High Moon Hifi Speaker Company’s High Desert | REVIEW







I can’t tell you what it was, exactly, that made me want to review the High Moon Hifi Speaker Company’s first product, the High Desert two-way bookshelf speakers. Reviewing something from a brand-new company is a risky venture when you realize so many audiophiles only want to buy gear that is audiophile-approved. They don’t want to take chances. They don’t want to buy something that, if it breaks down five years from now, there’s no one to fix it. They don’t want to buy something that no one knows—most importantly their audiophile buddies.

But something made me want to say yes to High Moon, a start-up company based in Texas. I know, it’s a two-way monitor, and I love those. It uses SEAS drivers, so chances are it won’t suck. But there are also a LOT of two-way monitors out there, and most are worth buying for one reason or another. But this High Desert loudspeaker from High Moon—it has an interesting story, one that unexpectedly aligns with my audiophile journey so far.

First of all, High Moon comes from “life and creative partners” Michael Blair and Melissa Preston, who met in Denton, Texas “when we were practically kids.” A decade later, a trip to West Texas “informed and inspired the vision” for High Moon. I suppose that reminds me of my own story with Colleen over the last decade or so, and I remembered how scary it was to introduce new brands into the world of high-end audio, an industry very slow to embrace newcomers. When Melissa sent me an initial query explaining their ideas, I scanned over the bullet points and moved on to the next email because I get these kinds of emails all of the time and in most cases it’s not quite right for PTA.

Wait a minute, I thought some time later. That speaker from Texas. There’s something there. I wanted to go back and read that High Moon email one more time. I did, and I noticed another interesting thing, The Story.

The Story is an important concept in sales and marketing, something that’s far more universal than just the high-end audio industry. On the business side of things in our hobby, however, The Story needs to be told in order for customers to become interested in a newer brand. High-end audio dealers will come right out and ask you for The Story when you’re trying to persuade them to carry the line. When a retail customer asks a question about a particular product, they’re really asking to hear The Story about why they would buy this gadget, why it’s better than that gadget over there and, most importantly, and how easy it’s going to be to tell The Story to all those critical friends and neighbors and family members.

For me, the simple answer is this. The High Moon High Desert is made from a solid wood enclosure. I’m starting to realize that I really like speakers made from solid wood enclosures, most recently the three Raven models from Fern & Roby, and the Sonus faber Maxima Amators that won our Product of the Year Award for 2021. I’ve gotten to the point where I want to explore this idea further, whether my tastes are surreptitiously leaning toward wood.

But here’s The Story of the High Desert loudspeaker. The High Moon Speaker Company uses a type of wood that’s very unusual. I’ll let Melissa explain:

“The High Desert Loudspeaker is handmade in small batches from Sinker Cypress, a wood species reclaimed from the bottom of riverbeds. Long forgotten and left sitting underwater for sometimes a hundred years, the cypress becomes stable and more dense—a perfect material to build solid wood speakers out of.

“And we love the fact that it’s been reclaimed. The visual characteristics of the wood are incredible and make each pair unique, with a story all its own. Each speaker is hand-finished in a protective hardwax oil and will last a lifetime if cared for properly.”

I found that intriguing, enough to answer Melissa Preston’s email. Time passed, and now I’ve spent the last couple of months with the High Deserts and I’m trying to confirm my status as a solid-wood enclosure kind of audiophile. There’s something about the ease and smooth manner in which these types of speakers make music.

Inside the High Moon

The High Moon High Desert loudspeaker is a medium-sized monitor with SEAS drivers—a 7” reed paper woofer and a 1” silk dome tweeter. Right away I noticed the random light-colored flecks on the cones, and I thought something might have scratched them during shipping. At the same time, I thought it was s superb way to reinforce that rustic feel of the enclosures. I checked in with Melissa, just in case, and she confirmed that she loved the look of the cones. That’s fortunate because Michael and Melissa also preferred their sound for the design. (I did see the same cones on the new Qln Model One monitors in Munich last month, so there are no shortcuts here.)

Binding posts are from Cardas Audio. There’s a dual-flared rear port. While the enclosure is solid wood, there is FSC-certified MDF and plywood used for the baffle and the bracing. The inside of the enclosure is further damped with recycled felt.

The specs on the High Desert are fairly normal for a two-way bookshelf design such as this–sensitivity is 86dB with an 8-ohm impedance, and the frequency response is 37 Hz to 20kHz. High Moon recommends at least 25 wpc for the High Desert, and when I used my Pureaudio Duo2 power amplifier that does 25wpc in pure class A, it was a superb match with no issues.

