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Simaudio 230HAD

Rating:
4.375/5,
  1. ab_ba
    A majestic amp
    Written by ab_ba
    Published Jan 2, 2017
    4.5/5,
    Pros - Smooth and integrated sound presentation
    Cons - None, at this price-point
    I had the pleasure of hearing the Simaudio Moon 230HAD as part of Todd The Vinyl Junkie’s loaner program. I can give this amp a solid “buy” recommendation, if it is in your financial sweet spot. Better amps cost a lot more, and the 230 sounds better than other amps at its price-point. 
     
    I love it that speaker companies are moving into the headphone market. We now have headphones from Focal, and we have amplifiers from Simaudio, Pass Labs, and McIntosh. I think speaker-oriented companies bring different sensibilities to headphone-land. They have years of technical knowhow and fantastic manufacturing facilities, while a lot of headphone outfits arel one guy, his ears, and a bench. Speakers sound fundamentally different from headphones - to sum it up in a word, I’d say the best speakers sound majestic, and the best headphone gear sounds refined. Speakers paint a picture, and headphones give you a photograph. 
     
    The 230 is definitely a headphone amp made by a speaker-amplifier company. The sound is rich and full and detailed. The build quality on the unit is gorgeous and seamless, and the options and formats it handles are plentiful. The part you interact with the most - the volume knob - is implemented wonderfully. 
     
    I had the absolute pleasure of hearing the Moon 430HA amplifier at Tyll’s Big Sound 2015. It sounded simply gorgeous, and the build of the unit just inspired confidence. To my recollection, the 230’s sound signature is quite similar to that of its big brother, to where I wondered if I would have been able to distinguish the two in a blind test. This is saying a lot, considering the 230 is priced at less than half of the 430. This is part of why I say the 230 is absolutely a great value. 
     
    The only direct comparison I could make during my loaner week was to my Violectric V281 amp and V800 DAC. The V281 is punchy and dynamic, while the 230 is elegant and smooth. To my ears, good amps sound more similar to one another than top headphones do, so it is hard to offer a “night-and-day” description of these two amps. I would say that the 230 sounded better than the V281 in single-ended mode. If you consider the cost differential (the V281 is 50% more expensive, not including the DAC, plus you have to invest in balanced cables for all of your headphones to get the most out of it), again the 230 packs a tremendous value. 
     
    I subjected both amps to the Wife Test. She possess the best ears in our house, AND she has absolutely no biases based on price or build quality. I swapped back and forth between the V281 and the Moon, while my HD800 headphones remained on her noggin. She could distinguish them reliably, and she thought the Moon amp “sounds better” but the Violectric “makes me smile”. So there you have it, folks. 
     
    A/B/X testing is the gold standard for judging the relative merits of audio equipment. Can you distinguish them blind? If so, you can know with certainty that you are getting what you pay for. However, I have come to believe that sighted comparisons also capture real (that is, consistent and reliable) differences in audio equipment. Put another way - if I only purchased equipment when I could successfully identify it in a blind test, then I would deprive myself of a lot of gear that brings me satisfaction and listening pleasure. What I really wanted to do was A/B the Vio and the Moon, each at their best, but since the Vio sounds best in balanced mode, it took me three or so minutes each time I wanted to switch back and forth between them, which outlasted my audio memory. I ended up preferring my Violectric in this sighted comparison, but again, we are talking about a 50% more expensive amplifier (not even counting the DAC and cables). For somebody looking for a wonderful way to drive cans like the HD800 or the LCD-3, I can recommend the Moon 230 without hesitation. 
     
     
      DoctaCosmos likes this.
  2. sheldaze
    An uncharacteristic taste of clarity and obviousness to music.
    Written by sheldaze
    Published Jul 28, 2016
    5.0/5,
    Pros - Excellent separation and enunciation of each individual sound, its start and stop time, and location in space.
    Cons - Slightly imperfect timbre, pitch and rhythm, and single instrument or vocal detail, compared with better DACs costing more than the Moon.
    Introduction
     
    Why am I here? Am I seeking an endgame all-in-one audio device? Am I seeking an amplifier for every conceivable, non-electrostatic headphone? Am I seeking a sound that will draw me in, wisp me away on a magic carpet ride of sonic bliss, while enveloping my auditory senses in a cloud of ecstasy? The short answer to these questions is no. And please, just a moment of your time for an explanation below.
     
    I am an audiophile - there, I said it. I admit it. I am enthusiastic beyond the norm regarding audio playback - with particular regard to reproduction of audio that has been stored in a digital medium. And I have been interested in headphones since the early 2000s, when a co-worker, owning the Sennheiser HD600, brought these to work and said, have a listen. Helplessly Hoping was the song - I reflect on it today, and it seems an apt start. Though I feel hopeful and optimistic as I enter the Renaissance period of my audio journey, it is after many years of what I term the Dark Ages, the time between 2003 and 2014. These years were when portable MP3 and multi-channel DVD became dominant technologies, both slowing the growth of well-recorded and well-produced stereo music and accelerating the expense of consumer products with technology suitable to listen to good recordings. During those years, I listened only to expensive players and a small collection of DVD-Audio and SACD discs, having read in a magazine it was the correct way. And I had one solid state amplifier. What choice did I have as a headphone enthusiast in 2003? What choice did I need? On paper, my amplifier was overkill, being able to drive simultaneous two pair of HD650 headphones, to ear bleeding volume, when set to the lowest of its three gains. Then in December of 2014, I chanced at the purchase of a Schiit Fulla and my first audition of what modern high fidelity could be. I had downgraded from a setup with an MSRP of $2700 to a USB dongle costing only $79, yet I was at that moment closer to my ideal sound than I’d been in the 10+ years of prior pursuit.
     
