November 1, 2007
Simaudio Moon Evolution SuperNova CD Player
Youd think that in a review of a CD player written 25 years after the introduction of the Compact Disc format, thered be nothing left to say. After all, shortly after the CD first hit the market, there were those who wrote that the sound they were hearing was "perfect." In other words, nothing could be improved. That was hardly the truth.
CDs and CD players have been consistently improving since the very beginning, in the early 1980s -- every player I know of from back then was far from sonically ideal. In my opinion, its only been in the last few years that CD playback has matured to the point that todays state-of-the-art players can be considered to be perhaps as good as the format is ever going to get.
However, as mature as CD playback has become, no two of the very best players on the market that Ive heard sound exactly the same. Similar, yes; identical, no. As a result, when it comes to something like the Moon Evolution SuperNova CD player ($5900 USD), with which its manufacturer, Simaudio, aspires to challenge the very best on the market, theres still something to write home about.
Canadas Simaudio has built a strong reputation on creating topnotch high-end electronics across a wide price range. In fact, theyve just introduced a CD player and an integrated amplifier for $1500 apiece. Their Moon Evolution series, however, of which the SuperNova is part, represents their best efforts, with circuit designs and build and parts qualities that surpass those of Sims lower lines -- and with prices to match.
The SuperNovas chassis measures about 19"W by 5.5"H by 17"D -- the same as that of the P-7 preamplifier, a sample of which they also sent along (review forthcoming), and the i-7 integrated amplifier (which I reviewed last spring). The SuperNova looks like the -7s, too. Its overbuilt, all-metal chassis has curved, grooved side panels; a thick faceplate with "cheeks" to give the front a more sculpted appearance; and strong, pointed feet to stand on.
The SuperNova is as heavy as it is big: about 40 pounds, or three to four times the weight of many CD players. The only CD player in Simaudios lineup thats beefier is the two-box Andromeda, whose analog power supply and digital section occupy separate cases. But the Andromeda costs $12,500, which makes the SuperNovas price seem quite sane.
The level of heft in the Novas design is also evident in its remote control. The FRM-2 remote, which can control other Simaudio components, including preamplifiers, is machined from a solid piece of aluminum and is about 10" long. It feels like a club -- if you drop it on a glass coffee table, you might break it -- the table, I mean. Functionally, though, the FRM-2 is very good, with just the right number of buttons: you can control everything you need to in a typical listening session without having to hunt among a clutter of tiny buttons.
The only thing that doesnt feel solid in the SuperNova is the thing that plagues virtually all CD players: the CD drawer. Simaudio has chosen a Philips L12010/S transport mechanism for the SuperNova, and few of these third-party transport trays have the same feeling of quality as what companies such as Sim often put into the rest of the products theyre built around.
However, people dont buy expensive CD players because theyre made from thick metal and weigh a lot, and they do not buy CD players because of a plastic drawer. Rather, they want the sound quality to match the price. This has something to do with the chassis, but more to do with the engineering inside the player.
There seems to have been a comprehensive effort with the SuperNova to get everything inside right. Its a fully balanced design: all of the circuitry is duplicated for each phase -- each half of the waveform -- so that a balanced signal runs through the guts of the player, from the DAC chips (Burr-Brown PCM1798s) to the analog outputs. Without getting too deep into the technicalities, the reason for creating a balanced circuit inside a CD player like the SuperNova is basically to reject common-mode noise. In a nutshell, a balanced circuit -- when implemented correctly -- can provide performance benefits that include a lower noise floor, which results in improved resolution and dynamics. The SuperNova also includes: four-layer circuit boards that Sim says allow "better ground and power-supply circuit layouts, resulting in a much shorter signal path and a vastly improved signal-to-noise ratio"; separate power supplies for the digital and analog sections; and a high-performance reclocking device designed to minimize digital jitter.
Other important aspects of the SuperNova are whats on the rear panel, where youll find two pairs of output connectors, one single-ended, one balanced. (To get the most out of the SuperNova, you should use the balanced connections, particularly if you hook it up to a Moon Evolution P-7 or P-8 preamplifier, which themselves are balanced.) Theres also an RCA-based S/PDIF digital input should you wish to hook up, say, an external CD transport, and two digital outputs (RCA-based S/PDIF, XLR-based AES/EBU) for routing the SuperNovas digital output into another decoding device. Theres a connector for the detachable AC cord, and next to that the Power switch -- you leave this switched on most of the time, and use the Standby button on the front panel for daily operation.
