I’ve heard a few older systems over the past couple of years. I’m talking about 20 to 30 years old. Inevitably vinyl based, you might assume that the electronics were pre-historic in hi-fi terms but I was more than surprised at how good they were. A recently serviced 30 year old Naim NAP250 with NAC 72 preamplifier and a HiCap power supply really shocked me. Its owner had upgraded to a modern pair of Focal speakers after the bass drivers in the original Linn speakers began to disintegrate. Even with the original Naim speaker cable, never the most refined, the up-front energy, speed and intensity of the sound certainly left me wondering how far we have come in amplifier innovation.
These experiences certainly made me think though. Bandwidth, power, speed and any number of distortion measurement might have improved but these yardsticks are difficult to use as anything other than an academic argument when the music sounds so good. And of course, the qualities that made good, musical amplifiers 30 years ago are actually the same I listen for now.
Then, before Christmas, with the world now in a different place, the Moonriver Model 404 amplifier arrived and after very little listening I realised that here was an amplifier that plugs straight into those same values in the way it opens an engaging window onto your music. A completely new name for me, Moonriver has an interesting back story. It is designed by Mr George Polychronidis in Malmö, Sweden where he and a small band of dedicated individuals really do hand-build each and every amplifier. There are two models currently in the range. The Model 404, under consideration here is the standard version while there is also a Model 404 Reference amplifier built around the same platform but with improvements through the design yet still bearing the same musical DNA. And, if you are wondering whether the name of the company has anything to do with the old romantic ballad of the same name, then the answer is apparently yes.
The 404 concept began about four years ago. George had designed and worked on many different types of audio electronics and through this grounding he acquired experience and knowledge before a clear concept for an integrated audio amplifier took shape. As he eloquently states, he was “Drowned in sound” and analysed in detail, every recording that “Spoke” to him. He cites the cost/performance balance that building an amplifier in Europe bring and just how much pure research he put into every section of the design to perfect all aspects of its construction and sound.
The look of the 404 is, to me, somewhat retro with a notable absence of anything other than the essentials. There is nothing superfluous in its design and if you are into recording, or adding processors, that tape monitor facility would be very useful despite its rarity. A fine aspect of its design is the ability to add reasonably priced internal modules to expand its usefulness. These can be installed from new or retrofitted – ideally by the dealer – and the internal design makes this easy to achieve at home. There is a straight MM phono stage or one that incorporates a MC as well. A glance at the back panel shows a USB input. This requires another module in the shape of a (forthcoming) asynchronous DAC to be fitted, expanding the amplifier’s possibilities enormously I think this architecture is excellent because, if you want a straightforward line-stage integrated then you won’t need to incur the added costs of extra internals but if you use a turntable or want the amplifier to act as a DAC, that’s an easy fix too. It also has remote control with a decent, though not exceptional receiving window.