This month's incredible system setup sounds every bit as good as it look and brings together the terrific talents of Simaudio, Totem Acoustic and VPI
Were I gifted the time and resources to write a hi-fi thesis, I feel there is a strong case to be made for exploring regional similarities in the design and creation of audio equipment that is broader than national borders. If I needed physical evidence to back this up, I could do a lot worse than point to this system. There are roughly 400 miles between Cliffwood New Jersey and Montreal in Canada – in North American terms a journey of very little consequence. There is also a national border and a partial language change. Despite this, the similarities between the components that make up this system far outweigh the differences.
There are in fact two parts of this system from the Canadian side. Simaudio and Totem Acoustic are a mere 10 miles apart on either side of Montreal, so perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that there are elements of their design philosophy in common with one another. The Simaudio Moon Nēo 340i X is an integrated amplifier that is firmly in the style of amplifiers in the 21st century. You get 100W of output that doubles precisely into 4ohm. You can then choose to augment the line inputs with extra functionality to suit your needs. Balanced inputs? No problem, digital inputs – with hi-res and DSD capability? But of course. Phono stage? Naturally. The latter as we shall see is rather handy in this case.
The Totem Sky standmount might not be so endlessly customisable as the Simaudio Moon, but it is far from run of the mill. This two-way speaker uses drivers that are designed and built by Totem and the most immediately noteworthy of these is the 33mm tweeter – a good 25 percent larger than normal and intended to give it better dispersion and integration in the mid bass. The mid/bass driver itself might not look as visually distinctive, but with a claimed peak power handling of no less than 500W, it will partner the 340i X without an issue. Internally, the Sky uses mitred joints for the cabinet corners, which helps these little speakers feel impressively inert.
Joining the Canadian contingent is the VPI Prime. At first glance, the Prime is business as usual for VPI, but look a little closer and some of the details start to make themselves felt. First up, even judged by the standards of the brand, this is a big turntable. It is over half a meter wide and built on an industrial scale from heavyweight materials. It isn’t all traditional, though. The tonearm is a classic example of a VPI unipivot with no bearings of any description and is 3D printed – a process that allows VPI to produce a complex 10in design at the price that it does. The Prime is unquestionably very big, but it’s also very clever indeed.
And this intelligence of design and execution is what ties these units together. It isn’t that they don’t have design flourishes – the curved outer front panel of the Simaudio Moon and waisted edges of the Prime’s plinth probably don’t absolutely need to be there – but nothing stands in the way of their basic engineering integrity. They are absolutely logical to set up and use – the VPI in particular feels like an especially well-crafted activity set for adults – and everything feels like it will still be making music decades from now.
We have finished this system off with a little British flourish in the form of a Goldring Legacy. While it is no less than 3,240 miles from Montreal to Bishop’s Stortford, the Legacy fits into this system perfectly. It looks entirely unshowy, but the magnesium body, Vital stylus profile and ultra-high purity copper coils all speak for the engineering prowess that are present in the design.
Combined into a system, the results are – if anything – more cohesive still. The opening bars of California by Grimes are enough to show that this system possesses some very singular abilities indeed. Many of these are down to the Prime and its unique engineering. The combination of that massive platter and the delicacy of the unipivot gives the Prime a presentation that is different to almost any other turntable I’ve listened to. On the one hand, there is the sort of bass that only comes from a seriously weighty record player, but it is combined with a delicacy and sheer agility that is pure unipivot. As a combination, the effect is addictive – like having a sledgehammer that moves with the precision of a scalpel. The rolling bassline of the track flows in a manner that is effortlessly organic and wonderfully weighty.
The Totem loudspeaker is more than up to the job of relaying this. The Sky is an exceptionally fluid performer and has an effortless ability with time signatures that draws you into the music and gets the head nodding. There is also truly outstanding bass extension for such a small speaker. With the urgent and bombastic Freeze Me by Death From Above 1979, the Sky hits harder and cleaner than a standmount of this size should possibly be able to. It also has an effortless soundstage that manages to extend well beyond those compact cabinets and sits as a convincing arc in front of the listener where the music has the space it needs.
Balance of power
The Simaudio Moon’s role in all of this is rather more subtle and it is only once you’ve listened to this system for a few hours that you really start to appreciate what it can do. It balances huge power reserves with dynamics and speed that do justice to the Prime’s exceptional fluidity and builds on it further. This is pretty much the textbook definition of unflappable, there’s nothing you can throw at it that upsets its sublimely potent but refined way of making music. This isn’t the sort of device that blows you away in the first five minutes of listening. Instead it calmly redefines what you understand an integrated amp to be capable of to the point where parting with it becomes a serious bind.
