July 2003Simaudio Moon i-3 Integrated Amplifier
by Doug Schneider
Integrated amplifiers are as, well, integral to the audio business as contract disputes are to the music industry. This component -- combining preamplifier and amplifier sections into one chassis -- has been the heart and soul of many listeners systems at one time or another. Although feature-laden surround-sound receivers dominate todays A/V market, the two-channel integrated amplifier is still the right choice for many music-only systems.
In the past, though, there has always been the idea that you only started with an integrated amplifier and then graduated to separates -- part of the audiophile mythology that anything can be made better if separated into more pieces. While there is some truth to this notion -- you can squeak out better performance by separating the amplifier section from the preamplifier section and putting them in discrete chassis -- not all separates are better than all integrated amplifiers just because theyre in two boxes, particularly at the $1750 USD price for which Simaudios Moon i-3 sells.
Cosmetically, the i-3 is similar to Simaudios own $2650 Moon i-5 integrated amplifier, which I reviewed in May of 1999. There are some key visual differences, however. Most notably, the i-3s chassis rests on simple rubber stick-on feet, where the i-5 has the trademark Simaudio "legs" flanking its sides, complete with screw-in spikes. Visually, that elegant footing adds a bit of pizzazz to the i-5, which hunches on a shelf like a stocky animal ready to pounce. I also think that mechanically those feet give the i-5 a more stable footing than the rubber jobs of the i-3. However, we are talking about a $900 price spread here, so its not surprising that the i-3 goes without the higher-end amenities.
But like the i-5, the i-3 is a clear step up from the budget class of integrated amplifiers. The i-3 has an all-metal chassis and heavy-duty construction thats as impressive as that of products selling for double its price. The i-3 is not all that large, measuring 17"W x 3"H x 15 1/2"D, but it weights about 20 pounds, and there is a beefy and substantial feel to it. The same goes for the remote control -- a bare-bones, extra-heavy all-aluminum unit with only the necessary controls.
Like most audiophile components, the i-3 is not rich with features, but it has most of what you need for music-only listening. Dont even bother comparing something like the i-3 to a bells-and-whistles-hanging-off-the-sides surround-sound receiver; a minimalist integrated like the i-3 is for a different kind of consumer.
The front of the i-3 sports a thick all-metal faceplate, available in black or silver, with a small window to display the volume setting, channel balance, and selected input. The i-5 has a large volume knob, but the i-3 opts for simpler buttons that you push repeatedly to increase or decrease the volume. Like the i-5, the volume control is non-linear, with coarser adjustments at the lower volume settings and finer adjustments as you get near the top. It works well, making it pretty easy to fine-tune the output level to your liking. Between the volume buttons on the i-3s faceplate is the input selector switch. Channel balance is available, but only via the remote control.
In the bottom center of the faceplate, beneath the Moon logo, is the Standby button, which is used for day-to-day turning on and off of the i-3 once the main power switch around back has been switched on.
Besides that power switch, there are six single-ended line-level inputs, two sets of speaker-cable binding posts, and an IEC receptacle for the supplied detachable power cord on the backside. One note of caution, though, about line-level input A4: It bypasses the i-3s preamplifier stage and goes straight to the power-amplifier section. Its purpose is to provide a cleaner path for source components that have their own volume control. If you hook up, say, a CD player or DAC that doesnt have a volume control, youll get full output straight out of the amplifier and into your speakers. Its a very nice feature to have, but be careful when you use it. My suggestion to Simaudio is to actually mark it more explicitly, or better yet, close it off with removable plastic caps so that users will take note that A4 is different from the rest of the inputs.
Placed closely alongside the line-level inputs are Pre Out and Tape Out connectors for using the i-3 with an external power amplifier or subwoofer and for tape recording, respectively. All of the RCA jacks and speaker binding posts are of good quality, commensurate with the i-3s price. No built-in phono stage is supplied.
The i-3 is rated at 100Wpc into 8 ohms and 160 into 4 ohms. Simaudio's literature says that the first 5 watts are pure class A before switching into class AB. The literature also says that the i-3 employs no negative feedback, since Simaudio feels that negative feedback can be detrimental to the sound.
