Moonriver Audio Model 404

Hardware Review

Moonriver Audio Model 404
Friday, January 8, 2021
integrated amplifier
Chris Kelly

First of all, a very happy new year to all of you, wherever you are reading this. These are troubled and troubling times for the whole world, so we music lovers are especially lucky that being forced to stay at home is much less of a hardship than it is for many. I have spent the darkest part of our winter listening to a rich array of music, and for the past few weeks the heart of my system has been the Moonriver Audio Model 404 integrated amplifier.

You may not yet have come across this relatively young Swedish brand, which is indeed named after the classic song, but if there is any justice Moonriver Audio is going to carve out a place in many an audiophile’s heart. The Moonriver Audio product catalogue consists of just two products, the Model 404 integrated amplifier and a Reference version of the same machine. This review is of the standard model – I hope in due course to bring you my thoughts on the reference model.

The Model 404 is, as you can see from the pictures, a handsome thing in its way, with retro styling but no undue bling. It has been designed and built in Sweden with the express aim of giving the listener a true insight into a recording, with nothing added and nothing taken away. The quoted output of 50 watts per channel may seem modest, but in use the power and dynamics of all the music I have played through it have been exceptional, and there has always been more power available than I need to drive my Harbeth C7ESXD loudspeakers to window rattling levels (when I have had the house to myself). All but the most difficult loudspeaker loads will not find any fault with the Model 404’s power output. Backed off to more normal listening levels, the music flows effortlessly and with captivating realism.Moonriver_404_Back_4K.jpg

However, I am getting ahead of myself here. To continue with the pre-listening inspection, the matte black fascia has four rotary knobs and two metal switches. From left to right there is an input selector dial, which also gives access to the optional MM/MC phono stage at Input1 and an optional USB DAC at Input4. Then comes a switch to dim the already unobtrusive orange indicator lights, a tape loop monitor selector, a balance control, a stereo/mono selector switch and finally, the volume control. The latter is connected to a high-grade Blue ALPS potentiometer. The power button resides below the light dimming switch between the two left hand dials. There is also a receiver window for the supplied remote control – more about that in a moment.

The back panel sports four analogue inputs with a phono grounding point, two pairs of inputs for tape in and tape out (timely, given that both reel-to-reel and even cassette recorders are experiencing a return to some audiophile systems), two pairs of pre-amp out connectors for output to subwoofers or power amplifiers, a left and right speaker connection and a power inlet.

The supplied remote control is small and offers volume control, mute, tape monitor on/off, and four input buttons. The circular dial at the centre offers volume up and down at the top and bottom and switching to the next input via left and right. The diminutive size of the unit makes it all too easy to lose, and I found that its size and my lack of manual dexterity meant that I regularly and inadvertently pressed the wrong button. I also found the volume control, which is all I use the remote for, to be rather imprecise. It may be hard to implement, but an LED on the volume knob would also improve the usability, at least for me it would be helpful to see the setting from across the room. 

Moonriver_404_Front_4K.jpg

I connected my Yamaha CD S-3000 which operates as both a DAC (for connecting TV sound via optical) and a player of CDs and SACDs. It is a perfect companion for the Model 404 as it too uses orange indicator lights. From across the room they could be mistaken for siblings. I also connected my Gold Note PH10 phono stage. My initial cable selections were Tellurium Q for speakers and RCA interconnects, and Shunyata Delta NR for the mains.

Sound quality
The unit arrived cold from its time in the courier system so having plugged it in and hit the power on button I picked an SACD of the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed, intending to leave the room and do things elsewhere in the house. But it had me at about the third bar of Gimme Shelter and that was the morning gone. Love’s epic Forever Changes SACD on Mobile Fidelity followed, then Brothers In Arms from the same label and finally LA Woman Jim Morrison’s rousing farewell with the Doors, on Analog Productions’ excellent SACD release. My notes contain all the usual superlatives, imaging, PR&T, energy, all got a mention. But I really felt that I was hearing deep into the recordings, with every instrument in its rightful place. The technical specs tell me that the frequency response runs from 10Hz to 50kHz and I believe it. The bass was fast and tuneful while the midrange, which is the Harbeths’ real strength, was at least as good as I have heard from them. The top end was clear, with lots of air.

