I stayed with vinyl all the way through the SACD/DVD-Audio format wars, and I was happy. I could lie and claim prescience (and wish I had that kind of foresight in the stock market), but my decision was guided by the more mundane reality of never being enticed by the sound I heard at various shows from either format, and a jaded inner voice that warned me off buying any component that might end up as a boat anchor. Instead I stalked my local record stores and, later on, decided to move into computer-based audio in that format’s relative nascence. Since then I have ridden a wave of new vinyl releases, constant advances in computer-audio hardware and software, and, best of all, a burgeoning number of online music stores offering downloadable files. Less consciously, I have hedged somewhat against future obsolescence through the very liquid nature of digital software, my Amarra player having gone through various improvements and format extensions via painlessly downloaded upgrades.
As music-download sites continue to proliferate, offering higher-resolution formats and greater selection, and as playback software has evolved, more and more audiophiles and music lovers are migrating from spinning and, perhaps more important, buying discs -- I don’t know of anyone among my friends who doesn’t use a computer to buy and play music -- with a corresponding response from manufacturers in the form of digital-to-analog converters that can easily handle most existing formats, and at a wide range of prices. Simaudio’s Moon Neo 380D DAC ($4350 USD) nicely slots between true entry-level and stratospherically priced products, and below the 650D and 750D from Simaudio’s top range, the Moon Evolution models, though without their ability to play CDs.
The matter at hand
The Moon Neo 380D bears a familial resemblance to Simaudio’s Moon Evolution 810LP phono stage, which I reviewed in November 2012, with gently curving sides that frame a flat central faceplate. Dead center is a large digital display that indicates the selected digital input and sampling frequency. This was easily legible from any point in my room, and should be a model for other manufacturers who insist on cramming too much information into too little real estate. In two columns to the left of the display are six pushbuttons, including one for Standby, which disengages all outputs from the rest of 380D’s circuitry and turns off the display while keeping the digital and analog circuits powered up -- something I view as a must with digital source components. There are also buttons for Display on/off, Mute, scrolling through the inputs, and, last, a Monitor selector that accesses a dedicated loop for a digital recorder or digital signal processor, such as a room-correction device. To the right of the display, six stacked and labeled LEDs indicate the input currently in use.
A remote control is included, obviating the need to ever touch the faceplate, and it’s the sole means of adjusting the 380D’s optional volume control (it adds $600 to the base price), which utilizes variable analog outputs and Simaudio’s M-eVol volume circuit. Originally developed for the top-line Moon Evolution series, it operates in 1.0dB increments and is based on a resistive array that Simaudio claims does not sonically degrade the audio signal at any volume. The review sample I received lacked the volume control.
Around back, the Neo 380D is equipped with myriad choices of digital input, including two AES/EBU on three-pin XLR connectors, two S/PDIF on RCA connectors and one on a BNC connector, two TosLink optical, and one USB input, which I used for the review. Above these and on units so optioned, there will also be inputs for a Wi-Fi antenna and RJ45 Ethernet socket that will accommodate a MiND music-streamer module ($1200), a proprietary Simaudio hardware/software platform that allows for remote music playback options and organization through various third-party devices and is beyond the scope of this review. (Those wanting more information can consult the Simaudio website for a more comprehensive and detailed description.) Additionally, there are inputs for a SimLink controller that can communicate with other Simaudio gear, an IR input for aftermarket infrared remote-control receivers, and an RS-232 port (though this is operationally bidirectional) that allows for future firmware updates.
To the left of all these inputs is a standalone Digital S/PDIF output and the Monitor Loop, and to the far left are both balanced and single-ended RCA analog outputs in fixed (standard) or the optional variable configuration. The user manual “strongly recommend[s]” the use of the balanced connectors, which makes sense, considering that the 380D’s entire analog stage is fully differentially balanced. (My integrated has only single-ended inputs, which made the balanced option a nonstarter.) Finally, there is a standard IEC socket with plenty of space for bulky aftermarket power cords and, nestled very inconveniently right next to that, a master on/off switch. Remember that Standby switch?