    Am I in pursuit of endgame sound? Absolutely not, and an immediate rush towards endgame may lead one to an invitation, an extended stay at a nice place, where you’ll get plenty of rest, relaxation, and hourly observation. I fear there are too many styles of music and variations or interpretations of what defines a musically accurate audio system to call a single setup the end. And more importantly, there are too many moods. I heard a speech at a recent audio event in Atlanta, where a prominent member of our society spoke on a topic, with a simple hook or point of audience understanding - the brain is the most critical component of the audio chain. The speaker was clever and I am not, so I’ll try to explain via self-reference. There are times when I have heard a sound closer to endgame - this often while watching a YouTube video with my headphones plugged into the speaker jack of a standard desktop computer. Does that mean I should sell my solid state amplifier, tube amplifier, and DAC - downgrade my collection of audio hardware to just a PC and stream MP3 across the Internet? The answer is no. There is definite truth to the adaptability of the brain and how it interprets audio - there is also truth that better audio playback equipment exists, and that it can aid the listening experience. I am not expecting the Moon to be endgame, if such a thing can exist. But I do believe the audiophile pursuit is a noble venture. And this is the primary reason I have interest in the Moon.
     
    The first and most variable piece of audio gear we should evaluate in any quest for better audio reproduction is the transducer. However headphones can be a tricky challenge to playback gear due to their diversity - the load imparted by the transducer on the amplifier can vary dramatically based on the design of the headphone. Immediately, I remove the bookends of the transducer world, the HE-6 and IEMs, from my selection. I used an IEM during my dark years, but find these too cumbersome to insert, take out, and keep in place for just the right sound. I listen to music only in a quiet room, so an open headphone design will do. I also have not joined the ranks of the HE-6 power starved. The HE-1000 is my headphone requiring the most current to play properly. And the Moon absolutely must play this headphone properly. I also expect a competent amplifier such as the Moon to play properly with my least current hungry headphone, a Grado PS1000e. And a competent amplifier must play properly with a voltage hungry headphone, like the HD800S. These three headphones I will test. Though in no uncertain terms, if an amplifier cannot adequately play any of these three, I will not buy. My expectation is that I can use the Moon to properly assess other headphones that are new to me. And per general amplifier use, I want the ability to choose the headphone that best suits my mood for listening today.
     
    Last, I do not want to or expect to be transported away on a cloud of hyperbole. I am looking for a competent tool, which can be used to assess the competency of other parts of the audio chain, those other parts being headphones, sources, and to some extent other amplifiers. I expect the Moon to play, and get out of the way of any source I use. I do not want to be swooned by its amplifier, adding its own coloration to the sound between my headphone and my source. I want to be able to discern the colors of other amplifiers apart from the neutrality of the Moon. I expect the Moon also to play and announce clearly to the listener the differences between sources so these are easily noted. Overall, I expect a competent, honest sound.
     
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    Package
     
    This is the part where I tell you the box is yay high and oh so this and that wide - these are details you can find online. I will tell you that the Moon fit everywhere I went to place it. I had no issue on a small table in my family room, adjacent my laptop. I also had no issue on the smallish remainder of a stand, next to my fixed stack of DAC and two amplifiers. The best amplifier that fit on this shelf was a Cavalli Audio Liquid Carbon. Items that have fit well in the family room space are the JDS Labs The Element, Grace Design m9xx, and a Schiit stack consisting of an Asgard on top of a Bifrost. Things which have not fit so well in these spaces are Audio-GD DAC-19 and Ayre QB-9. There is one dimension that might explain - the width of the Moon is 7 inches - the two products I had trouble fitting were 8.5 and 9.5 inches, which is slightly above half-width of the typical consumer electronics product. The family room is the first space I use for almost all new audio products, and the shelf is my permanent space. Thus having the Moon fit here made it feel immediately welcome.
     
    An open sitting area is another place I like to listen, where appearance is more important to me than size. Anything I would use here with regularity must look good without a large mess of wires connected all around. The Moon requires only a USB and a power cable in back and a headphone plugged in front. Its setup is simple and clean. I find the black box visually appealing too, recalling the appearance of my classic Denon disc players. The front is brushed metal. There is a nice texture to the metal material on the top and sides. The lightly abrasive finish gives the appearance of a product well-built and capable of withstanding the occasional scratch or rub without gouging. I assume there were a few people who used the unit prior to my audition, and it still looked clean and new.
    About the only negative is a slight flexing at the very bottom, on each side of the case. This I noticed while moving or unpacking the Moon. Once seated, everything seen and touched is firm. The four rubber feet keep the Moon from sliding across the table. Never once did I feel the need to hold the Moon in place as I plugged in new headphones. When I did venture around back to plug in a pair of RCA cables, these connections too felt sturdy.
     
    The front layout is simple - having only power on/off and input select buttons, both of which feel nice to the touch. A single blue LED above the power button is lit while the unit is on. The front-facing volume knob rotates cleanly. I found the screw hole for the knob, opposite the visual dot on the front, helpful to locate the volume position when using the Moon in a dark room. A friend too noticed that the volume indicator dot is a physical indentation, so it could be used as a point of reference for volume.
    The only external feature missing is a readout for volume, which the 430HAD has. This aids in A/B comparisons. Once a volume is adjusted for and measured as a reference point, recovery to that same volume is easier with a digital readout. And I only make note of this because some of the competing products do include this feature, such as the Grace Design m9xx and Ayre Codex. I had no issues adjusting the volume to a comfortable desired level for just listening.
     
    Features
     
    Those needing balanced inputs and outputs should look to its bigger brother the NEO 430HAD. Otherwise every key feature for unbalanced audio is standard in the NEO 230HAD. It has two sets of analog inputs - RCA on the back and a ⅛” TRS phono on the front. It has two sets of RCA analog outputs on the back - a static line-level output and a variable pre-amplifier output. It has a competent DAC inside - think of the DAC as a baseline source, comparable to other sources you may wish to measure. The DAC accepts external digital input from optical, coax (2 inputs), and USB. Via USB, the sound is clean, which is admirable from my sub-standard USB source, an old laptop. I used my Regen for ultimate listening evaluation, but one need not use this for day-to-day listening or when using a better source.
     
