Simaudio Moon Equinox CD player Page 2
My first comparison was with the Benchmark DAC1 D/A processor ($975), which has become my reference for affordable digital playback since I wrote about it in the May 2004 issue. I drove the Benchmark with the Moon's S/PDIF output and, using the input Level Offset function of my Levinson No.380S preamp, was able to match levels to within 0.1dB at 1kHz. Playing Mary Chapin Carpenter's "Grand Central Station," the difference was relatively easy to hear, at least until I inverted polarity for the Canadian player (see the "Measurements" Sidebar). Even so, I felt that the standalone processor had a slightly deeper, weightier bass and very slightly less mid-treble energy. Perhaps as a result of the latter, the image of Ms. Carpenter's voice had a little more of a solid, "rounded" character via the Benchmark, the Equinox's image sounding a little flatter. A similar difference could be heard with the Mozart Clarinet Concerto recording, the images of the clarinet and of the orchestra both having a little more depth when reproduced by the DAC1.
Back in the July issue (p.66), I had enthused over the FMJ CD33 player from English manufacturer Arcam, which, at $2499, is natural competition for the $2000 Equinox. Again matching levels and compensating for the Moon's inverted polarity, the Arcam's high frequencies sounded a little more delicate on my Mozart Flute Quartet recordings from Editor's Choice (Stereophile STPH016-2). Conversely, the Moon Equinox had a warmer lower midrange, which gave the cello a little body. On "Danny Boy" on the same CD, from Minnesotan male choir Cantus, the Simaudio's balance was more robust, the CD33's slightly more delicate-sounding. But it was a close-run thing. When the music didn't have much in the way of high-level bass content—in the Gershwin Preludes included on Editor's Choice, for example—I was hard-pressed to hear any differences other than those described above.
Incidentally, the comparisons were made a little tricky in that both players responded to either's remote control, except that the Arcam's needed two Back-button presses to access the previous track; the Simaudio's remote needed only one. As a result, I kept inadvertently comparing, say, track 10 of Editor's Choice on the Arcam with track 9 on the Simaudio—in which case the players sounded extraordinarily different!
The DVD alternative
A question I am increasingly asked is why an audiophile should buy a dedicated CD player at all when DVD-Video players that play CDs are now widely available for less than $100. It's a good question—not only do DVD transport mechanisms, in my experience, tend to offer superb correction of disc errors, but below a certain price level, the audio circuitry of both DVD and CD players tends to be based on the same integrated circuits. So why shouldn't the DVD player be considered in a high-end CD context?
The problem is that the master clock frequencies required by MPEG video decoding are very different from those required for CD playback. When playing back CDs, many of the DVD players I have examined over the past few years have revealed noise floors contaminated with enharmonic rubbish. In the worst case, this reduced the player's dynamic range to less than 14 bits' worth, resulting in audible degradation.
However, it is fair to point out that I have not auditioned the most recent generation of DVD players, so I purchased an inexpensive Toshiba SD-3950 ($50 after manufacturer's rebate), which has been recommended by some of the inmates at the Audio Asylum as a "sleeper." As might be expected at its price level, the Toshiba has a minimal power supply, and all its audio and video processing appear to be performed with a small number of large-scale integration (LSI) chips on a small printed circuit board adjacent to the output terminals. I couldn't find any output op-amp chips, and the only crystal I found was marked as running at the video-related frequency of 27MHz.
As with my CD player comparisons, I compared the Toshiba with the Moon Equinox with levels matched to well within 0.1dB at 1kHz. The first track was "Danny Boy," from Editor's Choice. As much as I would like to say that the Toshiba amply fulfilled my expectations by sounding awful in comparison with the Moon Equinox, it did not. Still, there wasn't nearly as much soundstage depth apparent with the DVD player as with the Moon CD player, nor were the voices as spatially differentiated from one another. On the following track on Editor's Choice, Debussy's Invocation arranged for choir and piano, it was easier to differentiate the piano's left-hand register from the basses singing the same line on the Moon Equinox. On the Gershwin tracks, the spatial relationship between Hyperion Knight's Steinway and the reverberant signature of the Albuquerque church in which I had recorded it was unambiguously defined through the Equinox, while it was more of an anonymous acoustic on the DVD player. And whereas the Equinox's sound soared at musical climaxes, the Toshiba became comparatively hard and compressed.
But considering that I was comparing a 24/96-capable DVD player that includes progressive-scan video outputs and costs $70 without rebate with a dedicated $2000 CD player, the Toshiba SD-3950 was not totally put to shame. Me, I'd still pay the extra for the high-end CD player, which gives me a lot more of what I need from music reproduction. It wasn't that the Toshiba DVD player sounded offensive playing back CDs (footnote 3), it's just that its sins were more of omission than commission.
At its $2000 price, Simaudio's rich-sounding Moon Equinox CD player is a high-end contender, even in a world where a commoditized DVD player costing less than 5% the Moon's price won't sound too different to the undiscerning ear. But people with undiscerning ears aren't in the market for high-quality CD playback, nor do they read Stereophile. To those who do care about sound quality and have large CD collections, I confidently recommend the Moon Equinox.
Footnote 3: Of course, the SD-3950 can be used as a transport with a standalone high-end DAC like the Benchmark. And while the SD-3950 won't play DVD-Audio discs, it will output a true 24-bit/96kHz datastream with DVD-Vs that allow it, such as the Chesky and Classic DADs.—John Atkinson