October 1, 2009
Simaudio Moon i.5 Integrated
There are all sorts of
philosophies regarding integrated amplifiers. In the 1960s, when my addiction to audio
first emerged, the top stereo integrateds from H.H. Scott, Fisher, and McIntosh featured
every kind of control under the sun: separate treble and bass knobs for each channel,
inputs for things like "tape head" (a low-level signal from a tape
recorders play head), and all sorts of equalization curves. Nowadays, some
integrateds, such as Blue Circle Audios GDC (review in the works), go the opposite
route, with only a three-step input selector, a volume control, and a power switch. Though
not quite so spare as the GDC, the Simaudio Moon i.5 ($1200 USD) leans toward the latter
The Moon i.5 matches the appearance and dimensions of
Simaudios Moon CD.5 CD player: 16.875"W by 3.5"H by just over 13"D.
The review sample had an attractive champagne/silver faceplate of thick, extruded
aluminum, but the i.5 is also available in black. At the lower left is the standby switch.
Depress it and a blue LED above it lights up, signifying that power has been applied to
the entire circuit. To the left of that are six pushbutton input selectors, all for
line-level sources. The associated jacks for five of these are on the rear panel; the
sixth, marked MP (Music Player), is connected to a 1/8" tip-ring-sleeve (TRS) stereo
jack at the right of the front panel, for use with an iPod or other such device.
Continuing to the left are the Mute and Speaker Off switches. On the right side of the
front panel are the sizable (and silky-smooth) volume control, the MP jack, and a standard
1/4" stereo headphone jack.
As with the CD.5, the i.5s On/Off switch is on the
rear, next to the three-prong IEC power receptacle. There are five sets of inputs and one
pair of Pre Out jacks, all RCAs. The Pre Out jacks can be used to directly drive another
power amp (such as that in a powered subwoofer), their levels controlled by the i.5s
volume control. Note that the i.5 reflects the realities of 21st-century audio by omitting
the tape-monitor connections and controls of models built during the days of reel-to-reel
and cassette recording. Outputs are a single pair of nice five-way binding posts for each
channel. I biwire my main speakers, which meant that doing so with the i.5 required a wee
bit of ingenuity; it all worked well.
The compact remote control, which operates both the i.5 and
the CD.5, is nicely laid out and was generally a pleasure to use. Most of the
remotes buttons control CD functions. The only amplifier functions offered are
Input, Volume (up/down), and Mute. While the remote has buttons for L/R balance, those
functions dont operate with the i.5; as Simaudios Lionel Goodfield told me,
"at this price point, it would have been virtually impossible to implement a balance
control that wouldnt degrade sonic performance."
According to Simaudio, the i.5 contains "an oversized
power supply" that includes a toroidal transformer. Its output is a claimed 40Wpc
into 8 ohms or 80Wpc into 4 ohms. Somewhat amazingly, that comes from only a single pair
of bipolar transistors per channel. The i.5 is the first amplifier Ive seen in a
long time whose output stages arent mounted on substantial heatsinks. Even the
output devices of my Linn Majik-1P integrated -- just 33Wpc at 8 ohms -- are attached to
an aluminum heatsink. But Simaudio says its all-aluminum chassis obviates the need for a
separate heatsink. In my experience with the i.5, its case never became warm, so it seems
they know what theyre talking about.
Simaudio recommends at least 400 hours of break-in --
thats nearly 2.5 weeks, and no way to achieve peace with ones spouse. However,
to put in that time while giving the amp a wide-frequency signal to deal with, I connected
a Dynaco FM-3 tuner to the i.5 and fed the amp FM interstation noise (similar to white
noise) while feeding the amps output to a pair of PSB Alpha Mini speakers, wired out
of phase and facing each other to minimize what could be heard in the room. At first, it
was mildly annoying; but in short order, we didnt even notice it upstairs. (The
music room is on our homes lower level.)
As usual, I compared the device under test with my Linn
Majik-1P. Input sources were Simaudios Moon CD.5 and my Sony CDP-X303ES CD player. I
used Linn interconnects with the Sony, Dayton Audio ICs with the CD.5. As is my usual
practice, I swapped interconnects during the review period, but could hear no real
difference between them.
The Moon i.5 drove my reference floorstanding NEAR 50 Me II
or my mid-1970s Wharfedale W60E speakers. For those of you unfamiliar with the Wharfedale,
it was considered, in its day, a "bookshelf" model, despite its considerable
size (25"H x 14"W x 12"D) and weight (+50 pounds). Each closed-box
enclosure contains a 12.5" woofer, a 5" acoustically isolated midrange cone, and
a 1.25" soft-dome tweeter. To get their tweeters up to ear level, I place the
Wharfedales on homemade 9" speaker stands. The W60Es bass response, limited to
about 40Hz and a little loosey-goosey, is definitely not in the same league as the NEAR
50s, but its mids and highs are, I think, better than the other speakers:
lively without being strident.
Both sets of speakers were connected to the amp with
14-gauge AR speaker cable. AC power is supplied by a dedicated circuit operating through a
PS Audio Soloist in-wall power conditioner/surge suppressor. My listening room measures
17L x 11W x 7H and is finished in drywall (with makeshift wall
treatments) and cork flooring, most of the latter covered by a 9 x 12 rug. The
speakers are about 6 feet apart, 26" out from the front wall, at least 2
from any sidewall, and 6 from my chair.
