Simaudio Moon i3.3 integrated amplifier Page 2

Before doing any formal or critical listening, I let the Moon i3.3 play for a few hundred hours, using an equal mixture of the USB and coaxial digital inputs, as well as the balanced and single-ended inputs. I noticed no appreciable change in sound during this break-in period, but I wasn't paying all that much attention while it cooked.

That is one hot 2 pin
After the break-in period, I began listening to the Moon i3.3 as a conventional integrated amplifier—that is, through its analog connections. I first wanted to determine if I should primarily listen through the i3.3's single-ended or balanced inputs, as both were available using the Benchmark DAC1 HDR and Bel Canto DAC3.5VB D/A converters. I hooked up the Bel Canto's single-ended and balanced outputs to the i3.3 with silver cables from Sain Line Systems, and listened to "Stick to My Side," from Pantha du Prince's gorgeously recorded Black Noise (CD, Rough Trade RTAADC544). It wasn't even close: The balanced inputs offered a much more solid and real musical presentation than did the single-ended. In balanced mode, "Stick to My Side" had greater weight, speed, and control in the bass, a noticeably lower noise floor, and a wider, more immersive stereo image. The balanced inputs simultaneously presented greater overall resolution while lending a greater sense of ease. In short, I felt that the i3.3's balanced input option was entirely worth $200. From that point on, I did all of my listening to analog sources in balanced mode.

Moonage Daydream
My first impression of the Moon i3.3's sound was of its low bass: consistently deep, taut, and weighty. The XX's "Shelter," from XX (CD, Young Turks XLCD450), features a well-damped kick drum tattooing steady eighth-notes under a sparse soundscape and a lonely female singer. Through the i3.3, each kick retained its full weight and tremendous articulation. This song needs that kick drum to maintain its propulsion and momentum, and the i3.3's rendering of the instrument served this music beautifully. I also felt that the Simaudio integrated was a very dynamic amplifier. The big dynamic swings of large orchestral works, as in Osmo Vänskä's reading of Beethoven's Symphony 9 with the Minnesota Orchestra (SACD/CD, BIS SACD1616, CD layer), never sounded as if it was coming through a 100Wpc integrated. With the Moon i3.3, climaxes climaxed.


Sure, the Simaudio could shout—but it could also whisper. Many amps, especially solid-state ones, can't play music at low levels without sounding gray and uninvolving. Not so the i3.3. One night, while writing e-mails, I put on Stan Getz and João Gilberto's Getz/Gilberto #2: Recorded Live at Carnegie Hall (CD, Verve 314 519 800-2) and played it at a modest level through my Klipsch Palladium P17B speakers, just to have some background music. Damned if I could get any work done. I listened to the whole disc. When it ended, I was shocked to realize that the sound was so good at this lower volume that I'd never bothered to turn it up to something approaching concert level. Perhaps the combination of the i3.3's 5W of class-A power and the Klipsches' high sensitivity helped achieve this sense of musical cohesion at low levels.

During the Moon i3.3's stay at my home, I had a number of power amps and integrateds with which I could compare it. These designs ranged from tubed to solid-state, and their prices from moderate to slightly expensive. I was glad they were there—not only did they give me a broader context for the Moon's overall ratio of performance to value, they also helped me home in on the i3.3's sound and character.

First, compared to every amp I had on hand, the Simaudio i3.3 presented a drier, slightly more distant sound. I heard slightly less hall reverberation, yet at the same time felt as if I were seated slightly farther away from the musicians—or, to put it another way, the i3.3 didn't project images forward into the listening room as much as other amps did. Through the Moon, recordings retained much of their sonic depth, but sounds placed closer on the soundstage to the listener seemed to originate from farther upstage than I was used to.

Possibly related to this soundstage perspective, the i3.3's tonal balance was unlike those of many of the amps I had on hand. At times, the Moon sounded as if its tonal balance was slightly elevated between 2 and 5kHz. On recordings such as Aldo Parisot and the Yale Cellos playing an arrangement of the Sarabande from J.S. Bach's Suite 6 for Solo Cello, on Bach Bachianas (CD, Delos DE 3041), I heard an extra ping of overtones, as if the cellists had all tightened their bows a bit and switched to brighter strings. This balance never sounded hard, just more forward in the presence region.

