Playback Designs MPD3 Audition

Ill keep this short and sweet....anyone else hearing you're or owning this dac your opinions would be appreciated. The other trio of Dacs I had in the house were not in the same league. Albeit the were several price points cheaper...I guess amgonna have to part with money..v

hope the link works and the discussions help. good player. very good.
Here's something I typed earlier today for my local forum. A friend of mine, Bill had ordered the MPD3 but he was out of town when it was delivered so he kindly offered the unit to me to test and pen down my thoughts:

I spent most of yesterday trying to configure my MacMini 2010 to add DSF files to iTunes but kept encountering a number of problems. One issue I suspect had to do with running ScarletBook.exe to extract the stereo DSF files because ScarletBook is a Win32 app and the extracted files might have been problematic. Spandau Ballet True worked fine using ScarletBook in a Win7 64 bit OS but not Carpenters. Most of the files I extracted were also half the expected size and when I played them back on PureMusic, I kept getting static. Jeff had no problems on his 2009 MacMini (the larger form factor version) but he was running Lion on that machine.

In the end, I had to use my old NetBook to run ScarletBook and it was damned slow. Also I used my MacBookAir 2011 with Lion to add those files to iTunes before copying the iTunes folder to the MacMini. A lot of workarounds but everything seems to be working fine now


First impressions were good. The MPD3 had the "house sound" similar to the bigger brother. There seemed to be a nice mid bass bump that I always liked.

In my friend Jeff's system, the MPS5 was a tad more resolving. We were playing the theme from Shaft by the late Isaac Hayes (most may remember him as Chef from South Park) and it was a good track for testing because it starts off with very few instruments and progressively more are added on. Jeff feels the MPD3 just stopped short of the MPS5 in keeping control of the instruments sounding distinct and separate, but honestly, I think we are splitting hairs here. As I mentioned before, the last mile is always the hardest and in hifi, the law of diminishing return really kicks in hard, with the MPD5 more than twice the price of the MPD3.

With the technical issues out of the way, I decided to run some tests.

[b]EMM Labs XDS1 SACD vs MacMini/PureMusic/MPD3/DSF playback[/b]

Frankly I don't know how fair this test is to the MPD3. We normally don't consider computer playback to be equal to the spun disc so the MPD3 is already handicapped in this respect. Ideally, I should have used the MacMini as a source to both the devices but the XDS1 doesn't have a DSD capable input :(

Still, these were the only 2 DSD DACs I had in my system and I thought it might be fun to compare the two.

Both the MPD3 and XDS1 were powered off the Sound Application RLS240 conditioner, but the XDS1 was using an ASI Liveline power cord while the MPD3 was using the similarly priced ESP Reference. Both were using ASI Liveline XLR interconnects. The MacMini was also powered off the same conditioner but with an Acrolink P4020III power cord. The Locus Audio Cynosure USB was used to link the MacMini to the MPD3.

As it turned out, I had the Carpenters Singles SACD and the DSF files so it was easy to do an A:B comparison.

And to be honest, the MPD3 didn't fare as badly as the price differential would suggest. I liked the more pronounced mid bass signature on the Playback. When I first got the XDS1, I found it very lean in the mid bass, compared to the loaner MPS5. I did manage to alleviate this problem with the Sound Application conditioner and the ASI Liveline power cord but even with these tweaks, the MPD3 still sounds fuller. My standby track is the 刘雅丽 CD where there is a double bass in track 9. It usually sounds quite muted except on Alan's system. On my system, the MPD3 brings that double bass closer to Alan's system.

The XDS1 did have a lower noise floor and it was a smoother more analog sound. But I had to listen very intently during certain passages to notice the difference in noise levels. What was more apparent was that the MPD3 soundstage was a few steps in front of the XDS1 in my system.

[b]EMM Labs XDS1 disc playback vs EMM Labs as transport with AES to MPD3[/b]

Here's where I discovered a feature on the XDS1. When I was playing the SACD of the Carpenters, the AES input on the MPD3 reported it was getting an 88.2kHz signal. Weird. So I was able to toggle back and forth between the same song played on the MPD3 (fed 88.2kHz) vs the XDS1 (playing the SACD layer).

Even with the DSD-PCM conversion, the MPD3 IMHO sounded closer to the XDS1 than when I fed the USB input with the DSD rip. I suspect the quality of the Esoteric transport is just better than a computer transport. I tried toggling back and forth, and it was much harder to tell the difference. In my case, the preamp is behind me and when I aim the remote at the back to reflect off the rear wall, it's never easy to tell if the amp actually switched inputs so it's almost a blind test. The ARC switches so quickly with no click or muting. It was only with one more familiar track that I found a bit more air and extension on the XDS1. But that's really not an apples to apples comparison since they are fed different signals (DSD direct on the XDS1 vs DSD-PCM on the MPD3) but it was an interesting comparison anyway.

