Review: Playback Designs MPS-5 CD Player

Category: Digital

Playback Designs MPS5 Review in a headphone-only system.

I've had my Playback Designs MPS5 for a few days (just in my headphone system now) with about 8 hours of break-in and did finally did some serious listening and wanted to post some first impressions. I formerly had the EMM SE transport/dac pair. I have only used redbook CDs. I have SACDs but have not tried them yet. I probably should have waited until it broke in some more, but I thought I would just
post what I heard so far regardless.

The system: Ray Samuels B52 tubed headphone amp, Sony MDR-R10 phones, all Stealth Indra ICs (RCA), Hydra 8 power conditioner, Wolff Bohica 2 power cord on the cdp. (A Kimber PK10 Palladium power cord is on the B52 amp.)
The EMM pair was swapped out for the PD player with no other changes to the system.
I tried the cd player directly connected to my B52 amp and also with my Mac C46 preamp between the player and the B52 for remote
volume control capability. (I used to do the same thing with my EMM pair. It works very well with only the slightest bit of indirection that is actually euphonically pleasing. The Mac C46 preamp is a very fine piece, IMHO.)
The B52 amp has cryo'd Tung-Sol and Mullard driver and gain tubes (5687s and 12AU7s).

The PD player is completely non-fatiguing with no digital glare or grain, but still has excellent detail and image solidity.
It handles older, harsh, tipped-up CDs extremely well.
My early Beatles and Motown discs which used to scream and screech and made me long for my analog days are now fully listenable, with each musical element well striking a perfect balance between definition and refinement.

I think the EMM has somewhat more image density and midrange saturation, but at the cost of a piercing top end
(and some upper-mid ringing or overhang) on lesser discs. (I sometimes used the tone controls on the Mac C46 preamp to roll things off.)

I felt the EMM was bit more detailed but would also transmit
a whitish cast to the presentation. With the PD player, the highs and upper mids are clear with but not smoke-alarm like at all, which was sometimes the case with the EMM with lesser or popular-music or obviously equalized CDs. The EMM was much more up-front, like you were sitting right there among the
performers, while the the PD player puts you a bit further back. While that could be very involving with the EMM, it had a downside on
some CDs, which could shout. I feel that the EMM was pulling everything it could out of the CD, for better or worse, and
that made me anxious at times. The PD player is more controlled, or let's say trying to present things in a very civilized fashion that
is my memory of how my former analog system sounded (now long-departed). It presents the truth, but not the unvarnished digital truth
that can be hard for me to take. (I guess I'm telling myself "you can't handle the truth"...).

Vocals are nicely rounded and appropriately sized with real character and no grain or etch.
At the same time, the voices sound natural, like real people.
Everything is nicely fleshed out with good density and no hard edges that allows things to blend well.
Objects are placed realistically on the stage with nice layering, but there is no artificial cavernous or
overly binaural feeling through the headphones. Mids have no ringing or overhang.
I would not call the sound super-fast, with the hard edges that sometimes creates. It has bit of softness that
is very pleasing to my ears. (Some of this may be the effect of the tube amp, especially with the tubes I use.)

Brass is clear and precise but not painful or thin. Strings are not screechy or rough, but still open and clear.
Percussion smacks just the right amount. Piano has a kind of golden, liquid plink.
Nothing makes me wince, which has never happened with digital before. But, just to emphasize, things are never dull.

Bass is natural and "just there," not boomy or pushy, just a pleasant but firm, tight foundation that is part
of the whole musical picture. I have to say I love the bass. The Sony R10s have bit of intrinsic softness in the bass,
but the PD player firms it up and deepens it.

The overall feeling is one of balance, with no part of the spectrum standing out.
That balance is between relaxation and excitement, and the player gets that compromise just right.
I never found myself either leaning into the sound or turning it up to hear more,
nor did I find myself recoiling from any abusive sounds and there for lowering the volume.
It's a Goldilocks behavior.
It feels as if the designer has carefully tuned the sound to be inviting while dialing out the digital defects.

There is a wonderful sense of ease but with all the information I could want, but never TMI (too much info).
The player just made me want to keep listening, and never be afraid to
pull out any one of my old CDs and wonder what evil lurks within it.
At least from my initial listening, the fear factor is now gone from my
entire collection. I've always had in the back of my mind reverting to analog in some form, but I have no
need or desire for that now.

