Moon by Simaudio Neo 230HAD D/A headphone amplifier Page 2

The Moon Neo 230HAD, driving the always-lucid Audeze LCD-X headphones ($1699), tracked the complexity and feeling of Szeryng's playing. It made his tempos into conscious artistic decisions I was keenly aware of. Flourishes at the end of fast-moving passages could be almost explosive! There were fits of Bach fury, human remorse, and divine grace. Contrasts were rendered with a wide spectrum of subtleties. Bass was neither too lean nor too plum. The LCD-Xes' fine detail and excellent tone were framed in an easygoing, musically coherent manner. Listening fatigue was nearly nonexistent.

If you're one of the legions who already favor the Audeze LCD-Xes, it's likely you'll appreciate the sparkling balance the Simaudio amp-DAC brings to their sound. I did.

Listening with headphones: AKG K812
For many months, my reference headspace experiences have been provided by the Simaudio Moon Neo 230HAD and AKG's K812 headphones ($1499). This revealing combo dug deep into recorded music, with nary a hint of bite or edge. The K812s play with a feeling of relaxed openness. They're clean and spacious, but never too dry. The AKG-Simaudio combo always seemed to be revealing big chunks of audio truth, but really, probably all it was showing me was what I imagined the recording should sound like. Nevertheless, with Chesky binaural tracks, the AKG K812s with 230HAD always sounded a lot like what I experienced sitting near the binaural dummy head.

To quote an anonymous Stereophile reader, "I don't know what your definition of accurate is, but I know it when I hear it." That was my exact reaction when I first experienced some hi-rez recordings through the Moon Neo 230HAD. With the high-lonesome sounds of Dave Eggar and the New Appalachians performing the Carter Family's heart-rending classic "Coal Miner's Blues," on From the Mountaintop (24/192 AIFF, Chesky JD375/HDtracks)—"These blues are so blue they are the coal black blues . . ."—the Simaudio 230HAD moved and twisted and played this powerful tune in a fully engaging way. The binaural imaging was maybe a little less "out of my head" than I'd hoped for, but every one of the New Appalachians was positioned exactly as I remember him or her at the Chesky session where I fell in love with the lead singer, Noah Wall. Speaking of "imaging"—as I hinted in my introduction, several times, as I listened to the live feed via headphones, Wall made me think she was talking to me. Every time, my heart pounded.


The Simaudio's only genuine fault—extremely obvious with this music—was that it failed to develop the full range of spatial atmosphere and tonal color that I know is on this recording. In general, the 230HAD sounded kind of dry and a modicum hard; it wasn't as liquescent or as atmospheric as the Schiit Audio Ragnarok ($1700) or the Linear Tube Audio microZOTL2.0 ($1100) headphone amplifiers, both of which I've reviewed.

Listening comparisons: Linear Tube Audio microZOTL2.0
Fact: The Simaudio Moon Neo 230HAD and the microZOTL2.0 line-preamp-headphone amps were both conspicuously transparent. By that I mean that they played recordings with pretty much equal (and large) quantities of transparency. However, that simple statement raises an important audiophile question: are all transparencies created equal?

The father of this hi-fi-centric word, J. Gordon Holt, defined transparent as: "1) A quality of sound reproduction that gives the impression of listening through the system to the original sounds, rather than to a pair of loudspeakers. 2) Freedom from veiling, texturing, or any other quality that tends to obscure the signal. A quality of crystalline clarity." (footnote 1)

Unfortunately, this definition offers only a summary, and metaphorical, introduction to the complex experience of audio transparency. Why? Because the notion of "listening through the system to the original sounds" is not unequivocal, and can't be measured or even described effectively—and, because any two audio components may deliver radically different qualities of transparency (footnote 2), as did the Simaudio 230HAD and the Linear Tube Audio microZOTL.

The microZOTL's transparency is a humid June-sun clarity that fully exposes recorded ambiences of churches, halls, and rooms. 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. The image boundary of a cello, guitar, or violin appears to be electrostatically charged in a way that softens its edges and connects the instrument to its environment.


In contrast, the Moon Neo 230HAD's transparency was as fresh and clean as a cloudless November day. The Simaudio's transparency showed me, more precisely than did the ZOTL, where the microphones and performers were placed. Instrumental boundaries were firmly drawn. The 230HAD delivered an informative, no-nonsense transparency that told me more how the recording was made; the microZOTL's transparency tells me more about how the music was played.