    The user toggles through the inputs via a single button on the front. There are two columns of red LED - the left column indicates the input source chosen and the right column indicates the bit rate of the audio fed from an external source into the DAC. Rather than account for every possible rate, there are just a few LED. There are two base rate LED to indicate 44.1 and 48 kHz. There are two multiplier LED to indicate 2x and 4x. The only complication is for playback of 384kHz, which is shown by the 48 kHz base rate and both the 2x and 4x multipliers. There is also a DSD base rate. This too can be combined with the 2x or 4x multiplier when engaged to play higher sample rate data.
     
    The DAC processes PCM. More important, to my ears, I found no issue with playback of basic 16-bit, 44.1kHz resolution audio, the standard format of Red Book, and what I majority use in my daily listening and as my primary track selection for testing done in this review. Some DACs will sound their best for playback of higher resolution audio. The Moon was competent at all audio rates. Though I do not use DSD, I did test to verify the NEO 230HAD will play DSD tracks sampled at 1x, 2x, and 4x data rates through USB. I had a minor issue with DSD at 4x. Instead of displaying the LED for DSD and 4x, it showed the LED for 44.1kHz and both the 2x and 4x, meaning PCM at 352.8kHz. However this was also shown in the playback software display. So I’ll attribute this to an issue in software or the hardware of my computer, and not the Moon. I do note though I did not have this issue with a Chord Mojo, which correctly played DSD at 4x using the same track and same software.
     
    Sound
     
    I connected a USB cable and power cord to the Moon and plugged my HD650 headphones to the front, seeking only at first to verify the box was functional and all sources could play. But as I listened to the sound, I immediately heard something was different - something in the sound was new to me, in a way I was unaccustomed to hearing. It was more different than the typical delta I expect from a new amplifier. So I paused at the question - is this something new a good, or something new a bad? And a second question seemed relevant - how does one go about the measurement of a tool, which itself is meant to measure other products. If I haven’t already, I am certainly about to take a divergent path. First, I’m going to use my ears to measure. And what I will be measuring are products I will not name. To you, these are simply my primary choices to listen to a tube amplifier, a solid state amplifier, and a DAC source. These have been my choices in the blind. And now with the Moon available as a potential discriminator of other products, I ask how good is it at doing this task? In using my ears, I also did something, which may seem troubling or illogical - I did not set the volume the same.
     
    I started at a volume too high for normal listening, and slowly lowered the volume until I could barely hear the background sounds. This represents how I would normally set the volume for a typical listening session. The song I used to test is an excerpt from the Piano Trio No. 4 in D Major, Op. 70, No. 1 "Ghost", II. Largo assai ed espressivo, from the soundtrack of the film Immortal Beloved. Pamela Frank is on violin. Yo-Yo Ma is on cello. Emanuel Ax is on piano. The violin and cello do a sort of dance in the background, with the piano acts as a foreground focal point. I adjusted according to my ability to hear the string instruments. And I did so over the course of several hours, pausing an hour or so between each setting. Thus I was blind to how each previous amplifier was adjusted. Did I discern something from the roughly two minutes of introduction? Absolutely, yes. Though there is no change I can make to a solid state amplifier, I found my own to be quite sublime. I could turn up the volume without discomfort, but the volume I used was interestingly the lowest of the three. It has the most clarity such that even at the lowest decibel output, the sounds are smooth and easily heard. The strings do not disappear off into the blackness of the background, but continue to play. This was a satisfactory finding! I had a somewhat opposite finding for the tube. I like the tube, but it requires a higher volume to construct the same level of musical detail. Perhaps it is time to change a tube in this amplifier, or seek other modifications? And after these changes are made, the Moon could again be useful to compare against the sound of the improvements. In short, the Moon provided a good baseline point from which to measure the sonic quality or lack thereof in my existing amplifier equipment. This is what I sought with this listening test - nothing more. Moving on.
     
    Next I chose to listen to my DAC source. This part saddened me a little, in that I very much like the timbre and flow of my DAC. However I immediately noticed more detail retrieval via the DAC built-in the Moon. And those details, while not entirely accurate in the Moon, were also not harsh as some detail-oriented DACs can be. Many products employ a showroom look-at-me tactic of sounding different to sell, but then sound strident over a longer listening session. I played the same song from the test above, and easily heard the details of both the string and piano instruments, simply clearer via the Moon than via my DAC (grumble grumble - costing around the same as the entire Moon product). And it was not until I listened to the louder piano section, after the two minutes of intro, that I could clearly discern that the details from the Moon DAC were less accurate. Less accurate in that the piano keys were glassy and sounded less like a real piano through Moon’s internal DAC - I play piano so having this sound correct is quite important to me. In a second DAC comparison to my Ayre Codex, the Moon finally lost both subjective contests regarding accuracy and detail retrieval. In summary, the Moon provided a better understanding of the limitations of my daily DAC and as such I may someday consider a replacement for it. Yet, in keeping with the review, this is what I sought via the Moon. It was again successful as a hearing aid, as a baseline for comparison.
     
    At this point, I was starting to develop trust in the neutrality of the Moon. For grins, I decided to also compare the balanced output direct from the Ayre Codex against the single-ended output from the Codex. I did this by using the single-ended RCA output from the Ayre through the Moon. This is the first time I have had an amplifier neutral enough where I felt this test was worthwhile. With volume set equal, I did not hear the same amount of air and breath via the unbalanced output from the Ayre DAC. I’ve read this was true, but could now confirm. I include this test here to point out the truly neutral nature of the amplifier in the Moon and that I found it trustworthy enough to conduct such a listening experiment.
     
    The last bit of testing I did was using my three headphones, which I planned from the introduction to this review. I started with the HE-1000. And this time I did balance each amplifier to an identical volume, if slightly higher than my normal listening volume. The disc I used was a best of compilation album of music by Peter Gabriel titled Shaking the Tree. I listened to the first track, Solsbury Hill, to set my volume for each amplifier. For HE-1000, the track I chose was Mercy Street. It has an amazing baseline, as does much of the artist’s music. It starts with a pulsing bass sound in the right channel, which is slowly joined by the company of higher frequency electronic sounds. I first started with the Moon. I had not heard this song in some time, before any of my recent headphone exploration and DAC/AMP purchases. The sonic information passing through the Moon was mesmerizing. Moving next to my solid state, the sound steps back just a hair, but fills in the space with more depth and dynamics. I never felt the Moon was doing anything wrong, just amplifying the music differently. While everything was coherent on the Moon, I could just about get lost in the music from my solid state, no longer caring about instrument location and separation, just floating in the sound. The sound stayed in front of my head via the Moon, never losing or causing me to want to lose focus on any particular sound. The tube was a different experience. I did not feel it was wrong either, but simply focussed on a different frequency spectrum. I did not enjoy its sound as much as I did on either the Moon or solid state.
     
