AOM Logo July 1999

Diamond in the Rough
The SimAudio Celeste Moon W-3 Power Amplifier

Andrew Chasin

Taking a somewhat unconventional approach to product marketing, Canada's SimAudio first made its mark in the value-for-dollar segment of the high-end audio electronics market (with such notable overachievers as the Celeste 4150 power amplifier) before setting its sights on the upper echelon of audiodom with its "statement" Moon line of electronics. The company's latest two-channel power amplifier, the Moon W-3, is the direct descendent of the exceptional Moon W-5 (which I reviewed, and subsequently purchased, in March 1998) and shares much of its elder sibling's technology, not the least of which is SimAudio's proprietary Advanced Renaissance Technology (ART).

SimAudio is decidedly tight-lipped about the science of ART, saying only that it allows them to completely eradicate the common global feedback loop from its amplifiers which employ the technology. Zero global feedback, the company contends, greatly reduces both Transient Intermodulation Distortion and undesirable amplifier/loudspeaker interactions, while at the same time improving the amplifier's ability to track transients and portray large-scale dynamic swings.

Moon W-3 - Front View

As with the W-5, the W-3's build quality is beyond reproach, boasting rugged exterior metalwork (including a faceplate apparently designed to stop a bullet), superb WBT speaker binding posts, and high-quality balanced (on both RCA and XLR connectors) and single-ended inputs. Internal parts are up to SimAudio's usual high standards and include both custom-made items and those from such respected suppliers as Motorola, Vishay and Wima. A custom-made transformer of proprietary design and military grade circuit boards also feature prominently within the W-3's curvaceous chassis.

The W-3's power reserves should be more than adequate for even the most difficult speaker loads: 125 Watts into 8 Ohms, 230 Watts into 4 Ohms, and 480 Watts into 8 Ohms when bridged for mono operation (SimAudio claims that speaker loads dangerously approaching that of a short circuit will present no particular problem for the W-3, although this couldn't be verified with the relatively benign 4 Ohm nominal impedance of the Anthony Gallo Acoustics Nucleus Solos).

Moon W-3 - Rear View

As an indicator of the long-term reliability of SimAudio's products, I should point out that the W-5 in my reference system has seen near-continuous use for the past twelve months (being powered on throughout that time) and has worked flawlessly. I see no reason to expect anything less of the W-3, and SimAudio's ten year warranty on parts and labor inspires further confidence.

SimAudio's amplifiers seem to require an inordinate amount of break-in and warm-up time, although the latest incarnation of the W-5 sounds far more refined out of the box than its predecessor (the original W-5 sounded terribly bright before allowed adequate break-in, which took somewhere on the order of one hundred hours). As is the case with the W-5, the W-3 should be left powered on continuously, and will require upwards of two days after power-on to reach its peak performance (as I pointed out when I reviewed the W-5, SimAudio's operating instructions fail to make mention of the reset button on the rear panel of the Moon amplifiers, which must be pushed following a loss of power in order to bring the amplifier back to the land of the living).

Visually, the W-3 is virtually indistinguishable from its elder sibling, save for its shallower chassis which allows for comfortable placement on most equipment racks. The W-3 is also considerably less heavy than the W-5, although both amplifiers' uneven weight distribution makes movement awkward, despite the presence of chassis-depth handles (which, in the case of this reviewer's hands, offer far too little finger room to be of much practical use).

Not content to simply rest on his laurels following the critical success of the W-5, SimAudio's chief designer, John Poulin, set out to further refine the circuit at the heart of his flagship amplifier and, while not significant enough to warrant a model number change or even Mk.II status, these changes are said to have taken the W-5's already impressive performance up a notch or two. Such circuit changes are significant in the current context because, according to Monsieur Poulin, many (if not all) of them have trickled their way down to the W-3. Poulin goes so far as to suggest that, in some respects, the W-3 outperforms the original W-5. Indeed, the W-3 is more adept at resolving fine musical detail and the sonic minutiae of which audiophiles are so fond, although it does not possess the same degree of smoothness and refinement of its larger, more powerful sibling.

Associated Components

Analogue: VPI Aries turntable, JMW-10 tonearm (latest version), Benz-Micro L0.4 moving-coil cartridge
Preamplifier: Audible Illusions Modulus 3A (Tungsram E88CC NOS tubes) with John Curl designed gold MC phono board, Lehmann Audio Black Cube Phono Stage.
Power Amplifiers: Celeste Moon W-3 and W-5
Loudspeakers:Anthony Gallo Acoustics Nucleus Solo
Cables: Silver Audio Silver Bullets 4.0 interconnects, Silver Audio Silver Symphony 48 Loudspeaker Cables, Silver Audio Silver Breeze Phono Cable, XLO Signature Phono Cable, NBS Signature II Power Cable.
Accessories: Echo Busters room treatment products, Target equipment stands, Black Diamond Racing Mk.IV Pyramid Cones and "Round Things" Record Clamp, Arcici Lead(less) Balloon Turntable Stand and Air Head Isolation Base, LAST stylus cleaning fluid, 15A dedicated AC outlets.

