In 1979, my father spent an ungodly amount of money -- $3500 USD -- on a stereo system for me and my two siblings. That sum, equivalent to more than $12,000 in today’s dollars, bought us a turntable, a tape deck, a stereo receiver, and a pair of full-range loudspeakers. It was serious dough, and even in today’s dollars it can buy you an excellent system. Until recently, however, most of those systems would have been limited to a single source, an integrated amp or receiver, and speakers.
But with the advent of the “digital hub,” system flexibility has increased. Want to stream files from a hard drive, or a playlist from an Internet streaming service? Easily done. Want the option of adding a turntable or universal disc player? Can do. Want to power your speakers, too? Say no more. Two years ago, I reviewed a product with many of these attributes, the Norma Audio Revo IPA-140 integrated amplifier. Since then, many other manufacturers have jumped on the bandwagon -- including Simaudio, with the Moon Neo ACE integrated amplifier-DAC-streamer, which, at $3500, sells for what my father spent 37 years ago.
As its name implies when spelled out in full, the Moon Neo A Complete Experience (ACE) is a single box that, Simaudio claims, does it all: Just hook it up to a pair of speakers. In addition to the standard inputs seen on competing products, the Neo ACE offers what separates it from its competitors: Simaudio’s Moon intelligent Network Device (MiND) module, which uses your NAS device as a storage library and, via a personal media device, provides an easy-to-use graphical user interface to access a music library.
The handsome Neo ACE has the same basic visual design as the rest of Simaudio’s models. Its 1/4”-thick faceplate is flanked by bulging metal cheeks, and its case is available in all black, all silver, or black with silver cheeks. It’s compact, measuring 16.9"W x 3.5"H x 14.4"D and weighing 24 pounds, and is supplied with a plastic remote control and a stock power cord. There are ventilation slots in the top panel, and a footer at each of the bottom plate’s four corners.
On the front panel, to the left of the centrally located OLED display, is a quintet of satin-finished silver buttons for Standby, Mute, Display (brightness), and Input Previous and Next. To the right of the display are two more silver buttons, Setup and OK, for use in navigating the Neo ACE’s Setup menu. Below these are the line-level 1/8” and 1/4” jacks for, respectively, a media player and headphones. At the far right is the large volume-control knob.
On the rear panel, from left to right along the top, are the Wi-Fi antenna, the MiND reset and update buttons, an Ethernet jack, and high-quality speaker binding posts. Below these, from left to right, are: a ground post for a turntable; RCA jacks for the line-level phono section and analog inputs; and an RCA preamp/subwoofer output. Then come the digital inputs -- two TosLinks, two S/PDIF coaxials, and asynchronous USB -- followed by SimLink In and Out ports, an infrared connector, an RS-232 port, a fuse bay, an IEC power connector, and the main power switch. The analog inputs can be configured as pass-through, which bypasses the initial gain stage to accommodate, say, a home-theater processor, whose own volume control would then be used. Qualcomm aptX is used for Bluetooth transmission.
The Neo ACE’s internal DAC decodes PCM at bit depths of 16, 24, and 32, and at sample rates of 44.1, 48, 88, 96, 176.4, 192, 352.8, and 384kHz. The Neo ACE can also decode Direct Stream Digital signals natively at DSD64, DSD128, and DSD256. DSD formats can be played only through the USB input -- except for DSD64, which can also be sent through the MiND module. PCM sample rates of 352.8 and 384kHz can be played only via USB. The ACE’s power output is specified as 50Wpc into 8 ohms, its gain as 37dB, and its signal/noise ratio as 100dB at full power. The frequency response is 10Hz-80kHz, +/-3dB, with total harmonic distortion of 0.02% (20Hz-20kHz at 1W or 50W).
The review sample was shipped to me directly from Simaudio’s factory, in Quebec. Simaudio offers a one-year warranty on parts and labor -- or ten years with product registration.
Setting up the Moon Neo ACE was easy and straightforward. Supplied with the owner’s manual is a deck of quick reference setup cards, which helped considerably. Assigning and naming the inputs and pairing up the Sim with my Wi-Fi network was quick and painless, and within ten minutes the Neo ACE was up and running.
