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Simaudio Moon LP5.3 Phono Stage
Perhaps if audio-equipment makers engaged in market research the same way laundry-detergent makers do, their products might garner wider appeal among shallow audiophiles like me. Of course, in our market this is not practical nor is it even desirable. It is the artisan nature of high-end manufacturing that often drives the audiophile to pledge allegiance to one brand or another. When it comes to audio, superior performance, reliability and fair pricing are better predictors of long-term viability than slick marketing.
Simaudio has been in the business of producing audio electronics for over 25 years, so, my issues notwithstanding, it would seem safe to surmise that the company has been doing something very right during that time.
The $1400 USD LP5.3 phono stage is slotted into Simaudios more popularly priced Moon Classic series of two-channel components. Currently it is the companys premier product dedicated to vinyl playback. A phono board is offered as an option for the Moon P5.3 preamp, and a smaller standalone unit, the LP3, may be released by the time this review is published.
I have no qualms about the appearance of this unit, the sample being a simple black box fronted by a handsome silver faceplate with rounded corners and sporting a small Moon logo in gold. Well, I do have one gripe that is not unique to the LP5.3 but rather a problem common to many separate phono stages available today. Measuring 8" wide with a depth of 11" and a height of 3 1/4", the LP5.3 is about half the width of a standard component, yet it requires dedicated rack space (which in my case is severely limited) to house and properly isolate it from electromagnetic interference generated from other components. To its credit, the LP5.3 emitted no hum, buzz or radio signals while I used it; I did a lot of listening with the unit less than ideally placed and observed no deleterious effects.
The LP5.3 is meant to be powered up all the time and simply attaching the removable power cord to the mains outlet will accomplish this, as indicated by a blue LED on the front panel. The power supply, which features a 10VA toroidal transformer and 14,000uF of capacitance, is mounted on a dedicated circuit board within the chassis. It is subject to two stages of voltage regulation utilizing technology derived from Simaudios flagship Evolution line that is said to enhance dynamic range. A more robust external power supply will be available as an option.
In common with all of the companys offerings, multi-layered printed circuit boards are used with one trace layer dedicated for the ground, another for the power circuitry, and two for the audio signals. The signal paths are rendered as short as possible, which is said to result in faster transient response. Integrated circuits are utilized to provide gain. The unit has one pair of single-ended inputs along with pairs of single-ended and true differentially balanced outputs.
The LP5.3 allows for a number of user-adjustable configurations, all accomplished by removing the lid and moving jumpers about on the main circuit board. A nice feature is that all of the settings are clearly printed on the board, obviating the need for cross-referencing with users manual to find the proper pins for a desired setting. Gain options include 40, 54, 60, and 66dB. Cartridge-resistance-loading options include 47, 100, 470, 1k and 47k ohms. There are three settings -- 0, 100 and 470pF -- for capacitance loading, which should really only impact the high-frequency response of moving-magnet cartridges.
Finally, you can select between a standard reverse RIAA equalization curve or the IEC-modified RIAA curve, which gently attenuates the bass starting at about 100Hz but whose effect is most pronounced in the sub-20Hz range, where it acts as a subsonic filter. This setting did not have any audible effect on the music, nor did it reduce the nasty air-conditioning noise captured so prominently at the beginning of "Mining for Gold" from the Cowboy Junkies The Trinity Session [RCA 8568-1-R]. This was quite in keeping with the notion that my room and system do not support subterranean bass. The IEC setting might be expected to reduce spurious woofer movement from badly warped records, but I did not take the opportunity to confirm this.
I used the LP5.3 in two systems with different analog rigs. In the first, an Oracle Delphi V with SME V tonearm and Koetsu Onyx cartridge and Audio Note AN-S4 II step-up transformer fronted a Convergent Audio Technology SL-1 Ultimate Mk I preamp with phono stage, an Audio Research 100.2 power amp, and Wilson Audio WATT/Puppy 7 speakers.. All electronics were powered through a Shunyata Hydra Model-8 fed from a dedicated AC line. The second system used a Linn LP-12 turntable with Linn Ittok tonearm and Denon DL-103 cartridge into a Bel Canto PHONO1 phono stage. Speakers were Sonus Faber Guarneri Homage minimonitors on Sonus Faber stands driven by a Unison Research S6 integrated amp.