Switching to the CD layer on the Carpenters, the differences are much closer again, with no DSD to PCM conversion this time. The arrangements on Carpenters were quite simple so I decided to try a more complex track.

I switched to my old standby Superstition by Stevie Wonder from the SHM CD 3 disc Love Eternity Harmony collection. This time, the difference was a tad more noticeable. The mid bass track on the song is more pronounced on the MPD3 and as a result, it slightly overwhelms the other layers in more complex tracks. I also noticed the highs/cymbals was slightly better defined on the XDS1. Not as "crashy". The XDS1 is just a bit more resolving and a bit smoother across the frequency range.

[b]In A Nutshell[/b]

I just want to thank Bill for his generous offer to loan me his unit even before he's had the chance to listen to it.

If this review seems critical of the MPD3, it was not my intention. It's really an incredible machine that provides really esoteric high end performance at a price point that doesn't require a second mortgage. It definitely punches way above its class. The small differences I noticed are in comparison with silly priced gear and the fact that it sounds so close is nothing short of amazing.

I really should have compared the MPD3 to the Meitner MA-1 which is retailing for the same price. From what I've heard at HER, I really think Playback should have no worries about the MA-1. The MA-1 is also based on the same principle... trickling down the technologies from their higher end model but it seems to have distilled away too much of their formula and it sounded very uninvolving compared to their flagship. The MPD3 on the other hand feels like it's gotten most of the guts and glory of the bigger brother. I think Playback wisely decided to "cripple" the MPS3 by only providing a RBCD transport. If it had an SACD transport, I suspect it would seriously cannibalise sales of the MPS5.
Doggiehowser: Thank you for your thorough efforts and comments. I hope you have a chance to do the comparison again once the Playback Designs MPD-3 is fully broken in. You might find the bass and body to be more prominent.

Also please call me and I will be happy to walk you through DSD playback over USB with either a MAC or PC.

Best Regards,

Jonathan Tinn
Playback Designs
Doggie I too just had the MPD 3 in my home and quite frankly though was the best sounding dac ive heard... however the only ones ive heard that are at the MPD3 price point is the MSB fully loaded and the Weiss 202 ..wasnt impressed with Weiss , and didnt have that much time to fully grasp the clear winner of anything Ive heard to date which inclused a plethora of lower priced dacs in the 1000 to 2500 range is the MPD>>I hope to be getting one soon although im holding out a bit to try and hear the new offerings from SIMAUDIO 380D and the new Esoteric dac out sometime in may...anyway thanks for the illuminating feedback ill report back on what i do..

Great, detailed 'review'! Thanks for posting!!!
Jonathan, thanks for the offer. I don't have your email but you can email me at my the same userid (doggiehowser) at

I understand the MPD3 has already been run in by Warwick prior to it reaching me :)

In any case, I have placed an order with PureMusic for my own MPS5. I have too many SACDs that need spinning ;)
I am the Bill mentioned in the post above.

First the MPD-3 is a good DAC - make no mistake about it.

But a number of people including myself have now heard it compared to another DAC I have - a level 2 PDX. Every single person preferred the PDX at 44.1. When upsampled the PD responded very well to it - even more than the PDX which can only go to 96K. Upsampled to 384K it did sound very good but while it was a lot closer the PDX still had the edge - it simply has more 'life'.

I have not tried it with DSD which I have been told is better again and it may topple the PDX that way - I will need to check it out.

Bill let me recap your post..I am to understand THE LENEHAN PDX VER2 IS WHAT YOU ARE REFERRING TO ? CORRECT?. and at 44.1 the PDX outperformed the MPD3 by a wide margin but at upsampled rates the units were very close?..Also it is my understanding that the MPD upsamples all input to DSD .
Finally i have recently had in my home an audition of some highly regarded dacs, Weiss 202 ( 6900$) Esoteric k-03 ( 13000$) and some other lower end but also some fine pieces . SImaudio 300d (1900), Hegel hd 100 ( 1200) and The Playback bested these all by a wide margin. I did go t the Lenehan site and could not find price points for their PDX configurations nor a dealer here in the US. What is the Price of the PDX in comparison to the PB MPD3 6500 $. My analysis indicate not only was it the best sonically but also had the edge in future proofing it with 384 and DSD capabilities. Combining that aspect together with the higher rez features and a made in the USA tag ( yes an issue we are sensitive to in the Detroit Area)..made the MPD3 a no brainer for me!..look forward to your response Bill V

You can check the prices (in Australian dollar) here.

