Playback Designs MPS-5 SACD/CD player Page 3

Between the departure of the dCS and the arrival of the Playback Designs, I paired the Sooloos with the DAC section of the Musical Fidelity DM25 CD player. Not surprisingly, given the Scarlatti's stellar sound, this was a big disappointment. The sound was warmed-over, smooth, and somewhat distant: inoffensive, but bland and uninvolving.

The MPS-5 doesn't let you choose the upsampling rate: You're locked into double DSD. Would that produce an even more lush, less detailed sound than the dCS at DSD resolution? That was what I expected, and, right out of the box, that was generally how the MPS-5 sounded—not at all "cold" or crisp, as electronics that haven't had a chance to break in usually sound. Instead, the top octaves were warm, stuffy, and closed-in. A recessed, edgy midrange and a lack of transparency produced an exaggerated attack that made well-recorded pianos sound simultaneously muffled and clangy. Voices were robbed of fleshy textures, and the bottom, though deep and powerful, was uncertain.

But that makes the MPS-5's out-of-the-box performance sound worse than it actually was; many fine qualities were also immediately audible. The sound had a pleasing immediacy, a physical grip, and a dimensional coherence that seemed to be blocked just behind an occluded sonic front. This wasn't all that enticing at first, but the sound was free of grain and other artifacts once labeled "digititis," and which many listeners chose to ignore, so in love were they with the absence of the artifacts of vinyl playback.

As the MPS-5 continued to break in over the next few months, I kept returning to, among other benchmarks, Piano Music in a Church, Endre Hegedus's collection of works for solo piano by Chopin and Debussy—an "Almost Analog Digital" recording made in an Irish church (Tone-Pearls TPRCD1; www.tonepearls.com). During that time the recording went from sounding somewhat muffled and spatially confused, with the piano's lower registers blending with the reverberation, to thin and brittle in the midrange (which accentuated the reverb), to finally opening up in the mids and becoming far better organized on bottom. The sense of space grew in confidence and filled out, almost like a balloon finally being inflated with enough air to take shape.

Curious friends who knew I had the MPS-5 in for review kept asking how it sounded. I'm not supposed to talk about products during the review process, but I'm also not supposed to be an asshole. So, to my friends, I would drop the occasional hint: the MPS-5 sounded "closed-in but promising," or "disorganized but promising," or "brittle and thin but promising."

"Would you make up your mind?" one finally burst out. "Is it closed-in, or brittle and thin?"

"It's both!"

The point is, if you get a chance to listen to the MPS-5, to avoid getting the wrong impression, be sure to find out how many hours it's logged playing music. And if you buy one, be patient—very. (Note: I've just looked in the back of the instruction manual for player's specifications, finally needing them to complete the writing of this review, only to find a five-position timeline of sonic break-in that eerily mirrors what I've just described.)

But when the sound had stabilized . . .
With sonic consistency came a masterfully neutral top-to-bottom tonal balance that, regardless of format or resolution, combined a lush yet transparent midrange with deep, powerful bass below and, above, open, naturally airy highs that remained free of grain and digititis. The picture was spacious, remarkably delicate, and three-dimensional, particularly from SACDs. In fact, the Playback's playback of SACDs was, if not identical to the dCS Scarlatti's, easily in the same league for roughly one-fifth the price. A side-by-side comparison would have been instructive, but that wasn't possible, unfortunately.

Listening to the RCA Living Stereo and Rolling Stones SACDs I'd used for the dCS review produced the same artifact-free, viscerally exciting performances—sounds that rivaled but were sure not identical to the vinyl versions.

COMPANY INFO
Playback Designs
4160 SW Greenleaf Drive
Portland, OR 97221
(503) 221-0465
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