In a John Pizzarelli mood when I began my serious
listening, I reached for Dear Mr. Sinatra (CD, Telarc CD-83638), in which
Pizzarelli is accompanied by the Clayton-Jackson Jazz Orchestra. I listened to
"Ring-a-Ding-Ding" -- possibly Sinatras ultimate Rat Pack-era tune -- and
what I heard set the pattern for all of my listening sessions. The i.5 and the Linn were
quite in line with each other in the mids and highs, but the i.5 offered bass response
that was just a bit more solid and tight through both the NEAR and Wharfedale speakers.
Pizzarellis guitar was reproduced with ever-so-slightly more articulation through
the i.5 than through the Linn.
There are lots of good female jazz singers these days, and
one of my favorites is a still fairly obscure British songstress, Claire Martin. I have
several of her albums, but my favorite is The Waiting Game (Honest CD5018). Among
the great songs on this CD is Leiber and Stollers "Some Cats," originally
written for Peggy Lee. Martins breathy alto is perfect for the song, and the
i.5s rendition struck me as faster, in that the piano and guitar sounded tighter
than with the Linn Majik-1P. The brushed snare sounded incredibly lifelike through both
integrateds, but slightly more so via the i.5.
I first encountered Canadian singer Holly Cole on the old
CBS TV series Due North. Her performance led me to go right out and buy her Dont
Smoke in Bed (CD, Manhattan CDP 7 81198 2), and I became enamored of her version of
"I Can See Clearly Now," a Top 40 hit for Johnny Nash in 1973. Coles
version features very simple but very syncopated double bass and piano accompaniment,
along with her individualistic phrasing. But the precision of the bass line is hard for
many amp-speaker combos to reproduce well. Through the Wharfedales, the bass was somewhat
sluggish, seeming to lag behind Cole and the piano, and took on a character of one-note
bass with either amp. Switching to the NEARs with the Linn alleviated most of the lag, but
not all. However, the Moon i.5, in combination with the NEARs, really did a fine job. The
mids were very lifelike, and the highs were crisp without being shrill. The bass line was
very well articulated, the spare piano accompaniment very lifelike.
Then I played a couple of cuts by the Count Basie
Orchestra, both from Count Basies Finest Hour (CD, Verve 314 589 637-2); the
first was his famous rendition of the Vernon Duke masterpiece "April in Paris."
While this 1957 recording is monaural, that mono is gloriously fine, very round and very
full. The Linns performance was solid; I found myself really getting into it,
especially Basies exclamations of "One more time!" and "One more
once!" as he called on the band to repeat the close. But when I then switched to the
i.5, two differences popped up, both in the Moons favor: the sound of the trumpets
was crisper, more detailed and more rhythmic, while the drums were more articulate. The
Moon i.5 made clear just how good a drummer Sonny Payne really was.
By now, I was really enjoying my time with the Moon i.5. It
seemed to have that slight extra dollop of rhythm that sometimes escaped the Linn.
Ive always treasured the Linns ability to get to a tunes inner soul. In
poker terms, the i.5 saw the Linn and raised it by a factor of x.
I then played "Corner Pocket," also from Finest
Hour. In the Basie band, the rhythm section always seems to lag the brass and winds by
an eyelash. This, to me, gives each song a forward momentum that has always come through
with the Linn -- but the Moon i.5 was just a smidgen better at reproducing that rhythmic
tension. Also, the i.5 gave the saxes just a bit of extra bite. I dont like really
"honky" saxes -- I like em smooth as honey, and the Basie band offered
that in spades. But theres really smooth (the Linn, like one big sax), and then
theres etched smooth (the i.5, with just enough differentiation to let me know there
are several saxes on this track). That etching also came through on the trombones. In all,
the rhythm of the group was good with the Linn, but really right with the Moon.
"You Can Call Me Al," from Paul Simons Graceland
(CD, Warner Bros. R2 78904), has a lot of hard transients -- a punchy bass line, abrupt
percussion, even a solo tin whistle. All of those sounded better through the i.5: the bass
line had even more staccato punch, and the soundstage was more stable, with instruments
placed more firmly on it. The tin whistle stood out just a bit more with the i.5 than with
the Linn, and the trumpets and slap bass also acquitted themselves with more resolution.
Another fave is "Money for Nothing," from Dire
Straits Brothers in Arms (CD, Warner Bros. 47773-2). As Ive noted in
other reviews, in earlier days the beginning of this track made the hairs on the back of
my neck stand on end. That doesnt happen anymore -- Ive become jaded in my old
age -- but when I listened to it through the Sony CDP-X303ES CD player and the Moon i.5,
that feeling nearly returned in full. The i.5 was the first amp in some time to nearly
re-create the thrill this cut gave me in earlier days, and I consider that exceptional.
One thing the i.5 had over the Linn with "Money for Nothing" was its
concentrated soundstage: everything -- and I mean everything -- was reproduced
within the axes of the speakers. It was rather as if someone had put baffles on the
outsides of the speakers to concentrate the sound. Yet each instrument had its specific
location, as did each voice. It was a bit freaky. Id never heard that with any of
the many other amps Ive reviewed, but I think it really fits this recording.
The wonderful thing about audio gear these days is that so
much of it is really good. There are many fine integrated amplifiers available in
the general price range of the Moon i.5. Some offer more controls, some more power, some
offer both, and youd be hard-pressed to find major fault with any of them. But the
Simaudio Moon i.5 has that je ne sais quoi that simply makes it sensational. I wish
it had an onboard phono input and a balance control, but those are minor quibbles. The key
point is that the Moon i.5 is among the best of the best at its price. If you have a
relatively small listening room and/or efficient speakers and youre looking for an
integrated amplifier that sounds really fine, find your local Simaudio dealer and check
out the Moon i.5. I believe youll find it a delight.
. . . Thom Moon
Price of equipment reviewed