Some former players I have owned: CAL Icon 2, Meridian 508.24, Sony SCD 777 ES, Accuphase DP75V,
and the EMM pair (non SE and upgraded to SE). For the record, the Meridian was organic but not too detailed and
had muddy bass, the Sony was bland but had decent bass, the Accuphase was my favorite for a long time (with great staging) but
sounded weak and pinched compared to the EMM, and I really liked the EMM, especially for its bold, dense,
saturated mids and smooth vocals, but, as noted above, had some problems with unregulated highs and some glare on popular music that sometime led me to tone controls.

I'd be curious to hear what other owners hear with more break-in on the MPS-5.
Rgs92, thanks for sharing your first views and impressions, well written and easy to understand. I suspect that after your 8 hours significant improvements will solidify your first impressions, you may even use "stronger" adjectives... :-)

I have to wait a couple more weeks for mine to arrive. I also come from Emm (CDSA though) which I had ON permanently for their best sound. Befor the Emm I owned the Accuphase DP77, I listen to a lot of decent SACDs, and I agree with you on your comments vs the Emm. One question, are you planning on using other functionalities of the MPS-5, such as the BNC connection, the USB input, etc?

I'll post some of my impressions once I get mine. Enjoy.
Thanks for that. Sorry the review is not that polished, I just sat down and typed what came into my head with minimal editing.

No, I don't plan on using a computer or other digital sources; I'll just be using it conventionally. I just want it to be known I really like this player, and plan to keep it permanently based on what I hear.

I also really enjoyed the EMM pair, and didn't mean to overstate the stronger highs, as it seemed to be evident only on those notorious older discs that probably had hyped up equalization.

But I really appreciate how the Playback Designs seems to magically cope with recording defects without being rolled off or subdued with any disc. It just seem have some sort of intelligence, as if it considers what its been given and knows exactly what to do, even when challenged.

I really like the Supremes and other Diana Ross things, but her voice was always recorded with intense glare on CD, even the Supremes box set with some exciting but tipped-up live performances. For the first time, the Playback Designs player can translate her voice into the wonderfully refined instrument I remember from vinyl, with all the shading and control now evident without the digital shrillness that I always heard on CD before.

Similarly, some CDs have etched vocals (Jim Croce, Nat King Cole, Carly Simon). The PD definitely liquifies them nicely but keeps just the right level of "realistic" grit you would hear from the live person (at least in my imagination...).

I love that the player is very quiet, where the EMM (with the old Phillips drive) was annoyingly noisy (more or less depending on the disc), even from across the room. It would really irk me, especially during quiet passages.

I also like the ergonomics of the player (the optional versions of time-info to display, and that the display can be shut off, and that both of these can be done from the remote).
Quick update.
The MPS5 has really opened up.
Now that it is broken in, the image density had improved considerably and so has the soundstaging. The soundstage in fact, is quite large with the headphones, with images placed
in all sorts of interesting places. It is a real in-the-room experience that is quite amazing.

I would no longer say I was sitting away from the music,
which was the first impression. Now the position is just right. It is very compelling. I can't really describe it as first row or 10th row etc., as it seems to change with the recording as appropriate, as if it is picking it up from the disc. But it always sounds natural. The environment and spatial cues are the best I have heard through headphones.

And the level of detail is just right: not electron-microscope-overwhelming but full of real character.

I also find that it is not as forgiving of forward CDs as in the beginning, with a touch of glare on just a few older CDs, just as the EMM pair was. But this is a known attribute
of my Sony R10s, which I and another long-time owner agree can be a bit treble-happy. (My laid-back, less-resolving Sennheiser 650s have no glare at all in this system.) A little roll-off at 4kHz from my Mac C46 tone controls solves this problem, as it did with my EMM pair.

The MPS5 has a nice tube-like bloom quality,
with a gorgeous image-boundary affect, a little softness
around the edges that allows the musical components to
blend nicely with the background. It is very sweet and non-fatiguing, but not boring or veiled either.