    I moved to my next headphone, the HD800S and the next track selection, Don’t Give Up. I am more personally familiar with this song, having heard it many times in use at a High School retreat. However, the sheer volume of stage and emotion conveyed in Peter Gabriel’s voice was stunning. I started this comparison using my solid state. Then I moved to the Moon. While the stage again became flatter, I did not feel that any part of the frequency was being over emphasized. The sound remained evenly distributed and true. Moving last to my tube, I heard less of a change in frequency response, and more of an immersion, head first, into the music. It was like I had leaned in to get a closer peek at the musicians on the stage. Again though, the Moon seemed capable of playing the music through my headphones, and also seemed of the three to be the most balanced.
     
    The last headphone to test was the PS1000e, using the track Zaar. It is a rolling, tumultuous series of sounds, many of which are played without reference to any form or rhythm. I again set my volumes against the first track, and started listening with the tube moving next to the Moon. First, the bass became stronger. There is a drum that was particularly more percussive on the Moon. And the higher frequency instruments became less present, in a good way. Last, moving from the Moon to my solid state, everything took a step back. Only this time the sound did not fill in with dynamic volume, as it had with the HE-1000. The dynamics on the Moon and my solid state were about on par through the PS1000e. This may be that I am driving my Grado at the near bottom of the volume of my solid state, in fact just above the point of left/right channel imbalance. The Moon had no low volume imbalance issue that I noticed via the Grado headphones.
     
    Listening
     
    I realized at this point of the review that some people may not choose to use the Moon strictly as a tool, as I have done above. So this section describes just listening to the Moon, via USB through its internal DAC. This section is more of a relaxed listening exercise and sound characteristic summary. When I was using the Moon for a few moments of focussed listening, it was certainly revealing of a lot of things to me. But would I choose to use it for day-in-day-out listening. I started with my AKG K702 headphones, which have a slight added treble edge, and can become tiresome on systems that have unequal frequency response. I have already established a trust between these headphones and my Chord Mojo. Both headphone and DAC/AMP are what I feel to be dry, but the sheer volume of information, without fatigue, is what I heard and quite enjoyed with the Mojo. I wished to hear something similar with the Moon.
     
    I have a playlist composed almost entirely of Radiohead songs from the albums - Amnesiac, In Rainbows, Hail to the Thief, and Kid A. I particularly like the track Everything in its Right Place from Kid A. But after that song, the three tracks I use from In Rainbows can become tiresome. Faust Arp uses acoustic guitar, with focus on the higher pitch notes. It also uses what sounds like violin, but may be a synthesizer - regardless it adds to the treble energy of the song. Reckoner has two cymbals ringing out a percussive, repeated echo. Videotape has a repeated high piano note. But I listened to the entire set on the Moon without any fatigue issue. I next picked a couple of tracks to replay on the Mojo. The Mojo is still one step cleaner, but takes a step back in terms of detail retrieval - particularly regarding the ability to localize musical events, the start and stop of sounds. The distance to each source was a little more obscured on the Mojo. Interesting though, the Mojo had a definite wider stage. But in short summary, those same attributes that kept me attentive to the music via the Moon were now hurting its performance as a piece of everyday listening equipment. Overall I did prefer listening to the AKG through the Mojo, versus the Moon. I’m not sure what this means, but I went back to the HD650 headphones that I first started with, now seeking to hear a few more styles of music.
     
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    The Joshua Tree
    Where the Streets Have No Name
    I was clearly able to hear and almost touch each instrument, particularly the axes (two distinct tracks of guitar), which hovered out in space. When the music slows, you can hear the exact moment the studio engineer decides to turn up the volume on the synth bassline.
     
    I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
    Again each musical note is unique, presented and held within its own individual space, hanging out as if each artist has a solo part. Everything is on the same stage, but the sounds do not overlap. I might have to later listen to that track from Phantom of the Opera, Prima Donna, where there are what seem to be a dozen different singers, often each with their own tune. I would imagine it well-suited to the Moon strengths.
     
    With or Without You
    This is truly a treat. I was able to hear the small, subtle tricks used by the studio engineers. Generally when played back on the average system, or even on my tubed headphone system, I can hear the overall sound. But then via the Moon and HD650 headphones, not the most revealing of headphones, I could clearly pick out how the sound moves physically around the stage. I’ve never noticed the odd, deliberate placement of each sound. I wrote in my notes - I am starting to understand the charm of this album.
     
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    Who’s Next
    The next album did not allow the Moon to highlight hidden subtleties of execution by a studio engineer. The Joshua Tree was made in 1986 and took an entire year to record, while the Who album was made 15 years prior in 1971, and took only 3 months to record. But the album does highlight things I enjoyed, as well as weaknesses of the Moon, relative to competing products.
     
    Baba O’Reilly
    Repeating myself, I would assume the studio engineer of 1971 would not have as many tools at his disposal relative to modern sound technique. There is an obviousness that anyone can hear in how the keyboard is panned around, at the introduction and throughout the song. But I quickly got into the head bobbing mode once the drums started to thump and ring. And if you understand how things work with regards to music playback, this is a good thing!
     
    Behind Blue Eyes
    I particularly enjoyed the multiple vocal parts of of this song. It is often where the music becomes more complex that I begin to enjoy the benefits of the Moon. It does not break apart as music can do on poorer implementations. And it surprises me in places where this fidelity allows me to hear deeper into the music, even on songs I have heard multiple times. The distinct nature of each voice on the lyric “behind blue eyes” is one of those focus points.
     
