Review: Playback Designs IPS-3 Integrated Playback System

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by Mark Gusew

9th November, 2015

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The IPS-3 has been designed from the start as a programmable platform, similar to a computer. Its firmware can be upgraded by the user as new algorithms and features are released.

Because the DAC, pre-amplifier and power amplifier are integrated and all enclosed within the same chassis, signal paths are kept extremely short. With the optimisation and attention to detail that is possible with this layout, the integrated design should result in superior sound quality and negates the need for costly additional cables. The more I think about it, the more it makes sense to design it this way.

The outer dimensions are 43 x 10 x 45cm so it’s about the size of a regular pre-amplifier. The aluminium case is functional, very nicely made and the use of fine horizontal lines across the front panel emphasise the slim profile. It looks classy, understated and with obvious high standards of workmanship.

The front panel has a large central 100mm x 40 mm window with a red coloured LED readout of the input selected, as well as the current volume setting. The display can be dimmed but not switched off entirely. With the inbuilt heavy duty power supply and heatsinks it weighs in at 19kg, and feels very substantial when being transported for such a compact unit.

Setup

Setup is simple and really straightforward. Connect your digital front end to any of the digital inputs, an analogue input to any of the three that are available, the power cable, and the speaker cables. The speaker binding posts are a Cardas single knob patented binding post with rhodium over silver plated billet copper pins. It works best with bare wire or spade ended speaker cables, although I found that banana connectors also work. Once power is applied to the unit, it is meant to be left on permanently, unless you plan to be away from your system for an extended period.

The USB audio is compatible with MAC OS* and Linux without any additional driver software. For computers running on the Windows operating system, driver software needs to be installed. There are detailed instructions for loading and testing the driver within the User Manual and also on the website. I tried a Windows based laptop and found the instructions helpful and overall it was a very straightforward process. I also found the utility that will confirm correct driver installation and computer software setup to be a real bonus. There is a downloadable file that tests by playing a special bit pattern through the USB input of all Playback Designs products. When your computer system is correctly set up the front panel will display "Bit Perfect" after completion of playback.

Listening Impressions

When I first connected up the Playback Designs device to a CD transport and connected it to the coax SPDIF digital input, I was frankly disappointed with the sound that I heard. The unit was left on for an hour to warm up from cold yet the soundstage was small, fine detail was missing and overall it sounded a bit flat.

Plugging in a Benchmark DAC2 into the analogue input of the Playback Designs unit confirmed that the sound was not quite there. So I decided to give the unit more time to improve. Returning to the coax digital input and allowing it to run for a further half day brought significant improvement, and welcome relief.

I called up the importer to ask about the amount of run-in time this particular review may have had previously. Evidently the unit had previously had several hundred hours of running time, but all of it was done using the USB digital input. So the SPDIF input itself was still immature and simply required further time. Leaving it connected to a NAD M12 digital pre-amplifier as the source, and playing ripped FLAC files from a USB stick proved to be the solution. Over the next few days the sound continued to improve significantly.

First up I listened to Alfred Brendel play Beethoven’s “Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57 “Appassionata”: 1. Allegro Assai”. The frequency range and consistent tone of the piano allows the instrument to become a very accurate tool for anyone looking to find the sonic character of a piece of equipment. The Sonata uses a wide range of notes and really highlighted the tonal accuracy of the Playback Designs IPS-3.

Review: Playback Designs IPS-3

It is absolutely seamless from top to bottom, with delicate and light treble response, down to accurately weighty bass with all the steps in-between sounding natural and realistic. In my book, the most important first step for any equipment is to be, and sound, tonally neutral or ‘flat’, but without sounding boring and uninspiring. The IPS-3 achieves this seemingly simple task easily, with a high degree of consistency of tone throughout the whole frequency range. The piano is reproduced exactly as it should be. This accuracy builds a platform from where other attractive qualities can be built upon.

As Brendel’s piano was playing, I couldn’t help but be impressed with the amount of detail and resolution that I was hearing. There is so much information to absorb that at no time was the performance boring or plain. Rather, the additional resolution adds interest and it captivates your attention.

I adore the delicate voice of Vienna Teng singing “Gravity”. She has been recorded using a close microphone technique so there is an intimacy to her voice that is palpably conveyed. It’s the resolution, detail and naturalness that creates the illusion that she is in the room singing just for me and I love hearing it.

Mark Gusew's avatar

Written by:

Mark Gusew

Starting his first audio consultancy business in the early 80’s whilst also working professionally in the electronics industry, Mark now manages a boutique audio manufacturer.

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Tags: playback designs  ips-3  pure music group 

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