Playback Designs MPS-5 vs. Cary CD-306

Category: Digital

I recently upgraded my CDP from the Cary CD-306 SACD player, which I bought new in 2006. Over my years of ownership, I have compared the CD-306 with multiple other CDP's and SACDP's including Moon, Musical Fidelity kW, Sony XB940 and 777ES, Marantz SA-7, Esoteric X-03 and X-05, Accuphase, and probably a few more which can not remember. In every case, the Cary either comprehensively trounced them, or equalled them. The only player thus far which had beaten the Cary was the Esoteric X-03, but I felt that the margin was not sufficient to justify spending any money.

I have NOT compared the Cary to any of the other CDP's considered "top of the line" - i.e. DCS Puccini or EMM Labs.

A few months ago, a local dealer kindly loaned me a brand new Playback Designs MPS-5 for evaluation. I was massively disappointed with the sound - it was closed in, congested, had a narrow soundstage, and lacked dynamics and excitement. I rang him and told him that the Cary was better. He pointed out that the player was brand new and had never tasted any mains power, so he asked me to leave the CDP on repeat, and he would come over in a few days. By that time, the sound had improved somewhat, but I was still unconvinced.

I was then told that the MPS-5 requires 500 hours of burn-in. He put the burn-in time on the player and extended an open invitation for me to re-audition the player. Alas, lack of time meant that I could not, and he subsequently sold the player to someone else.

Last week, I enquired about making another comparison. He told me that he had received another shipment of players, and he had put 500 hours of burn-in on his demo player. Looks like he has learnt his lesson :-) The player was duly brought over, and I set it up roughly on my coffee table and pressed play.

Even without switching players, I could immediately tell that the PBD MPS-5 was clearly superior. This time, the difference was like chalk and cheese. No need to rely on my dodgy audio memory. I had never heard anything defeat the Cary so comprehensively before.

The most striking difference was with resolution. Sometimes, a rising top end can give the impression of more resolution - but the way to tell is to put on something with a lot of top end and listen for sibilance, or screechiness with violins and female vocals. With this test, the MPS-5 sounded both more neutral, and imbued each instrument with more inner detail. Particularly impressive was the way it seperated out sections in complex orchestral pieces into groups of musicians with their own space.

In terms of tone, the Cary has an attractive midrange warmth which can sound very inviting with some discs. In particular, violins have more body and more punch. However, the same midrange warmth can get in the way of other discs. The MPS-5 is far more neutral in this regard.

Both players have that analog-like quality where musicians are portrayed in realistic scale with respect to each other. Some digital players have a tendency to exaggerate the top end, making some instruments sound more forward while the others are recessed. While the Cary does a very good job, the MPS-5 has even more of this quality than the Cary.

On first blush, the bass of the MPS-5 seems to be less ample than the Cary. Listening closer, the bass is tighter, with better definition, and is full of texture. The bass seems to rumble instead of boom - an indication to me that it is handling the micro-dynamics exceedingly well.

The MPS-5 feels like a higher end product than the Cary as well. While both players are solidly constructed, the MPS-5 has more of the "hewn from a solid block" feel. The CD tray opens and closes completely silently on the MPS-5, whereas you can hear a whir on the Cary. The MPS-5 reads the TOC much faster than the Cary, although with both players there is a slight delay when asked to read an SACD. Both players can be used as an outboard DAC for other digital sources.

In terms of usability, the best feature has to be the giant numeric display on the MPS-5. I no longer have to squint at the player from my listening position, I can see great big red numbers!

Now for the big question. Is the MPS-5 better than my turntable? Sadly, the answer is no. It isn't. The TT still has more natural sound, and it still has better dynamics. MUCH better dynamics. My TT (which is relatively inexpensive compared to some other setups here on the 'Gon) loses out in detail retrieval, the sense of timing, and a noticably looser and flabbier bass.

As a music listener of the more analytical type, I like hearing deep into the recording to hear what the musicians are doing. I often do what many conductors do - try to shut out the sound of every other instrument and follow what one particular section is doing. For this reason, I need a highly resolving source and the MPS-5 delivers it in spades.

I ended up emptying my wallet and buying the player.
Very nice review. I'd like to hear a side by side with the DCS stack. In any case it's a hypothetical consideration for me at best. I've neither the time nor the money at this point in my life. Even so, it's nice to get a glimpse from someone like you who's honest, smart, informative and concise. Thank you. I'll store this one in my memory bank for later.
You may or may not have already heard of this and/or already done it or decided not to, but in just in case, here's a recent and potentially interesting discussion about an available upgrade for the MPS-5 unit.
Thanks mdhoover. My player was delivered to the dealer in October this year, so presumably it is a July or August build. I do not know if it has the upgrade, but I will ask.

I know some people who have the DCS stack. I did not bother asking because there is no way I could afford a DCS, so it was never under consideration. But I am inveterately curious, so I might ask if I could bring my player over.

Thanks for the review. I've just sold my CARY SACD 306 Pro to upgrade to the MPD-5. My playback is 100% from PC now and I was using the Cary as a DAC for the past few months.

The MPD-5 should be with me shortly and I'll make sure to give it sufficient time to burn-in before critical listening.

You'd be welcome to come and listen but I don't have the DCS stack and it's not a consideration financially for me either. I'm quite pleased with the DAC that I DO own, which is a Dodson 217 Mark II with 218-like upgrades and cryo treatment. It was originally about a 5,000 dollar unit and I snagged it for ~ 1700, here on Audiogon. Compared to my CD player's D/A output, it makes a rather nice difference, to say the least. But overall my front end (player plus DAC combo) is simply not in the league of the DCS stack or the MPS-5, etc. This is especially true for the player, which is an Onkyo Integra DPC 8.5 (which isn't a bad player, but certainly isn't a world-beater either).