Back on July 1st 2006 a new ruling that would affect the manufacture of virtually all audio equipment became law. The RoHS directive restricted the use of certain hazardous substances in electronic equipment that meant that Hi- Fi makers could not, among other things, use leaded solder anymore. This slipped by almost unnoticed by the hi-fi buying public but has had a marked effect on manufacturers and the sound of their equipment. Some took the opportunity to introduce new models that are RoHS compliant and others just made the required changes quietly and hoped that no one would notice. But inevitably the sound of many well-established electronics did change and not always for the better.
Designers I have spoken to tell me that the switch to RoHS compliance was far more profound sound-wise than was initially envisaged. Simaudio, the Canadian company who produce the Moon range of equipment were more forthcoming. Both the i-3 integrated amplifier and the Equinox CD player from their Classic series of products now carry the RS suffix which indicates that in making them compliant with the new ruling Moon have taken the opportunity to redesign major parts of both components. The printed circuit boards in the RS models have been upgraded to those with a higher temperature grade than the military specified FR4 of the earlier models and the traces on the boards are now gold-plated as opposed to the previous lead/tin composite. Moon have also taken the trouble to initiate other improvements as well, like the incorporation of improved dielectrics in all capacitors. But on the outside the i-3 cosmetics remain the same with only the small RS logo signifying the changes. A couple of years ago when I reviewed the earlier i-3 integrated amplifier I was so impressed with its vigour and dynamic vitality that it became something of a benchmark product for me. Sure, it was a tad on the bright side and grew a bit confused when you tapped heavily into those 100 watts, but there was a real core of stability, rhythmic bite and enthusiasm that endeared it to me. The more expensive i-5 was slightly less powerful on paper, but was a smoother and a more polite sounding amplifier that remained unflappable in situations where its little brother was more on the edge.
I like the accomplished balance of the i-5 but always had a sneaking respect for the slightly unkempt youth of the i-3. In RS form it still has six inputs plus tape and pre-amplifier outputs. There is no rotary volume control on the fascia but instead a small pair of buttons selects the output level. A single button scrolls through the inputs and both this and the volume setting are easily legible through the sensibly sized display window which you can choose to leave illuminated or not.
Unfortunately, the old bone-shaped metal system-remote control, which was one of the best around and gave a quality feel to the amplifier, has given way to a rather unremarkable plastic type. I am told that the metal version is still available as an option. What remains though is the way in which both amplifier and CD player operate. The input selection and smooth adjustment of level are helped enormously by the quite amazing angles of acceptance achieved by the remote control.
The Equinox RS CD player is an equally uncluttered and straightforward device. It was developed from the Nova player but is a perfect visual match for the i-3 RS. The front panel has the usual transport buttons and the rear contains just a pair of analogue connections and a single RCA connector for the digital output. It uses a Phillips L1210/S transport, Burr Brown D/A converters and was unfortunately also supplied with the latest plastic remote control.
Because I always associate Moon equipment with being so smooth and slick in operation it would have been nice if this trait had been maintained with a more damped feel to the drawer that clatters in and out a too little rustically for a £2000 CD player. Like all Moon hi-fi that I have tried, these components really do need running in for an indecent length of time. In their literature it is claimed that they will go on improving for 400 hours but I think this is a conservative estimate. Although previously run, I do not know exactly how many hours use the review units had on them. They certainly lacked the rather clenched, mean and tonally brittle sound of brand new units though experience tells me that they may well evolve and sound even better several months down the line.
For such a physically compact amplifier the i-3 RS is rated at a healthy 100 watts but don’t expect brute muscle. The newer amplifier seems to have moved a step closer to the i-5 in terms of its smoother and more rounded balance and this has certainly made it a more versatile unit. Perhaps it is slightly softer around the edges but its approach to music is now more considered and some would say, mature. It certainly maintains better composure when you drive it hard and I think that the bass in particular is more extended and weightier, though it probably doesn’t have that pure leading edge punch that so typified and flavoured the older amplifier.
But it is still a lean and articulate performer, totally solid-state in its sense of drive and cool tonality. I believe that it also has more natural resolution too, particularly through the treble that is now noticeably more textural and perhaps also less two-dimensional though it certainly no holographic imager. There is a dryness to the sound and certainly no artificial warmth in the way it portrays instrumental harmonics and that means that cabling will need to be carefully considered alongside speakers.
