GOODSOUND!GoodSound! "Equipment" Archives

Published March 1, 2008

 

Simaudio Moon i-1 Integrated Amplifier

GOODSOUND! GREAT BUY

Although GoodSound!’s reviews focus squarely on "affordable" audio components, I review products in all price categories, which gives me a broad perspective on the marketplace. For example, last year, in the "On HiFi" section of our sister site SoundStage! A/V, I reviewed the Simaudio Moon Evolution i-7, a 150Wpc integrated amplifier. The i-7’s build quality is beyond reproach, its feature set is extensive, and its sound is exceptional. About the only thing I can fault the i-7 on is its high price: $6000 USD at the time of the review, since risen to $7200. But that’s not to say it’s overpriced, even with that $1200 increase. Rather, my problem with the i-7 is that it’s just not affordable for most, which is why you’d never see such a product reviewed in GoodSound!

The folks at Simaudio aren’t oblivious to that. They know that the i-7 can be purchased only by a few well-heeled buyers looking for the best integrated amp they can buy. So the company has released the Moon i-1, a 50Wpc integrated priced at a far more sensible $1500. Is the i-1 an Evolution i-7 for the masses?

Description

The Moon i-1’s look is new for Simaudio. In fact, except for the Moon logo on the front, you’d never suspect it’s a little brother to the i-7 or to any other Simaudio integrated. The i-1 looks like only the Moon CD-1, a companion CD player developed and released at the same time, for the same price. Both come in black chassis with the option of a black or silver faceplate. (I’m reviewing the CD-1 for another sister site, SoundStage!)

The i-1’s styling is nice enough in a chunky, audiophile way, but it sure doesn’t have the cosmetic flourishes of the company’s more expensive gear. However, given that the i-1 is Sim’s least expensive integrated, and that they’ve obviously kept it simple to keep the price down, I won’t hold this against them.

More important, the i-1 is built very well. The all-metal chassis measures about 17"W x 3"H x 13"D and has a sturdy, rugged feel. The 0.25"-thick faceplate makes it feel even more solid. The whole thing weighs about 20 pounds, the bulk of which is attributable to the all-metal construction and the reasonably sized transformer, the latter mounted on the left side of the i-1’s interior. Suffice it to say that the i-1 is built to last -- probably one of the reasons Sim is confident enough to back it with a ten-year warranty, which is twice the industry standard.

The i-1 has just enough features for the serious audiophile to get by with, but its simplicity might surprise those used to modern A/V receivers with buttons and lights everywhere. Eschewing all bells and whistles, the i-1 harks back to the simpler integrated amplifiers of yesteryear, concentrating solely on what matters most in terms of functionality, and on what interferes least with the sound.

In short, the i-1 has no tone controls. It doesn’t even have a balance control. And if you’re looking for something like the Evolution i-7’s advanced front-panel display, you won’t find that either. The bare-bones approach used in the i-1 is what you get when a component with an audiophile pedigree is designed to a modest price.

On the rear are five single-ended inputs, each corresponding to an input button on the front (CD, DVD, Video, Tuner, Aux). Directly beside those inputs is a pair of single-ended, line-level output jacks that allow you to use the i-1 as a preamplifier with an external power amplifier. Also on the rear are: the main power switch, which is meant to be left on all the time (it keeps key circuitry going to keep the i-1 operating at a stable temperature, but turn it off if you won’t be using the amp for a long period of time); the speaker binding posts; and an IEC receptacle for a detachable power cord (a good-quality cord is supplied).

There are a few extras back there, such as SimLink input and output jacks -- a convenience feature that allows multiple Simaudio components to be tethered to one another for quicker, easier communication and operation (a SimLink cable is supplied). For example, if you push Play on the CD-1, a SimLinked i-1’s CD input is automatically engaged -- a small but nice touch. There’s also an RS-232 port to integrate the i-1 into a custom-installed setup, and a 1/8" mini-jack input to accommodate the external infrared remote control.