For convenience, the rear panel also features a SimLink to tether two Moon Evolution components together so they can "talk" to each other (a SimLink cable is supplied). This makes for easier, more efficient operation of an Evolution-based system: through the SimLink, the device that receives commands from the user then issues those commands to another device, as needed. For example, if I dim the P-7s front-panel lights, the SuperNovas front panel dims, too. As well, theres an 1/8" mini-jack input for an infrared remote control, along with an RS-232 port for a custom-installation control system and firmware updates.
Standard finishes for the Moon Evolution series are either a black or silver faceplate, silver cheeks, a chrome logo, and chrome leg cones. My review sample came with a black faceplate, which contrasts nicely with the standard silver cheeks and, to my eyes, looks very good with the bright red front-panel display. Or, if you want to pay a little more, you can jazz things up with a gold or pewter logo, gold leg cones, and black cheeks.
The two-box Andromeda aside, the SuperNova is as beefily built a CD player as youll find. Furthermore, its backed by a ten-year warranty on the electronics -- twice the industry standard -- and three years on the transport mechanism. While the price may seem high to those unfamiliar with cost-no-object CD players, its not out of line for how well this player is built, the quality of parts it contains, and its many features. $5900 is a lot of money, but the SuperNova is a lot of player.
I used the SuperNova with Simaudios Moon Evolution P-7 preamplifier and Moon Evolution W-7 power amplifier. For all the Evolution products, I used Sims stock power cords and no power conditioners or filters.
I used a wide variety of speakers: Usher Audio Technology Be-718, Ascend Acoustics Sierra-1, Hyperion Sound Design HPS-968, and JansZen Model One. It was good to use so many brands of speaker, to see if the Evolutions performance was consistent across the board.
My interconnects were balanced Nordost Valhallas. The speaker cables were Nirvana S-Ls, except in the case of the JansZen Model One, which is self-powered and doesnt require speaker cables -- or an amp.
For comparison, I used my regular digital sources: a Theta Data Basic CD transport ($1500, now discontinued) connected via an i2Digital X-60 digital interconnect ($199) to either the original Stello DA220 D/A converter ($1195, discontinued) or the DA220 Mk.II ($1595). This digital setup has been my reference for so long because, for its modest price, it offers extremely good performance that betters that of some more expensive CD players and digital separates, and comes within striking distance of the very best. Around here, its what the pricey gear has to beat to prove its worth.
Although I was quite taken with the Moon Evolution SuperNovas build and parts qualities right off the bat, it took me longer to get excited about its sound. The main reason is that although this CD player sounded good enough from the start, "good" just isnt good enough for a CD player that retails for nearly six grand. Today, an expensive CD player needs to do more than that to justify its price -- more than my reference system, and by a significant margin. At $5900, it has to do something pretty darn special to gain my approval.
Over a long period of listening to lots of music and plenty of comparisons, I found that the SuperNova did some pretty special things, and in some ways was quite amazing.
First, it got the basics right: deep, tight, well-articulated bass; a neutral, grain-free midrange with plenty of detail; and infinitely extended highs without a hint of edge, tizziness, or hash. Whats more, the SuperNova sounded pristine -- it so handily outclassed my digital setup with the original DA220 that I had to immediately move that DAC to the side and replace it with the DA220 Mk.II. In comparison, the original DA220 seemed fuzzy and indistinct in the bass and midrange, and not nearly as clean in the highs. Therefore, I knew that there was no area in which my setup with the DA220 would better the SuperNova. The DA220 Mk.II put up a better fight -- more on that in a bit.
With the SuperNova, I heard an overall sound that was so clean and flawless that, from head to toe, there was no part of the audioband that could be criticized. For example, when I played Mark Knopflers new Kill to Get Crimson [CD, Mercury 1724910], I heard bass that was tight, deep, rich, and thoroughly controlled; a midrange so clean and vibrant that Knopflers voice was at times startling in its power and presence; and highs so clean that cymbals and other instruments that can sound splashy through lesser sources could be listened to at high volumes at length without listening fatigue ever setting in. In its reproduction of both frequency extremes and everything between, the SuperNovas sound was faultless.
