Moon Audio is one of those less well-known brands that quietly goes about the business of making top-notch audio electronics at its base in Boucherville, Quebec.
The CD 5.3 RS player and i5.3 RS integrated amplifier featured here form part of Moon's Classic series range - a group of products that also includes two further CD players that are more affordable and a similar helping of integrated amps.
Both components also carry the RS suffix, which means they've been revised from their North American specification, to comply with European RoHS (Restriction of the use of certain Hazardous Substances) regulations.
Behind the name
This influential directive bans the sale of new electronic products on the EU market with more than the agreed levels of lead, cadmium, mercury, hexavalent chromium, polybrominated biphenyl (PBB) and polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants.
The electronics in both the CD player and the amp are fundamentally different than the standard versions. Due to the RS regulations, both products include higher temperature grade PCBs, with gold-plated rather than tin/lead composite traces and have extensive use of improved dielectric (insulating) material.
Health and safety concerns aside, Moon is also the sort of company that opts for a stable and considered approach, which is reflected in the no-nonsense engineering of its products. And when it comes to amplifier design, it uses DC coupling (where capacitors are completely removed from the signal path in order to produce a better soundstage).
Moon also uses power supply transformers with 'tight regulation' on the premise that such devices allow the amp to drive difficult loudspeaker loads more effectively than 'typical' transformers which Moon claims deliver ten per cent less voltage.
The i5.3 RS has a specification to deliver 85 watts, which doesn't seem a great deal for the price, but when combined with a high damping factor and low output impedance, it results in surprising amounts of grip.
As ever with power figures, quality is more important than quantity and this is apparent when you try to drive tougher speaker loads at higher levels.
On the features front, the i5.3 RS has five line-level inputs, one of which is configured to operate as a unity gain input - very useful if you want to combine stereo and multichannel systems in one room.
Essentially, it means that the integrated turns into a power amplifier for this input and the volume control is taken out of the circuit. One unusual touch is the way that the balance operates, reducing the level of one channel while leaving the other constant, or vice-versa.
The remote control is pleasant enough and apart from a minor fault with it (we couldn't decrease the volume), its only shortcoming is the lack of direct 'track entry' keys. While it has a sleek and streamlined, uncluttered look, the lack of track selection capability is mildy disappointing.
The CD5.3 RS CD player inhabits a very similar heatsink-flanked case to the partnering amplifier, but it has a bump on the top to make space for the disc drive. The four legs have threaded sockets into which you screw the small pointy feet that discourages one from stacking the player atop an amp.
Construction is solid rather than slick (the front panel is very professional-looking), but the top plate looks a little tinny for the money. The rear end is embellished with decent WBT socketry and thus looks and feels the biz.
Under the lid the CD player has a Philips- based transport mechanism driven by Moon's own control software. On the power supply side, there are two mains transformers - one of which supplies the analogue output stage, while the other drives the digital side and the disc drive system.
The power supply has eight stages of voltage regulation prior to supplying elements like the DAC (which is a Burr-Brown 1730E). While this is not a chipset we've seen in many other players, it is a 24-bit/192KHz converter with 8x oversampling.
As with the amplifier, the CD5.3 RS has a DC servo circuit and proprietary analogue filters. Digital and analogue circuits share the same board, but have their own ground planes, the idea being to minimise circuit length by sharing a board and to minimise interference by not sharing a ground.
Our previous experience with Moon
The last time we listened to a Moon from the Classic series, it was the precursor to this amplifier and was simply called i5.
At the time, we found the sound overly smooth, while using very similar cables to those still in our reference system (Townshend and Living Voice) and changing them did the trick.
This time with different speakers, Bowers & Wilkins 802Ds, we had almost the opposite problem. To start with the balance was too bright and too dry, but rather than curing this with cabling we tried putting some damping between the pointed feet of the Moons and the glass shelves on our Townshend VSSS equipment support.
This sorted things out nicely (as this is not the first time that such an effect has been noted, those of you using points on glass might be interested to try the same experiment).
The other factor that probably came into play and is likely to of cured the dry aspect of the balance, is that the Moons had been left to warm up for an additional 12 hours. With the preliminaries taken care of, things get very interesting indeed.
First impressions from the first spin of our regular test disc reveal the incredible levels of detail on offer. This is matched with true musical coherence, delivered in a genuinely engaging fashion. Barb Jungr's rendition of Who Do You Love is revealed in full effect, despite being an SACD on a CD player.
Her voice, in particular, is rich in nuance and depth. The tempo of another track from the same disc, Trouble In Mind, is reproduced in a fashion that enlivens the music without threatening to make it forward or brash.
The pairing makes a very clean sound indeed, with smooth highs and tight imaging. In fact, in this latter respect, we'd go as far as saying it is uncommonly effective.
Individual instruments and voices are far more solid and distinct and the effects, or surrounding acoustic, is easily distinguished. This was particularly apparent on Melody Gardot's Worrisome Heart, where the voice has quite a lot of compression.
Another female voice, that of Gillian Welch, reveals this combo's ability to expose the layers that seem to exist within recordings. Not so much the different parts, as the harmonies that she produces when singing alone and with a backing vocalist.
The recording's slight hardness is not smoothed over, but neither is it emphasised, so there's no discomfort. In fact, it gets right to the heart of the matter on the song 14th Day of April.
Taking the CD5.3 RS on its own and putting it up against our reference Resolution Audio Opus 21 (via more revealing Classé amplification) shows the Moon in a very positive light.
This is one of the few occasions where we felt that our player of reference was in danger of being eclipsed by a similarly priced product. The Moon certainly knows how to take advantage of the subtlety offered by a big pre/power amplifier, producing acres of space from the Melody Gardot disc and making her voice even more seductive.
Next to the Opus 21, the CD5.3 RS has a cleaner top end that makes the music sound less lively, but also allows you to play it at a higher level without any hardness.
Some will prefer the more forward and dynamic sound of the Opus 21, those with smoother-sounding speakers or more highly damped rooms, but in this system, the Moon's ability to deliver great instrumental tone and depth of tone with no tendency to hardness works very sweetly indeed.
In truth, we got carried away and started playing some great music at proper levels; stuff like David Wilczewski's Room in the Clouds, which builds up a real head of steam on the track Speedy.
With this, the system separates everything out so that you can hear the individual elements, but keeps the pace right on the money, so that it retains the excitement as well as the detail.
A cosmic combo
Having had such a good time with the CD player in the 'big' system, it was time to see how the amplifier fared on its own.
In this instance, a Leema Tucana (£3,000) was summoned in order to give us a point of reference. Here things were a little closer - yet again the Moon proved the more relaxed of the two amps delivering a more three- dimensionally solid sound, but one with a less crisp and tight bottom end.
The Tucana is a rather more powerful amplifier and this is apparent when you play some weighty Grace Jones, where the extra depth and kick in the bass is particularly welcome.
The amp has a very good sense of pace and a smooth, relaxed presentation that doesn't skimp on details, nor dynamics. The Tucana on the other hand, delivers a bit more of the tension and drama in a piece, its resolve of leading edges makes it that much tighter.
The Moon combination is a very appealing package. Its combines great imaging with strong timing and dynamics. Although, the CD5.3 RS seems the stronger of the two, in tandem, the results are cosmic.