Moon's latest CD player, the CD3.3, stands out in the company's range for a number of reasons, not least being its technical superiority over the next model up, the CD5.3 RS.
But if the latter looks less impressive on paper than the CD3.3 , then it's a different matter in the flesh, even though the signal to noise ratio in the new model is a decibel better, THD (total harmonic distortion) the same and the upsample rate four times higher. If only reviewing CD players were a matter of comparing numbers, fortunately for us it's not.
Yet even if the more expensive CD5.3 RS is the better player, what the numbers do tell you is that the CD3.3 is a more up-to-date player, with the latest processing chips responsible for the higher 1.411MHz upsample rate.
The DAC is a Burr-Brown PCM1798, which operates at 24-bit/192KHz and the oversampling filter runs at eight times. Moon makes a lot of its own casework at its facility in Quebec, Canada and it does an exceptional job. At its price point, this is a very nicely put together player with high-quality machining and anodising.
The loading drawer is described as 'proprietary' and is likely to have been sourced elsewhere as part of the transport mechanism, but it oozes class with a beautifully smooth operation and slim solid aluminium construction. It's a little inconvenient having the basic control buttons underneath this drawer but you can, of course, use the remote.
It would, perhaps, have been more logical to swap the left-hand buttons for those on the right, for ergonomics. Fortunately, however, if you leave the drawer out, it will close itself after a little while, which is a nice touch. The back panel reveals quite an array of connections including blanked-off space for balanced XLR sockets.
If you include these at the time of purchase they will cost an extra £150, although analogue output on RCA phonos is provided in either case. Usefully, it has S/PDIF digital in-and outputs on RCA phonos too, so you can connect another digital source to the DAC onboard the player.
Moon suggests that you could connect a music server or PC to this input, but the latter don't tend to have S/PDIF digital outputs unless fitted with an appropriate soundcard.
Alongside the audio connections there is an RS232 port for incorporating the CD3.3 into multiroom systems. You can also use it for firmware updates. Simlink sockets allow interactive use of the player in a Moon system and an IR input means you can use an external eye if you want to hide the player away. But then you wouldn't be able to appreciate the clarity of its red LED display which we rather like.
Moon's engineers have also incorporated what it calls M-Quattro gel suspension between the transport mechanism and the rest of the player. This consists of four gel spacers between the two elements which should help to keep vibration out of the transport.
There is just one circuit board within the player with separate areas for digital and analogue signals, each with its own ground plane in order to minimise interference between the two sections. The power supply starts with a toroidal transformer and uses ten stages of DC voltage regulation which feed the various elements in the circuit. The analogue side of which being a DC servo design that has no capacitors, as these are considered deleterious to low bass.
Moon has managed to make this player less expensive than its predecessor, the Equinox, which given exchange-rate fluctuations of late is quite a feat. They tell us that the CD3.3 pricing benefits a lot from the hard work the company undertook on the "lean chassis design" for its more affordable 1-Series. This was achieved by designing parts that would be cheaper to manufacture and faster to assemble.
Since all its products are hand-assembled in Canada, assembly time is not a negligible portion of the cost. The other thing Moon did was to use a conventionally shaped case for the CD3.3, the Equinox had an unusually shaped facia and casework with the transport mechanism under a bump in the hood, so-to-speak.
The work that Moon has done to refine the electronics in this player and the attempts to keep mechanical resonances away from the disc drive pay off with a refined and revealing sound. The CD3.3 makes other players at this price point seem slightly crude, a little bit more electronic and digital by comparison.
For some this will not be welcome, a gritty, hard-edged sound is quite popular in some quarters because it feels more alive and definite. This is partly because a lot of refined-sounding CD players lack energy and have a softness to them that smothers the life in the music.
That is not the case here – with this player, Moon has chosen its path very well, bringing out the energy in the music by virtue of resolving the fine detail. When we first started listening to it the amplification used was the classé CP-700 and CA-2200 pre/power, which is considerably more expensive and has a similarly smooth, clean sound.
This revealed how much subtlety the Moon could pull out of the pits and lands in a disc, but the combination stayed a little too close to the smooth side, overall.
By substituting a Bryston BP-16 preamp and 2B SST2 power amp, a combination that's more appropriately priced and has a character that's more warts 'n' all, the result is a good balance of finesse and grip. Such balances are, of course, a matter of taste and will be affected in no small way by the loudspeakers, cabling etc, but with Bowers and Wilkins 802D speakers on the end, this system delivers clean highs and punchy lows with an open and precise midband.
There are more than a couple of references to the timbre of the bass in our notes, this end of the spectrum being particularly well served when a suitably meaty double bass line or kick drum came along. Both of which are in full effect on the Avishai Cohen Trio's Gently Disturbed album.
In the track Eleven Wives, the drums are placed well behind the rest of the band and in a very distinctive, live acoustic. They sound superb and very real when the volume is up. Then Avishai leaps in for a solo on the double bass and takes up the front of stage in no small way, his instrument sounding solid and real thanks to excellent stereo-imaging.
We gave the onboard DAC a spin by comparing the outputs of two audiophile iPod docks, Wadia's i170 in the affordable corner versus MSB Technology's iLink in the no-holds barred department. The converter onboard the Moon proved equal to the task of differentiating these two devices, revealing that the dearer option delivers a considerably richer, cleaner and more three dimensional result. A result that came extremely close to that achieved by spinning a disc of the same material on the player itself.
The Moon reveals the sampling rate of the incoming signal on its front panel, a figure which will be limited to the 96KHz ceiling of the RCA phono connection. Next to an elderly, but refined, Sony XA333ES the CD3.3 sounds upbeat and on the ball.
Putting on Ornette Coleman's Change Of The Century, the sax and trumpet playing has a vivacity and attack that gives the music an energy and buzz that the older player can't remember. This is also reflected in the double bass which is better focussed and slightly deeper in the Moon's hands.
On another track, Eric Bibb's Candyman, the analogue nature of the orginal recording is immediately apparent in the relatively high tape hiss and the quality of the voice, which has more character and depth in it than plenty of up-to-date examples.
Putting it plainly, the voice sounds more real, not perhaps as in-the-room as vocal recordings can be, but in terms of tonal subtlety ahead of the competition. The Moon responds very positively to better recordings, such as Andy Sheppard's recent Movements In Colour disc which delivers a massive soundstage via this player.
It's a cleverly contrived studio creation admittedly, but that's what reverb and other tricks are for and it's a pity that not more producers use them. Sheppard's sax may be a little larger than life, but it has superb timbre and comes right into the room on the opening track.
On the album Sensuous, Japanese artist cornelius goes even further down the road of producing acoustic space with technology rather than buildings, the results via the Moon being positively widescreen in scale and combined with some of the most chewy bass we've ever heard. All this and good timing, too there's not a lot more you can ask of a CD player at almost any price.
The Moon CD3.3 is a subtle rather than demonstrative player and those who are looking for excitement would be better of with a Bryston or cairn at around the same price. Those of a sophisticated bent will, however, find a lot to appreciate about this refined, yet timely and tonally rich player and we'd be fools not to recommend it.
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