ phono stage is connected to the 230HAD's analog input. My Integra CD player is connected to the 230HAD's asynchronous DAC—which has four choices of digital inputs: two S/PDIF, one TosLink, one USB. The Simaudio supports PCM signals of resolutions up to 24-bit/192kHz via all four inputs, and DSD64, DSD128, DSD256, and 32/384 PCM on its USB input. The Neo 230HAD has a fixed output, so it can be used as a standalone DAC. Or if I run a separate DAC through its analog input and its variable output, the 230HAD can be used as a standalone headphone amp. It comes with a plastic remote control, which I used while it was installed in my floorstanding (as opposed to desktop or portable) system.

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Because of its versatility and perfect size (7" wide by 3" high by 11" deep), I've kept the narrow-faced Neo 230HAD within arm's reach on a shelf in front of me, where it serves as the control center of my desktop system. On its front panel are a single-ended 3.5mm input jack, intended for a portable music player or suchlike, and a ¼" TRS (tip-ring-sleeve) headphone-output jack. To their right is an Input selector button. At left top are two columns of red LEDs telling me which input I've selected and what sample rate is being serviced. Below the central Moon logo are a Standby button and corresponding indicator LED. A large volume-control knob occupies the right third of the front panel.

Listening to the Moon Neo 230HAD as line stage
I began my listening using the Moon Neo 230HAD as a line stage driven by my reference phono stage, Parasound's Halo JC3+ ($2999). This setup gave me clear impressions of the 230HAD's basic audio character, which, like those of all other Simaudio Moon products I've auditioned, was mostly Apollonian: fast, clean, and super-articulate. The 230HAD's ostensibly yang line amp mated extremely well with the JC 3+, which is similarly articulate, but a little darker and more yin. But could the 230HAD step out of its orderly audiophile sophistication and twerk a groove? I was hoping so. What I did not yet comprehend about this Moon product was how well it could play songs.

As you may already know, old Jamaican records have a lot of dirt in their grooves—which is exactly why I like them. Best of all, the more resolving my system becomes, the more I can actually feel this dirt, taste it, see how black it is. I'm referring to black Caribbean groove dirt that goes all the way back to West Africa, Asia, and even further, to the Kalina and Arawak peoples. It speaks Patwa and pays allegiance to Queen Elizabeth II. It drinks rum and Red Stripe and dances late into the night. This dirt makes me ever so happy I and I be alive.

Rudie Blues: "Love! What . . . a . . . fee-ling . . . have you ever been in love?" Have you ever heard British reggae artist Winston Reedy sing "What a Feeling" (12" single, Cousins P037)? The Moon Neo 230HAD, with the First Watt J2 and the Zu Soul Supremes, dug all the dirt out of this record's grooves, adding only a spoonful or two of upper-latitude chill to Reedy's romantic Caribbean warmth. Rhythms felt spot on and fully tangible. Snare-drum whacks and reverberant synth decays begged to be savored. Instruments were separated in a natural fashion. Tiny electric-piano flourishes sparkled for my attention. Electric-bass progressions stirred desire in my loins. "This is this the last train going to Mt. Zion . . . you don't need no ticket!" The riddim capabilities of the Simaudio line stage were so true to Reedy's music that I could smell the jerk spice and taste the rum smoothies.

Listening with headphones: Audeze LCD-X
Say the words exquisite violin. Say poetic master. Then say the name Henryk Szeryng as you imagine looking down and noticing that your feet are floating a foot above the floor. That's the kind of artist Szeryng (1918–1988) was, and that's what happens when you hear him play his 1967 recording of J.S. Bach's Violin Sonata 1 in g. I didn't really grasp levitation until I experienced his well-drawn and passionate performances of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas (2 CDs, Mythos MPCD60). This good-sounding Mythos recording is a needle drop with a bit of crackling groove noise at the beginning and end of each movement, which I liked—but more than a few times, it made me get up to raise the tonearm.

COMPANY INFO
Simaudio Ltd.
1345 Newton Road
Boucherville, Quebec J4B 5H2
Canada
(450) 449-2212
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
philipjohnwright's picture

It's what differentiates SF; writers like Herb, the much-missed SM, and the too-early-to-say-but-showing-distinct-promise Jana. Along with all the old (sorry guys) favourites

Keep them coming please John; earnest, humourless,colourless reviewers abound elsewhere; don't let them through the door here.

woodford's picture

you're probably already familiar, but there are wonderful 60s era phillips recordings of the Beethovem, Brahms, and Mendelssohn concerti with Haitink conducting. the Brahms is a particular favorite.

fourpobs's picture

As finish my coffee and get ready to put my butt-kissing suit on for a day in the corporate mines, the first couple paragraphs remind me there must be a way to make a living, have good audio and know interesting, inspiring people(perhaps even be an interesting person. Maybe even a "character"). I will read the rest of the article later on but thanks for that.

Anton's picture

Would this pass as a part of the definition of 'euphonic?'

"Even close-miked instruments are surrounded by a bit of moist air. The microZOTL's transparency surrounds instrumental tones with a kind of vibrating aura."

If it does that to everything, then it would strike me as being 'artifactual.'

Prediction: I think some key words that will appear in the Pass Labs review will be: composed, unruffled, effortless, matter of fact (in the best way, as in 'it possessed a matter of fact control and level of detail that made everything it did seem effortless.')

I really hope you like it. I think Pass Labs' amplification would be on my ownership list if I had adequate scratch!

Cheers, and thanks for a fun all around review!

audiodoctornj's picture

Herb a great review on, no doubt a great product, I would like to call your attention to, the Nuprime DAC 10H which is only $200 dollars more, than the Sim product you reviewed.

[Advertising copy deleted by John Atkinson]

We, Audio Doctor, www.audiodoctor.com have the Nuprime on display and have been supporting the first iteration of the company, Nuforce, and now in its second incarnation, Nuprime for years.

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Herb I would love to have you over to the shop to hear the Nuprime for yourself we are only three miles away from you, it is really something special.