But I know—you’re here for the wood. I don’t know if my photography does it justice. When you get up close the colors slowly reveal themselves to you, and you can get lost in all the unexpected shades. Like the Fern & Roby Ravens, these wood surfaces have not been sanded and buffed and covered in layers of glossy lacquer. Those environmentally safe oils have been used to bring out the grain patterns, so you can reach out and touch the wood and feel each ring and the smooth parts in between. This wood is mesmerizing.

The Sinking Cypress cabinet came in two finishes when I first arranged for the review— “New Moon Black,” which is just what you think it is, and Natural, which was clearly the decision for everyone wanting to see that gorgeous, distinctive wood grain all imbued with uncommon colors. Since then, High Moon has added a couple of new finishes—the “Half Moon,” which is a combination of the black and the natural, and two more “bespoke” finishes called “Sun” and “Jupiter.” These last two are featured as separate models due to their unique figuring and their finishes (the Sun uses a matte finish while the Jupiter uses an unpigmented oil that brings out the “rings” in the grain.)

That suggests, of course, that every High Moon loudspeaker will have a unique appearance, and the truly one-of-a-kind pairs will be dubbed accordingly. Despite all this, the price for the High Moon Hifi Speaker Company’s High Desert remains the same at $3,500 per pair.

Break-In and Set-Up

Here’s the thing about solid-wood speaker enclosures. They need to break in. For a long time.

The simple reason is because solid wood changes over time. It ages. It expands. It’s sensitive to humidity and light. In the case of solid wood speakers such as the Ravens and the Sonus fabers, they start off sounding pretty darned good, and they only get better over time. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. That’s why I’ve respected the Ravens for so long—you wind up having a long-term relationship with a product like this, which makes it feel like a living, breathing thing that’s in your care.

(Things can go wrong, of course, with solid wood enclosures over time. The wood, of course, can warp and the enclosure can slowly come apart. That’s where CNC machines come in—those tighter tolerances are one of the reasons why solid wood enclosures are making a comeback.)

Melissa Preston immediately agreed about all this. She and Michael have kept the first pair of High Moon loudspeakers that they made—over seven years ago—and to this day they voice every new pair against that old pair to ensure it’s on the road to greatness.

When I first installed the High Moon High Deserts, hooking them up to the Lab12 Integre4 tube integrated amplifier, I felt that the sound was even and balanced with plenty of bass, but perhaps a little soft. The Integre already has enough of a warm vibe, and the High Deserts seemed to push in the wrong direction. We’re gonna need a substantial break-in period, I told no one in particular, and I let them jam for a few weeks.

Over time, the High Moon loudspeakers started to develop a fuller sense of detail and offer more fundamental musical information than before. I felt we were on that road to greatness, but the Lab12 Integre4 needed to go back to Fidelis Distribution, and it was replaced by the SPL Performer s1200 power amplifier. I was going from 65 watts per channel of gorgeous KT-150 sound to 300 watts per channel of solid-state German brawn. Sure enough, the High Moon loudspeakers came alive!

I asked Melissa about this, and she said they’ve hooked up the High Moon loudspeakers to all types of amps, tube and solid-state, and they’ve never found a bad match. Since I didn’t apply the Scientific Method with enough rigor here, I’ll simply say that the High Deserts dug the SPL amp, and vice versa, so the rest of the review period will reflect this pairing.

High Moon Lifestyle

First of all, you’ll need to prepare for your listening session with High Moon loudspeakers by grabbing a stick or two of palo santo, lighting it on fire, blowing it out, and then walking around your room with that smoking little twig. Yeah, you read that right.

I’m referring, of course, to the Palo Santo Bundle, which High Moon sells separately on their website for $8. It’s included, of course, when you buy the High Deserts. As Melissa explains, the bundle is intended to “help a person settle in with a little ritual that helps one take the time to appreciate a moment.” She includes the bundle with every pair of speakers so that “the fresh palo santo hopefully hits you when you open the box too.”

It’s three sticks of palo santo, a box of branded matches, and a brand cotton pouch to store it all. It’s supposed to clear the energy in the room, which isn’t a completely alien idea to me, but I set the cloth bag to the side and forgot all about it. When I did notice its presence again, I thought why not. I followed the instructions, and the aroma was very pleasant, and my listening room became something more rustic, and I felt that rustic theme from the unusual grain patterns and colors of the Sinker Cypress somehow connected to this woody, burnt scent, and sure, why not, this is a very cool little idea. Even Colleen walked in, sniffed the air and asked, “New air freshener? It’s nice!”

But High Moon is doing something here, something that most high-end audio manufacturers don’t—they’re thinking about the listening environment, and how it’s vital to reinforce that feeling of home, of comfort, of listening to music for its own sake. The wood grain quickly steps in and asserts more of that West Texas motif. There were times when I stood over the speakers, cuing a record perhaps, when the light of that sinker cypress was so unusual and so bracing that it radiated outward and captured the light in ways that changed the look of the entire room. The toasted wood aroma certainly added to this feeling of home.

