Simaudio MOON 310LP Phono Preamplifier and 320S Power Supply

Since even the very best hi-fi systems rarely sound like real live music, the first question one might ask about the sound of any component immediately becomes: What does it add and what does it take away from the music?

Creating the perfect recreation of live music in the home may have yet to happen, but it’s not totally the fault of the hi-fi. Few recordings are made with the intention of capturing reality; artists, producers, and engineers are usually searching for the sound they think best suits the music. And since music is recorded in an endless variety of venues and recording chains, it’s no wonder that recordings all sound very different from each other.

That said, my favorite systems are those that reveal such differences between recordings every time you change a disc. The less a system adds or subtracts from the sound, the easier it is to really hear what’s going on in the recording. By this standard, Simaudio’s MOON 310LP phono preamp is a winner.

Surprises on the Inside

The MOON 310LP replaces Simaudio’s MOON LP5.3 phono preamp. The new model isn’t a radical rethink of the previous design, but it combines superior parts and a refined circuit to achieve better performance. And for those that invest for the long haul,the MOON 310LP comes with a 10-year warranty.

Taking off the easily removable case cover reveals the MM and MC settings. MC gain has three options: 54, 60,and 66db through RCA outputs, with an additional 6db available through XLR outputs.  Five impedance settings (10, 100, 470, 1K, and 47kΩ) are available for both MM and MC, meaning those with a Grado or SoundSmith moving-iron cartridge can take advantage of the higher-gain settings. Capacitive loading can be set at 0, 100, and 470pf—a bonus for MM users, as it offers more flexibility. The 310LP even offers a jumper setting for RIAA or IEC equalization. While not terribly convenient to access, such functionality isn’t often seen at this price point.

The unit’s rear panel hosts single-ended RCA inputs and outputs, plus balanced XLR outputs. The 310LP is nice and compact, just 7.5″ x 3.2″ x 11.2″ and weighing it at 7 pounds.

Redefines Quiet

Usually, on most phonostages, associated noise occurs when lifting the stylus from the groove at a high volume level. I can often hear such noise from my listening position, which is about ten feet from my Magnepan 3.7 speakers. However, with the 310LP, I only detected the faintest of noise, and only when my ears were pressed right against the speakers—a good sign. Even more importantly, the 310LP sounds cleaner when the music is cranked up, meaning that the contrast between quiet and loud instruments is more apparent than what I’ve experienced from other phonostages in this range.

Richard Barone’s Cool Blue Halo was recorded live at the Bottom Line on May 31, 1987. I was at the show, so listening to the LP is like traveling back through time. I loved that club, and saw hundreds of shows there. Plus, the Bottom Line always had an above-average sound system. However, Barone’s live sound that late spring night wasn’t very good, and it comes through on the LP. Just like the actual concert, there’s too much reverb. But Barone’s vocals sound great, and the Bottom Line’s vibe is there. The 310LP brings it all back to life just as I remembered.

Emotional Rescue, one of the Rolling Stones’ last all-analog efforts, also lit up my speakers. On the title track, drummer Charlie Watts, bassist Bill Wyman, and singer Mick Jagger dominate the mix. Via the 310LP, their pounding groove instantly grabs my attention and connects me to the music. Similarly, “She’s So Cold” transfixes, as I love the way Keith Richards’ rhythm-guitar licks punctuate the beat. I’ve never enjoyed this record more than I do with the 310LP. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ debut possesses even more analog richness than Emotional Rescue. Again, the 310LP helps portray the big soundstage present on this record with ease.

In the female vocal field, Linda Rondstadt’s Don’t Cry Now sounds tighter and more produced—like a recording where every musician is recorded in total isolation from one other. Her take on Neil Young’s “I Believe In You” is simply gorgeous on the 310LP. The latter is undoubtedly a high-resolution design, but one that doesn’t throw detail at you in a way that becomes fatiguing.

On the LP310, some of the better 1950s-era jazz recordings sound more natural to me, perhaps because they have little equalization or studio processing. Clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre’s LPs are so present and tonally accurate that the instruments seemingly appear in the room with me. I didn’t even notice at first that they’re mono recordings!

Back to Basics

Initially, I used the 310LP with the optional 320S power supply, which looks nearly identical to the 310LP. A dedicated and optimized design that only works with the 310LP, it features four stages of DC voltage regulation in a dual-action configuration and a special “pi-type” filter in conjunction with a dual-voltage regulation system to further reduce the 310LP’s already low-noise level.

