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.
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.