    Won’t Get Fooled Again
    Here though, I wish the drumming sound had a little more forward presence. It is still there, and audible, but I would just wish to hear it a little more clearly. On other setups, I would describe this more as the drum being part of the band. The percussion drives or allows the other instruments to peak and sway in rhythm to the beat. This gets lost by the separation between it and the bass and guitar sounds.
     
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    Remain in the Light
    Purple Rain
    Off the Wall
    Most of what is recorded on these three albums is what I would call the weakness of the Moon. First, what is PRAT? I would never suggest that there is a magical property, such that when the perfect DAC, and perfect amplifier, and perfect headphone are paired, that PRAT suddenly appears. It is more that some implementations allow one to hear the transients more clearly. I hear the start and stop of a long sound via the Moon. But I do not hear the rat-a-tat-tat speedy stuff as clearly. Second thing is the single vocal or the single instrument - I have simply heard better sound from competing products.
     
    When I was listening to the Talking Heads album Remain in the Light on my Hugo, I heard more of the amazement of the contrasting rhythms than I currently hear via the Moon. The same same happened on most songs from the album Purple Rain - understanding this album is highly dependent on hearing the tight electronic and instrumental rhythms. Getting these rhythms or transients perfectly accurate is what, to my ears, the Chord products do well, and the Moon does not compete at this same level via the internal DAC. Then in hearing how the engineer creates the dialog between Wendy and Lisa at the beginning of Computer Blue, the Moon is best to hear this studio trick. While back on the Chord, I was simply immersed in the sound. Last points, I would have preferred the more clear reference to the guitar heard at the beginning of Purple Rain via the Hugo than I heard on the Moon. And I would have preferred to peer a little more deeply into the emotional vocals of Michael Jackson in the song She’s Out of My Life as heard via the Chord, than to hear the localization of electric piano accompaniment. Some of the true feeling of this recording is lost via the Moon.
     
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    Aja
    Deacon Blues
    I think Steely Dan is the ultimate musical group to play on the Moon. Hearing every instrument makes their genius seem that much more so. It would be impossible to explain Deacon Blues to someone who has not heard it. But the entire song is simply there for the taking via the Moon. Listening to their sound is a treat!
     
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    Brothers in Arms
    Your Latest Trick
    Why Worry
    Ride Across the River
    The Man’s Too Strong
    Brother’s in Arms
    It is hard to summarize this album and how is it presented on the Moon in a single, simple phrase. I’ve heard better instrument detail from other DACs than heard via the Moon in the song Your Latest Trick. But then on the next track, Why Worry, the Moon just excels. When there are multiple instruments playing in symphony, and you want to focus on the smallest details that sometimes get lost in the background, you can. In this review, I feel perhaps at times I am being too picky. By the time I got to the third song, I did not feel I was listening to a strength or a weakness. The key thing I heard was not in the actual song. Time spent with this amplifier reminds me of some of the best listening sessions, growing up, in front of Dad’s stereo system, with a turntable and two speakers. It reminds of that ease I had in listening to that collective sound. And when I state I’ve heard better, those DAC implementations all come at a price, most starting around $500 more than the entire cost for the Moon. The Moon is a comparative value. And some things still jump out at me and surprise me in the Moon. And most importantly, I can listen to the Moon for hours, at low volume, with no strain or headphone listening fatigue. That to me is worth more than the slight sonic improvement of some of the harder to find and more costly implementations.
     
    Summary
     
    I admit, when I first clicked the web link to read the literature on the Moon NEO 230HAD and Simaudio products in general, I had a concern:
     
     
    This singular statement is in almost complete opposite of the intent I described in my introduction. I had basic expectations for this device, while their mission statement is the hyperbole pile I would normally try my best to avoid. But immediately after placing the headphones over my ears, I heard a truth of possibility to both tasks - their hyperbolic mission statement, and my personal task. Without getting into the kinds of flattery that induce nausea, I’ll say simply there was a clarity and obviousness to the music that was uncharacteristic of many platforms I had heard before. And this was particularly true of single-box platforms.
     
    Does the Simaudio Moon NEO 230HAD have what I wanted? Absolutely - yes. It also has limits. Simply, there is space in the market for personal electronics where some other products are likely to be better, or worse, or of the same quality as the Moon. When listening to a single instrument, or a less complex cluster of just a few instruments, the DAC in the Moon does not present the best possible perspective. There are DACs, costing more than the Moon, which present better detail or timbre. When using the best possible headphones, there are amplifiers, also costing more than or around the same price as the Moon, which are capable of blacker, deeper background, and a fuller soundstage. The Moon however does correctly keep the sound clear, and just a little ahead of the listener, to maintain ease of focus on positional and depth cues of instruments and vocals.
     
    But note my repeated phrasing - at or above the cost of the Moon. Also consider I am comparing the cost of just a DAC against the entire cost of the Moon. Or I am comparing the cost of just an amplifier against the cost of the entire Moon. To my ears, I have heard its equal or better only in a single regard, never besting it in all characteristics.
     
    What do you have here, in the Simaudio Moon NEO 230HAD? A clear view into the motion vector, which is music? Maybe not - the wellness part is too likely a stretch, but I have been reminded of a time of wellness in youth - a simpler era of just a turntable, integrated amplifier, and two separate speakers. I have not heard any product better produce this essence of sound at lower cost - I have certainly heard worse at higher cost. And when listening to instrumentation that is diverse or complex, the Moon does an excellent job at separation and enunciation of each individual sound, its start and stop in time if perhaps not its pitch and rhythm, and its location in space if perhaps not a perfectly matched timbre. It has a complete set of inputs and outputs, allowing for multiple use cases, or comparison against other amplifiers, and other DACs. It is also great for just kicking back, relaxing and letting some music play. And most importantly it plays many headphones quite well. It is a compact, capable, and attractive box. I highly encourage you to give it a try. I plan to do just that for a long, long time.
     
