Exclusive First Listen – Moon Audio Neo ACE

Integrated amplifiers,
Digital-to-analog converters,
Music servers and computer audio
Moon Audio Neo ACE
Exclusive First Listen – Moon Audio Neo ACE

I’m not even going to resist temptation here. The Moon Audio Neo ACE is audio’s Swiss Army Knife – even though it’s made in Canada. This all-in-one amplifier-meets-media player is on the very cutting edge of ‘now’ technology, a product that would have been impossible 10 years ago and unthinkable 10 years before that. Yet it’s a product with legs long enough to think it still a going concern 10 years from now, and that’s something that is not easy to suggest in today’s fast-moving digital audio world.

The ACE is part of Moon’s Neo range, the slimline all black or ‘panda’ silver-black chassis. The name is an acronym meaning ‘A Complete Experience’ and that seems like a fair assessment. It’s a 50W per channel integrated amplifier with a moving magnet phono stage, a couple of rear-mounted line level RCA inputs and a front mounted stereo mini-jack for DAP, tablet, or smartphone users, and a surprisingly competent headphone stage for those who want to remain firmly old-school and miss the point. Or, there are eight digital inputs, including aptX Bluetooth, USB, Wi-Fi, and Ethernet, alongside the older Toslink and coaxial digital. There’s a neat little OLED screen in the middle of the front panel.

The core to the digital side of things is Moon’s own MiND (Moon intelligent Network Device) system, and a MiND module is fitted inside the ACE. All you need to do is hook this to a computer network (wired or wirelessly – it doesn’t really matter unless you are attempting to squirt some really high-res files through Wi-Fi, in which case wired is probably your best bet – this is more to do with the robustness of your domestic Wi-Fi infrastructure than any weak links in the ACE), and then run the whole caboodle from a tablet or smartphone – preferably a tablet – working on the same network. Complexity of installation largely depends on whether you have to enter a network password. Basically, unless you are having this read sentence explained to you by your carer, the actions of navigating to this page are about as complex as getting the Moon up and running. MiND will find, support, and play any audio files it finds on that network that aren’t protected, and integrates with TIDAL quicker than Taylor Swift finds new boyfriends.

ACE needs to do all this because we are at the tail end of the biggest migration of audio replay since the 1980s. There’s a statistic commonly bandied round the music business that suggests most people start collecting music in or around the time they turn teenage, and that crucial period between 13-28 is when we lay down musical roots that resonate through the rest of our lives. And if you are celebrating your 30th birthday this year, you came of age musically in the time of Napster. Chances are, you never needed to start a CD collection, because online services fed that addiction (in fact, paradoxically, a 30 year old music lover is more likely to own a collection of LPs rather than CDs, and their digital music will have always been entirely file-based rather than physical). However, many of us with a few more years on the odometer are likely to have a collection of music on CD, either ripped to a server or still being played through a CD player. So the ACE needs to accommodate listeners who have all their music on polycarbonate (no CD player in the ACE, but it does have digital and analogue connections for players) or even vinyl disc, those who have music stored on home computers and servers, and those who have abandoned local storage for online content delivery. Phew!

Five years hence, one or more of these options might have dried up or all-but dried up. Maybe the need for Toslink will seem vestigial, or perhaps USB will be on the wane. It could be the vinyl bubble finally burst, or even Ethernet in 2021 will seem like using a dial-up modem. Fortunately, this Moon device being the Swiss-Canadian Army Knife, it has a lot of ACEs up its sleeve here!

Enough with the foreplay! How does it sound? This is the best bit because it retains all the characteristic Moon Neo performance parameters: a deeply unfatiguing yet remarkably satisfying sound, with an extremely large, walk-in-and-make-yourself-comfortable soundstage, excellent precision of dynamic range, image placement, detail, and timing, and that sense of musical ‘structure’ rising out of a very dark background. And yet, it seems to have achieved this without the usual nine months of run-in before it sounds good. Yes, the ACE gets better over time, but it’s more like letting a good bottle of wine breathe for an hour or so than laying it down to age.

However, as said in the introduction, this is just a teaser, I’m afraid. ACE lives up to the name… it’s ace! But to find out how ace is ACE in the grand scheme of things, you’ll just have to wait.

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