Fully acclimated to the sound of the 310LP/320S combo, I unhitched the power supply, a change that involves moving a couple of internal jumpers. Listening to the 310LP a la carte, the sound becomes a tad softer. And, in comparison to hearing them via the Simaudio duo, dynamics are blunted, with low-level resolution and air also somewhat diminished.

Those with fairly resolving systems will have a tough time living without the 320S. The device is well worth the money, yet it’s also nice that Simaudio gives you the option to buy into its phonostage one step at a time.

Turn Me On

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing the Red Wine Audio Ginevra LFP-V Edition phono preamp. It’s a battery-powered, hybrid tube/solid-state design. Yet, it’s very tubey in the sense that the sound is rich and velvety smooth, albeit never lacking in detail. It proved a great experience, but the 310LP turns me on in a very different way. The Ginevra’s beguiling sweetness softens the top- and bottom-end response, whereas in these areas, the 310LP is more neutral.

Dr John’s In the Right Place, arranged and produced by the great Allen Toussaint in 1979, yields pure thrills through the 310LP. The Doctor’s mojo fires on all cylinders, and the Sim unit simply lets be the yummy, bold, 3D, and oh-so funky sound. Sure, some of the better and vastly more expensive phono preamps can get you even closer to the music embedded in the grooves, but in its price class, the 310LP is as colorless a device as you’re going to find.

The TONEAudio staff agrees, and hails the 310LP/320S as a recipient of one of the magazine’s 2011 Exceptional Value Awards.

Simaudio MOON 310LP and MOON 320S

MSRP: $1,800/$1,400


Analog Source VPI Classic turntable with a van den Hul Frog cartridge
Digital Sources PS Audio PerfectWave Transpost and DAC     MSB Technology Platinum Data CD IV Transport and Platinum Signature DAC IV     Oppo BDP-95 Special Edition
Electronics Pass XP-20 preamp    Whest 2.0 phono preamp    Pass Labs XA100.5 amp   First Watt J2 power amp
Speakers Dynaudio C-1    Mangepan 3.7
Cable XLO Signature 3 interconnects    Analysis Plus Silver Oval interconnects and speaker cables    Audioquest Sky interconnects

Naim DAC and PS555 Power Supply

With the race on to build bigger, better, more powerful gear, Naim has entered the field with its first standalone DAC. In the past, the company took a closed-architecture approach to digital, with its players claiming neither a digital input nor output. One uses them the way they come from the factory; the only available upgrade is a larger power supply.

If you aren’t familiar with Naim, it certainly follows a different approach than other manufacturers. In the case of its $3,695 world-class DAC, performance upgrades come in the form of more robust, external power supplies. This strategy (also used with its SuperLine phonostage) works well in the sense that you buy the DAC once, getting digital decoding ability along with a top-range product’s input and output flexibility—and the same tonality—for a reasonable price.

When more performance is needed, an external power supply is easily added. Enter the $5,595 XPS and $9,345 555PS. While the uninitiated might pause at the concept of an external power supply costing more than an actual component, we’ve been to this dance with Naim before, and the proof is in the listening.

The Naim DAC provides a great digital experience in standard form, but if you can make the jump, opt for the PS555. Like every other Naim component into which we’ve plugged a massive power supply, it makes for a stunning experience. Once you hear it, you will never go back. For those that keep gear for long periods of time, it’s reassuring to buy the DAC and know the job is done. When you get the itch to upgrade, adding a power supply is a simple task.

Regardless of output or file resolution, the Naim DAC plays flawlessly with every digital source we throw at it. No matter your digital arsenal, the user-friendly nit will improve its sound While Naim would, of course, like to see you purchase one of its music servers, if you have someone else’s server in your system, integrating the Naim DAC with a current setup shouldn’t be an issue. In addition to the Naim HDX, we used the QSonix, Meridian Sooloos, Aurender, and Squeezebox servers with all file resolutions without a glitch.

The DAC proves equally compatible with a wide range of transports. The MSB universal transport works particularly well with the Naim DAC, allowing audiophiles invested in physical media of all types—SACD, DVD-Audio, or even Blu-ray—to play their files from one source.

