The writing’s on the wall: CDs are going the way of the dinosaur, and fast. According to Nielsen SoundScan, sales of the once mighty silver disc have declined by double digits year after year. It seems that many audiophiles who used to buy CDs are ripping them to a computer drive, dumping the physical discs, and using a computer-DAC combo as their only source in a more streamlined music system.
While going that streamlined route has its benefits, I imagine that a sizable chunk of the audiophile population -- me included -- still enjoy listening to CDs. Besides, CD-quality downloads are still comparatively thin on the ground, not to mention downloads encoded with higher-resolution PCM or DSD. And when one factors in the number of outstanding, recent-vintage classical SACDs available, packaged physical media seems a veritable treasure trove of good music compared to their downloadable counterparts. I plan to keep enjoying my CDs and SACDs for as long as I can.
Looks like the folks at Simaudio support this sentiment, as evinced by their Moon Neo 260D. Marketed as a “CD transport with optional DAC,” the 260D can be purchased as a standalone transport for $2000 USD. Examining its disc-spinning features shows that Simaudio cut no corners here: The Moon Neo 260D is outfitted with a transport mechanism proprietary to Simaudio and supported by M-Quattro, the company’s gel-based, four-point floating suspension, which is said to help damp vibrations. Its central, slimline disc tray seems well made, and operated quietly and smoothly in daily use.
Good as that transport may be, it’s likely that most of those interested in the 260D will want to also get its optional DAC section ($1000). This is based on a 32-bit/192kHz DAC chip that can process signals up to 24/192 resolution. Those signals can enter the player via one of four digital inputs -- TosLink, USB Type B, and two S/PDIF coaxial. The USB input is galvanically isolated to eliminate ground currents, and thus any electrical connection, between the 260D and the connected device. The oversize power supply comprises 13 voltage-regulation stages: five for the transport, eight for the DAC. That supply is factory-programmed to put the 260D in standby after 20 minutes of inactivity; pressing the Program button for two seconds turns off this feature.
Rear-panel connections include the aforementioned digital inputs, along with one set each of balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (RCA) analog outputs, one RCA and one XLR digital output, an RS-232 port, IEC AC inlet, a master power switch, SimLink in/out jacks, and an IR output for use with aftermarket remote-control receivers.
Speaking of remote control, a glance at the supplied handset makes it apparent that Simaudio focused their design efforts elsewhere. While it looks rather pedestrian compared to the 260D itself, the remote’s layout was intuitive enough for me to quickly feel my way around it in the dark. Given the choice between limited design dollars spent on a fancy remote, more useful features, or better sound, I’ll pick the latter two any day of the week and twice on Sunday.
After a thorough burn-in, I cued up Kruder & Dorfmeister’s landmark of electronica, The K&D Sessions (CD, Studio !K7 70732). Playing “Jazz Master,” the Moon Neo 260D impressed with its physically authoritative low-frequency reproduction. Lesser machines often shortchange this track’s heavy synth bass, but the Simaudio sailed through it with comparative ease, energizing the room with subterranean lows that were as taut and rhythmically nimble as they were powerful. The quick-moving bass arpeggios in “Gotta Jazz” came through with fine pitch definition and clarity. When it came to bass quantity and quality, the 260D was no slouch.
The K&D Sessions also did well at highlighting the 260D’s smooth treble response. Upper-end synth instruments and atmospheric accents rang with analog-like fluidity and purity, devoid of etch, glare, or grain. In “Gotta Jazz” and “Donaueschingen,” hi-hats, cymbals, and bells had the same sort of leading-edge bloom and airy decay as heard live, but with a bit less amplitude than the rest of the audioband. Many digital front ends can make these instruments sound aggressive, splashy, or spitty -- the 260D’s high-frequency refinement and continuity made for trebles that were always easy on the ears.
Next up was the Noah Preminger Group’s Dry Bridge Road (CD, Nowt 002). Here the Moon Neo perked up my ears with its warm midrange, natural timbres, and organic note-to-note flow. Preminger’s tenor sax, for example, sounded rich and fulsome through its lower registers, while its upper registers were imbued with appropriate amounts of burnished glow and brassy bite. Frank Kimbrough’s piano sounded especially colorful and distinct, with no undue hardness or glassiness.