    Reference Equipment:
    Ayre Codex, Chord Hugo, Chord Mojo, Grace Design m9xx, UpTone Audio USB REGEN
     
    Reference Headphones:
    AKG K702, Grado PS1000e, HiFiMan HE1000, Sennheiser HD650, Sennheiser HD800S
      asmagus, Wildcatsare1 and hqssui like this.
    1. View previous replies...
    2. kendavis
      Good information and a good read as well.
      kendavis, Jul 30, 2016
    3. sheldaze
      Thanks all for your kind comments! And I keep forgetting to thank Todd for the initial loaner. I certainly enjoyed the listen, and hope that came across in the review. But I also wanted to be brutally honest, because I've seen some poor reviews, not necessarily on Head-Fi, but elsewhere. The Moon was good enough for me to want to buy, so I wanted to include enough detail to express the why? Again thanks!
      sheldaze, Jul 30, 2016
    4. TokenGesture
      Great job! Thanks for writing it.
      TokenGesture, Jul 31, 2016
  3. austinpop
    An excellent DAC/Amp - neutral and powerful
    Written by austinpop
    Published Apr 12, 2016
    4.0/5,
    Pros - Plenty of power on tap, analog and digital inputs, remote control
    Cons - No balanced inputs or outputs
    I’ve now had the chance to spend the last few days with the Simaudio Moon 230HAD DAC/Amp. Here is my review of the 230HAD, for your reading pleasure.
     
    I was in the market for a great DAC/Amp in the sub-$2k range for my HD800 headphones, so I jumped at the opportunity when Todd initiated this 230HAD loaner program. Other DAC/Amps I have been considering include the Sennheiser HDVD800/HDVA600, the Ayre Codex, the upcoming Questyle CMA600i, the NuPrime DAC-10H, and this piece, the Moon 230HAD.
     
    To avoid repeating myself, please refer to my review of the Ayre Codex, where I detailed my criteria, my associated equipment, my music selections, and my findings comparing the Ayre Codex to the HDVA 600 (amp only). I came away from that comparo with a great appreciation for the little Codex. Luckily, my Ayre dealer was able to lend me his demo Codex for the weekend, so I had it on hand alongside the 230HAD.
     
    Here're all the goodies lined up for some sweet listening!
     
    image.jpg
     
     
    Objective
    I had two objectives. First - I wanted to know if the 230HAD would fit the bill for my requirements. Second - how did the 230HAD compare relative to the Codex in my environment?
     
    Review Approach
    Being a scientist, I like to define my methodology and design my experiments carefully. Accordingly, my approach was as follows:
    • Establish a baseline impression using the 230HAD.
    • Compare with the Codex, varying one thing at a time, and note subjective impressions
    • Finally, compare the best configurations of the 230HAD with the Codex for an overall assessment.
     
    Operational impressions of the 230HAD
    The 230HAD is a very impressive piece of kit. The chassis is quite elegant, and laden with digital inputs of all flavors (USB, coaxial, optical), and an analog input. All analog inputs and outputs are single-ended, with no balanced mode.
     
    It also has a set of red LED indicators on the front panel to display sample rates and input selection. The sample rate indicators may be confusing to anyone without an arithmetic bent, but to me made complete sense.
     
    The unit accepts resolutions up to 32/384 (DXD) PCM, as well as DSD256, both via the USB input. There is no sample length indicator to distinguish between 16, 24, or 32-bits, however. The highest resolutions I had in my collection were some 2L samples of 24/352.8, and DSD256. These played just fine with the 230HAD.
     
    I did run into a head-scratcher with DSD, but chose not to pursue. My Auralic Aries Mini streamer was configured to deliver DSD-over-PCM (DoP), and this worked perfectly. However, I did try to feed native DSD to the 230. While I got audio out just fine, the sample indicators instead of lighting DSD, lit up the PCM indicators for 176kHz. This made no sense to me, as the Aries Mini has no ability to transcode DSD to PCM on the fly, so I have no idea what I was hearing. I chose to leave the DoP setting enabled the rest of the time.
     
    Listening impressions of the 230HAD
    Enjoyed in isolation, the 230HAD sounds fantastic. The two adjectives that came to mind as I spent some hours listening to it were: neutral, and powerful. This amp is about as neutral and uncolored as it gets. And gain is prodigious: I did most of my listening with the volume knob between 9 and 12 o’clock. Imaging and soundstage were spacious, although not the best I’d heard. Tonally, you really get the sense you are hearing exactly what is going in, with no undue boosts or dips.
     
    Listening on the HD800, the bass is reassuringly solid, but the mids do have a somewhat polite and laid-back character. This amp does nothing to mitigate the slightly bright character of the HD800, but never sounded harsh or tiresome. Rhythm and pacing were very engaging.
     
    Given that the S-PDIF inputs (coax, optical) were limited to 24/192 PCM, I assumed that Simaudio considered the USB input to be the preferred and the best-sounding input choice. To be honest, I was hard pressed to hear a difference between coax and USB. I convinced myself the USB was a tiny bit better, but would be hard pressed to defend it.
     
    BTW - I wasn’t sure how much burn-in time this unit had experienced already, so I gave it about 50 hours of burn in using surf sounds, which according to my Ayre dealer, can accelerate burn in relative to just music. He claims none other than George Cardas gave him this tip. Who knows!
     
    Honestly, if I had just acquired this piece and never compared it to anything else, I could have been quite happy with it.
     
    The importance of auditions and comparisons
    I don’t know about you, but my aural memory is pretty lousy. I can’t listen to a component today, and accurately compare it with something I heard even an hour ago, let alone days or months. And yet, the only way to compare equipment is to listen to them side to side with sensibly designed experiments.
     
    We live at a time where the “local dealer” is a vanishing concept, so these types of loaner programs, along with purchases from retailers with generous return policies, are the only way to assemble equipment comparos.
     
    In my case, having the Codex and the 230HAD side-by-side was invaluable.
     