Surprisingly, Simaudio says the i-3 will deliver 200Wpc into 2 ohms. I say "surprisingly" because its not often that you see an integrated amplifier rated into 2 ohms, which most will consider a tough load no matter the amplifier. More often than not youll see a warning not to use an integrated amp into such a load. But the i-3 is a rugged little beast.
The i-3 was used most often with Simaudios Nova CD player as a source, but I also used it with the super-high-end $13,500 Weiss Medea DAC being driven by my Theta Data Basic transport and dejittered by an Assemblage D2D-1. Analog cables with either all Nirvana Audio or all Maple Audio Works; digital cables were always the i2Digital X-60 or DH Labs D-75.
One of the strengths of the i-3 is its versatility with speakers. It drove all the speakers I threw at it with ease, so I often used it as a jack-of-all-trades amp around my house. The i-3 was partnered with the Verity Taminos, Mirage OMNI 60s, Von Schweikert VR-1s, and a number of other speakers of various styles. The i-3 sailed through freely and always sounded fine.
Verity Audios $5000-per-pair Tamino loudspeakers have presented a formidable load to many amplifiers Ive had in my listening room. Not all amps have fared well, and some have outright failed to drive the Taminos properly. My single-ended tube/solid-state Blue Circle BC2s labor with the Taminos -- sounding slow, plodding, and muddy despite their 75W power rating. Gutsy all-solid-state amplifiers seem to be the ideal partners for the Taminos, and so far the best match has been Perreauxs 200iP, which is rated at a hefty 200Wpc into 8 ohms. The i-3 places a close second. Both amps control the Taminos extremely well, particularly in the bass.
The i-3 doesnt have the sheer power that the Perreaux 200iP does, but the 100Wpc it delivers are more than sufficient to drive the Taminos to SPLs I need in my room, and I suspect more than enough for the majority of listeners and speaker systems.
And while speakers like the Taminos really need an amplifier like the i-3 to maintain a good grip on them, other speakers less taxing than the Taminos -- the Von Schweikert VR-1s and Mirage OMNI 60s, for example, which also take nicely to lower-powered tube amps as well -- showed that the i-3 could shine there, too, delivering the same kind of clean, detailed, and natural sound.
Lately Lou Reed and John Cales 1990 release Songs for Drella [Sire 2-26140] has been getting a lot of play in my system. Its an album with plenty of deep bass and a rich, resonant midrange. The i-3 slices through this recording and delivers it with ease through the Taminos. Bass is deep, tight, and tuneful, and the midrange and highs are clear and clean with plenty of detail and finesse. I was also impressed to find that the i-3 has a certain amount of body to its sound -- not the dripping-wet voluptuousness of some low-powered tube amplifiers, but fullness and heft that help it sound quite natural. The i-3 is certainly not a thin- or strident-sounding amplifier as some moderately priced solid-staters can be.
Left-to-right placement of images was firm and depth of stage good. I remember hooking up the Weiss Medea DAC for the first time and playing the opening track to Blue Rodeos Five Days in July [Discovery 77013]. Id never heard the ambiance and detail surrounding Jim Cuddys voice like I heard over that system. The sound was borderline spectacular.
"Shoot the Moon" on Norah Jones Come Away with Me [Blue Note 32088] captures the piano beautifully, and when the disc is played back through a high-quality system, its conveyed with bell-like purity. This, among other tracks from Come Away with Me as well as various other demo discs I use, helps me to determine how clean and pure a component sounds and how resolving it is. After all, a good integrated amplifier is more than about having lots of power; above all, its about delivering power that actually sounds good. I guarantee that you wont listen at high levels if you dont want to listen at all.
The Moon i-3 was sharply focused both the VR-1s and OMNI 60s. Once again, there was a rock-solid soundstage with pinpoint imaging on the lateral plane and good overall depth. Resolution was high enough that I could hear almost all the spatial queues in the recordings I used. But while the i-3 doesnt necessarily provide state-of-the-art resolution, it is certainly resolving enough to use to compare certain source components as well as cables -- which I did from time to time, including, as I mentioned, the rather stunning Weiss Medea DAC.
