Most “computer audiophiles” begin their audio journey innocently enough—usually with a better set of earphones, which then require some kind of outboard digital-to-analog (DAC) with a headphone amplifier to drive them to satisfying levels. After a little while they are hooked. Often the next step is a more substantial DAC/headphone amplifier, one that can not only drive headphones but also act as a preamplifier for a room-based system.
This particular upgrade path has not gone unnoticed by Simaudio. Unlike many manufacturers, Simaudio’s first headphone-centric offering was the $4300 reference 430HA headphone amplifier, rather than an “entry-level” component. The new $1500 Moon Neo 230HAD remedies this oversight with a compact yet full-featured DAC/pre/headphone amp that is aimed directly at the computer audiophile who is ready to take his first big step into high-performance audio.
According to the good folks at Simaudio, the Neo 230HAD borrows quite a bit of technology from the company’s “big boy” Neo 430HA (reviewed by Robert Harley in Issue 253). The Neo 230HAD uses the same type of transductance analog amplifier, but it has a single-ended circuit with bipolar devices rather than fully balanced differential outputs. The DAC chip used in the Neo 230HAD is the ESS9018 K2M, but a DAC is far more than the chip used. The Neo 230HAD employs one large 10VA toroidal transformer in its power supply along with eight DC voltage stages—four for each channel to ensure proper regulation.
The Neo230 HAD has two pairs of single-ended RCA outputs. One pair is fixed-level while the other is variable, controlled by the front panel volume knob. The front panel has one ¼" stereo headphone output that can generate 200mW into a 300-ohm load and 1W into a 50-ohm load. Accepted formats and bit rates include PCM up to 384/32 and DSD up to DSD256 via the USB inputs. SPDIF accepts up to 192/24 PCM, but not DSD, while the TosLink can handle up to 192/24 PCM.
Ergonomics and Setup
The Neo 230HAD’s chassis is 7 inches wide by 3 inches high by 11 inches deep, which is what used to be referred to as a “half-size” width when rack-mount-sized components ruled the earth. The front panel is curved, which gives the Neo 230HAD less of a boxy look. It is populated by a large volume knob on the right side, a small blue LED above the on/off button in the center, and an input button, two rows of blue LEDs, a ¼" headphone output, and a 3.5mm stereo input on the left side. These rows of LEDs designate the source input as well as the bit-rate of the current program material.
The back panel of the Neo 230HAD has one TosLink, one USB, and two SPDIF inputs, as well as one pair of RCA analog inputs. The rear panel also has two pairs of RCA single-ended analog outputs—one fixed and one variable—and a standard IEC AC connection.
Setup was simple and straightforward. I attached a USB input from my 2015 MacPro desktop and for the initial installation I ran the fixed-level outputs into the input of the Tortuga Audio LDRV3.V2 passive preamplifier. I also used the Neo 230HAD connected directly to a power amplifier via its variable outputs.
Unlike some DACs which offer you several different digital filter options, usually fast, slow, and minimum phase, the Neo 230HAD has no filter adjustments. Its controls are minimalist to the point that instead of giving users the option of having either fixed or variable output on both single-ended outputs, Simaudio chooses to permanently designate one fixed and one variable. Thus, no switch is needed. While I would prefer to see the option of fixed or variable, this solution certainly works. But if you require two variable (one for your power amplifier and one for your subwoofer) or two fixed outputs (one for your preamp and one for your Stax or balanced headphone amplifier), you will need to use signal splitters for those connections.
The Neo 230HAD comes with the Moon CRM-2 full-function remote control, which also works with several other Moon components. The functions that work include input selection, volume control, and power on/off. As for the rest, such as balance and mute, don’t hold your breath waiting for something to happen after you press the remote’s buttons.
Very occasionally, when going from PCM material to DSD files, there would be a very short period of noise before the Neo 230HAD locked on the DSD signal. This only occurred for me while using Audirvana+, but I would recommend the “best practices” of not leaving your volume control up when switching between PCM to DSD files.