The Moon Neo 380D uses ESS Technology’s Sabre32 Ultra DAC (ES9016) chip working in 32-bit Hyperstream -- the very same DAC chip used in the more upmarket Moon Evolution 650D, making the 380D a “true 32-bit asynchronous digital-to-analog converter.” Also like its more expensive brethren, the Neo 380D uses Simaudio’s proprietary Moon Asynchronous Jitter Control in 32-bit mode (M-AJiC32 for short!), which incorporates digital signal processing to produce “a virtually jitter-free digital signal below 1 picosecond.” All of this sounds impressive, and I was comforted by how much has been trickled down to the 380D. The care and attention paid to the power supply is manifest in the 380D’s separate digital and analog power supplies, which use separate toroidal transformers and 11 stages of voltage regulation. Signal paths have been kept as short as possible by using four-layer printed circuit boards, as in the 650D and 750D -- never a bad thing. Simaudio posits that doing so results in greater “sonic accuracy” and a “dramatically improved signal-to-noise ratio.”
Finally, the Moon Neo 380D will accept all sampling rates from 44.1 to 192kHz and bit depths of 16 or 24 at all its inputs. In addition, the USB input is galvanically isolated to eliminate any electrical connection between a USB device and the 380D. However, there is no support for even higher-resolution PCM or for DSD playback; Simaudio has informed me that a forthcoming Moon Evolution model will offer DSD support. This wasn’t a problem for me, as I own no DSD recordings, or PCM material encoded at better than 24/192, and the vast majority of my collection is still at CD’s standard resolution of 16-bit/44.1kHz. Though there seems to be a relative dearth of DSD and super-hi-rez PCM downloads at present, I have a feeling that’s not going to be the case going forward.
I had the Moon Neo 380D out of the box, plugged in, and playing in under five minutes, and never touched it after that -- which testifies to its ease of use and the excellence of its manual. During the listening period it never failed to quickly lock to any sample rate, and I experienced no operational niggles whatsoever. The 380D comes with a generous ten-year warranty.
My first impressions of the Moon Neo 380D were of a component with a very clean sound that was slightly thin and recessed through the midrange and, generally, very tight. After 200 continuous hours of playing music, I found both the bottom and top ends had opened up substantially, and the midrange was just plain delicious. This is not a DAC to audition unless it has some time on the clock -- and, as the manual recommends, keep it powered up and use that Standby button.
The Moon Neo 380D was, first and foremost, a very balanced music maker. Images had clean and clearly delineated outlines without ever sounding etched, transients were there but not edge enhanced, and this led to a musical flow that sounded natural and musical without turning lethargic. Listening to Andy Summers and John Etheridge’s Invisible Threads (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Mesa), a series of pieces for two acoustic guitars, I was struck by how open and relaxed the sound was. Transients were there for sure, but the 380D concentrated more on the middle and end of notes rather than the initial snap of pick on string. The result was a finely nuanced rendering of steely strings and resonant guitar bodies with tons of harmonic overtones that lingered long enough to give voice to each guitar’s distinctive timbre. This spot-on timbre served particularly well the music on Tone Poems (16/44.1 FLAC, Acoustic Disc), a series of duets performed by mandolin virtuoso Dave Grisman and guitar ace Tony Rice in which each cycles through a series of different vintage instruments. A guitarist myself, albeit a crappy one, I was blown away by the tonal feast the 380D served up. After listening to many recordings through the Neo 380D, I concluded that this combination of open-ended harmonic development and the listener’s ability to follow notes and musical lines without having to lean in to dig out details, with commensurately good pace and timing, was the foundation of this DAC’s beguilingly open and relaxed sound; music just flowed and spread out into the room, engaging rather than demanding my attention.