Just to clarify, my listening so far is still with only with headphones and with redbook CDs. (I am between speakers for now.)
by the helluva an headphone system...incredible!
Rgs92, your findings are consistant to mine with my MPS-5, except mine got sweeter highs with more and more hours. (I'm around 350-400-hours now).

I listen mostly through my speakers, but have a good number of hours logged on with my Woo Audio WA6 headphone amplifier and AKG K701 cans with Cardas dual cables. The 701s require breakin and really benefited from the Cardas cable, but they might be an alternative between your Sonys and the Senns. (I've got the AKGs, Audio Technica W5000s and Ultimate Ears 10 Pros. I prefer the AKGs except for a little rolloff in the bass, where I prefer the UEs).

I listen to a good number of SACDs, but the things that the MPS-5 does with bad CDs astounds me. I've got several CDs that I stopped listening to because or glare or "digital issues" and they're now back into the frontline rotation. It's an amazing machine.

I hope you don't mind me adding this to your thread, but attendees to the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest can hear the PD MPS-5 at the Soundings/Sumiko/Rowland high-end room. They'll have a very good setup with the top Rowland electronics and the latest reference speaker from Vienna Acoustics, "The Music", which has incredibly transparent and smooth midrange.

Dave, thanks for the comments--no problem at all using this thread. I've got 701s also (Moon audio Black Dragon cable) but don't use them too much, but I do like them, especially with my
older Headroom Max amp. I still need to break in the MPS-5 some
more. I usually hesitate to just let a player or transport run for many hours breaking in as I worry that it might not be good for it (correct me if I'm wrong here), so I may just have < 100
hours on it.

If my memory serves me, the MPS5 has all the density, details,
and "rounded" images of the EMM, but with a more expansive soundstage, and, as I mentioned, sweeter, more golden highs
(more "yellowish," less "whitish" or high-intensity).
The EMM did seem a little more recessed in the mids,
while the MPS-5 seems basically flat/neutral, with no emphasis anywhere.

But again, there is no hint of grain and supreme liquidity.
I agree with your evaluation. I really don't think that letting your MPS-5 run 24/7 for another week will hurt it. That'll get you another quick 150 hours or so. I've done that with mine.

Dave, I'm not sure happened at your visit to AF, I read the various accounts and
even a casual comparison with these two components can have valid
observations, some of which I recognize. But my experience is different so far.

If I were to demo my PD against my CDSA it would be very clear to anyone
which one would be the superior. IMHO its not even a contest. And I am not
happy with this bc I bought the CDSA last year thinking it was the best onebox
on the market, and then this comes along! I'll post my specific details once the
PD is broken in, but what I hear already after 48 hrs break in is enough to
demote my CDSA from 4th shelve to 2nd shelve convincingly (see my rack) :-()
Mtkhl567, I agree with you. I was treading on eggshells because I listened to the Emm in an unfamiliar system, with some weird imaging tendancies and I allowed the limited listening to veer too much toward out of phase stuff like Dark Side of the Moon, Radiohead, etc. and didn't have any time to explore why even simply miked images were distorted.

In these comparisons I think that the most valid reports come from those of us that had money in one device and moved our investment to another device, as you've done. So far, I've received personal accounts of moving to PD from AMR, Emm, dCS and various modded units. That, along with what I hear myself, makes me confident in recommending the PD to those that can afford it and are seeking the very best digital performance available from one box or many.

I look forward to your comments.

BTW, anyone going to RMAF can hear the MPS-5 in the Soundings high-end suite.

Apart from sound quality, one critical mistake re CDSA is the lack of digital input to use it as a DAC for other sources such a hard disc based music server. I think any CD player that lacks such a function severely impairs its relative value. Its good to see the PD has this.
i have refrained from commenting on the AF viewpoint simply due to the respect i have for AF. as far as good guys and gals in audio.....AF is as good as it gets.

my own comparison with the PD and EMM Labs gear had a dramatically different result than AF's viewpoint too.

i have also compared the 2-BOX EMM Labs SE combo to the CDSA. the 2-box is clearly better. the CDSA converts everything to PCM prior to analog output and the 2-box does not. the CDSA is an excellent digital player but there are better out there. 1 year ago the CDSA was SOTA for under $10k retail...but no more.

if the PD is head and shoulders above the 2-box EMM Labs SE which is better than the CDSA....well....draw your own conclusions.

of course; YMMV, what does better mean? matters of taste? yada, yada....
Yes Mike, it's clear that Neli and Mike are trying to put together the best systems that they can. Their demo equipment is in several relatively high volume rooms, but with some odd shapes walls. The main room has a very high ceiling with a huge bay window like arrangement to take advantage of the beautiful view. Unfortunately I'm afraid that distorts the imaging quite a bit. The images were huge with both players and I was hearing things that seemed out of position with both players.