Different Approach, Similar Sound

Even though the Naim DAC takes an alternative modus operandi to the digital decoding process, the company’s CD555 uses old-school, 16 bit/44.1k architecture. The Naim DAC upsamples incoming data to 768khz, using a SHARC 40-bit floating point processor, which also handles the digital filtering.  Audio data is then dumped into a RAM buffer before going to the actual DAC chips for D/A conversion. For a more in-depth overview of this process, download the Naim white paper here:

Such methodology is not necessary with the CD555 because it only plays 16 bit/44.1khz files from CD; remember, however, the Naim DAC is compatible with all high-resolution digital formats. Credit Naim’s engineering staff for making the DAC/PS555 combination sound nearly identical to the CD555. Under the hood, the models couldn’t be more different.

The Naim DAC employs a plethora of inputs: a pair of RCA SPDIF, a pair of 75-ohm BNC inputs, and four toslink inputs. A USB port rests on the back and front panels; however, these inputs are not intended for direct connection to a computer. And forget about balanced XLR/EBU or FireWire inputs. Naim believes that a computer via USB doesn’t constitute an optimal way to transfer data to its DAC, so the USB input is for an external drive or memory stick. We found this handy when a friend brought over a few albums for a listening session.

Since the DAC is Apple compliant, you can use an iPod, iPhone, or iPad to stream music (up to 48kHz sampling rate) without the need for an external high-performance dock. Merely connect your iPod via the standard USB cord that goes to your charger, and experience the upgraded sound the iPod possesses when you bypass the onboard DAC. Listeners with multiple iPods will find this method goes a long way towards enticing the rest of their family to share in the hi-fi system fun.

Standard and Super-Size

Listening sessions began with the Naim DAC by itself, and without the external power supply. The former exhibits the same character, or “house sound,” that we’ve experienced with the other Naim players. We experimented with an iPod Touch, vintage Denon 3910, MSB universal transport, Naim HDX, and Sooloos music server, as well as a dCS Paganini transport.

By itself, the DAC proves highly competent and exhibits a very natural tonality. Naim gear always excels in the areas of musical pace and timing. However, that PS555 is like connecting an afterburner to the DAC. While tonality remains the same, dynamics take a major jump with the extra power. The rim shots in Lee Morgan’s Riggarmortesfrom the Tom Cat XRCD are breathtaking. And when Morgan’s trumpet enters, it punches through the mix with authority and more texture, the tune now sounding like a high-resolution file.

Bass weight and control also soar with the PS555. Listening to the classic electronica album, Kruder and Dorfmeister, The K&D Sessions, confirms these findings. “Bomb the Bass—Bug Powder Dust” features a deep, loose bass track that can easily get away from a modest system and overwhelm the diaphanous mix. The Naim combination paints a massive sonic landscape, simultaneously offering potent bass that shakes the listening room but never loses control.

More Power

Aside from reproducing music in a natural way—acoustic instruments played back through the Naim DAC/PS555 possess the right amount of texture and decay to convince you you’re hearing the real thing—the PS555 produces a much larger soundstage. Cue up Frank Zappa’s “Penguin in Bondage” from the live Roxy & Elsewhere album. Listening to only the DAC, Ruth Underwood’s percussion effects are buried in the mix, and the CD feels somewhat compressed. Once the PS555 is engaged, room boundaries expand in all three dimensions, allowing Zappa and his cronies to reveal themselves in greater detail.

The additional dynamics that the PS555 brings to listening sessions are invaluable. As nicely as the Naim DAC/PS555 combination renders top-notch recordings, the additional detail and overall listenability it brings to average-sounding records separates the pairing from lesser DACs. Music lovers whose interests venture beyond the same old audiophile standards will be delighted.

Indeed, after swapping the power supply in and out only a few times, I became convinced the NAIM DAC makes such a quantum leap with the PS555. It’s not to be missed. Sure, there are a few excellent DACs in the $4,000 range, and while the Naim unit is highly capable on its own, the PS555 turns it into something special.

You Might Forget About Your Turntable

If we were comparing the two DACs to phono cartridges, the Naim boasts a sound similar to that of a Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum: robust bass response, great stereo image, and a dash of warmth thrown in for good measure—a characteristic that never hurts digital media. In direct comparison to the similarly priced dCS Debussy, the dCS sounds more like a Lyra Titan i, with a shade more resolution and slightly more forward presentation.