Cold out of the box, the Moon Neo ACE had pretty decent sound, if somewhat veiled and a bit thin. After a few days of constant play, the sound was clearer, was more fully formed. After a few more weeks of burn-in, I settled in for some serious listening.
I have no turntable, so I couldn’t evaluate the Neo ACE’s phono stage, but I did feed it a continuous supply of CD- and high-resolution files from my server, 16/44.1 streams from Tidal, and CDs played on my old Wadia 830 CD player ($4000 when available). Nor do I have a NAS device, which meant I was unable to try the ACE’s MiND module -- but the local Simaudio dealer, a friend of mine, arranged a demo for me. I can vouch for its execution and effectiveness.
I first evaluated the Neo ACE’s amplifier section, using the Wadia 830 and my Oppo HA-1 DAC-headphone amp ($1200) to feed the Simaudio’s analog inputs. My reference loudspeakers, Revel Ultima2 Salon2s, have specs of 86dB sensitivity and 6 ohms impedance -- although physically very large, they’re still fairly easy to drive. Still, I worried that the Neo ACE’s 50Wpc might poop out at higher volumes. I needn’t have. No matter the volume setting, the Neo ACE handled it with aplomb. Music had good rhythm and flow, with no sense of strain. Even when I played heavy metal at turn-that-music-down volumes, there was no compression or hardening. More important, the Neo ACE had the sort of clarity I would have expected only from a more expensive product.
While I love heavy metal, I’m not a big fan of Korn. However, one of my buddies insisted on listening to “Blind,” from Korn’s Greatest Hits Vol.1 (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Immortal/Epic/Tidal), guaranteeing that it would rock my system. Not wanting to offend, I cued up the track and let it rip. Well, well, well. Regardless of my affection (or lack thereof), “Blind” through the Neo ACE sure got my attention. The extremes of frequencies, ranging from the highest treble to the lowest bass, were impressively reproduced. “Blind” begins with a solitary ride cymbal that rang out with the requisite brassy bite and shimmer, followed by a heavily compressed and crunching guitar riff. When the solitary, bone-crushing bass note kicks in at 15 seconds, the impact was visceral. Based on the Neo ACE’s performance with this track, I then threw at it all sorts of heavy metal, grunge, and hard rock. I came to the conclusion that the Neo ACE could handle even the most demanding tunes.
When I was a callow, pretentious youth, I listened to all manner of prog rock, particularly Peter Gabriel-era and early Phil Collins-era Genesis. After college, I repudiated such youthful indiscretions, but have since seen the errors of my ways and have wholeheartedly re-embraced these albums. A favorite track is “Los Endos,” from Genesis’s A Trick of the Tail (16/44.1 FLAC, Atco/Rhino/Tidal). A tour de force of melody, harmony, and rhythm, this album-closer does just about everything I’d want in an instrumental, and the Neo ACE just nailed it. It kept pace with this fairly rapid performance without sounding slow or sluggish.
Having established the bona fides of the Neo ACE’s amplifier section, I set about exploring the capabilities of the whole package.
I began by hooking up my Apple Mac Mini server to the Neo ACE’s USB input. After playing one reference track after another, I concluded that all of the qualities I’d found satisfying in Simaudio’s Moon Neo 280D DAC -- namely, “a broad, deep soundstage, a wealth of clarity and transparency, and, above all, musical cohesion” -- were present in the Moon Neo ACE. Those qualities were best exemplified by a recording I’d used to evaluate the Moon Neo 280D: disc 4 of the late double bassist Charlie Haden’s The Montréal Tapes, with Gonzalo Rubalcaba on piano and Paul Motian on drums (16/44.1 AIFF, Verve). The realism I experienced through the Neo ACE was in no way compromised by the fact that a power amplifier, a preamplifier, a DAC, and a phono stage were all sharing the same case.
Later, I streamed Tidal from my iPad Mini via Bluetooth. I have to hand it to the Neo ACE: Unlike with my Oppo HA-1, once the iPad Mini had locked on to the Neo ACE’s Bluetooth, the streaming connection was never lost. The Montréal Tapes is also available on Tidal, so I used that as a reference recording, and heard no loss of fidelity compared with the version streamed from my server.