But that wasnt the SuperNovas real strength. For six grand, I expect such flawless performance. Instead, what set the SuperNova apart wasnt only that it sounded as clean as todays other great CD players; rather, it was what it did beyond that that made it special. That special thing was its resolution of all the little details and, even as it gave me all that information, its never sounding lean, sterile, or clinical. Basically, the SuperNova showed all the microscopic parts, yet still had some meat.
For example, the soundtrack of Into the Wild [CD, RCA 715944] includes Pearl Jams Eddie Vedder singing some fabulous, unforgettable songs in a sparse, stripped-down setting. "Society" floored me when I heard it at the movie theater, and nearly knocked me out of my chair a second time when I heard it on CD at home. Vedder had obviously recorded it in a resonant room of reasonable size -- theres space galore -- and when I played it through the JansZen Model Ones, the effect was uncanny: the size of the recorded space seemed to precisely match the size of my room. As a result, Vedder didnt sound like a singer recorded in another space; rather, he sounded like a singer singing in my space. It was remarkable, and the closest any stereo system has come to tricking me into thinking that I was listening to a live performance in my own room.
The SuperNovas role in all this was how well it preserved that sense of space by uncovering all those subtle details, including the little ambient cues. It is such small details that separate the truly great source components from those that are merely good, and it comes down to one word: resolution. The SuperNova had that: a degree of ultra-resolution that let me hear all those subtleties on my discs -- more than I knew were there -- and made it a first-class front end for a system of the highest fidelity.
But the SuperNova did even more. It gave me all that musical information and sounded full, rich, and grand -- things that dont always go hand in hand with even the best CD players available today. Ive heard too many hi-rez players that sound thin and sterile, usually because their designers have prioritized resolution over everything else. The SuperNova not only seemed to have a comprehensive approach to the design inside, but what emerged from it as well. Its as nearly perfect a digital source as Ive heard; it produced the most lifelike playback of CDs that Ive ever experienced in my room, and contributed to my rediscovery of my favorite recordings.
For instance, the Cowboy Junkies The Trinity Session [CD, RCA 8568-2-R], simply and effectively recorded in a church, has a soundstage thats as wide and deep as any that Ive heard on a pop recording. It sounds so big that you can be impressed with the soundstage spread of any number of systems you play it on, including modest stereos that include only so-so CD players.
With the SuperNova in the mix, The Trinity Sessions soundstage spread went from impressive to spectacular -- from sidewall to sidewall, and deep -- with image precision and dimensionality that were startling. Margo Timminss voice hung in space with such firmness and roundness that it made my digital-source combo of Theta Data Basic, i2Digital X-60, and Stello DA220 Mk.II seem two-dimensional in comparison. Much like the realism Id experienced with Eddie Vedders "Society," it was as close to being in Torontos Holy Trinity Church with the Cowboy Junkies as Ill ever be.
Moreover, it was the SuperNovas lifelike portrayal of such music that inspired me to ultimately cast the DA220 Mk.II by the wayside, along with the DA220. While my front end with the DA220 Mk.II is a great value -- the systems cleanness and resolution approach that of the SuperNova -- it cant quite match what the SuperNova did in that department, or the richness and grandness of its sound. In every aspect, the SuperNova was at least a little bit ahead. Quite simply, the SuperNova showed me all the details while never missing a beat.
While it took me some time to warm up to the SuperNovas sound, once I did, it thrilled me. And perhaps because of this, while I quite like all of Simaudios Moon Evolution components, the SuperNova might now be my favorite. From top to bottom, it offers crystal-clear, grain-free sound that opens no doors for criticism. As they used to say back when, its "perfect." This time, though, the word might actually be apt.
More important, what distinguishes the SuperNova is its extraordinary level of resolution, combined with a rich, robust sound that makes listening to music through it thoroughly rewarding and never, ever fatiguing. This is a tough balance that few CD players achieve; the SuperNova nails it. And when you combine that sort of performance with superb build quality and flawless functionality, the SuperNovas $5900 price doesnt seem at all out of line. In fact, the SuperNova is built so well, sounds so impressive, and is backed by such a long warranty, that it might be the last CD player some people ever buy.
Some 25 years after the introduction of the Compact Disc, the Simaudio Moon Evolution SuperNova CD player is an impressive piece of audio machinery that delivers some of the best CD sound around.
Simaudio Moon Evolution SuperNova CD Player