For music lovers that want a digital source that is musical in the manner of an analog source, the Naim DAC/PS555 is the way to roll. Also, if you are a CD555 owner that’s a bit late coming to music servers, this DAC and power supply will provide a seamless experience. For these reasons, the Naim DAC/PS555 combination receives our most enthusiastic recommendation.

The Naim DAC/PS555 Power Supply

MSRP:  Naim DAC, $3,695

PS555 Power supply, $9,345    (factory)    (US Importer)


Preamplifiers Conrad Johnson Act 2/Series 2     ARC REF 5SE    Burmester 011
Power Amplifiers McCormack DNA 750 monoblocks     Octave Jubilee Monoblocks    Pass XA200.5 monoblocks     ARC REF 150     Burmester 911 mk.3
Digital Sources Naim HDX-SSD     Sooloos Control 15    MSB Universal Transport    dCS Paganini Transport
Speakers Magnepan 20.1     GamuT S9    B&W 802D     Sonus Faber Ellipsa SE
Cable Cardas Clear    Furutech Reference

Red Wine Audio Black Lightning DC Power Supply

Black LIghtning-2By Jeff Dorgay

If you’ve been reading TONEAudio for the last couple of years, you know I’m a big fan of the battery-powered gear from Red Wine Audio, built by Vinnie Rossi and his team. I’ve used their Signature 30.2 power amplifiers and their Isabella tube preamplifier with excellent results. The key to a large part of these components success is the fact that they are powered “off-the-grid” from high-current, sealed lead-acid (SLA) batteries, and Red Wine Audio has made the them effortless to use thanks to their SMART charging system.

The great thing about SLA batteries is that they have very low impedance (very high output current capability) and relatively flat discharge characteristics. The benefit to you is that the sound does not change as the batteries begin to discharge, and dynamics are maximized. I’ve used a number of battery-powered components, and the ones that rely on normal alkaline batteries (the Sutherland PH3D and Chord preamps come to mind) change their sound dramatically over the charge period and don’t have the low output impedance. The result is a sound you can’t really get used to.

SLA batteries are much better in this application, but they do require a certain amount of care to keep them performing at their peak, but who’s got time for that? What Red Wine Audio has done with their new SMART (SLA battery Monitoring and Auto Recharge circuit) board is to make the battery process a “no fuss, no muss” affair. Everything works in the background, so you only need to concentrate on the music. When the battery voltage discharges down to a set level (which is continuously monitored via the SMART board), the SMART circuit automatically turns OFF the unit and begins the recharge process for you. In addition to being very convenient, it maximizes battery life by avoiding accidentally deep-discharging the SLA batteries.

There are three other very important features worth mentioning about the Black Lightning: First, when you are using battery operation, the charging circuit is completely disengaged from the batteries, so there is no chance of noise leaking into the power supply. The battery charger itself is a separate unit that plugs into the Black Lighting for total isolation.

Second, the Black Lightning has 0.5 second in-rush current limiting avoid the high current in-rush that you don’t typically see with conventional AC power adapters because they cannot supply nearly the same level of output current. According to Vinnie, it’s actually better to leave your component switched on all the time and use the power switch on the Black Lightning as your power switch, thus always allowing “soft starts” of your audio component – which prolongs the life of their internal components.

Third, and possibly most important, I have to believe that while a good portion of the Black Lightning’s improvement comes from removing your audio component from the grid, it also eliminates one or more switching power supplies from proximity to your system. Anything in your HiFi system that uses a “wall wart” power supply is a noise bandit, dumping a healthy amount of RFI back into your power line and associated components. Even with world-class power line conditioning, I noticed a slight decrease in background noise with my other components, having eliminated the two switching power supplies from my system.

Red Wine brings this technology to the rest of us

As cool as the idea of getting off the grid is, for most power amplifiers, it’s not practical because of the high voltage requirements. But for preamplifiers, phonostages, dacs, and other low-level components that accept DC input voltages from AC wall adapters, Black Lightning will elevate the performance of your components to a whole new level. The minute you leave the grid, you’re leaving any AC-related noise and distortion components behind completely.

