Reviewing a fine audio component can be an educational experience, especially when it changes the character of a system that has become comfortably familiar. Such was my experience reviewing the Moon Nēo 340i integrated amplifier from the Canadian manufacturer Simaudio, based in Boucherville, QC.
Rated at 2x100 watts into 8Ω or 2x200 watts into 4Ω, the 340i is the top integrated amplifier in Simaudio's Moon Nēo series. Launched at the 2013 High End Show in Munich, the Nēo series offers many of the refinements of Simaudio's luxury Evolution-series products, but at much more affordable prices.
Of course, affordability is dependent on the depth of the consumer's pocketbook; and the 340i is not inexpensive. The standard version retails for $4,600. It has five line-level inputs (including a front-panel mini 3.5mm mini jack for connecting a portable player), a single pair of high-quality speaker binding posts, and front-panel quarter-inch headphone output jack.
OUTSIDE AND IN
While build quality isn't in the same class as the Evolution series, it's extremely high.
The only disappointment is the remote control, an all-plastic affair with small buttons. While it feels cheap, the remote does its job just fine. If corners have to be cut to deliver a high-end Canadian-built amp at this price, this is a harmless place to do it.
At 28 pounds, the 340i is a hefty beast, especially given its modest height of 3.5". It's available in the standard all-black finish, or in silver, or in two-tone silver and black. Materials are first-rate. On either side are large machined heat sinks, and a heavy crackle-finished perforated plate on top. On the left side of the front panel is a bank of five buttons, for powering up the amp, toggling through sources, and turning the front display on and off. That display, a red calculator-style LED affair, occupies the centre. On the right is a smoothly operating volume control, headphone output and media-player input jacks, mute and speaker-off buttons. It's utilitarian but attractive.
Popping off the top plate reveals an impeccably manufactured interior, with the two channels laid out on opposite sides. In the centre is a large 400VA toroidal power transformer, flanked on either side by filter capacitors that provide 40,000µF worth of energy storage. This beefy power supply enables the 340i to deliver gobs of current to the speakers on demand: 12A continuous, or 22A peak.
Simaudio's Moon Nēo integrated amps, the 340i included, lack some of the refinements of the Evolution series models. The Evolution 600i and 700i ($9,000 and $14,000 respectively) are zero-global-feedback designs, which Simaudio says provide greater immediacy and transparency than conventional feedback amplifiers. And they're fully balanced, from input to output, a topology that reduces noise when used with sources with balanced outputs. The 340i is a hybrid balanced design, with balanced preamp stage and conventional single-ended power amplifier.
But there are many feature common to Nēo and Evolution amps, including the custom-designed bipolar power transistors, which Simaudio says provide excellent gain linearity, low noise and wide bandwidth. The 340i has four of these for each channel.
And the 340i is biased to operate in Class A mode all the way to five watts output. That may not sound like a lot, but we hear logarithmically. So except for heavily compressed recordings (which is common for popular music destined for radio play), the 340i will be operating in Class A mode much of the time, free of the crossover distortion that occurs amplifiers when the signal changes polarity in an amplifier operating in Class B mode.
Simaudio offers three options for the 340i, in the form of add-in internal circuit boards. There's an internal DAC (shown here) with optical, digital and USB inputs, and support for PCM streams to 192kHz/24-bits, for $600. Also available are an internal phono stage that's compatible with both moving-magnet and moving-coil cartridges (you configure it by moving three sets of jumpers on the circuit board) for $300, and a board with a pair of balanced XLR inputs for $250. My review sample was kitted out with all three options. This fully loaded version retails in Canada for $5,400. Upgrading later costs more: $700 for the DAC, $400 for the phono stage, and $350 for the XLR inputs.
I don't own a turntable, and during the review period did not have access to any sources with balanced outputs; so was unable to test those two options. But I did spend a fair bit of time listening to the internal DAC and comparing it with an external DAC, the Arcam irDAC, which I reviewed a couple of months back. At $800, the irDAC is in the same class price-wise as the 340i's optional internal DAC.