While the LP5.3 has XLR outputs, I unfortunately had no provision for using them. Both of my low-output moving-coil cartridges were used with the LP5.3s 66dB gain setting.
My CAT preamp is all tube, and I've tweaked it with NOS offerings. I use one Telefunken 12AX7 and one Tesla 6922/ ECC88 per channel in the phono stage and another Tesla 6922 as a cathode follower.
Simaudio suggests that the sound of the LP3.5 will improve over its first 300 hours of use. Im uncertain if the review sample had any previous mileage, but I could not appreciate any change in the quality of its sound over the time I spent with it. Conversely, my appreciation of its sound did change with time. During the first few hours of listening I recall thinking that the LP5.3 sounded "very nice," but nothing in particular about its performance stood out. After extended listening, I came to conclude that it was actually this self-effacing quality that made the LP5.3 so very enjoyable to listen to.
The LP5.3 presented music from a midhall perspective with a slightly dark tone. The soundstage produced was reasonably generous, and instrumental or vocal images were properly proportioned without bloat or exaggeration. Images were very stable and sharply defined. This may be partly attributable to the absence of noise associated with the LP5.3, even when used single ended. The quiet background also allowed for superb resolution of low-level detail, as exemplified by the extended decay of triangle strikes and plucked guitar notes on "Los Enamorados" from Laurindo Almeida and Charlie Byrds wonderful duet LP Tango [Concord Jazz Picante CJP-290].
The frequency spectrum was reproduced in a remarkably even-handed fashion. On the title cut of Joan Armatradings Me Myself I [A&M SP 4809] the bass drum and electric bass did not appear as full and forceful as they do through the tubed phono stage of my CAT preamp, but the lower registers were better controlled and provided just as much impact. Vincent Charbonniers bass line on the Jacques Loussier Trios adaptation of J.S. Bachs "Invention No.5" from The Best of Play Bach Volume I [Philips PHL 1 3007] provided a tight, quick and articulate underpinning to the music.
The midrange showed no undue emphasis that might have created a false sense of excitement. Joan Baezs voice on the title cut of Diamonds and Rust [A&M SP 4527] sounded forward and aggressive with my usual setup, but the LP5.3 handled it in a more relaxed and balanced way. This quality was particularly well suited to a pleasurable revisiting of a number of questionably equalized older rock and pop LPs. On the other hand, well-produced recordings were not given short shrift. For example, Rickie Lee Joness voice on "The Moon is Made of Gold" from Rob Wassermans Duets [MCA Records MCA-42131] was rendered with convincing body and presence.
Instrumental tones were imbued with a touch of warmth; no solid-state hardness or grain was in evidence. On Haydns "London Trio Nr.1" from LArt de lEnsemble Baroque de Paris [Denon OZ-7042-ND] some of the bloom that the CAT phono stage brings to the table was lacking, but instrumental timbres were uncolored and true to life. This music was moved along in a most agile, light-footed way, the piece seemingly coming to an end before I realized it or wanted it to.
The upper octaves were delicate and extended without calling attention to themselves. The LP5.3 is not a zip-and-zing sort of phono stage, with the Denon DL-103 even sounding a little closed in at the very top end when playing Tango, for example. This was due in part to the Denon cartridges intrinsic character, but loading the cartridge at 470 ohms instead of my customary 100 ohms in this system brought the highest frequencies to life.
The final movement of Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestras Scheherazade [RCA Red Seal LSC-2446] is a stirring piece of music and also a wonderful test of vinyl playback. This complex orchestral piece has it all -- from wide dynamic swings and mounting crescendos to delicately nuanced passages and instrumental solos rich with tonal color. Although the LP5.3 lacks some of the low-end heft and dynamics that my reference phono setup provides, the Reiner sound was by no measure emasculated. The weight of the orchestras foundation was presented in nice balance to the rest of the players. Dynamics were conveyed with a sense of ease and composure, there being no trace of congestion during complex passages or compression of dynamic peaks. Resolution of musical detail remained consistent during soft and loud passages. Instruments and orchestral sections appeared properly proportioned, discretely positioned and nicely layered in space. Their individual contributions to the music were considerably more intelligible, making the musical whole more complete.
