Listening #10

Make the wussy-wussy sound: Merely because of the way it looks, I didn't think I'd like the Simaudio Moon i-3 integrated amplifier ($1750). But the Moon prevailed (I resisted writing rose) over whatever prejudice I had against it, and so far it's been the biggest and best surprise in my ongoing and casual survey of affordable integrateds.

The Moon 1-3 is a true integrated amplifier, meaning it isn't just a power amp with passive gain control and selector switch in front of it: The Moon has a full-function class-A line-stage preamp, and although it lacks a phono preamp, it has enough inputs—five, plus a sixth without gain, intended for home-theater processors—that I'm not going to get my trunks in a twist because it isn't vinyl-ready out of the box.

The Moon's power-amplifier section is capable of 100Wpc into an 8 ohm speaker load, and it operates in class-A/B, without feedback. Discrete bipolar transistors are the output devices, with J-FETs in front of them. (Remember Dick Schoener's brilliant Nova preamp? Another great J-FET design.) There's also a sprinkling of ICs and microprocessors, most of which apparently have to do with regulation and switching/gain control, respectively. In all, the Moon's design brief stresses speed over grunt; Simaudio's literature mentions that their designers believe harmonic distortion is less evil than intermodulation distortion, which they say they've banished to unmeasurable levels in the Moon i-3.

Outboard heatsinks and a cheeseburger-sized toroid account for most of the Moon's bulk. The rest of its innards are elegance incarnate; it's impossible not to admire the circuit board as a masterpiece of accommodating the conflicting requirements of keeping some parts and traces away from one another and keeping signal paths as short as possible. I am amazed. Parts quality is fine, and build quality is superb.

Apart from its lack of a mono switch, the Moon has a good complement of features, including variable-gain preamp-out jacks and a proprietary remote-control handset—a chunky, heavy, ergonomically sophisticated little thing machined from aluminum and finished in baked enamel. This alone is remarkable in a relatively affordable package. The volume up and down buttons address a 50-step electronic gain-control system rather than the more traditional potentiometer, and these and the Mute button appear on both the remote and the amp's front panel—as does a good-sounding if coarse balance control (only nine settings from extreme left to extreme right). Again, for $1750, I'm not complaining.

Here's where my prejudice came in: While the Moon i-3 certainly isn't bad-looking—in fact, it's very well finished—its shape and styling are exactly like 99.9% of all the boring-ass electronics out there: low-slung rectangular black boxes with thick aluminum faceplates, these days with little plastic windows on the front for digital readouts. Ho-bleedin'-hum.

So I expected it to sound like everything else, and for the first minute or so I thought that it did. Yes, it was obviously a fairly wide-bandwidth amp, with deep bass and sparkling highs. Yes, it could image. Yes, it sounded flat (in the good sense), neutral, and uncolored. Yes, yes, yes. Just let me go back to sleep.

Then I realized: My foot was tapping to John McEuen's String Wizards (CD, Vanguard VCD 79462). In fact, by David Grier's guitar solo in the second song, "Tall Timber," I was rather happy. I began to realize that I wouldn't miss my vintage Naim separates for the next few weeks after all.

As the Moon burned in and its performance solidified, I realized something else: Here was a product that could satisfy both the flat-earthers and the high-end snootyphile camps—and there aren't many products that can. (Additional candidates for the distinction include Quad ESLs, Lyra Helikon cartridges, and 10 or 12 other things.) The Moon i-3 got pitch relationships right, and if it didn't nail them down as tight as, say, a Linn Klimax Kombo, it was at least good enough to be free of fatigue—which already puts this $1750 Canadian integrated ahead of most of its "high-end" competition at any price when it comes to, duh, playing actual music.

It got the beats right, too. Again, it can be bettered. Again, it is itself better than most.

Yet the Moon was also an imaging champ, and knew how to show, rather explicitly, where everything sat in the mix. I've come to admire Linn's new DSD recording of Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra performing the Mozart Requiem (Linn CKD 211): Its more severe moments, the Dies Irae among them, sound passionate without being harsh or sweaty, and the singing is especially fine. The Moon i-3 conveyed all that while doing a neat job of placing the various soloists on the stage, making them sound whole, real, and distinct from one another (as in the Recordare).

The more artificial sort of imaging present on modern pop music records was also served well by the Moon, with such discs as Tom Petty's The Last DJ and the Del McCoury band's Del and the Boys. On the latter, the mandolin and fiddle had a great sense of presence without that obnoxious "etched-into-place" thing that I associate with the expensive junk I hear at so many hi-fi shows, and that simply doesn't exist in live music.

The Moon sounded neither distant nor overly forward, and in scale was neither large nor small: a nice, average-sounding amp, but average in the best possible way. During its time here I found it was always easy to relax while listening to the Moon: It played music with a decent sense of flow, and if other amps have a bit more sense of ease, neither did the Moon sound at all forced. This amp had nothing to prove: I could listen to it without feeling the need to test it with this or that audio spectacular.

That's probably why I spent so much of its time here listening to piano music—things like the four-CD set of Béla Bartók's solo piano works on Sony, with the great György Sandor (SX4K 68275); and the nice nine-CD set of William Kapell's recordings from a few years back (RCA 68442-2). On those sets, spanning a wide range of settings, the piano never became hard or mechanical, never failed to purr through the Moon i-3.