Earlier this summer, Vinnie and I were discussing exactly this and I asked him if he could build an upgraded 12Vdc power supply for my Nagra VPS phono preamplifier. I’d like to think I had a small hand in the process and in November, the Black Lightning was born. There are two models to choose from, the Series 10 and the Series 12. The main differences between them are the available output voltages and their current capacity (measured in Amp-Hours), which translates into the ability to power a component that draws more current for a longer period of time.

You can read the full list of configurable options here:

The Series 10 starts at $625 and the Series 12 starts at $825. When you think about it, that’s just about what a good power cord would set you back. Hmmm. My review centers around three components that I felt would respond very well to being removed from the grid and that accepted a 12Vdc input (which I had Red Wine Audio configure a Series 10 unit for me); the Nagra VPS phono stage, the Nagra LB portable digital recorder and the Wadia 170i iPod dock.

Across the board gains

The $9,000 Nagra VPS/VFS phono stage has been my reference for over a year now and is a hybrid tube/solid state design. I’ve been very satisfied with the VPS/VFS, but it’s always had the slightest bit of background noise and hum that I’ve just chalked up to life with tubes.

Immediately after plugging the Black Lightning in, all of the noise was gone, even when sticking my ear right up to the tweeter. The Black Lightning redefines the term “inky black background.” The big surprise was when I set the stylus down on the first record, Neil Young’s Live at Massey Hall. (200g. Classic Records version) We gave this record one of our product of the year awards in the audiophile recordings category. If you have this record, you know how big the soundstage is, but adding the Black Lightning just blew the boundaries out of my room. The Nagra’s already excellent dynamics went up a few solid notches. It just wasn’t the same preamplifier anymore. Everything I loved remained, but now it was super sized!

Black LIghtning-3I am a big believer in clean power, and the validity of good power cords, but I’ve never had this much improvement from any power cord or line conditioner. I currently use the Running Springs Dmitri line conditioner on the front end of my system (and a Running Springs Maxim on a separate 20 amp line for my power amplifier) and I feel this product is the top of the mountain in power line conditioning products. I would compare the difference plugging the Nagra into the Black Lightning to be an equivalent jump in performance I experienced when I plugged the rest of my system into the Dmitri from the wall. Background noise decreased dramatically, dynamics increased substantially and the upper registers got smoother, yet more defined.

The more records I played with the new “upgraded” Nagra, the more impressed I was with the contribution of the Black Lightning supply. The effect was all positive and not the least bit negative. The bass drive had increased substantially, as if I had added a subwoofer to the system!

As much fun as the additional bass grunt was, this already detailed phono preamplifier was considerably better with microdynamics than before. No matter what kind of music I was listening to, I was always able to hear further into the recordings than I could before, thanks to the lower noise floor. This also gave my system the added benefit of sounding “louder” even at low volumes because the effective dynamic range was increased.

I’d also like to mention that when Vinnie and I were discussing playback times as he was developing the Black Lightning, I was expecting about 4 hours worth of playback time with the Nagra VPS (based on its power consumption rating) and I’m getting about 8 hours consistently. Very impressive!

Benefits with other devices as well

I had similar results with the Wadia iTransport dock, and this was very easy to discern using the Wadia 781i as my DAC. Everything was decidedly “less digital” sounding and the gap between .wav files on my iPod and the CD played on the Wadia closed further.

When using the Black Lightning with my Nagra LB digital recorder that is already battery powered by AA batteries, the main difference when using the Black Lightning SLA battery supply was slightly increased dynamics, better resolution during lower level passages and much longer record time. The LB will eat up eight AA cells in pretty short order, and with the Black Lightning I was able to record all day long without stopping to recharge. Again, the added benefit here with a Black Lightning is that you aren’t tossing a pile of Duracell’s (that contain mercury) in to the wastebasket on a regular basis. Better sound and better for the environment.

A product that truly exceeds expectations

In the world of high-end audio, there are a lot of snake oil vendors and precious little science and engineering, with every new widget promising nirvana where none previously existed. Red Wine Audio’s Black Lightning power supply is well-built, with solid engineering behind it and does a fantastic job at its designated task. You can’t ask any more from a component!

If you have something in your system that uses a switched mode/wall wart power supply and feeds a DC output voltage to your component, the sonic benefits you will receive from the Black Lightning will be instantly apparent. It has certainly made a welcome addition to my reference system. Give Vinnie a call to see if he has one that will suit your needs.

The Red Wine Audio Black Lightning, $650 – (approx.) $1,000 depending on size and configuration.