While new components often have to catch our ears during limited auditions, the LP5.3 works on you over time, letting its calm, even-handed way make other phono stages sound gross and exaggerated. This is what continues to make analog a satisfying medium, and what will make the LP5.3 satisfying as well.
I first swapped the now-discontinued Bel Canto PHONO1 ($900) into the main system to compare it with the LP5.3. In both instances, the phono signal subsequently passed through the line section of my CAT SL-1 Ultimate Mk I preamp. With the CATs volume knob at 9:00, sound levels were satisfying and evenly matched. I chose four diverse cuts for this session. Tango made a reprise with "Orchids in the Moonlight." I also listened to "C.B. Express" from Count Basie and His Orchestras Warm Breeze [Pablo Today D2312131], "The Beach" from Mary Coughlans Tired and Emotional [WEA Records 242 094-1], and "Roots, Rock, Reggae" from Bob Marley and the Wailers Rastaman Vibration [Island Records XILP 9383].
The Simaudio and Bel Canto phono stages sounded very similar, their solid-state provenance made evident by a clean and clear yet thoroughly engaging presentation. In fact, Id be hard-pressed to tell the two apart on casual listening. The PHONO1 did appear to exhibit a touch of graininess that was absent in the LP5.3's sound, but at the same time it sounded a little more open and ever so slightly more dynamic. The LP5.3 appeared slightly darker in tone and produced a pleasing, somewhat more densely saturated sound. I really appreciated the shape and size of the PHONO1, which allowed it to be tucked discreetly behind my turntable on the same shelf.
I alluded earlier to some of the differences between the Simaudio phono stage and my reference phono setup, the performance of which is highly influenced by an external step-up transformer. Using the same pieces of music, I compared the CAT SL-1 Ultimate Mk I's phono stage sans step-up to the LP5.3. The purpose of this exercise was not to serve as a buying guide, as we are dealing with a $6000 full-function preamp versus a $1400 standalone phono stage, but the findings may shed further light on the LP5.3s sound.
Without the step-up transformer in the chain the performance of the two phono stages approached each other. For equivalent sound levels, the preamps volume knob was set at 1:00, where tube noise, clearly evident when the stylus was off the groove, contributed a subtle mist to the musics background in contrast to the LP5.3s dead-quiet backdrop. The CAT phono stage cast a larger soundstage with images being better fleshed out and more forcefully projected, although they were a tad blurrier in comparison to the sharply defined imaging produced by the LP5.3. The leading edges of notes were a little crisper through the more nimble-sounding Simaudio piece. Even without the step-up transformer, the CAT phono stage's bottom end was fuller but, not surprisingly, rounder and not as tight as that of the Simaudio phono stage. The significant advantage that the CAT phono stage had in macrodynamics was largely neutralized when the step-up transformer was taken out of the equation, but the CAT phono stage still held this honor by a nose.
The CAT also produced considerably more high-frequency energy, which, among other things, resulted in a greater sense of "air." This may make system matching more critical than with the LP5.3, which I suspect would have more universal applicability. On complex material, the Simaudio piece seemed more poised and resolving; I would favor it for large orchestral works and big-band numbers. On more intimate material such as chamber music and female vocals Id choose the CAT for of its richer tonality, but rest assured that the LP5.3 is no slouch in this department.
The Simaudio Moon LP5.3 is a superbly built piece that was completely free of operational glitches during its stay with me. It offers all the flexibility one would require in real-world situations, and its price is sensible, especially as you consider that the cost of high-end products creeps ever upwards. The LP5.3's sonic presentation is relaxed and involving rather than spectacular and exciting -- and it is ultimately very satisfying to listen to. It produces a natural sound that is free of artifice, which, while appearing unimpressive at first blush, is of the type of sound that lends itself to long-term enjoyment. I expect that the LP5.3's performance would be further enhanced when run balanced and when used with its optional external power supply.
Despite my editors gentle admonishments to avoid using clichés, I have to say that my time with the LP5.3 has taught me yet again not to judge a book by its cover -- or title. Regardless of the appearance or nomenclature of Simaudio products, I intend to follow the companys offerings a lot more closely from now on.
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