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On the bench: Playback Designs MPS-5 w/ USB-X

KEF R Series

First Pass

9/22/11

I’ve been told, repeatedly and with great authority, that the Playback Designs MPS-5 is the best DAC available. Full stop. And yes, that includes the $80k dCS stack. True? Well, I can’t speak to that and I probably won’t be able to — ever — since its wildly unlikely that I’ll have the opportunity to bring the big dCS stack in here to try out. Sure, I’d love to try it, but it’d be a purely academic exercise. There’s just no way … I mean, if I had that kind of money to blow, I guess I’m thinking that $80k would go a long way toward a brand new, fully tricked-out, Jaguar. But a DAC? Um, well, let’s just say that a lot would have to change in my life and work before paying that kind of cash for audio gear would be … ah … feasible.

Anyway, I’m happy to report that the Playback Designs flagship processor/disc spinner is better looking in person that it is in the pics. The casework has a fine degree of fit and finish — even if the aesthetic is a bit of an acquired taste. Whatever. Some of you will love it. Personally, I don’t love it. I don’t hate it by any stretch, either. The case looks robust, and hauling it around, I can assure you, it is robust. But the ergonomics aren’t great (readouts are small and separated, the buttons on the unit are non-intuitively placed and the remote is required to switch between inputs) and well, honestly? There just isn’t a ton of raw, stinking sex appeal — something I guess I expected bucket loads of for a product that retails for $17k. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not ugly — by anyone’s definition. And its a far, far cry from the almost cheap DIY feel of the baseline Joule Electra gear I had in here last year. It’s also a big step up in fit and finish from the LampizatOr that is also still here. I just think Accuphase and Esoteric have the “audiophile aesthetic” down in a way that Playback just doesn’t. I get that the sexiness might be all in the playback (ahem), but if you’re gonna go all out, why throw a bit o’ bling in, too. That’s all I’m saying. I mean, have you seen the gear from Resolution Audio or Constellation Audio? My goodness.

But even aesthetics aside, I have to say that I find the Playback to be a bit of an odd duck.

The analog outputs on the back are XLR, RCA and BNC. Yes, BNC. BNC? BNC! While I actually prefer this connector for all digital S/PDIF connections, honestly, seeing this as an option for an analog-out is a first for me. And especially odd since it’s not available as a digital input.

Anyway, the unit does have AES, RCA and optical S/PDIF inputs, as well as a USB input (limited to 48kHz) and a proprietary “Playlink” interface which I think it’s optical. The manual says this one is for hooking up an additional Playback Designs DAC in case you want/need multichannel output. I let you think that one over, but I’ll admit it, I don’t really get it, but hey, maybe that’s just me.

Moving along, there’s also an “AUX” input which looks exactly like … a VGA port. In fact, there’s one of these on the USB-X converter, too. A freakin’ VGA input! And lo! and behold! there’s even an included VGA cable, complete with ferrite clamps on both ends. So, putting aside the potential oddity of using a 30 year old video standard for SOTA data transfer — weren’t ferrite clamps suspected of causing data errors when they’re used on digital connections? And wasn’t this exactly why those early Kimber USB cables were originally not recommended?

Okay. So. Maybe I’m confused, but … all this makes me feel a bit like I missed a memo. Or three. Moving on ….

The USB-X box feels more substantial than it looks. That finish is touch-it nice and the engraving is pretty cool — just wish it was a bit less low-key. If nothing else, it’s a total PITA to photograph.

Yup, a VGA cable. Says so on the bag it came in.

I got very lucky in that the the dealer was willing to put some hours (~120) on it prior to delivery, so I was a bit ahead of the game. However, just about everyone and their grandmother is telling me I need a full 500 hours before the units will sound like they’re designed to. Right now, the bass is pretty much absent, but I suspect we’ll be seeing that come and go over the next few weeks. Standard break-in fare.

Stay tuned!

Second Pass

10/7/11

Well, it’s been two weeks. I have to say, things do change with time! In the last two weeks, the Playback Designs MPS-5 has gone from ‘zero’, and if not to quite ‘hero’, well, it’s more than fair to say that it’s come a l-o-o-o-o-o-o-n-g way in those two weeks.

First off, the bass showed up some time during the last week, plopped itself down on the couch and said “HOWDY”. It’s very tight, very fast, very much not “tubey”. This is what solid state bass is all about, kids. And I’ve been reassured that we still have quite a bit left to gain in that department. Mids are now much more immediate and showing up on the warm side (just fine and dandy, in my book — with this system). Treble clarity is very good, with good separation and imaging.