Taken on its own terms, however, the W-3 is a substantial product, offering both considerable power and a healthy dollop of finesse in a handsome package. As the W-5 before it, the W-3 assumes complete control over the lower frequencies like few amplifiers I've heard, most certainly setting a benchmark at its price point (as, I believe, does the W-5, one of few amplifiers I would dare pair with a full-range Apogee ribbon, or a Martin-Logan hybrid). One need look no further than the opening bass line of Sarah McLachlan's Elsewhere from The Freedom Sessions (Arista/Classic Records RTH-2000) to discover the W-3's authority in this region, the amplifier demonstrating a vise-like grip over the Nucleus Solos' 6½" Dynaudio woofer (those who malign the Solos for less-than-stellar bass performance will likely sing a different tune after hearing the speaker in the hands of either the W-3 or W-5).

In terms of its low end performance, the W-3 was the polar opposite of the engaging, yet ultimately underwhelming, Audio Research D130, the W3 being tight, punchy and authoritative in the bass, where the D130 was soft and ill-defined. Where the D130 excelled, however, was in the midrange and lower treble, the two areas of the sonic spectrum in which the W-3 fell slightly short, the latter amplifier lacking a degree of refinement found in both the ARC unit and SimAudio's own W-5. The W-3 imparted a somewhat rough edge to the usually caramel-smooth delivery of Patricia Barber as heard in concert (February 1999, The Top of the Senator in Toronto) and on her two latest vinyl releases, Café Blue and Modern Cool (Premonition Records 741-2). Switching from the D130 to the W-3, the treble and upper midrange gained a degree of glassiness that could be heard on a variety of analogue and digital sources. Although it could be argued that the W-3 provided a more accurate and revealing view of less-than-perfect recordings (I don't believe this to be the case), its upper midrange and treble performance simply sounded less like that of live music than the ARC D130 and other competing products. Switching from the stock power cord shipped with the W-3 to the NBS Signature II cord went some way to eliminating the edge inherent in the W-3's portrayal of the upper midband, but this quality could not be completely ameliorated with any of the passive power conditioning products I had on hand.

Some musical genres did benefit from the W-3's diamond-in-the-rough nature, as well as its power reserves (which do not, surprisingly, seem to run nearly as deep as the W-5's, although its power rating would seem to indicate otherwise). Rock, Pop, and hard-edged jazz had just the right amount of bite and bravura to be utterly convincing. The aggressive tone of sixties John Coltrane, for example, came through loud and clear via the W-3, 'Trane's free-wheeling improvisations being heard to great effect on such classic Impulse! outings as A Love Supreme (MCA/Impulse! 5660), and Coltrane (MCA/Impulse! 215). The W-3's assertiveness also benefited the driving drum work of Mark Walker on Café Blue and the unstoppable Roy Haynes on Chick Corea's Trio Music in Europe (ECM 1310), the explosive power of each player being delivered faithfully by the solid-state Canadian amplifier.

The latest revisions to the Renaissance circuit at work in the W-3 resulted in noticeably better low-level resolution relative to the original W-5 (John Poulin informs me that owners of the W-5 can have their amplifiers brought up to the latest specification with little trouble). Subtle recorded details given short shrift by the original W-5, such as faint wall reflections and other barely audible ambiance and directional cues, were handily resolved by the W-3, serving to heighten the illusion of live music making.

Although the W-3 did manage to communicate much of the power and glory of large symphonic works, it did not have the same level of effortlessness as its larger sibling, the W-5. The W-5 is one of those rare amplifiers that seems to be able to defy its power rating, sounding much more powerful than its specifications imply. On several occasions (the earth shaking crescendos during Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances [Vox/Athena ALSW-10001] at realistic levels, for example), the W-3 seemed to run out of headroom, with a tell-tale collapse of the soundstage, an overall hardening of texture and increased listener fatigue. While I don't doubt the accuracy of the W-3's power specification as given by SimAudio, it was readily apparent that the amplifier's power supply was not always capable of meeting peak demand.

The SimAudio Celeste Moon W-3 is a maddening product. Based on its lineage, it promises so much, delivers plenty, yet falls short in several meaningful ways. It sets a standard at its price point for bass performance, and betters the more expensive W-5 at the reproduction of fine musical detail. Yet the W-3 can sound rough and ready in the upper midrange and lower treble (even on analogue sources) and, while power is adequate for much source material, seems to run out of steam on large-scale orchestral works at realistic volumes (and that on a relatively efficient loudspeaker like the Nucleus Solo).

Where the W-5 pushed the limits of what could be accomplished in an under-$5000 solid-state power amplifier, the W-3 is not quite such an unqualified success. With the likes of Audio Research, a newly reincarnated McCormack, and SimAudio's compatriots Bryston and Classé producing well-rounded, solid performers at similar price points, the W-3 may need some polish before it can hold its own against the competition.

Celeste Moon W-3 Power Amplifier
Manufactured by SimAudio Ltd.
3275 1st Street, Unit #1 St. Hubert, Québec, Canada, J3Y 8Y6
phone: (450) 445-0032, fax: (450) 445-6626

Price: CDN$3499.00
Source of review sample: Manufacturer loan
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