The Mod Squad Prism II CD player

Like its Prism I predecessor, which I reviewed in May 1988, the Mod Squad Prism II is based on a Philips player: the same 16-bit, 4x-oversampling converter, the same general control layout. But The Mod Squad does their own extensive remanufacture, both on the internal circuitry and on the cosmetics—the latter involving a handsomely sculptured case and metal front trim-panel surrounding Philips's command center.

Despite its front trim-panel and upgraded case, the Mod Squad Prism II has all of the ergonomic strengths and weaknesses of a relatively modestly priced Philips machine. The front controls were neat and reasonably solid—though more "plastic" in feel than the other comparably priced players on test. The drawer mechanism itself seemed more substantial than I would have expected from my experiences with previous designs based on Philips players, although the front cover of the drawer, with its integral "open" button, felt a bit flimsy. Despite this, the physical appearance and feel of the Prism II is decidedly improved over that of the Prism I.

The Prism II's cast-plastic chassis and modest transport clearly stem from its mid-line Philips player origins—although the former is slightly reinforced by MDF endcaps. The original Philips digital board is supplemented by a circuit board (and additional transformer) from The Mod Squad—incorporating superior workmanship and what appear to be good parts—which occupies about one-quarter of the unit's internal space.

The Prism II retains the Philips transport, the latter's power-supply transformer, the Philips D/A conversion and digital filter chips, and some of the original digital circuitry. But Mod Squad has incorporated digital changes and enhancements from their own research, including an added transformer to power the resistor ladder circuitry in the D/A, separate regulation for the digital stages, and a high-speed CMOS buffer between the filter and converter. The Prism II's digital output, also nonstandard, is claimed to offer improved performance.

The analog stages, entirely Mod Squad's own design, are powered from the same added transformer used for the digital ladder circuitry, but with an otherwise separate analog supply using three regulators. Both discrete circuitry and op-amps are used, the latter for both current summing and the output DC servos, the former (a FET/bipolar hybrid) in a high-current output buffer stage. All components have been carefully selected, including the circuit board. Cardas and Wonder Wire are used in critical locations, and Wonder Solder is used in all of the new circuitry. The digital and analog circuits are grounded at a common point (although some of the digital circuitry itself retains the distributed grounding scheme of the Philips original).

The variable outputs are buffered and may be used simultaneously with the fixed output without, it is said, audibly affecting the latter. The Prism II had the highest output of all of the players reviewed in this issue from its fixed output jacks—approximately 5dB higher in level than the Esoteric P-2/D-2 transport/processor combination I used as a reference for this review.

My first impression of the Prism II was extremely positive. On Armada, I noted a convincing sense of ambience, believable front-to-back depth, and a just slightly laid-back perspective. Subtle details of the string playing became evident which I had not noted before. The sound was light and open, not in any way "euphonic" or closed-in. No grain or edge was evident, but there was no tradeoff sacrificing high-frequency definition. Nor, on this recording at least, did sweetness seem to be sacrificed for clarity. An impressive start.

By and large, the impressions held up. In rendition of fine detail, tautness and definition of bass, and soundstage specificity in both width and depth, none of the other players on test quite equaled it. On John Pizzarelli's My Blue Heaven (Chesky JD38), the sound of the hi-hat was right-on, neither zingy nor softened. The acoustic slap bass had hair-raising upper harmonic transients and a taut low end. On Eileen Farrell Sings Harold Arlen individual instruments were firmly anchored, yet separated in three-dimensional space. A fully developed sense of air, missing from most of the other players to a greater or lesser degree, was conveyed by the Prism II. There was little grain and no sign of the dreaded "wodge of sound" characteristic of mediocre digital reproduction (though, to be fair, all of the players did quite well in the latter respect). Piano had the proper percussive impact yet was not "clangy."

One of my favorite pop vocal references has long been Gordon Lightfoot's If You Could Read My Mind, which has been superbly transferred to CD (Reprise 6392-2, footnote 1) The cuts are sonically variable, but the best of them—"Me and Bobby McGee," "Sit Down Young Stranger," and "The Pony Man"—are outstanding. The Mod Squad rendered these with a good blend of vocal warmth and detail. On "The Pony Man" there are two spots where there are microphone pops where Lightfoot pronounces the "P" of Pony Man. The Prism II got this sound precisely—the other players tended to soften or blur it. While it might be argued that this is hardly a musical sound, you can also argue that the messenger should relay the message as it is, not as it should be.

But while the Mod Squad was certainly an impressive performer in those areas I've mentioned, over the course of time it began to seem a little relentless in its coolness, clarity, and detailing. While only rarely did I notice any actual glare (the vocal peaks on the Eileen Farrell recording gave it perhaps the most trouble in this respect), I soon noted a certain lack of musical warmth that more than occasionally kept the proceedings at arm's length. This was often noted on voice—though certainly not on all recordings (note the Lightfoot, above). But I frequently missed the sense of a fully three-dimensional and balanced vocal sound with a real singer attached to it. Compared with the reproduction of the Esoteric, the Mod Squad was a bit lean and bright. This was also evident on symphonic works, where the Prism II tended to the analytic at some sacrifice to the weight and "hum" of the orchestra. The sweetness I noted in its reproduction of Armada was still there, but seemed more evident on recordings which already had this characteristic to spare. The Mod Squad was more "impressively" detailed than the reference Esoteric, but the latter actually had as much detail—it was simply more subtle and delicately shaded.

Shortly before my evaluations of the Prism II ended, Steve McCormack, Mod Squad's head designer, recommended that I try the player with Tiptoes and Soft Shoes (two of Mod Squad's products) in combination—using two short Tiptoes in back and one longer one in front. An upgraded power-line from Music and Sound was also recommended (the Prism II's is detachable). Since all of the required parts were on hand, I gave them a try. Well, the Prism did seem to improve slightly. This time I compared it to the Sony CDP-X77ES.

As in my earlier listening sessions, the Mod Squad player made a strongly positive first impression. But musical timbres were ultimately more fleshed-out, more musically real with the Sony. And I also have reservations about how the Prism II might work in a brighter system; the Rowland preamp, Threshold amplifier, and Apogee Stage combination, in my listening room, has an abundance of detail, but is most certainly not tipped-up or top-heavy.

Summing Up
The Prism II is not, as I have said, without its genuine positive aspects. It does excel in openness, clarity, and transparency. For that, some of you will love it. I respected it for what it does well, but ultimately didn't warm up to it as fully as I did to some of the other players in this report.

Footnote 1: Lightfoot's later Reprise albums were far poorer, in my opinion, at least sonically: over-arranged, over-dubbed, over-engineered, and over-reverbed. Musically they gradually lost the folk flavor of this early folk-pop work.
he Mod Squad
Company no longer in existence (2016)

Allen Fant's picture

Anyone still using these classic spinners?

european's picture

How funny - I was just thinking the same thing when I was reading this!