The more I listened to acoustic piano through the 260D, the more I came to appreciate how it excelled at reproducing the instrument. Album after album, the Simaudio faithfully reproduced the piano’s tone, texture, and harmonic complexity. When I gave it a high-resolution recording -- such as Tor Espen Aspaas’s performance of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.32 in C Minor, Op.111 (24-bit/192kHz AIFF, 2L 49) -- the player delivered mesmerizing sound: Individual notes in this work’s blindingly rapid, complex runs came through clean and harmonically complete, with notable rhythm and pacing.
In fact, zeroing in on the 260D’s rhythmic qualities revealed that its sense of timing was beyond reproach. Jorge Rossy’s ferocious drum work in the Brad Mehldau Trio’s The Art of the Trio, Volume Two: Live at the Village Vanguard (CD, Warner Bros. 9362468482) snapped and crackled with lightning-fast acceleration and deft articulation. Drumsticks hit skins with explosive force and tactility; cymbals sizzled with full-bodied shimmer and clean decays; and kick drums thumped with accurate speed and transient reproduction. With the Moon Neo in the system, it was easy to follow Rossy’s intense and masterfully controlled way of propelling the music forward.
The 260D’s outstanding timing also heightened the drama and momentum of music with more subtle rhythmic elements. With Quatuor Ebène’s riveting performance of Debussy’s String Quartet (CD, Virgin Classics 5099951904), the Moon Neo’s surefooted timing made clear just how locked-in the musicians were with each other. It was a pleasure to hear, through the Simaudio, this quartet nimbly navigate this challenging work.
While I don’t consider myself much of an imaging freak, in this area the Simaudio deserves special mention. In “Where Seagulls Fly,” from Preminger’s Dry Bridge Road, the 260D threw a deep, well-layered, spacious soundstage that extended beyond the boundaries of my room. The Moon Neo set sharply drawn images against a virtually black background, and the musicians had a reach-out-and-touch presence that at times could be spookily real.
Listening to how well the Simaudio imaged was especially delightful with complex classical fare, such as Lang Lang’s recording of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, with Valery Gergiev conducting the St. Petersburg Mariinsky Theater Orchestra (CD, Deutsche Grammophon 028947754992). The 260D believably conveyed the acoustic of the Mariinsky Theater, and I could easily visualize each section of the orchestra. Lang Lang’s concert grand was projected into the room with such realistic substance and solidity that I could almost feel its large case resonating in front of me.
Though here I’m describing explicitly sonic instead of musical attributes, the 260D’s good reproduction of space underscored just how beneficial this can be in increasing the listener’s involvement in the music: Anyone who thinks imaging isn’t musically important should hear how the 260D does it. As any hi-fi sonic attribute should, excellent spatial reproduction, executed without hype or artifice, ultimately serves the music by getting out of its way: Its realism is such that the brain isn’t constantly trying to reassemble pieces of an auditory puzzle, which in turn allows one to better focus on the music. Of course, one can always impress one’s audiophile buddies by showing off the Simaudio’s spellbinding imaging -- my point is that the 260D does a convincing enough job of reconstructing the auditory image that the mind doesn’t have to.
To find out how the 260D stacked up against other digital sources, I first compared its CD section to my reference disc spinner, Sony’s SCD-XA777ES SACD/CD player. At well over ten years old, the Sony is ancient by high-end audio standards. Nevertheless, it remains one of the best reasonably priced SACD/CD players around, thanks to its audiophile-oriented construction, separate CD and SACD lasers, and six paralleled DACs per channel in stereo mode. With an original retail price of $3000 (albeit in 2002 dollars), the Sony is theoretically a direct match for the Simaudio player.
“Before Today,” from Everything But the Girl’s Walking Wounded (CD, Atlantic 82912), put the Simaudio’s bass front and center. All of the aforementioned depth, tightness, and authority were present and accounted for, and the 260D did a fine job of preserving pitch relationships and tunefulness. But as good as the 260D’s bass was, the Sony’s was even better: the XA777ES seemed to dig just a little deeper, with more power in the lowest octave and more volume. In terms of bass articulation and definition, the machines were on an equal footing.
The players were also quite similar through the midrange and treble. Tracy Thorn’s voice in Walking Wounded sounded mildly warmer, smoother, and more detailed through the Simaudio, while the Sony countered with a bit more energy in the cymbals and chimes. In direct comparisons, I could hear that the Sony erred a little toward excessive brightness and glare in the upper mids and lower treble, which gave the Simaudio the nod for a better-balanced sound from top to bottom of the audioband. Note that, overall, these differences were very minor, and noticeable only in head-to-head comparisons.