For early-morning and late-night listening, I took advantage of the Neo ACE’s 1/4” headphone jack. My 12-year-old Sennheiser HD 600s are still so good that I’ve felt no urge to replace them, even after listening to more modern ’phones. Listening via the HD 600s with the Cardas headphone-cable upgrade was very enjoyable, and the Neo ACE’s headphone output was able to drive the HD 600s effortlessly. The same clarity I’d experienced through my Salon2s was there, but especially notable was how supple and tactile the bass sounded through the Sennheisers. Listening to George Mraz’s sinewy bass lines in the David Hazeltine Trio’s Impromptu, a Binaural+ recording (24/192 AIFF, Chesky), gave my ears a real workout.
The best measure of a review component is how quickly I want to get it out of my system and reinstall my reference gear. In the three months the Moon Neo ACE spent in my system, not once did I think about swapping it out for my reference DAC and/or integrated amplifier.
The gap in performance between DACs at varying prices has considerably narrowed in the last few years -- in comparison to DACs costing considerably more, lower-priced DACs can offer compelling sound quality. Although my reference DAC is a Meitner MA-1 ($7000), my Oppo HA-1 DAC-headphone amp ($1200) has recently become my go-to DAC -- it differs from the Meitner only marginally in sound quality, and has more features. It also costs only a little more than one-sixth the Meitner’s price. So it was the Oppo that I compared with the Moon Neo ACE.
Evaluating DACs has become one of my toughest reviewing tasks. In my experience, the differences are on the margins. Overall, the two DACs offered similar sound quality. I felt that the HA-1 was just a bit more transparent, but with softer bass than the Neo ACE. Neither difference gave one model a significant advantage over the other, but if you listen more to amplified music, particularly rock, you’ll probably prefer the Simaudio.
Evaluated as a headphone amp, the Moon Neo ACE was more tonally neutral than the HA-1, whose class-A circuits produce a warmer sound. As I noted before, the HA-1’s bass impact, while not flabby, is definitely softer than the Neo ACE’s. Which you’ll prefer will largely depend on what sort of music you favor. Fans of jazz and classical will likely favor the sound of the Oppo, rockers the Simaudio. Regardless, each is an excellent choice, and both deserve to be heard.
I’ve mentioned in previous reviews that my 16-year-old Jeff Rowland Design Group Concentra integrated amplifier ($5600 when available) is on its way to pasture. Recent reviews of more modern integrated amplifiers have brought into sharp focus what this aging amp lacks. While the Rowland’s sound is warm and rounded, almost tube-like, that quality comes at the expense of clarity and transparency. The sound of the Moon Neo ACE may not be as transparent or have quite the same bass impact as that of Ayre Acoustics’ AX-5 Twenty integrated ($12,950), which I reviewed earlier this year, but it was no slouch, and easily bested my Rowland in those qualities. With a more veiled, less nimble sound than the Neo ACE, the Concentra is showing its age.
But I’ve been comparing the Neo ACE with separates. I haven’t heard the Norma Audio Revo IPA-140 integrated amplifier since I reviewed it two years ago, but in looking over my notes for that review, I see that many of the things I loved about the Norma are very similar to what I found attractive in the Moon Neo ACE. But there’s one thing I loved about the Neo ACE over the IPA-140: At $3500, the Moon Neo ACE costs only a little over one-third as much as the IPA-140 ($8600) with optional DAC ($1000).
There’s always compromise -- at any price -- and as you descend the price ladder, the compromises only increase in number and size. And in a single audio product that serves multiple functions, the compromises can be many. In high-end audio, the art is in managing compromises so that they affect the sound as little as possible.
I feel that Simaudio has managed this trick quite nicely in the Moon Neo ACE. Is it an entry-level component? Maybe yes, maybe no -- it’s neither inexpensive nor crazy expensive. What’s more important is that, for many people, the Neo ACE could be an exit-level component. I can picture a cost-effective system in which the Neo ACE is complemented by a turntable or digital source (or both) and a nice pair of minimonitors or full-range speakers -- a system that would be killer enough to keep most people off the constant-upgrade path. The Neo ACE didn’t only do well for its price; it did well, period.
. . . Uday Reddy
Moon by Simaudio Neo ACE Integrated Amplifier-DAC-Streamer
Price: $3500 USD.
Warranty: One year parts and labor (ten years with product registration).
1345 Newton Road
Boucherville, Quebec J4B 5H2
Phone: (450) 449-2212