Cruising the halls of Consumer Electronics Shows, I’ve often paused to admire the products of Simaudio, a Canadian firm with over twenty-five years’ experience manufacturing high-quality electronics. It has always had a reputation for high performance, while its uniquely styled amps and preamps impressed me as both eye-catching yet functional. So it was with keen enthusiasm that I accepted the assignment to review three of Simaudio’s flagship components from its Moon Evolution line: the P-8 preamplifier and W 8 amplifier, both dual-mono designs, and the Andromeda CD player. Intended as full-out assaults on the state of the art, and priced accordingly—a formidable $33k for the stack— these two-channel-only beauties attest to the tenacity of old-fashioned stereophonic reproduction in an increasingly multichannel world. “Old-fashioned?” Perhaps “new style classicism” is more accurate.
Given how distinctively styled the Evolution components are, I evaluated them almost exclusively as a stack, as that is how most purchasers will more than likely use them. Let’s begin with tonal balance. In my opinion, once you set aside electronics that are deliberately voiced to sound a certain way (e.g., some of Bob Carver’s amplifiers with their “Gundry dip”) or the occasional impedance mismatches from weird cables and/or unusual speaker loads, the vast majority of solid-state components have no sonic signature in the strictly tonal sense. This is certainly true of the Evolution gear. Gourmet in, gourmet out, garbage in, garbage out is pretty much the story here.
But does this mean everything sounds the same? Not quite. Recently I auditioned an expensive integrated amplifier with superb performance. But the Evolutions soon exposed a slight touch of dryness in that otherwise impressive unit, unearthing very fine details of ambience that had eluded it, and suggesting improved resolution—very subtle but noticeable—when it came to separating lines and textures. For example, on my trusty Glenn Gould recording of Beethoven’s First Piano Sonata [Sony], though the recording is dry, high resolution electronics unveil a slight cushion of air between the instrument and the microphones. Both amplifiers made this evident—the Evolutions fractionally more so. As for Gould’s notorious vocalisms, same story: a bit more clearly separated from the sound of the piano, thus more distinctly localized.
But I get ahead of myself. As soon as I fired up the Evolutions, even without the obligatory break-in, I noticed an unmistakable increase in transparency, a “see-through” immediacy that put me in mind of the Boulder electronics I reviewed a couple of years ago or the McIntosh C46/MC402 combination that is a current reference. Coupled with this was a sense of total ease and relaxation in the listening experience. A few days later I was joined by a close friend, an audiophile of long experience who is also one of the most widely employed studio violinists in Los Angeles. Within in a few minutes his first observation was, “Man, these things are really easy to listen to.” It’s worth noting that this man’s reference at home is one of the Edge amplifiers so admired by some of my TAS colleagues.
Yet the Evolutions are not just about, to use Charles Ives’ wonderful phrase, letting the ears lie back in an easy chair. They also exhibit extraordinary grip, control, and authority. One afternoon found me comparing performances of the Mahler Third Symphony, beginning with Esa Pekka Salonen’s recording of my hometown orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic [Sony]. The soundstage is Cinerama size, the dynamic range formidable, but what is truly breathtaking about this recording is its vast spaciousness. There seems to be no limit to the air above and beyond the orchestra, yet quiet passages retain their immediacy without seeming to be spotlit. For example, when the tympani are tapped quietly, you can “hear,” as it were, the texture of the skin; when the tambourines are shaken, articulation is such that you can almost count the spaces between the rings. Next up was Benjamin Zander’s recent Telarc recording. The sound of the hall in this recording is gorgeous, but while the space is and feels smaller than that of LA’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the sense of sheer orchestral mass, abetted by Telarc’s justly famous bass response, is even more powerful. (Perhaps owing to the W 8’s stratospheric damping factor, bass response seemed to extend to the center of the earth.) Last up was Bernstein’s DG recording with the New York Philharmonic. Clearly multimiked, taken from concerts at Avery Fisher Hall, this is the least impressive sonically of the three: noticeably dry and lacking in atmosphere, the orchestra cohesive, yet also spotlit with exaggerated perspectives. Yet the close miking does reveal one thing with blinding clarity. Instruments actually do appear to occupy a specific space and stay there. In both the Sony and Telarc recordings, beautiful as they are, there is a subtle vagary to the imaging that gives the impression that nothing quite occupies its own place. The effect is rather like a focus that is constantly searching for ultimate sharpness.