But when it came to timing, the Moon Neo 260D was subtly yet consistently better. With “Close Your Eyes,” from jazz guitarist Russell Malone’s eponymous debut (CD, Columbia CK 52825), the Sony sounded a touch too relaxed and, rhythmically, slightly clumsy in comparison. Drums via the 260D had more verve, drive, and momentum, with greater temporal precision. The 260D also imaged better than the Sony, with sharper instrumental outlines, a deeper soundstage, and greater tangibility.
Even after weeks of comparing these two highly enjoyable machines, I found it difficult to choose a winner: Their sounds with CDs were nearly identical. Which you’ll prefer will likely come down to the main differentiating feature: Choose the Sony for its SACD compatibility, or the Simaudio for its DAC inputs.
Speaking of the Simaudio’s DAC, I compared its performance against my own reference, Arcam’s irDAC. With its Burr-Brown PCM1796 converter chip, eight power-supply regulation stages, and six digital inputs, this $700 giant-killer has, in my opinion, bested some pretty stiff competition, including Antelope’s amazing Zodiac DAC. I was at first hesitant about pitting the irDAC against the 260D, whose DAC section offers, according to Simaudio, performance comparable to that of their Moon Neo 280D standalone DAC ($2200). Regardless, I was curious to hear how the little Arcam would fare.
First up was Atoms for Peace’s Amok (320kbps MP3, XL Records). The Arcam exhibited a hint of midbass and lower-midrange emphasis that resulted in a warm, pleasant tonal balance. The Simaudio produced more bass in the lowest octave, with greater visceral impact and clarity. It also had greater high-frequency extension and a brighter spectral balance overall, while sounding smoother, more detailed, and more refined than the Arcam.
Up next through the Arcam was Alexandre Côté’s Portraits d’Ici (24/96 AIFF, 2xHD) -- Rich Irwin’s well-controlled drum work had toe-tappingly good pace and acceleration. This album does much to show off the irDAC’s rhythmic capabilities, reminding me again of why I’d grown so fond of the Arcam in the first place.
I switched to the Simaudio and was floored by what I heard: It bettered the Arcam’s notably strong timing abilities by a good margin. The 260D’s attacks, sustains, and decays were some of the best I’ve heard, regardless of price, and its fleet-footed articulation and lack of smearing or overhang must be heard to be appreciated. Once you do, you might be amazed at how music you thought you knew well suddenly seems more energetic and vigorous.
Imaging, too, was more vivid through the 260D. In Alisa Weilerstein’s inspired performance of the Dvorák Cello Concerto, with conductor Jiri Belohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic (24/96 AIFF, Decca), orchestral sections were rendered with much better depth and delineation through the Simaudio than the Arcam. With the former, I could close my eyes and practically see Weilerstein’s bow moving across her cello’s body. Make no mistake -- the Arcam is no slouch when it comes to putting musicians and listener(s) in the same space. But it couldn’t compete with the 260D in this regard.
When all was said and done, the Arcam irDAC did an admirable job of holding its own against the much more expensive Simaudio Moon Neo 260D. Ultimately, however, it was no contest: Measured with any sonic or musical yardstick I cared to use, the 260D in DAC mode was even more fantastic than the overachieving irDAC.
Perhaps, for many audiophiles, time is running out for the once-mighty CD. But if you’re among those who still enjoy their discs, the Simaudio Moon Neo 260D will do a smashingly good job of turning those ones and zeros into tuneful, toe-tapping, tantalizingly compelling music. And if you need a supremely good DAC as well, the 260D’s got you covered there, too: Feed it a hi-rez signal and it turns into the most musically accomplished DAC I’ve heard for under $3000.
Complaints? Not at this price. Regardless of how hard I tried, with the Moon Neo 260D I could find nothing to complain about on sonic grounds. The only nit I have to pick concerns its incompatibility with the Super Audio Compact Disc. I have enough SACDs -- I still buy them regularly -- to warrant my hanging on to my Sony SCD-XA777ES SACD/CD player for as long as necessary. Otherwise, I’d buy a Moon Neo 260D in a heartbeat. If you’re putting together an audition list for a combo CD player-DAC, Simaudio’s Moon Neo 260D belongs at the top of it.
. . . Oliver Amnuayphol
Moon by Simaudio Neo 260D CD Transport-DAC
Price: $2000 USD; $3000 with optional DAC.
Warranty: Ten years parts and labor for electonics; three years parts and labor for transport.
1345 Newton Road
Boucherville, Quebec J4B 5H2
Phone: (450) 449-2212