The internal phono stage is also truly outstanding. Noise levels are low to the point of nonexistent, which allows the Goldring to show its own superb qualities. The hauntingly lovely Losing To You by Stars is fabulously real played through this combination. Amy Millan’s delicate vocals arrive at the listening position feeling like nothing so terrestrial as amplification has taken place. There’s no colouration or false emphasis here, just the beauty of the track given the space that it needs to really show these qualities off.
What ties this all together is that there isn’t a genre of music or listening level that upsets this system’s innate desire to make great music. While it has been in situ, I have tried to figure out my favourite albums of 2017. This disparate selection touches on pretty much every type of music going, but without exception every one sounds as good here as it has done all year. It is a slight dichotomy that a system that is comprised of components that have their own fascinating engineering stories behind them can be so self-effacing, but the more time you spend with them the more you begin to realise that this is precisely what they set out to do.
This might seem at odds with the perceived brashness of VPI’s New Jersey surroundings or even the outgoing bonhomie of Montreal, but there’s a sense that in this part of the world if you want to be seen as the best, you better have the evidence to back it up – if you just stand around shooting your mouth off, you’ll quickly be found out. And this is the physical manifestation of that approach, components built like laboratory equipment that don’t shout about their greatness, they just get on with demonstrating it every time you drop the needle into the groove. There might be more than one country involved in the making of this stunning system, but there is very clearly a single ethos. ES
VPI Prime £4,200
The Prime is VPI’s affordable ‘super deck’ combining a heavyweight (and enormous) plinth and platter with the company’s trademark Memorial unipivot, here in 10in form with 3D-printed tonearm. vpiindustries.com; renaissanceaudio.co.uk
Simaudio Moon Neo 340i X £3,800
The Nēo 340i X adheres to the company’s no-nonsense approach to making amplifiers. Plenty of power, immaculate build and the ability to upgrade it with the functionality that you need, such as a DAC or phono stage. simaudio.com; renaissanceaudio.co.uk
Totem Acoustic Sky £2,174 (with stands)
The Totem is a compact two-way standmount that uses the company’s bespoke drivers, including an unusual 33mm tweeter, placed in a small but incredibly solid cabinet that uses mitred joints for increased rigidity. totemacoustic.com; joenit.com
Goldring Legacy moving-coil cartridge £695 (originally reveiwed HFC 330)
Goldring is among one of audio’s oldest names, tracing its history back to 1906 and its pickup cartridges to the 1930s. The range has changed only very slowly down the years and although launched in 2010, the Legacy still remains the range-topper. It’s a low-output moving-coil design, with a very low impedance that will work happily into either a high-gain preamp or a step-up transformer. It has a magnesium body with a large mounting area and threaded holes. It combines rigidity, light weight and low resonance to give a total mass of 8g, so compatibility is not likely to be an issue with most tonearms.
Goldring has opted for a Vital profile to its stylus, so you’ll need to send it back to the factory when it’s time for a replacement. The cantilever is aluminium and links back to a generator assembly hand-wound with high purity coper wire that delivers a low 0.3mV output. Recommended tracking force is 1.75g.
Even by the high standards typical among cartridge manufacturers, Goldring’s presentation is rather deluxe and comes in a leather-covered box, within which the cartridge nestles in a block of solid hardwood.
With the cartridge adjusted to Goldring’s recommendations, the Legacy’s key skill seems to be timing, and can really pick up a rhythm line and run with it thanks to the impressive speed that it mages to define the beginning and end of notes. The listening starts out with a piece of cheerful classical music and it turns out that this is just the kind of material the Legacy enjoys as it make the most of the twist and turns and has no trouble following a fast-moving melodic line. It also has a convincing way with percussion and reproduces and kind of drum with plenty of impact.
This vivacity is not at the expense of detail and although not the most detailed at the price it is adept at excavating new unheard details from a well-loved vinyl groove. It’s tonally very slightly on the light side but in a good way, making it easy to hear deep into a mix and pick out what’s happening – for instance you can hear what’s being played by the woodwind at the back of the orchestra while the stings play something related but different.
The Legacy is a neutral and precise cartridge with an eye for detail – it will always pick out cymbals – and some will prefer a more romantic sound with their vinyl. It does however deliver a revealing clean and dynamic version of events and can easily combine the vibe with the finer points of the sound. For more info head over to goldring.co.uk
The Simaudio, Totem Acoustic and VPI Beautiful System can be found in the January issue.
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