This might sound a little New Age to you, but it’s not. I think Michael and Melissa know exactly what they’re doing here. It’s not that they’re being mysterious or enigmatic—they simply know what they’ve been searching for all these years, a speaker they can live with for a long time, and the results might just be more universal than anyone expected.

High Moon Sound and Listening

It almost sounds like I’m setting the High Moon High Desert loudspeaker up for one of those “it’s a great lifestyle product” reviews aimed at audiophiles and audiophiles only. (A hint: there’s a smarmy wink involved.) There may be a tiny bit of that motivation for me because I am an audiophile, and I do consider sound quality first. I’m also influenced by cosmetics more than I like to admit. The High Desert speakers go beyond this admission.

In fact, I was worried more about this lifestyle tag in the beginning, when I was concerned that the High Moon speakers weren’t going to open up completely during the break-in process, at least to my satisfaction. But they did, and in theory they should be continuing to do so until nature reclaims them many years from now. The High Moon speakers did so much right after the initial break-in, which I estimate at around 250 hours—the bass went deep, the imaging and soundstaging were superb. But they are, and I suspect they will always be, a warm-sounding monitor. That’s not a bad thing, of course, especially if you’re someone like me who was raised on BBC monitors and vinyl. But if you’re trying to decide between Magicos and Rockports, you’re probably not going to get this speaker.

I gravitated toward acoustic recordings with the High Moons, as if deep down I really wanted to crank up the warmth. On singer-songwriter Ester Wiesnerova’s Blue Journal, an ambitious project that uses harps, flutes, saxophones and a variety of percussion, I was able to separate the music threads cleanly, down to the individual movements and actions of each performer. The High Moon drew from that collective energy and was able to apply those details in a sensible manner, one that kept its focus during complex passages and interactions.

On Rafael Greco & Dice Que Vive’s Signs of Life, the High Desert loudspeakers were able to jump between the different perspectives in the recording, from the up-close-and-personal rasp of Greco and the dense instrumentation that bounces all across various Afro-Cuban genres and specific points in history. The High Moon High Desert loudspeakers also performed well with the Yulunga test—that soft strike of the bass drum off Dead Can Dance’s Into the Labyrinth had plenty of weight and size and decay, although I may have detected a tiny bit of instability in the imaging while the bottom of that sublime tone expanded into the room.

That minor quibble didn’t sound like a limitation—my first response was “maybe a little more break-in.” That’s difficult in the context of a reviewer, where I can’t keep these for seven years before I realize their true potential. But there was a steady, linear progression for break-in that gave me enough confidence that the SEAS woofer, along with that gorgeous wood enclosure, would never stop improving over time. I don’t know when that progression stops. I don’t know if Michael and Melissa know, either, but it’s illuminating to think about a high-end audio loudspeaker under these circumstances.

Conclusion

Over the last couple of years, I’ve explored more than just the idea of loudspeakers with solid wood enclosures. The larger picture, of course, is how the “lifestyle product” market segment is starting to blend seamlessly with the high-end audio world in surprising ways. I loved the Fern & Roby speakers and the Sonus faber Maxima Amators because they sounded great, but I also gave them extra credit for blending so beautifully into my environment and making me think so much about having them in my system until the end of time.

The High Moon Loudspeaker Company’s High Desert speaker is, deep down, a lifestyle product as well. Those wooden enclosures go so far beyond merely nice-looking furniture, grazing up against the idea of art itself and making a tremendous visual impact in any room where they reside. This isn’t done through flashy colors and odd shapes, but through a natural grace that’s usually reserved for walks through the forest or a clear nighttime sky far away from any city. Maybe there’s a subtle aroma of burnt palo santo in the distance to help clarify those feelings.

As far as the sound quality goes, the High Moon delivers a relaxed, open and airy presentation with plenty of bass. It remained just a touch warm, which is more of a caveat for others, not me.  But I came away from this review thinking that the solid-wood enclosure of the High Moon High Desert loudspeaker was genius, and I can see High Moon experimenting with different sets of drivers as they refine their products down the line. That’s when you’ll hear the true sound of Sinking Cypress.

Then again, Michael Blair and Melissa Preston chose this as their speaker, the one they want to spend their lives with, and it might be perfect just the way it is. That’s the lifestyle part of the equation, and I bet they wouldn’t trade that seven-year-old pair of High Deserts for anything. That may not be an audiophile way of thinking, but it is a music lover’s way of thinking, a way that’s deeper and more rewarding.