When you do pair it with the Moon Equinox RS CD player you are presented with an interesting conundrum. In many ways the CD player is very like the amplifier in its slightly stark, no-nonsense view of the music. It too is a little dry and has no sense of added tonal warmth, although it produces very good resolution within its bandwidth and delivers it in a cool flow of dynamic information. So, mating them really serves to enhance both of their individual characteristics into a distinctive style. This meant that I had to search for the right system environment in which to realise their potential.
First of all, they are very fussy where they stand. I didn’t like the effect that glass shelves had and there was little improvement when they were sat on the acrylic shelves of a Quadraspire two-tiered table either, because even though their speed and exuberance remained a constant I was still having real problems understanding just what the musicians were actually playing. I had begun my listening by using Nordost speaker cables and while the sense of fine resolution, articulation and speed was impressive, it did leave the amplifier very exposed tonally and the music often seemed bleached and somewhat colourless. It could well become a bit of a juggling act to achieve the right balance of flavours as the i-3 RS does lean towards the analytical, especially when coupled with the Equinox RS. A move to Vitus Andromeda speaker cable left the music sounding more rounded and comfortable and when I sited the electronics on a medite support they found their feet (excuse the pun) and I could better appreciate both the technique of the individual musicians and the structure of the songs. It was as though the sound, rather than the music, had lost a bit of tension and was less hurried. Sometimes you just open the box, site the equipment, plug it in and it’s pretty good from the word go. With this particular Moon combination I had to work at it, but I was glad I did because once you get it all under control there is an interesting experience to be enjoyed. This is not feet-up, pipe and slippers hi-fi. The Moon combo drives the music from the speakers in a continuous stream of sharply resolved dynamic episodes. It is unwavering in its personal portrayal of the musical picture and has transparency but limited depth. The soundstage is filled with succinctly etched morsels and details of musicianship which hang together just fine as the tempo and sense of progressive momentum is extremely good. There is no superfluous flab at all and this helps no end in portraying the rhythmic shape of whatever you are listening to. Instruments are handled crisply and dynamically with control right through the envelope of each and every note. The amplifier shares these traits with its predecessor but the shift in tonal emphasis has made it a less edge-of-the seat experience, which, across a whole music collection, is very likely a good thing.
Installing them individually into other systems was interesting. The amplifier is the more notable and interchangeable of the two. I think as it responds to higher information levels from far better quality CD players with ease. Fed by Naim’s CD555, which is a much more organic and resolute performer, it was, chameleon-like in its ability to respond to its surroundings. It still maintains its impressive speed but is more relaxed through the mid-band and has more time and space to resolve the vastly increased levels of information, both instrumental and ambient, that the Naim provides. The Equinox though, being a source component, imposes its view of the music more profoundly through the system. It is finely detailed but tonally a little monochromatic and can come across as a mite soulless and lacking subtlety and shading. When I installed it in my home system it was too black and white, with very little sense of front to back depth. The music was spread into a flat plane between the speakers and the there was little real harmonic colour around the instruments. But I certainly would not criticise the bandwidth or the extremely tight focus that the Equinox RS has in abundance. In the bass it is dynamically imposing, as well as being fast. There is a certain amount of personal taste involved here and the Equinox RS and the i-3 RS amplifier need serious consideration if an acceptable balance is going to be achieved. But, together, they do have a pronounced flavour and their strong points must be weighed against the criticisms.
Simaudio have been manufacturing audio equipment for more than twenty years now and the Moon range has gone from strength to strength. Their components are impeccably constructed and totally pain-free to own.
But the sound that characterises their smaller integrated amplifiers and certainly the Equinox RS CD player does not indicate the style of the whole range. When I tried the i-7 integrated amplifier last year I was surprised to hear how smooth and warmly balanced it was, like the big, expensive W-5 power amplifier. It seems to me that the smaller model has a very different way about it and does exactly what such amplifiers should by being sharp, open and musically to the point. While I have certain reservations about the Equinox RS CD player, I am not going to criticise it for having such a deliberate and overt style as there is no doubt that when you pair it with the newer i-3 RS they will definitely kick life into your music. The amplifier still reminds me in some ways of the early Naim amplifiers in its exuberance grip, agility and sheer willingness to drive a loudspeaker. I think the changes that Moon have introduced have made it even more appealing and better value for money. The price for good CD players is coming down all the time so the Equinox, at the same retail price as the amplifier, does not represent such good value. But get it into the right situation and I guarantee that it will hold your attention.