What I was most impressed with, though, was that the i-3 didnt impart any signature of its own. The i-3 is neutral -- coloration-free, in fact, This may not impress tube lovers, who sometimes choose certain components specifically for the tubey sound they impart, but it will impress those who want to hear their music in as unadulterated way as possible. The i-3 amply demonstrates that ol "straight wire with gain" thing. So, providing the i-3 is run within its limits, it will help bring out the sound of your speakers and source components.
There are many contentious issues in audio, not the least of which is "amplifier sound" -- particularly when discussing solid-state designs. On the one end of the spectrum are those who can supposedly hear distinct sonic flavors in every amplifier they listen to -- sometimes even claiming to hear differences in the same amplifier by merely adjusting a chassis screw or putting a wood block the size of a quarter on a heatsink. Then there are those who will tell you that any well-designed solid-state amplifier operating within its limits will sound indistinguishable from another. In other words, an amp sounds the same no matter what you buy from whatever manufacturer. As with anything, the truth usually lies somewhere in the middle. From my perspective, some listeners in these polar extremes are deaf, while the others can sometimes let their imaginations get the better of them. As with everything, proper perspective is what's needed.
Its not hard for me to hear that the Simaudio Moon i-3 sounds much better than my Nakamichi AV-10 surround-sound receiver (about $1200 when new, but now discontinued), even if theyre both solid-state designs that deliver similar power into 8 ohms. How is it better? Thirty seconds of "Shoot the Moon" tells you that Norah Jones voice played through the Moon i-3 sounds more distinct, the piano is far closer to the pristine sound I hear with the very best equipment, and the bass is far more authoritative and articulate. Purer, cleaner, tighter, and quicker are all words I could use to describe the differences. Now dont get me wrong -- the AV-10 sounds remarkably good for an inexpensive surround-sound receiver, but the i-3 is simply better-sounding in all the ways I mentioned, giving an indication of what you get when you go from the budget crowd to something that is decidedly a Carl Lewis-like jump into moderately priced, well-built high-end territory. Call it performance-enhanced.
And the Moon i-3 holds its own well into its price range and somewhat above, too. The Perreaux 200iP I mentioned before is another outstanding integrated amplifier, and the i-3 competes head-on with it in all ways, including sound and build quality. In fact, theyre very similar save for the physical size and power output -- and that final part is where the 200iP certainly steps ahead. Based on manufacturer specs, the 200iP puts out double the power of the i-3, and this is likely the reason it costs $1000 more. But if you dont need the extra power, you can certainly save yourself quite a bit of money with the i-3. What I said about the 200iP, though -- that it "gets you almost all of the way there for considerably less money" -- certainly holds true for the i-3 as well.
But whats "there" then, and how do you know if youve reached it? Look no further than the Orpheus Labs Two/Three S pre/power combo as a reference for that.
The Two/Three S multichannel preamplifer and stereo amplifier will set you back a little over $11k -- the price of six and a half Moon i-3s. The Three S wont blow you away with power -- its rated at only 40Wpc -- but along with the Two preamplifier it delivers absolute sonic purity through your speakers. These two components are reference-caliber solid-state electronics with price tags to match. The i-3 sounds a tad coarse by comparison, the highs just arent quite as pristine, and although the level of resolution of the i-3 is reasonably high, the Orpheus combo goes a step further.
Yes, the six-and-a-half-times-the-price Orpheus combo is better-sounding, but a little perspective must be maintained. The differences between the Two/Three S combo and the i-3 are far less than what you hear going from the AV-10 to the i-3. Although I just made some pretty heady claims about the Orpheus gear, know that Im talking about the micro details, not the macro stuff, and audiophiles will pay a whole lot for what is a small perceived increase in sound quality.
Are there $2000 preamp/power combos that can compete against the Moon i-3? Perhaps, but dont assume that every two-box combo is better than every single-box unit just because some diehard who listens with his eyes and not his ears says its so. The notion of graduating to separates just doesnt hold the weight it once did.
The Moon i-3 is a very good integrated amplifier with more than sufficient power for even hard-to-drive speakers; it delivers clean, detailed, and effectively neutral sound that mates nicely with virtually any source and speakers; and it sports topnotch build quality that makes for a substantial and impressive product. Add to these the fact that it comes with a double-the-industry-standard ten-year warranty when you return your registration card -- nothing to sneeze at if you plan to keep it in your system for some time, as I imagine many will -- and you have a very good value in a compact and elegant package.
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