Anyway, Mike said it right, I was at a disadvantage because I wasn't used to the system. The timbral balance was very similar to what I'm accustomed to, but the imaging was wacky. That was aggravated by listening to DSOTM and Radiohead and a couple of other imaging showcase CDs.

BTW, I bought my HRS M3 Isolation Platforms from AF. They're fantastic pieces.

Dave, I once experienced something similar. At the end of 1995 I was at Overture Audio in Delaware and listened to a setup in their largest stereo room with very high ceilings. The set was the top Spectral, MIT cabling and AF Caldera's. When we listened to theme song of Titanic sung by Celine Dion her voice seemed to come from the sky so high, high above the tweeters from between the speakers, it was quite astounding to hear. And knowing what I know now that was the size (and possibly other treatments) of the room that made that happen, similar to your Christina Branco experience at Audio Federation. And yes, I agree with you to evaluate properly you need at least to be very familiar with the recordings, simple voice and simple acoustic instruments. It does show how important room effect is on the listening experience. But like Mikel, I agree Mike & Neli at AF are some of the finest audiophile/dealers around, we need more of them around the world.
Henryhk, you've just given Emm an opportunity to incorporate it in their next product ... I think its just a matter of time.

It is one of the reasons I changed to the PD, before I turned vinyl, my idea was to go the high-rez server route. Now this has evolved over the recent past into something I want to consider again, the PD will allow me to. As it would allow me to use a different DAC if I wanted to. How versatile!
Always appreciate your view, you know that. But even the views on the Emm one vs two box are split as you are probably aware.

After 70 hours this morning, on Tina Brooks True Blue 24-bit 2004 RVG reissue, there is very little difference. Maybe slightly in favor of the PD in terms of tonal quality ... on some higher rez discs the improvements were more apparent.

Yes, we are at a level here where nobody could deny the qualities of the CDSA as anything but absolute high-end.
Mtkhl567 said:

"It is one of the reasons I changed to the PD, before I turned vinyl, my idea was to go the high-rez server route. Now this has evolved over the recent past into something I want to consider again, the PD will allow me to. As it would allow me to use a different DAC if I wanted to. How versatile!"

This was secondary to me, but a big plus, worth thousands of dollars. I've ordered one of those Wadia 570i iPod docks on order that I'll run through my MPS-5. I plan to ultimately set up a server for my digital media in 2009 and the MPS-5 will be part of that also.

OK, 100 hrs mark passed today. The most tuneful and controlled base I've ever heard in my room, or any other for that matter. I threw every kind of music the PD way this afternoon and all came out gloriously, whoaw, I have to re-confirm how impressed I am with this player. It lets my system do things it hadn't done before, for the better. Base has tightened up considerably, soundstage and image definition have taken big steps forward, tonality is absolutely amazing, space definition is letting each piece of music breathe as it was intended to. Outstanding control from top to bottom, pitchblack background...

This CDP deserves the best awards out there ... I'll awarding this player the "Best Henry Has Ever Heard" award. BRAVO BRAVO

Can't wait for the full 500 hours to be up, my imagination prevents me from thinking where it could improve even more from here... NIRVANA
Keep it turned on all the time. If you turn it off it takes an hour or two to get back to peak performance.
I've always kept my CDP on, also the CDSA, as the CDSA's best performance is
after 48+ hours on. Has to do with the type of power supply I'm told. I usually
just turn off the display before turning in for the night...

120+ hrs, the PD is audibly moving away from the CDSA now, particularly in
tonal richness, base control, noise floor, detail retrieval and recording
ambiance its clearly ahead.
What power cords are Playback Designs owners using?
I tried some of the ones I have lying around and found
my old 5-foot Kimber PK10 Palladium works well now.
It has a very controlled bass, especially the the upper bass
around 70hz.