The most densely populated area of the front panel is on the left, where you’ll find a row of nine buttons, each surmounted by a status light. The leftmost one is Standby, used to turn the i-1 on (provided the rear power switch is also on). To the right of that are the five selector buttons that correspond to the rear-panel inputs already mentioned. To the right of those is a button labeled MP, for music player. This corresponds to a 1/8" mini-jack input on the right side of the front panel (a position far more convenient than the rear panel for connecting devices likely to have such an output pin). To the right of MP is the Mute button, which cuts off all output from the i-1, including power to the speakers and headphones (which can be plugged into the 1/4" jack just to the right of the MP input). Finally, the Spk Off button is basically a mute button for the speakers only (a signal still goes to the headphone jack).

I have a gripe about the volume knob on the right of the front panel. It’s a big jobbie that works alright, but compared to the sturdiness of everything else on the i-1, it felt a bit cheap -- the one on my review sample had a bit of play when I turned it. I like a supertight volume control with a rock-solid feel. This is a small complaint, but it surprised me, given how solid the i-1 is otherwise.

The Moon i-1 comes with the CRM, a light, plastic remote control. I actually prefer the CRM to the heavy, club-like, all-aluminum FRM-2 remote that comes with the Moon Evolution products -- it’s easier to handle and has more features, controlling not only everything on the i-1 and CD-1, but all functions of all Moon Evolution models as well. (I suspect that some Evolution users might be calling Simaudio to get a CRM.)

The only supplied specifications worth talking about are the power ratings, for it’s these that will most affect potential purchasers. Sim rates the i-1 as delivering 50Wpc into 8 ohms -- which doesn’t sound like much when compared with the outputs of other, like-priced integrated amps and receivers. I offer no excuses there -- it wouldn’t be too hard to find something specified to deliver far more power into 8 ohms -- like 100Wpc or more. The i-1 is no powerhouse, even into this moderate speaker load.

But Sim also specifies the i-1 as delivering 100Wpc into 4 ohms. That doubling of output power is significant -- if accurate, it indicates that the i-1 is a robust design with good current capability. So while the i-1 may not seem to put out much power into 8 ohms, it holds together well when the going gets rough as the impedance drops. In contrast, many amplifiers and receivers don’t double their power when the impedance is halved. I’ve heard of many modern A/V receivers that, despite boasting high 8-ohm power ratings, actually shut down when trying to drive a 4-ohm load -- which aren’t all that uncommon among today’s speakers, as you’ll see below. Therefore, while the i-1’s power rating doesn’t seem that impressive into 8 ohms, it’s more impressive when you look at the 4-ohm performance and understand what that means.

However, while total power output and ability to drive difficult loads are important, they’re not the only things you should look for in a good, audiophile-grade integrated amplifier. Despite what some claim, all solid-state integrated and power amps don’t sound the same. Therefore, you shouldn’t rule out an integrated amp like this one just because it delivers only a certain amount of power into 8 ohms, nor should you buy it just because it doubles that power into 4 ohms. How the amplifier sounds delivering that power is crucial as well -- and the power ratings don’t tell you much about that. Only listening does.

Listening

The Moon i-1 got a trial by fire. Not only did it follow the Evolution i-7 into my system, but the Evolution P-7 preamplifier and Evolution W-7 power amplifier (150Wpc) as well. Together, the P-7 and W-7 cost $15,800 -- more than twice the price of the i-7, and more than ten times the price of the i-1.

Furthermore, I put the i-1 through a stiff workout to see just how powerful and robust it really was. I used it with two pairs of speakers and drove them to obscenely loud listening levels in my extremely large room (about 19’ x 35’).