    Comparing the 230HAD with the Ayre Codex
     
    Experiment 1: DAC comparison, using the 230HAD as Amp
    Here is the setup:
     
    Aries Mini ---- optical ---> Codex --- RCA analog ---> 230HAD --- stock SE cable ---> HD800
                   |___________  coax ________________|
     
    The Codex DAC is quite something. The music seemed to snap into focus, as if it were blurred before. Instruments were much easier to distinguish from each other. And the soundstage seemed to grow wider and deeper. It just sounded more relaxed. It’s hard to find the words for these sonic differences.
     
    Experiment 2: Amp comparison, using the Codex as DAC
    This setup looked like this:
     
    Aries Mini ---- optical ---> Codex --- stock SE cable ---> HD800
    Aries Mini ---- optical ---> Codex --- RCA analog ---> 230HAD --- stock SE cable ---> HD800
     
    The 230HAD has the Codex amp beat on power. In SE mode, I routinely had to run the Codex to gains in excess of 95 (out of 100 max). BTW - running the Codex balanced gives you an extra 6dB of gain, and boy, does than come in handy! I suspect the Codex is right at the edge with the somewhat inefficient HD800s (at 300 ohms), and would have a hard time driving inefficient 600 ohm headphones.
     
    And yet, on sonics, the Ayre had sweeter mids, and airier treble (yeah, pun intended!). Instruments like triangles, cymbals, tambourines, high hats, etc sounded more like the real thing on the Codex.
     
    This also explains why the Codex made the HD800 sing better than the 230HAD.
     
    Kicking in some extra gears on the Codex
    The impressions so far were with the Codex being driven through the optical input, in single ended mode. However, the SQ of the Codex rose significantly further with each of the following steps:
    1. USB input: on the Codex, the USB input sounds much superior to the optical. It’s hard to describe, but it’s just more of the good stuff - articulation, soundstage, air, etc.
    2. Balanced mode/Balanced headphone cable: these two changes had to be evaluated together, since I don’t have the stock Sennheiser balanced cable. Instead I used a Moon Audio Black Dragon HD800 Premium cable (a $450 upgrade).

      The combination of the balanced mode and cable really added yet another quantum increase in SQ. The Black Dragon is known for both its clarity and warmth, which gives the bass a nice solidity that is lacking in SE.
     
    All together now
    At this point, I compared the 230HAD and the Codex in their best sounding configurations:
     
    Aries Mini ---- USB ---> Codex --- balanced Black Dragon cable ---> HD800
    Aries Mini ---- USB ---> 230HAD --- stock SE cable ---> HD800
     
    Does the 230HAD as configured sound great? You betcha! In isolation, it sounded very musical and satisfying.
     
    Does the Codex configuration sound significantly better? You betcha!
     
    Such is the paradox of our hobby. But you have to look at the tradeoffs. The 230HAD is $1500 all in. The Codex plus balanced cable is pushing $2300. So yeah it sounds better. But yeah, it costs more too.
     
    Which one is for you? Only you can decide. Go listen to both and have fun! Remember this is a hobby, not a job.
     
    Wrap Up
    Circling back to my objective - did the 230HAD fit the bill for my requirements? Not quite. I don’t think it’s a very good match with the HD800, but could be an excellent match for a more neutral headphone. And I’ve decided I really like the benefits of balanced amps and cables.
     
    So what decisions did I make? Well, the more I listen to the Codex, the more I love it. Also, between the time Todd initiated this loaner program and my turn arriving with the 230HAD, I attended CanJam SoCal, where I was BLOWN AWAY by the Cavalli amps.
     
    So I plan to buy a Codex, and use it as my DAC/Amp for the next few months. Come the fall, I hope to take delivery of a Cavalli Liquid Gold (LAu) amp. We’re talking serious dough here - which is both scary and exciting. I sincerely believe the combo of Codex DAC and LAu amp will be an end game configuration for me - or at least for some years to come.
     
    Once again, a big THANK YOU to Todd for this opportunity to audition a fine piece of gear like the 230HAD.
  4. musiclvr
    A very spacious analog sound that is detail rich yet anchored by a liquid warmth.
    Written by musiclvr
    Published Apr 1, 2016
    4.0/5,
    Pros - Effortless detail, lush midrange, very analog sounding, transparent amp section, and has a ton of features.
    Cons - Included remote control could be built better to match build quality of NEO 230 finish.
    IMG_4470.jpg
     
    MOONAUDIO NEO 230 HAD (Headphone Amplifier/DSD DAC) by SImaudio Review
     
     
    Firstly, I would like to thank Mr. Todd Green of Todd the Vinyl Junkie Audio website store for the generous opportunity of being able to audition high end audio via Head-Fi.org in exchange for a honest review; it is really appreciated. Today I will be reviewing the MOONAUDIO NEO 230 HAD headphone amplifier with a built in digital to audio converter (which from here on will be referred to as the Neo 230). This is my second review ever so please bare with me and it is comprised of my opinions and experience only.
     
    Upon handling the Neo 230 one does feel like you are holding a quality product as it is hefty but not too heavy and smartly minimalistic in appearance. The included power cable is nice and thick which also comes in a generous length too. I didn’t get around to using the remote control that is included. It is a nice thing to have though and appears to be fully featured albeit I wish it was aluminum encased and not wrapped in plastic. I have to say that I fell in love with the nicely contoured volume pot. It has just the right resistance, is highly responsive, and lets your fingertips reside just inside of its contoured edges. The black anodized and brushed aluminum faceplate is very nice to look at and screams of understated quality. 
     
    IMG_4465.jpg
     
    Here is what I used during my review of the Neo 230:
     
    Audio Chain- 1) Apple Mac Mini -> Audirvana+ -> Schiit Wyrd -> Neo 230.
                            2) Apple Mac Mini -> Audirvana+ -> Schiit Wyrd -> Chord Mojo -> Analog Line-In of the Neo 230.
     
    Headphones- Beyerdynamic T1, AKG K702 65th Anniversary Edition, Grado RS1i, MrSpeakers Alpha Dogs, Focal Spirit Pro, AKG K267, and the Noble Savant in-ear monitors. 
     
