Although the Neo 230HAD includes several different devices whose functions are relatively independent—DAC, preamp, and headphone amplifier—most of the time they will be used together, such as when you listen through headphones. And while it’s possible to bypass the volume control by using the Neo 230HAD’s fixed-level outputs and routing them to a preamplifier or external headphone amplifier (which I did during the review), the whole point of the Neo 230HAD is that it can be used as a one-box component that simultaneously serves as a digital hub, preamplifier, and headphone amplifier for all but the most complex multi-input systems.
When used as a preamplifier the Neo 230HAD was dead silent. The Neo 230HAD also had oodles of gain—at normal, moderately loud listening levels I barely got up to 9 o’clock on a rotary dial that starts at 7 o’clock! Splitting the unbalanced signal into two unbalanced signals so I could run both my main amplifier and subwoofer did not seem to reduce the signal levels one iota.
Through a system that is so transparent that I could clearly hear the NuPrime ST10 power amplifier warm up after being turned off for a day, the soundstage started flat with almost no depth, and gradually, over the next 30 minutes, deepened and expanded to its normal dimensions. I could also hear how little the Neo 230HAD altered the sound, especially on material I was familiar with. A recent guilty pleasure, the cut via Tidal “Dracula” from Bea Miller’s Not an Apology, has some very deep bass pulses combined with some very rude percussion crashes that can sound either very cool or sorta cruddy depending on your system’s high-level dynamic resolution and low bass capabilities. On my nearfield system it can rock, and with the Neo 230HAD in the signal chain, it did.
I connected a wide variety of earphones to the Neo 230HAD’s headphone output and I was impressed by how many the Neo 230HAD drove well. With hypersensitive low-impedance in-ears such as the Westone ES5, I could hear a very slight amount of white-noise hiss even when the volume control was turned all the way down, but at normal listening levels this hiss level remained low. With any “regular-sensitivity earphone (between 85 and 95dB)” the Neo 230HAD generated a silent background.
With my most difficult-to-drive headphones, which are currently the Beyerdynamic DT-990, 600-ohm version, the Neo 230HAD had lots of gain left in reserve. The volume control barely cracked 10 o’clock. The Neo 230HAD also proved to be a good pairing with difficult-to-match headphones such as my newly acquired Sennheiser HD 700.
A scant few years ago you would have been hard-pressed to find a high-performance entry-level DAC/pre/headphone amplifier from an industry-leading audio manufacturer for around $1500. Nowadays, audiophiles have a lot of options, including three that I have had extensive experience with—the NuPrime DAC-10H ($1795), the Oppo HA-1 ($1199), and the Moon Neo 230HAD ($1500).
Although the Moon Neo 230HAD has fewer adjustments and lacks balanced headphone outputs, its sonics, especially when used as a preamplifier, placed it above the Oppo. The Neo 230HAD was closer to the level of neutrality I’ve become accustomed to hearing from the Tortuga Audio LDRV3.V2 passive preamplifier. (In comparison, the Oppo HA-1 was slightly warmer harmonics with a more pronounced midbass.) The Neo 230HAD also has a slightly more coherent soundstage with easier to locate depth cues—there was better isolation around each instrument and each voice had less of what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call a “noise halo,” slightly blurring the edges of each instrument in a mix.
The NuPrime DAC-10H offers quite a bit more flexibility (balanced headphone and analog outputs as well as different gain and filter settings), but sonically I found the Neo 230HAD and DAC-10H to be a sonic dead heat, with both producing hard-to-fault sound. While I would rate the DAC-10H as a somewhat better value because of its features, for many nearfield and desktop systems that added flexibility may be overkill, at which point the Neo 230HAD would be a more cost-effective choice.
Usually at this point in a review of an “entry-level” component reviewers dredge up the phrase “gives you a taste of the high end.” The Moon by Simaudio Neo 230HAD gives you far more than a taste—it will fatten you right up. If you don’t require a balanced headphone output, the Neo 230HAD may be all the DAC/preamp/headphone amplifier you ever need.
SPECS AND PRICING
Headphone impedance: 20–600 ohms
Output power: 100mW into @ 600 ohms, 200mW into 300 ohms, 1W into 50 ohms: Inputs: One pair unbalanced on RCA jacks, one 1/8" mini-jack
Input impedance: 22k ohms
Single-ended headphone output: Stereo TRS
Single-ended preamp outputs (RCA): Two pairs (fixed and variable)
Frequency response: 20Hz–20kHz +/-0.1dB
Output Impedance: 1.25 ohms
Weight: 6.2 lbs.
Dimensions: 7"x 3" x 11"
1345 Newton Road
Boucherville, Quebec J4B 5H2