By the way, just to update, things have improved nicely with more break-in, with more detail but not too-much-info.
The MPS-5 has that great quality of the best equipment where
it doesn't seem to have any real character of it's own that I can identify. The music is just there with no emphasis in any one area.
The break-in process seemed to get it there. At first,
I thought the mids shouted a bit and the upper bass was
somewhat loose, but everything has tightened up now.
I love the way it portrays the real character of vocals,
with all sorts of interesting inflections, but still never
sound buzzy or artificial or mechanical.

And the MPS5 does a great job with boundaries of each instrument (and vocal)--they are not hard-edged like a
cut-out on piece of paper, nor are they smudged. They
just blend perfectly into the atmosphere around them.

Speaking of the atmosphere it creates (and this may be
a coloration after all), I would not say there is super-
clear air around the venue it creates, but I mean that
positively, because too much clarity can be too stark
for me. Instead, there is a touch of humidity that is
just right and binds everything together into a coherent

Of course, there are differences from CD to CD, but I believe I am hearing the qualities of the recording. I almost think I am hearing different players with different CDs. However, as I mentioned earlier, it does seem to cure problems with bad CDs better than any other player I have owned.

Most of this is with standard redbook CDs, but SACDs really shine. The Boston SACD on the PD player is spellbinding.
The rawness and
hashiness is translated into an open, jewel-like portrayal
of purity. It shows how music that could
take paint of the walls with harsh high frequencies can
be tamed into musical bliss. I think this is far better than the LP version, to the best of my memory.

OK, thanks for reading my rambling...
I use the Jena Labs Model One active powercord ... I've always loved this PC over anything else I've auditioned. You should try new feet too (I use the Apex's, fantastic).

OK, mine has one week of solid burn-in today, that is about 175 hours as I write this. I'm so glad I got this player ... not that the CDSA is no good, but the MPS-5 is sooo much better, so clearly, its unbelievable!

Rgs 92 said:

"Speaking of the atmosphere it creates (and this may be
a coloration after all), I would not say there is super-
clear air around the venue it creates, but I mean that
positively, because too much clarity can be too stark
for me. Instead, there is a touch of humidity that is
just right and binds everything together into a coherent

I hear this on CDs with my MPS-5 and think it is a very slight, euphonic "bloom" added to RBCD playback. It makes some of my previously unlistenable CDs quite enjoyable. I think it's a purposeful artifact that's combined with the benefit of upsampling the RBCD. I'm guessing that upsampling alone isn't enough to do this much magic with RBCD.

I only propose this after comparing the SACD layer to the CD layer of the same recording in several examples and comparing RBCD to SACD of the same recording for the two or three that I have. The SACD playback doesn't have this artifact and doesn't need it, because things are so realistic as is. There's a very slight bloom added with RBCD. Given the choice, I've always preferred the SACD version to the SACD, due to the greater clarity and closer proximity to what I imagine is the recording's "ideal."

Great report, BTW, and thanks for sharing.

Regarding powercords, we hope to compare several at RMAF, including Cardas Gold Ref, the Shunyada Anaconda and perhaps one or two others.

Dave and Mtkh, Thanks for that and the suggestions.
And thanks for confirming my impressions.
I'll look into the suggestions.

My intuition is that the PD likes
cabling with a firm grip on things, as opposed to anything
that will mush things up or hide things or soften impact
to cover other blemishes.
I think that's why my Anaconda VX cord,
which I used in the past to cope with digititus, was not the best match, because the PD didn't need it. The upper bass
was too soft. Similarly, the Wolff Bohica cord has some bloom that adds some nice liquidity and presence to a dry component,
but again, the PD didn't need it.
The Kimber PK10 Palladium cord is the king of grip, but can be too
bright and biting, and that was a problem when I had
it with previous players. But it surprisingly works
well with the PD, as the bass and mids are spectacularly
controlled and natural, and the highs, while a little
more prominent than the other cords, are clear but not
biting or piercing. Nevertheless, I still think a better
power cord is out there.

I'm guessing that the PD likes neutral cables.
as it has a little bloom of its own (as noted above).