    Music- "The Very Though of You" by Emillie-Claire Barlow (24bit/192hz)
                "Winter 2011" by City of The Sun (24bit/192hz)
                "La Puerta Roja" by City of The Sun (24bit/192hz)
                "Lucky Ones" by The Dunwells (24bit/88.2hz)
                "Concerto No. 4 in F minor, Op. 8, RV 297, "L'inverno" (Winter): I. Allegro non molto" by Anne Akiko Meyers, English Chamber Orchestra & David Lockington (24bit/96hz)
                "Wonderful Tonight" by Eric Clapton (16bit/44.1hz)
                "Doin' It Right (feat. Panda Bear)" by Daft Punk (24bit/88.2hz)
                "Perfect Life" by Steven Wilson (24bit/96hz)
                "Midnight Blues(Live)" by Joe Bonamassa (16bit/44.1hz)
                "Creep" cover by Daniela Andrade (16bit/44.1hz)
                "Buggin" by Justin Martin (16bit/44.1hz)
     
    IMG_4476.jpg
     
     
    Tonality- I find the overall tonality of the Neo 230 to be very analog sounding in that it sounds spacious with non-fatiguing detail which is anchored by an underlying warmth.
     
    Soundstage and Imaging- The soundstage presented is very realistic in that it is not overly wide nor tall. This contributes to imaging that is very precise which works wonders with detail oriented headphones. I hear a lot of depth which is well balanced and creates a holographic rendering in a lot of Redbook music files; in every high resolution music file format above Redbook these attributes multiply. 
     
    Bass- The bass is solid in that it is fast and impactful. It possesses a quick leading edge yet lingers ever so gently in its decay. This really lends to that analog character. It is a meaty bass but does not encroach upon the other sound frequencies so it is neutral in that regard. During quieter passages in music it has an uncanny ability to be delicate and lets the lower mids/mids shine without any hindrance.
     
    Mid Range- Initially I found the mids to be a little forward sounding. As I listened more intently I found that the mids were actually very natural sounding as there was not a hint of congestion or overlapping of the upper bass or lower treble regions. It was just that the dac implemented in the Neo 230 is very detailed but is not completely clinical so as to avoid pronounced sibilance during diction pronunciation. The mids are effortless and favored neither the male or female voice which made for a very enjoyable experience with any genre. Acoustic music especially sounds holographic and involving. 
     
    Treble- As cliché as this sounds, I found the treble to be quite extended--- now let me elaborate. There is no lower treble emphasis so as to create a false hyper detailed sound. It is very controlled and airy. It allows for low level details to be brought to the forefront but not at the expense of early listening fatigue. The treble is even handed in that it pairs well with my brighter headphones (like my Beyerdynamic T1) and still breathes life into my darker sounding headphones (such as my planar magnetic MrSpeakers Alpha Dogs or my AKG K267s). One can clearly tell the difference between a seemingly boxed in sound from compressed/low bit-rate music and in contrast the widening of soundstage as well as depth shown in high resolution music.  
     
    IMG_4482.jpg
     
     
     
    Amplifier/Headphone Driving Ability- With my collection of headphones I didn’t have to go past 10 o’clock very often. This includes my Planar-magnetic Alpha Dogs and my 600 ohm Beyerdynamic T1s. Sound always comes from an incredibly black background and really takes your breath away with its dynamic honesty especially with classical and rock genres.  I used my Noble Savants as my go to in ear monitor and the Neo 230 exhibited noticeable hum but it was not so distracting that I didn’t enjoy my music. I think that it was nice that I even had some usable range with in-ear monitors being that the Neo 230 is so powerful!  
     
    IMG_4485.jpg
     
    IMG_4488.jpg
     
     
     
    Analog Line in Function (bypassing the Dac Section)- I used the Chord Mojo (Mojo) set at Line Out for this. I used the Schiit Wyrd as a clean signal delivery source being fed from my Apple Mac Mini using Audirvana+ software. I didn’t have to increase or lower the volume too much (maybe a decibel or two) when switching between dacs which was kind of nice. I immediately noticed a more focused imaging tied to a speedier transient response as well as a wider soundstage. I could almost see the rooms that the music was being recorded in, especially with live music where note/voice reverberation were well recorded; gone was the completely analog sound of before and now I was listening to a more neutral and less warm sound. I didn’t think that the Neo 230 could sound any more effortless but the Mojo introduced another level of detail retrieval; I say this because while using the unnamed Dac of the Neo 230 and listening to a 16bit/44.1hz cover recording of “Creep” sung by DanielIa Andrade I heard very creamy vocals with a guitar that was so alive being delivered to my headphones. With the addition of the Mojo, I heard the same creamy/fluid vocals but was introduced to even more fine details such as Daniela’s lips part. I could even hear her tongue move away then delicately touch her teeth during the song. The guitar also had a palpable crunch. It was distracting at first until I realized what I was hearing. This phenomenon was multiplied with music files 24bit/88.1hz-24bit/192hz. Wow! Like I said before, the Neo 230 went from natural to neutral just like that. This tells me that the Amplifier section of the Neo 230 is very transparent. The bass was a little quicker in it’s delivery and this also applied to the bass decay as well. The mids had more air or space within the musical fabric. The treble sounded more focused and was dripping with depth. This improved the imaging which, I feel, contributed to the widening of the soundstage too.
     
    IMG_4434.jpg
     
    IMG_4435.jpg
     
     
    In closing I feel that the Neo 230 packs a ton of value for it’s asking price and offers a lot of options from which to tailor ones listening experience. If you are looking for a detailed yet analog sound, look no further than the Neo 230. I also appreciate the analog input which taps into the highly capable and transparent amp section. Well done MOONAUDIO!!!
     
    IMG_4477.jpg
     
    IMG_4493.jpg
     
     
      austinpop likes this.
    1. View previous replies...
    2. smial1966
      @austinpop - please do a direct comparison between the 230HAD and the Codex. Many thanks.
      smial1966, Apr 2, 2016
    3. austinpop
    4. musiclvr
      @smial1966 thank you for the compliment. This is my second review ever so I am am glad that I am going in the right direction. I am also looking forward to the Ayre Codex comparison using the HD800s.
      musiclvr, Apr 2, 2016