Phono Stage Follow-Up
In our November 2010 issue, Erick Lichte did an outstanding job of evaluating the sound of Simaudio's Moon i3.3 integrated amplifier (base price, $3300; fully loaded, $4000), listening to CDs through both single-ended and balanced inputs as well as testing the Sim's coaxial inputs and USB input. However, because young Erick has yet to discover the life-changing joys and pure ecstasy of vinyl, he was unable to evaluate the i3.3's optional phono stage (add $300 to base price). Vinyl lover that I am, I jumped at the chance.
The Moon i3.3 is one no-nonsense integrated amplifier. Built like a tank, it easily makes my Exposure 2010S ($1295, plus $195 for plug-in phono card) seem little more than a dinky aluminum box. Holding the i3.3 in my hands for the first time was a moving experience: At just under 30 lbs, the thing is dense. Yet there's nothing extravagant about the Moonno diamond-encrusted knobs, no gold-trimmed heatsinksso while it doesn't exactly scream "High End," it does proudly announce the fact. I was impressed.
The phono section has settings for three parameters: capacitance (0pF or 100pF), resistance (100 or 47k ohms), and gain (40dB for moving-magnet cartridges, 60dB for moving-coils). Each setting can be adjusted via two banks of internal jumpers: one each for the left and right channels, reflecting the phono section's mirror-imaged circuit design. The Moon i3.3's default settings are for MM cartridges, which worked out just fine for me and my Rega ElysI didn't have to mess around with the jumpers (whew!) and got straight to business.
What EL described in his review of the Moon i3.3 was almost precisely what I heard in my listening room: consistently deep, taut low bass; an uncanny dynamic ability that, even at low levels, managed to deliver musical climaxes with sometimes unnerving impact; a somewhat odd, dry, and distant sound that placed instruments and musicians farther away from my listening position than I'm used to; and, finally, that extra ping of overtones.
I never quite adjusted to certain aspects of the i3.3's sound. For instance, I found myself consistently playing music at levels higher than normal, in an attempt to bring instruments and musicians more fully into my roomto, in effect, compensate for the Moon i3.3's more distant view. This worked fine, except that, due to the Sim's effortless dynamic swings, climactic musical passages were sometimes terrifyingly present. We talk all the time about the need for loudspeakers to be appropriately matched to their environments; I wonder if the i3.3 could use a bit more space than is provided by my small room (13' long by 10' wide by 8' high).
Nevertheless, I had some fun with this amp. I began with "Tiny Islands," from Leo Kottke's wonderful Greenhouse (LP, Capitol ST-11000). Though clean and without scratches, my old copy of this LP is not the best; it was, no doubt, deeply loved by its original owner, and came to me with the pops and ticks of many plays. Nevertheless, on the right day, "Tiny Islands" has enough emotive power to bring me to the verge of tears. Kottke's rich voice hangs effortlessly in the center of the stage, solid and strong and captivating, while his guitar, brilliant and jaunty, churns and churns like ocean waves. I like to play this song for guests, hoping to impress them with The Power of Hi-Fi. Interestingly, "Tiny Islands" lost some of its allure through the Moon i3.3. My attention turned to the brass of Kottke's guitar strings, and away from the wood of the guitar's body. There was less body to Kottke's voiceless round and less resonant, it lacked the booming size and undeniable grip that I want and expect.
I then turned to Pontiak's pummeling, adventurous Living (LP, Thrill Jockey 233). Throughout this album, whether during the heavy deluge of "Original Vestal" or the acid-laced funk of "This Is Living," the Moon i3.3 produced transients that were sharp and thrilling, but at the expense of overall body and texture. There was an honest brassiness and seductive speed to the sound of the hi-hat, but distorted guitars and crash cymbals sounded too bright and lacked full expression, as if the i3.3 were favoring attack over decay. But damn: That hi-hat sounded fantastic.
I was confused. I decided to just play records for a few days and not think too much about what I was hearing. Then, one Sunday morning, while eating breakfast in the kitchen with my back to the listening room and the Moon i3.3 playing at a very low level, I was suddenly caught by the overwhelming power of Kris Kristofferson's voice rising to the heavens in the title track of his Jesus Was a Capricorn (LP, Monument/CBS KZ 31909). The i3.3 could go from quiet to loud in a blink. This realization led me to play Oval's O (LP, Thrill Jockey 244), an entirely electronic affair, and an exploration of sparse percussion arrangements. Score! The Sim excelled with Oval's glitchy pointillism, beautifully distinguishing between the many quiet pulses and the sudden agitated trills. This led me to many hours of excited listening. From Radiohead's In Rainbows (LP, TBD 0001) to Flying Lotus's Cosmogramma (LP, Warp 195) to my favorite pure-dance record of the year, Four Tet's There Is Love in You (LP, Domino WIGLP254), the Moon i3.3 provided explosive, energetic sound marked by crisp transients, bold climaxes, and stark silences.
Surprisingly (or perhaps not), this combination of qualities also complemented fast-moving classical works for small ensembles, such as Mozart's Divertimento for String Trio in E-flat, K.563, performed by the Trio à cordes Français (LP, Nonesuch H-71102). The sound of that violinrising, falling, weepingin the familiar Adagio was produced with such intense life and urgency that it was almost more than I could stand.
Still, I couldn't ignore the fact that the Moon i3.3 consistently failed to impart the same sort of roundness, richness, and completeness to voices and acoustic guitars that I enjoy regularly through my Exposure 2010S. And while the Exposure can't match the Simaudio's staggering silences or freakish dynamic range, it was just as involving with electronic music, albeit in its own, less outspoken way. Further, and perhaps most significant, when the Sim seemed to be in a bit of a rush, the Exposure was happy to let the music evolve at its own pace, and proved more capable of following Leo Kottke's impressive guitar runs.
Finally, I partnered the Moon i3.3 with NAD's inexpensive outboard PP 3 phono preamp ($199) that Bob Reina reviewed last October. That was interesting. Though the NAD softened transients and provided significantly less bass weight and impact, it also seemed to bring subtle details out of the mix and into my room. Its sound was slightly more forward, and it gave the music a ruddier overall complexion. Through the Simaudio, Kottke's strings were burnished and new; through the NAD, those strings had a certain tone that comes only with agetwo different perspectives, each valid and enjoyable.
Although, ultimately, Simaudio's Moon i3.3 integrated amplifier is not the best choice for me, I nevertheless had a great time with it in my system. It has a distinct point of view for which it deserves respect and admiration. The Moon i3.3's supersilent backgrounds, taut bass, and outstanding dynamic range should reward those who most enjoy the sparse and thrilling arrangements often found in today's electronic music, and in small-scale classical recordings.Stephen Mejias