To my ears, the Arcam irDAC sounded slightly more articulate and at the same time slightly fuller and rounder. And it provides a better portrayal of the time and space between the notes. For example, the piano runs in Bartók's Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs (Harmonia Mundi, 96/24 download) played by Alain Planès were a little better differentiated on the irDAC than on the internal digital board in the 340i; and at the same time, the piano sound was a little more lush on the irDAC.
On an arrangement for harp of Philip Glass' suite for The Hours, played by Lavinia Meijer (Channel Classics, 192/24 download), the initial plucks of the upper strings were comparably sharp on both DACs. But the decay, particularly with the lower strings, was slightly more extended and natural on the irDAC.
I use those qualifiers ("a little" and "slightly") intentionally: these differences were subtle, though consistently audible, through both headphones (Sennheiser HD 650) and speakers (KEF LS50).
There are several possible reasons for this. The irDAC and 340i's internal DAC are based on the same chip family. Simaudio uses the Burr Brown (now part of Texas Instruments) PCM 1793, while Arcam uses the more recent and better spec'd PCM 1796. I asked Lionel Goodfield, Simaudio's head of PR, about this. He says the implementation of the DAC - power supply, analog stage etc. - will have a greater impact on sonic performance than the DAC chip itself.
An advantage of an external DAC is that it has its own dedicated power supply. Moreover, with an external DAC, any stray interference from the digital circuitry is isolated from the sensitive preamp section, and also shielded by the metal cases of both the external DAC and the amplifier.
Equally important, DAC design is a rapidly moving target. An external DAC can be upgraded should the owner want a more recent design more easily than a DAC integrated with an amplifier. Of course, there's nothing to stop users of the built-in DAC from upgrading to an external DAC later on. Listeners attracted by the clutter-free simplicity of an all-in-one component can proceed with confidence with the internal DAC option, as long as their expectations match the price.
TIME TO LISTEN
Preferring the sound of the irDAC, and already familiar with it from day-to-day use, this is what I used for most of my listening time with the Nēo 340i. My sole program source for this review was digital files in Apple Lossless format, stored on a Mac Mini, and streamed via USB connection using Audirvana Plus software. The rest of the playback chain consisted of a pair of KEF LS50s, connected to the 340i using eight-foot UltraLink Excelsior speaker cables. The speakers are installed on built-in shelves at ear height, about two feet away from the front wall and 10 feet away from my listening chair.
Using a $5,400 amplifier with a $1,500 pair of speakers might seem like overkill; but as countless reviews have attested, these compact KEF monitors punch way, way above their weight. (Moreover, they're practically tailor-made for my listening environment.) The LS50s can definitely benefit from capable upstream components, and are amply capable of revealing the differences between them.
The review sample provided by Simaudio had already been in use for three months, so no burn-in period was required. But the company recommended leaving the amp connected to power for a couple of days before any serious evaluation. In the manual, Simaudio suggests leaving the unit powered on as a matter of course. As the amp consumes 45 watts in standby mode, many eco-conscious listeners will balk at this suggestion.
I admired the 340i right from the start, but it took me a while to learn to love it. I'll start with some general observations, before getting down to specific listening experiences.
First, this amplifier is dead quiet. Sonic events are portrayed against an anthracite-black background. Instruments and voices seem to materialize in mid-air.
The Nēo 340i is a very fast, dynamic-sounding amplifier. As the power supply specs lead one to expect, transients are immediate, and where required, powerful. A fortissimo chord on a grand piano has startling immediacy; yet the quiet pluck of a harp string has exquisite delicacy.
The blackness and speed make listening to the 340i a tremendously exciting experience. While it produces a very wide and deep soundstage, the amplifier's speed creates a perspective like being only a few rows back from the stage in a concert hall. Recordings are presented in a pristine, almost crystalline, fashion. This is definitely not a warm, romantic-sounding component; but neither is it cold or sterile.
However, the 340i is very revealing and articulate, to the point of being brutally honest. For example, I found that sibilants in "The Wind Song" on Patricia Barber's wonderful album Smash (Concord Jazz, 96/24 download) slightly spritzy. The vibrato-less antique violins in a recording of Vivaldi's Op. 8 concerti Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'invenzione by Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante (Virgin, CD rip) sounded a bit too raw for my tastes. And I found the piano sound in Keith Jarrett's solo concert recording Radiance (ECM, CD rip) a little clangy.