I first inserted the Moon CD-1 into my system to get a feeling for how that performed, then added the Moon i-1. They were connected with Nirvana S-L interconnects, which are what I usually use. The speakers were the PSB Synchrony One ($4500/pair) and Synchrony Two B ($1500/pair). For those, I alternated Nordost Red Dawn and Nordost Valkyrja speaker cables. The Synchrony Two B is a stand-mounted, two-way design with a 5.25" mid-woofer and a 1" tweeter. Its anechoic sensitivity is 86dB, which is average for a speaker like this, but its impedance is 4 ohms, obviously lower than most speakers’ 8-ohm loads. Still, I figured the Synchrony Two Bs wouldn’t be too hard to drive, given the simplicity of the design.

And it wasn’t -- at least not for the i-1, which grabbed hold of the Two Bs as if amp and speakers were made for each other. The Sim drove the Synchronys to extraordinarily loud listening levels before the sound got a touch hard and hollow. And when that happened, I suspected it was the speakers hitting their limits, not the amp hitting its. I say that because I hit the same threshold when I drove the Two Bs with the Evolution W-7, whose power seems almost limitless. As a result, I was more than impressed with the i-1’s power delivery into these small speakers. Based on power output alone, I wouldn’t hesitate to partner the i-1 with something like the Two Bs. I can’t imagine needing anything more powerful.

It was a different story with the Synchrony One, a three-way, five-driver floorstander. The One’s sensitivity is actually a touch higher than the Two B’s at 88dB, though its impedance is also 4 ohms. However, the One has three 6.5" woofers for the bass, and I suspected that that could present a tougher load to the amp. (Nominal impedance figures don’t tell you much about what’s going on at discrete frequencies. They’re more or less just an average.)

From moderate to quite high listening levels, the i-1 held together beautifully -- the Ones projected a rich, full sound with uncanny clarity. The i-1 was powerful enough that you could probably quite easily use this amp with these speakers, provided your room is not as enormous as mine, and that you don’t play these speakers really loud, particularly with bass-heavy music. If you do, you’ll likely find its limits -- as I did.

I played "Born to Be Wild," from The Cult’s Electric [CD, Reprise 25555], at what would be considered ’banger-approved listening levels -- loud enough that if anyone came into the room and stood right in front of me to talk, I’d have to turn the volume down in order to hear anything they were saying. It was at this point that the sound took a really nasty turn: the bass sounded muddled, the midrange turned screechy, and the highs got shrill. I heard the same thing when I played the drum-heavy opening of Shakira’s "Objection (Tango)," from her Laundry Service [CD, Sony 63900]. Obviously, the i-1 was clipping, just as I’d expect from any moderately powerful integrated amp forced to drive a tougher-than-average speaker load to exceptionally high output levels.

Now that I knew the i-1’s limit with each speaker, I could listen for what it sounded like, rather than for just how loudly it could play. Here I was even more impressed -- so much that it wasn’t painful in the least going from the i-7 to the P-7/W-7, then way "down" to the i-1.

The i-1 had the Simaudio "family sound": deep, rich bass; sweetly extended highs; and midrange clarity with exceptional transparency and detail while never sounding sterile or cold. Essentially, in all their current designs, Simaudio has found a way to deliver the strengths of solid-state -- wide bandwidth, extreme neutrality, exceptional clarity, topnotch detail -- with enough richness and texture that their products sound musical, inviting, and nonfatiguing.

For example, when I listened through the i-1 to Eddie Vedder’s "Society" and "Guaranteed," from the Into the Wild soundtrack [CD, RCA 715944], I could hear the same richness in Vedder’s voice, the same vibrancy of the plucked guitar strings, as I do through Sim’s far more expensive Moon Evolution models. And when I played "Mining for Gold" and "Misguided Angel," from the Cowboy Junkies’ The Trinity Session [CD, RCA 8568-2-R], I heard (and felt) the extraordinary bass depth that I’m accustomed to -- and particularly through the Synchrony Ones, which can deliver far more bass than the little Two Bs can. Furthermore, the midrange clarity was outstanding, with voices that were sliced distinctly from the mix, allowing for a quite holographic presentation, which is another hallmark of the Evolution i-7 and P-7/W-7 -- and now the i-1, too. Then again, these similarities should come as no real surprise, given that these products all come from the same company and, more than likely, the same designers.