I have heard these effects before with other fine electronics, though not always to the degree that this Evolution stack resolved them. But more to the point is how musically involved I was that afternoon. The Evolutions allowed me to hear how, despite its comparatively inferior (though still eminently listenable) reproduction, Bernstein’s is so clearly the best performance, as if he had got his players literally to breathe the Mahlerian idiom: so nuanced in expressiveness, so epic in scope. As far as I’m concerned, any audio equipment that makes for this level of engagement in the musical experience has already discharged its highest function.
Are the Evolution components worth their substantial price? Let me answer that in two parts. First, nobody reading this magazine can be unaware that even moderately priced electronics have reached such a level of performance that the decision to purchase extremely expensive alternatives is as much a lifestyle choice as it is the pursuit of audio excellence per se.
That said, however, there are many consumers, including no few audiophiles, who like the idea of a unified electronics stack from a single manufacturer: preamp, amp, and source that are coordinated with respect to performance, features, and aesthetics. This arrangement virtually by definition ensures optimal matching, eliminates incompatibility, and, especially when styled as strikingly as those under review, makes for an impressive, if imposing display in a domestic setting. So in that context— and especially when you consider that most packaged (i.e., “lifestyle”) stacks don’t offer anything like this performance—the Evolution array, though undeniably expensive, certainly doesn’t strike me as unfairly priced with respect to its competition or its outstanding combination of design, build, parts, finish, and truly prodigious performance. It’s an investment that will make great music for the better part of a lifetime.
There are too many features and functions to detail them all in a report of this relative brevity. I’ll summarize some of the more salient ones, but a visit to Simaudio’s Web site is recommended if you’re seriously contemplating a purchase (www.simaudio.com). All three pieces share dual-mono, fully balanced, differential circuitry, multiple toroidal power supplies, and rugged chassis, optimized for rigidity and low resonance, supported by polished coned feet. Simaudio rates the W 8 power amplifier at 250 watts/channel into 8 ohms, and claims 64-amp peak and 26-amp continuous current, a damping factor over 800, and unconditional stability into any load. It operates in Class A mode for the first five watts. A novel self-diagnostic system detects the presence of DC and automatically shuts the amplifier down until the DC is removed.
The Andromeda CD player, a Red Book-only unit, houses the transport, controls, and display in one chassis, the power supplies in the other (digital and analog, each has its own toroidal transformer). The transport is a Philips CD Pro 2 M mounted on Simaudio’s own gel-based Delta suspension. In line with those who believe front-loading trays compromise stability and thus sonics, the Andromeda loads through a drawer on the top of the chassis, with a clamp for improved stability (a clever touch is its slightly tacky contact surface, so that when the clamp is lifted, the CD comes with it). Upsampling is 24-bit/705.6kHz using a Burr-Brown DF1704 digital filter with 16x oversampling. Although an integral player, the transport and the DAC sections can be used separately, should you want to connect, say, a digital music server or drive an outboard DAC. In addition to the usual controls, the front panel sports an absolute polarity switch.
The entire Evolution stack can be controlled by a single handset, beautifully machined and contoured to fit comfortably in your grip. I have just two criticisms of the remote operation, both relating to the Andromeda: I’d prefer the polarity switch to be accessible from the handset and that random access was available at all. Since the designers wanted one handset for the whole Evolution series, they bizarrely left off functions that would pertain exclusively to the CD player. Any player out there using Philips’s RC-5 protocol that has the appropriate buttons on its handset will provide random access for the Andromeda, but the consumer will have to search out and purchase said remote. Pretty cheeky for an $11.5K player! In truth, for most CDs this isn’t much of an inconvenience, but if you’ve been comparing, as I have, recordings of Beethoven’s Diabelli variations, which can have as many 34 tracks, the lack of random selection is very annoying.
My only other complaint has to do with the manuals: all commendably thorough, well written, and easy to follow, but cheap in look and feel (e.g., Kinko-grade spiral binding). Why does it seem almost axiomatic in high-end audio that the more expensive the product, the cheesier the manuals? When consumers lay out this kind of money, they want—and surely deserve—manuals that suggest some sense of occasion, designed to the same high standards set by the products themselves. PS