All in all, this is not the DAC that showed up a couple of weeks back.

I think it’s safe to say that we’ve zoomed past 400 hours or so at this point. Dave Clark over at PFO has said that the final lock will come around the 700 hour mark, at least another 10 days or so away, so, no final judgments will be forthcoming yet.

Except this — the Playback’s performance at this almost half-way point in the break in process is now in a different league. The bass is way clearer. The imaging is far more precise. Separation is better. Staging is better. Handling of complex passages? Better. And we’re not done yet. I’ve still got a couple of weeks of break in.

Just thought you’d like to know. Onward, ever onward ….

Final Thoughts

Mid 2012

In the end, I gave the MPS5 w/USB-X a full 6-week, round-the-clock, burn-in. That’s 1000+ hours, which really ought to satisfy even the most absurd “burn-in” requirement. Along the way, the performance of the unit improved significantly.

But $17,000 is a lot for a DAC, even one with a high-quality SACD transport built-in. When prices go that high, so do expectations. I’ll spare you the details, but in the end, I chose a different DAC over the Playback Designs.

I’ve been since told I’m an idiot and that I must be deaf, but I found that while the performance of the MPS5 w/ USB-X was solid, it was also somewhat stolid. I found more life, if somewhat less accuracy, in a tremendous tube design from LampizatOr. I also found a more transparent and analog-like performance in what is my now-current reference, the Berkeley Audio Designs Alpha Series 2 with it’s external Alpha USB converter.

The choice then became one of value. Given the difference in price between the MPS-5 and those two DACs, I could return the Playback and buy both the Lampi and the Alpha pair. So, I did.

YMMV.

About Scot Hull (998 Articles)
Founder, Editor and Publisher at Part-Time Audiophile and The Occasional Magazine.

5 Comments on On the bench: Playback Designs MPS-5 w/ USB-X

  1. Just wonder any update to the MPS-5, especially the USB-X box?

  2. Well, its good that it is starting to sound better. I am a believer that audio electronics, cabling and phono cartridges do improve with break in. But at least with the gear that I have purchased, the products usually sound great around the 200 – 250 hour mark and while they may improve after that its usually fairly subtle and hard to notice since you are usually too busy enjoying the sound at that point. The Esoteric digital gear does require long break in periods as well. But at least in the case of Esoteric – they sound great after about 200 hours and its fairly subtle improvements after that. A friend of mine purchased the ARC DAC 8 and it has a sticker on the plastic wrapping inside the box stating a break in period of 600 hours and another friend has purchased the ARC Reference Anniversary preamp and it has the same sticker with the 600 hour break in period. But I have heard both of these at around the 200 hour mark and they sound great. I’m sure the PD will get better but I would agree that it should have the character of the top notch sound by 300 hours. The one that my friend had on demo sounded good, but clearly not in the league of the Scarlatti or his analog. I’ll be curious to learn what you finally hear.

  3. Thanks for the feedback. FWIW, at 300 hours I can say that things have improved measurably, but we’re still a ways off from where I’m going to want it to be. I’ve been heavily encourage to “not give up”, so I won’t (yet). But it kind of bugs me that any device would require at least 500 hours to start sounding it’s best. Of course, I was told that the Playback won’t really “hit it’s stride” until it hits 700 hours or so, so, hell, I have no idea. I guess we’ll see what we’ll see.

  4. Hi,
    My friend and I did have the opportunity to compare the PD MPS-5 to the full DCS Scarlatti stack in his system last year. The PD was a fully broken in dealer demo unit. We had both heard the same comments from owners of the PD that it would compare favorably with the Scarlatti or any other CD/SACD player on the planet and was it was in the same league as some of the great analog front ends. To save you some time, the PD was not even close in sound quality to my friend’s Scarlatti front end. We were both hoping it would compare favorably as he was hoping to sell his Scarlatti and purchase the PD instead. I myself own the Esoteric P03 D03 G0s digital stack. I have no doubt that the PD doesn’t come close to that digital stack either. As for any vinyl comparison, we did compare my friends analog front end as well. He has an original Technics SP 10 MK2, with the original Technics EPA arm and a ZYX cartridge with the Manley Steelhead phono stage. Again, not even close (neither is the Scarlatti either). Anyway, hope this helps and good luck with the digital listening.

    Arnie

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