Moon by Simaudio Neo 230HAD D/A headphone amplifier
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 churchnow the Hirsch Center, in Greenpoint, Brooklynwhere 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 worseor, as you might imagine, more or less accuratejust different.
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 thatjust for that momentmy 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, headphoneseven some affordable onescan 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."
The Simaudio Moon Neo 230HAD is a fusion productone 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 DACwhich 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.
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 grooveswhich 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 (19181988) 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 likedbut more than a few times, it made me get up to raise the tonearm.