With other recordings, I heard the Moon's tonal balance as a leaner, more reticent upper bass. In the introductory section of "Telephone," from Lady Gaga's The Fame Monster (CD, Interscope B0013535-72), the concert harp had noticeably less body than through the other amps. Through the i3.3, the resonance of the harp's body didn't sound as full as I usually hear it. However, when the track kicks into full gear, the Simaudio gave great low-bass weight and really great articulation. It seemed to me that the plus side of the i3.3's leaner upper bass was its ability to keep the sound tuneful and articulate with no hint of bloat. But however one might describe such a balance, I heard it with every recording I played.

Higher in the audioband, the i3.3's treble never drew attention to itself. Though not the most shimmery or beguiling treble I've ever heard, the i3.3's top octaves never got in the way or detracted from the music—and that's more than I can say about a lot of audio gear.

Bark at the Moon
Next I listened to the Moon i3.3 through its coaxial digital inputs, fed by the Bel Canto CD2 CD player via a Stereovox HDXV cable. At first I thought the DAC needed more burn-in time than the 80 hours of playing I'd already given it, so I put the CD player in Repeat mode and let it run another day or so. When I listened again, I heard no change. Compared with the i3.3's sound fed from the analog outputs of the more expensive Bel Canto DAC3.5VB or my reference Benchmark DAC1 HDR, the Simaudio's onboard DAC sounded dimensionally flat, slightly jagged, and aggressive in the treble, and lacking tonal and harmonic color. In short, it sounded "digital." Ditto the sound via the Moon's USB connection. Though the USB connection worked flawlessly with my laptop running iTunes, Soundforge, and J. River Media Center, it had, at least to my ear, a definite sonic signature.

Because the i3.3's $400 digital option costs the same as CEntrance's DACport (which I reviewed in the June 2010 issue), I thought I'd try hitching the Moon to this sexy-looking, USB-powered DAC. I connected the DACport to one of the Moon's single-ended analog inputs and had a listen.

Now here was a terrific match: In my review, I described the CEntrance as having a large soundstage, grain-free treble, and a blossoming midrange. Played through the Simaudio i3.3, the DACport brought all of these qualities to the dance. Its sonic generosity was well suited to the Simaudio's slightly lean balance and wonderful dynamics and control. The sound of the Yale Cellos playing the Bach Sarabande was magnificent: big, round, three-dimensional, and, most of all, musical. While I could imagine the i3.3's digital inputs adding convenience and working well for decoding satellite TV sound or other less critical listening, I'm afraid I was not a huge fan of the i3.3's digital inputs. However, there are other $400 options out there that play very well with the i3.3, and the CEntrance DACport is one of them.

Up against the iTube
The Simaudio Moon i3.3 is a creature different from the other integrated amps it has cohabited with here the past few months. Perhaps the most different was Manley Labs' Stingray iTube, which I reviewed last March. While the Simaudio is solid-state, the Manley uses tubes. Where the Moon accepts every connection known to mankind, the Stingray accepts only single-ended inputs—and an iPod. While the i3.3 will play equally well with almost every loudspeaker, the iTube needs efficient speakers with a tonal balance that will complement it. While the Canadian product can go to 11, the American amp will give you a respectable 6. And while the Simaudio looks exactly how an integrated amp should, the Manley's appearance is downright bizarre.

But despite the Manley's idiosyncrasies and limitations, it could do two things better than almost every amp I've heard: It had a midrange to die for, and it effortlessly hung images in the air. In other words, the Manley is exceptional in a few areas of performance, with some definite tradeoffs in others: Its value as a piece of audio gear is deeper than it is wide. Conversely, the Simaudio Moon i3.3's performance was much more balanced, offering even performance in every aspect of music reproduction: Its value is much wider than it is deep—sort of like my old Swiss Army knife. What I found so interesting was that I really enjoyed my time listening to both. I can easily imagine the Stingray iTube and the Moon i3.3 each making a certain sort of audiophile very happy.

I'll give you the Moon, Mary
Ultimately, I found that the Simaudio's balanced inputs brought out the best from this amp; its digital inputs left me a bit cold. I think it's great that Simaudio gives listeners the choice, letting them save where they can and spend where they must. The Moon i3.3 paired very well with every source I fed it, and drove with ease the speakers I tried with it. Its base price of $3300 puts it in direct competition with lots of other gear, but very few systems will offer as balanced a sound, as wide a range of features, or as much ease of use. This is an integrated amplifier built for the audiophile who wants a little bit of everything that high-end audio has to offer, and wants it in a single, well-made, easy-to-use package.

Simaudio Ltd.
2002 Ridge Road
Champlain, NY 12919
(877) 980-2400