These observations need some qualification. Jarrett's concert recordings are very close-miked (microphones are pointed right inside the instrument); and his Japanese concerts in particular can be edgy (Radiance is from concerts in Osaka and Tokyo in 2002). The Vivaldi recording has a rather dry acoustic that accentuates the wiriness of the strings. Moreover, the layout of my listening room forces me to be quite close to the speakers. This is certainly not nearfield listening, but it's close enough that exaggerated sibilants, wiry strings and edgy piano sound were too much in-my-face.
POWER AND POETRY
Given the 340i's dynamic character, it's not surprising that it excels in big musical moments, which are produced with seemingly effortless authority. During my first few listening sessions, the 340i seemed to emphasize attack at the expense of the decay, sometimes overwhelming subtle inner voices. The more I listened, however, the more I appreciated its ability to convey nuances of expression.
The Nēo 340i also excels in portraying the physicality of music-making. For example, in a recording by Trio Fontenay of Beethoven's "Ghost" piano trio (Teldec, CD rip), I could almost feel the exertion of the violinist and cellist bowing their instruments.
But this amplifier isn't just about muscularity; it's capable of poetry too. The Nēo 340i tracked the swelling of choral voices beautifully in the opening Kyrie of Mozart's C Minor Mass, performed by the Gabrieli Consort and Players conducted by Paul McCreesh (DG Archiv, CD rip), creating a powerful sense of sadness and regret.
These characteristics were evident in a wonderful recording of Paul Lewis playing Schubert's late A Major Piano Sonata, D. 959 (Harmonia Mundi, 96/24 download). The delicate dynamic shading in the quieter moments of the Andante second movement created almost heartbreaking pathos. Every note in the massive arpeggios was perfectly delineated, with no compression to deprive them of their power. The quick right-hand runs in the dance-like Scherzo that followed were delightfully playful, and the bigger left-hand chords had effortless majesty. The big muscular finale was produced with staggering authority.
The more I listened, the more I appreciated how well the 340i handles dynamics on a micro level, not just a macro level. With sung voices, this reveals shading and expression that enhances the stories told in the songs. For example, it rendered Jennifer Warnes' haunting vulnerability beautifully in "Too Late Love Comes" on The Well (Sin-Drome Records, CD rip), highlighting the simplicity with which she portrays loss and grief.
Diana Krall's voice on "Temptation" from The Girl in the Other Room (Verve, CD rip) sounded not just smoky, but saucy and insinuating. And I loved the way this speedy amp delivered the snappy bass and percussion. It has great rhythm and pace that gets your toes tapping.
Similarly, the 340i convincingly tracked tenor John Potter's expressive vocal modulations in "I Sing of a Maiden" in The Dowland Project's Night Sessions (ECM, 44.1/24 download), creating a long-ago-and-far-away sense of pathos. The lute, viol, bass and saxophones in this marvelous renaissance-jazz crossover album sounded wonderful, with expressive touches by the instrumentalists fully conveyed by this dynamic amplifier.
The record that really made me fall in love with the 340i was harpist Lavinia Meijer's performance of music by Philip Glass. This is a great album, musically and sonically. Musically uninitiated people may think of the harp as a lightweight instrument. In fact, it can sound surprisingly powerful, and especially in the lower notes is harmonically very rich. And of course, the upper strings produce very sharp transients. I was blown away by how well the 340i took control of the LS50s with this record, conveying the power of Meijer's instrument, and delivering marvelous bloom in the lower strings without ever sounding mushy.
In short, whatever music I was playing, this amplifier consistently got me closer to it. Not just closer, but more deeply involved.
These praises notwithstanding, I don't think the 340i is for everyone. If your preference is for a romantic-sounding amplifier that casts a warm glow over the proceedings, you may find the 340i's presentation too literal. If other parts of your system have a bright, dynamic character, you may prefer something softer-edged. But if you're looking for an integrated amplifier that provides a window onto the recording, so highly polished it almost disappears, Simaudio's Moon Nēo 340i belongs on your shortlist.