Comparisons with the Pass Labs HPA-1
You pays your money, and the more you pays, the bigger the audio shovels you can buy. If you want to dig really deep into your music, you need a giant backhoe like the Pass Labs HPA-1 headphone amp ($3500), reviewed by John Atkinson in July 2016.

To separate out the sonic characters of the Moon Neo 230HAD's DAC and headphone amp, I connected the Moon's analog outputs to the Pass Labs HPA-1. This, I figured, would show me not only the relative quality of the 230HAD's DAC, but also how its headphone amp compared to a surefire contender for a best-of-the-best in headphone amps.

Don't ask me why, but as soon as I hooked this scheme up I fell into Gogol Bordello dementia. I played their Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike (CD, Side One Dummy UPC 603967127126) and Live from Axis Mundi (CD, Side One Dummy UPC 603967140729) all the way through, and it was clear that I had never actually heard about 80% of what is on these recordings. I am a devoted student of Nikolai Gogol (check out his novel Dead Souls) and Béla Bartók, but it is Gogol Bordello's Ukrainian lead Gypsy, Eugene HÅtz, who makes me want to dance and slurp Stoli. But don't worry, I stayed on reviewer task and peered deeply into the guitar-and-accordion jigs of HÅtz and his mad crew. Then, for the rest of the day, I closed my eyes and listened to record after record: Fela Kuti, John Adams, Judy Henske. The only negatives I noticed were touches of opacity and hardness, plus an occasional fingernail on the high-frequency blackboard. Was it the Pass Labs HPA-1? Definitely not.

I'm certain it was the Simaudio DAC, because when I connected my trusty Halide DAC HD ($499 when available, no longer in production) to the Moon Neo 230HAD's analog inputs, the entire musical presentation became richer in texture, more relaxed, more colorful, and freer flowing. The scratching-fingernail sounds disappeared completely.

Obviously, the 230HAD played its best as a pure headphone amp. As much as I may like these fusion products at the entry level, I'm not keen on handcuffing any DAC to a world-class headphone amp such as the Simaudio 230HAD appears to be.


The Pass Labs HPA-1 is still new to me, so I'm not yet certain how to characterize my impressions of my comparison of the Simaudio and Pass Labs headphone amps, but I'll try anyway. The DAC-less HPA-1 costs more than twice as much as the 230HAD, but driven by the top-of-the-line Schiit DAC, the Pass was more than twice as musical as the Simaudio, at least three times more open and extended, and had four times the magnifying power. That's all I can say for now.

Just different
At $1499, the Simaudio Moon Neo 230HAD is in a tough category of price vs sonics and features. Headphone enthusiasts looking to move up from basic headfidelity to more sophisticated amplification have many products to choose from. Jon Iverson spoke well of the Ayre Acoustics Codex DAC-headphone amp ($1795), designed by digital savant Charles Hansen. Erick Lichte favorably reviewed the Benchmark DAC2 HGC ($1995). Then there's the ubiquitous Oppo HA-1 ($1199), which, in combination with its own built-in DAC, plays with a gentle charm that's easy on the ears—and it loves big orchestras. The Oppo (footnote 3) offers the same feature set as the 230HAD, with one significant extra: all of its analog circuitry is fully balanced. The Schiit Ragnarok integrated amplifier ($1700) is also fully balanced, has no integral DAC, and, to my taste, delivers more headphone excitement than the Simaudio. Nevertheless . . .

I enjoyed all my hours with the Simaudio 230HAD—mainly because it rocked the rude boys, loved Henryk Szeryng, and taught me well about Chesky's recordings. If your headspace listening is in need of an upgrade, the Simaudio Neo 230HAD is an absolute must-audition.

Footnote 1: From J. Gordon Holt's "Sounds Like? An Audio Glossary," in the July, August, and September 1993 issues.

Footnote 2: Transparency in audio reproduction is typically associated with low distortion and low noise, but I believe there's more to it than that. These factors surely contribute to the quantity of transparency, but I suspect that the nature of the gain devices, the topology of the power supply, the size of power transformer, the quantity and quality of storage capacitance, the circuit layout, and the overall parts selection all have significant effects on the quality of transparency.

Footnote 3: See Tyll Hertsens' review for

Simaudio Ltd.
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(450) 449-2212

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.

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We, Audio Doctor, 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.

[Advertising copy deleted by John Atkinson]

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.

Peragulator's picture

No balanced out for headphones?