That evening, we were watching a film on Netflix and both us commented on the tremendous amount of micro-detail that we were hearing. Dialogue was crystal clear. Indeed, pairing the Model 404 with a speaker of the Harbeths’ capabilities meant that spoken word came across as realistically as I believe to be possible with equipment at this price point.

Switching my listening to vinyl, I compared the built-in phono stage with the output from my Gold Note, using a Goldring 1042 on my Linn LP12/Ittok turntable and arm. Both made a fine job of it, and although the stand alone Gold Note offers a slightly fuller sound, the built-in one was very listenable and would probably suit all but the most pernickety user perfectly well. The unit is silent in use – even with my ear to speaker I heard nothing from it when selected. Changing the configuration from MM/high output MC to low input MC can be done by the user, but involves removing the outer cover then exposing two set of dip switches by removing an inner cover on the module. However this only needs to be done for low output moving coil cartridges – the manual says that high output MC designs should be used with the MM setting. I suggest discussing this with your dealer and having them make the settings for you.

Moonriver_404_Side_4K.jpg

Boring you with my playlist isn’t terribly useful, but I can say that I have played classical, jazz, blues, rock and pop on vinyl through the Model 404’s phono stage, and it has delivered every time. I played Let It Bleed on the 50th anniversary pressing and boy did it rock. I had to turn up the volume a bit to match the level I had heard from SACD, but the vinyl had my (happily unwitnessed) air guitar going and my feet tapping as if I had St. Vitus’ Dance.

About a week into the review period I received a set of cables from OePhi in Denmark. I replaced all the cabling over the course of the next week., finishing with the mains leads into the Model 404, the Yamaha and the Gold Note. My separate review for those will appear very soon, but what I will say here is that cable choice will make a considerable difference to your results with the Moonriver amplifier. For me, this Scandinavian pairing was a marriage made in heaven, resulting in the most organic, realistic sound I have heard from a music replay system. Everything I played felt like a live performance, and gave me another level of emotional connection to the music.

I would summarise my time with the Moonriver Audio Model 404 as utterly delightful despite the minor irritations with the remote control. I genuinely believe that every other aspect of the design, the component selection and the manufacturing have been executed in an exemplary fashion. The team behind it are not just exceptional engineers but are also very obviously music lovers themselves. I am lucky to have a lot of great hi-fi come and go through my system. Much of it I have admired, much of it I have enjoyed, but most of it is packed up and returned with gratitude but without regret. I shall be genuinely sorry to see the Model 404 depart. If I was in the market for a new amplifier this would be at the top of my list. I can’t wait to get my hands on the Reference model – the mind boggles as to how good that is going to be!

Specifications: 

Type: Integrated stereo amplifier 
Analogue inputs: 5x RCA 
Phono input: optional MM or MM/MC
Digital inputs: optional USB 
Analogue outputs: tape out RCA, 2x pre-out RCA 
Bluetooth: N/A
Headphone output: N/A
Speaker outputs: 5-way binding posts
Power Output: 50W into 8 ohms
Features: mono mode, balance control, tape monitor
Dimensions (HxWxD): 135 x 430 x 390mm
Weight: 12kg
Warranty: 3 years

Price: 
£3,095
MM module £375
MM/MC module £525
DAC TBA
Manufacturer Details: 

Moonriver Audio
T +46 (0) 765905066
moonriveraudio.com

Distributor Details: 

Whole Note Distribution
T +44 203 911 5549
www.wholenotedistribution.co.uk

Comments

Hi Chris - Thanks for the well-written review here. I've narrowed my search down to the Moonriver 404 Reference and the Norma Revo IPA-140. I see that this review is for the standard rather than reference Moonriver, but I was hoping you could share your comparative impressions on the two amps (it seems like you enjoyed both immensely)? Is there anything one does better than the other, and if you could only take one home, which would you choose?

For context, I'll be using a pair of Devore Super Nines (moderately easy load: 91db at a stable 8ohms) in a room of approximately 12 x 22, though the listening area is more like 12 x 16. Thank you!