But that’s not to say that the i-1 sounded exactly the same as the i-7 or the P-7/W-7. The latter combo delivered far more power to the speakers, which not only resulted in hard-to-drive speakers like the Ones being able to play to astonishingly loud playback levels, but also allowed their sound to be completely "effortless," even at lower volumes levels. When I played "Mining for Gold" and that deep bass swelled into the room, I could sense that the Evolution ’7s were just coasting; the i-1 tended to sound as if it was trying a bit.

While the i-1’s levels of refinement and resolution were similar to what I heard from the i-7, and even more from the P-7/W-7, across the board, the ’7s were a cut above in this regard. The Evolution models sounded ever so slightly sweeter, particularly in the highs, while at the same time revealing a little more recorded detail that let me better explore each recording. For example, when I play the Vedder tracks through the P-7/W-7 combo (by the time I got this disc, the i-7 had been shipped back to the factory), I’m presented with a massive soundstage that takes over the front part of my room. Vedder’s voice occupies center stage, and the sound of the room he was recorded in envelops the rest of mine. Every reflection and spatial cue is a snap to discern, making for an exceptionally realistic presentation from a two-channel setup.

The i-1 did much the same thing, creating a sense of space that was similar to what the P-7/W-7 achieves, but not quite as spacious or as vast. As well, the smallest details that jump to life from the P-7/W-7 weren’t quite as apparent through the i-1.

But this shouldn’t be surprising. Had the i-1 matched the i-7’s and P-7/W-7s’ sound quality by simply delivering less power from a stripped-down chassis, I would have been shocked. That would have made the i-1 the deal of the century, and I’d be telling you to buy it right now before Sim jacks up the price. After all, the i-7 is the best integrated amplifier I’ve ever heard, and the P-7 and W-7 are some of the best separates I’ve ever heard. The i-1 was never designed to achieve all that for only $1500.

What the i-1 did deliver was Simaudio’s "family sound." There’s no doubt that all of these products are cut from the same sonic cloth, and, in terms of spaciousness, clarity, and refinement, the i-1 got me much closer to the achievements of the i-7 and P-7/W-7 than its price would indicate. Given the phenomenal performance of the Evolution series, the little i-1 delivers far better sound quality than I imagined a $1500 integrated amp from Simaudio would be capable of. As I said, it wasn’t hard for me to go from the i-7 to the P-7/W-7, and then to the i-1.

Conclusion

Simaudio’s Moon i-1 doesn’t have the looks of a Moon Evolution i-7, let alone the power output or features. But it does have a similar build quality, the same generous warranty terms, and, most important, a very similar sound -- and it’s those that make the i-1 special.

But as special as the i-1 is, it’s not an i-7 for the masses, and it’s not for everyone. Some people will need more power than the i-1 delivers, and others might want an integrated with more features, even if they detract from the sound quality. The i-1 is more likely to be purchased by serious audiophiles who value sonic refinement and simple operation over sheer power output and superfluous controls. And its lengthy warranty means that the i-1 will likely be favored by those who like to buy good-quality components and use them over the long haul, rather than trade them in every few months.

I don’t think that warranty’s importance can be stressed enough, particularly in light of what a fine product the i-1 is. So much of the electronics I see nowadays seem disposable, particularly the budget-priced stuff; when something breaks, you throw it away because it’s not worth fixing. But the Moon i-1 has been designed and built to last, and it sounds so good that it could easily become the centerpiece of many high-quality stereo systems -- and remain so for years to come.

...Doug Schneider

Price of equipment reviewed


GOODSOUND!All Contents Copyright 2008
Schneider Publishing Inc., All Rights Reserved.
Any reproduction of content on
this site without permission is strictly forbidden.