The Simaudio DAC presented a fairly deep, wide soundstage that extended past the outer edges of my speakers with better recordings, though the farthest reaches remained somewhat opaque. With Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue (16/44.1 FLAC, Columbia 20-bit remaster), the big room that I’m accustomed to hearing was smaller, the sound focusing more on the players and containing less of the ambient information that helps describe the room’s dimensions and give it volume. That focus, however, brought out an abundance of instrumental texture, and small details that stripped away any artifice and veiling, to make the sound full and immediate and, in turn, more “real.” Jimmy Cobb’s brushwork sounded fantastic, and I could hear the air moving through the bell of Miles’s trumpet. This lack of artifice made many recordings sound more intimate and in-the-room real. Johnny Cash’s cover of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt,” from Cash’s American IV (16/44.1 FLAC, American Recordings), was devastating -- Cash’s voice was so plaintive and strained, the whole so emotionally charged and dramatic, that I was riveted. Even some of the RVG Blue Note remasters that I’ve always found thin and flat took on added dimension, and while the 380D couldn’t bring them all the way back from the dead, it did manage to give instruments some meat and strip away a bit of the overall dullness that had previously left me cold.
In terms of bass, the Simaudio Neo reminded me of my Ortofon Jubilee cartridge, which has been with me many years now. Both are rhythmically fleet-footed and define bass notes clearly, but don’t have some of the deep resonance of other DACs and cartridges. Consequently, fans of something like Massive Attack’s Mezzanine (16/44.1 FLAC, Virgin), in particular bass-heavy tracks like “Angel,” may feel shortchanged, as may some classical fans who want to feel double basses in full stride, or the bottom-end swell of an orchestra. Occasionally I felt that some recordings exhibited some upper-bass leanness, but this was not a consistent problem, probably because, through the Neo 380D, the entire bass range was so well integrated into the whole that it didn’t stand out and draw undue attention to itself, at least with most of the rock, pop, and jazz recordings I listened to. However, with many symphonic classical recordings the sound was definitely tilted upward, with a quick and articulate but ultimately lighter bottom end.
High-resolution recordings were dealt with superbly, the best sounding even more open and dimensional than regular 16/44.1, as I’ve come to expect from these formats. The 380D displayed the same balance and poise, the same attributes that I’ve described above, and to a greater degree in some cases. Not all hi-rez recordings are created equal, and the Moon Neo 380D let me know which ones hadn’t been -- even if, considering how much I paid for some of them, I didn’t want to know.
I’m not surprised that I liked Simaudio’s Moon Neo 380D, given that it was engineered by the same company that produced my favorite source component of all time, the mighty Moon Evolution 810LP phono stage. And it’s nice to see that at least some of the thinking that has gone into Simaudio’s flagship products has trickled down this far. At a base price of $4350, the Moon Neo 380D isn’t cheap, but its performance is commensurate with its price. It’s a sophisticated machine that’s simple to operate and capable of reproducing music with true beauty, and it manages to do this with lowly old “Red Book” digital right on up to 24/192 recordings, making all stops in between. Given that I have well in excess of 2000 CDs that I’ve transferred, one by friggin’ one, to my hard drive, and given how much money I’ve invested, I don’t want to buy something that promises to play future formats without making my current stuff sound great -- and the Simaudio Moon Neo 380D makes digital files sound like music. If you have a high-end CD player that you paid a bundle for and are looking to replace, want to get into computer audio in a big way, or want a taste of the high end for less cash, the Moon Neo 380D will make you happy.
. . . Graham Abbott
Simaudio Moon Neo 380D Digital-to-Analog Converter
Price: $4350 USD; add $600 for volume control; add $1200 for MiND music-streamer module.
Warranty: Ten years parts and labor.
1345 Newton Rd.
Boucherville,Quebec J4B 5H2
Phone: (877) 980-2400, (450) 449-2212