Regards,
Will

Hi Will
Thanks for the compliment! I am hoping to hear the Reference 404 soon, but my review was of the standard one, which as you observed, I enjoyed hugely. Moonriver 404 vs Norma Revo IPA 140 would ultimately depend on whether you need the extra power of the Norma and whether the significant higher price of the Norma suits your budget. In my 12x16 room the 50 watts output of the Moonriver was more than enough, but the Norma does offer extra headroom. Both seem to be very well designed and well made. The Moonriver sounds very slightly more "analogue" to me - a shade warmer perhaps. I like the looks of the Moonriver too but that is such a subjective thing. For me, the Norma would just get the nod over the Moonriver, because the extra power reserves give me confidence that in the unlikely event of me changing speakers its extra power might be handy, but once I have heard the Reference 404 I reserve the right to change my mind! In truth, either amplifier should serve you very well.

As with any audio component I would urge you to try and hear both amplifiers, preferably in your own room with your Devores, before parting with the cash.

Thanks for your insights, Chris! Very helpful. You're absolutely right that I do need to hear both in my system (rather than just at the shop). Looking forward to your next review!

Cheers,
Will

Chris, you rated both of these amps very highly. Which would be your preference for a setup that includes turntable (MM) and streaming (innuos zen mini mk3) with stand mount speakers (something like spendor or harbeth) and a sub?

Chris, you rated both of these amps very highly. Which would be your preference for a setup that includes turntable (MM) and streaming (innuos zen mini mk3) with stand mount speakers (something like spendor or harbeth) and a sub?

Hello Chris,

Thanks for the really nice review.
I’m considering to buy this one or a Exposure 3010s2d.
My speakers are Harbeth c7es3.

This is particularly interesting because your tested it with almost the same speaker.
I’ve heard the Exposure Amp on the Harbeth what I really loved, but I spoke to someone who told me that the moonriver is not a good match with the harbeths because it lacks control in the low’s what;s not the moonrivers best point.

But I didn’t hear the combination, and you DID. So, what do you think of this theory? And… did you also heard the harbeths on an exposure integrated? How did you like that?

Hope to hear from you.
Thanks!

Pierre, my apologies. I missed your question when you posted it. Mine is a subjective review, but I have to say that although it is many months since the Moonriver was here, I do not recall that it failed to deliver decent bass through my Harbeth C7ES XDs.My experience after many years in this great hobby is that there as many opinions as there are audiophiles - but none of them are wrong, as they are just opinions. On this occasion I disagree with the person who gave you that advice. I have not heard the Exposure integrated but I have had the the Exposure pre-powers here and they were excellent. Lots of reall pace and very good across the whole frequency range.

I expect that this is far too late to be of help but I didn't want your enquiry to go without a response.

By ck55

Dear Chris,

I am writing to you in the hope that my question will not take up much of your time and you will give me a little of your opinion and experience.

I have studied your articles regarding the Moonriver Audio Model 404 and Copland CSA 100.
I am the happy owner of Spendor A7 speakers and I am looking for an amplifier for them. I understand that the selection of components is a very subjective issue, but I still ask for your advice.

Which of the above amplifiers would be the best amplification for my speakers?

Thank you in advance for your opinion!

It is really hard to give an absolute recommendation between excellent products like these. I haven't heard the A7s but have had a quick look at the specs on the Spendor website. At 88dB sensitivity and a quoted 8Ohm impedance, these should not place great demands on the amplifier. If I was choosing for myself, I think I would go for the Copland. The built in DAC is excellent (Moonriver is all analogue), and there is more power on hand if required. I also preferred the Copland remote control, which is surprisingly important. In terms of sound quality, both amplifiers were very engaging, with the Moonriver creating a highly addictive sound which I found most pleasing. The Copland uses a single vacuum tube in the pre-amp stage and its sound too draws one in and is totally unfatiguing over long listening sessions. Of course in an deal world you should try both at home, but this is often more easily said than done. I hope this helps a bit!

By ck55

Hi Chris. I just came back from the audio show that took place in Montreal this weekend. I just discovered this MoonRiver 404 amplifier that I did not know. It was a crush for me. I would like to have your opinion and your experience in a very objective way to know if it would be a wise choice to replace my Primaluna Dialogue Premium HP integrated amplifier with the Moonriver 404. The speakers I use are Klipsch Forte III. Thank you very much and good day.

If I tell you that Chris will shortly take delivery of a Primaluna EVO400 it should give you a good idea of his feelings in this department. Chris really enjoyed the Moonriver when he had it however and depending on your room and tastes it might well be a better fit. That's what makes hi-fi interesting really, taste and ancillaries make a big difference.