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.
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.)
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.