The Lenehan is IMHO a more rudimentary design: BB PCM1704 DACs stacked and linked to a tube output stage.

The 1704s are legendary and in the configuration Lenehan uses, supports only inputs of up to 24/96.

So there are some limitations in the kinds of media it can accept.

I've always maintained that what makes the Lenehan sound as good as it does is how the tube outputs complement the digital sound.

I expect you can get the MPD3 to sound similar with a good tube preamp if you liked how the Lenehan sounded.
The 1704s are legendary and in the configuration Lenehan uses, supports only inputs of up to 24/96.

True when it comes to "legendary", but masking their real colors with a tube stage does not really improve their performance (that I personally find unsatisfactory). You need to hook up the MPD3 internal DAC to your tube output stage in order to find out how the two DAC designs really compare.

Best wishes,
Alex Peychev
Hi Zugusland

What I am referring to is the PDX Level 2 that costs about 4.5K depending on options. Lenehan Audio is basically a small outfit here in Aus and doesn't have much of a retail presence preferring to sell direct which keeps prices lower. In the US Swap Meet Audio handles their stuff:

At 44.1 the PDX easily outperformed it but when upsampled it was closer - but the PDX was still better.

This was not just my view - here is what another person said:

'Yep, the MPD-3 most definitely has a smooth sound (one listener used the term "lifeless") when fed straight 16/44.1 audio via USB. Kind of like NOS without the schweppervessence. A very clean and composed sound. With the right kind of music it'd be a most relaxing experience, with the wrong kind you probably "can't get no satisfaction".

And yep, it changes a lot with upsampling. I took it all the way to 352.8kHz (8 x 44.1) with both CoreAudio and Izotope SRCs in Audirvana Plus 1.3.5. The top end gained in clarity and sparkle, the bottom end in stomp and bite. Sounded pretty decent. The CPU load was pretty severe, though, and playback wasn't entirely seamless.

Then I switched back to the PDX (Duelund output caps but cheap tubes) and 16/44.1, and I'm sorry to say it was game over for the Playback Designs within a few seconds. Depth, texture, detail, colour and slam. Like when photographs get digitally enhanced by somebody who knows what they're doing without going over the top. More accurate? Who knows, but on the incredibly un-coloured speakers and amps these DACs were partnered with, the result was far more pleasing with the PDX.'

The amps were Mac 501's and the speakers were Lenehan ML2's which you probably don't know in the US but they are indeed extremely uncolored with stuff like being lined with steel and using a specially designed stand each of which weigh 53kg - as the same person that wrote the above expressed it 'they sounded like they were bolted to a granite mountain'. I know Doggie likes them because he got a pair.

I do agree in part with what Doggie said regarding valves- but only in part. We heard a NAD 390DD - a direct digital amp - and it was actually fairly close to the PDX and Mac 501's which makes me think more is going on here than valve euphonics.

If you hunt around on the internet you will find all sorts of comparisons with all sorts of outcomes. For example check out:

The bottom line is before forking out for a DAC in the price range of the PD compare it to as much other stuff in that range as you can get a hold of in your system.

I would also suggest getting your hands on a NAD 390DD and see what you think - it impressed the bejesus out of every that has heard it and IMHO is up there with the PD and MAC501's - in fact some thought it was better.


I think there's a difference from the traditional warm and wooly tube sound and the modern tube design like what you get from Audio Research or Conrad Johnson.
iVe audtioned a bunch of stuff in the PBD mpd3 price range and to my ear room and system it was by far the sonic winner. It went up against the Weiss 202 , Esoteric k-03 , the new Audio Research Dac Pre, the Peachtress Grandpre and several lower price items. I did want to hear the Skylla from Ayon but was unable to do so. Also you say that you listened to the PBD in normal 44k mode and then tried it upsampled which makes me question the whole scenario as the MPD does not have a way to change the upsampled everything it is fed is auto upsampled to DSD. UNless you meant you fed it unsampled data and then upsampled they a software program first before it was fed to MPD3. In anyevent not sure If i have bought the greatest Dac in the world but I do think I have a very fine piece of audio jewelry that is better then most at its price point and will hold value and use well due to its future proof scorecard of 384 and dsd capable..
Hi Zugisland

Yes indeed the MPD 3 does internal up-sampling and when I said I was up-sampling it I meant the software player (in this case Audirvana) was doing the up-sampling. Why would it sound different than its internal up-sampling? - different up-sampling algorithms perhaps and I have also read jitter is improved if you feed a DAC at a higher sampling rate. Exactly why it sounds better I don't think anyone knows for sure but sound better it does - it has been verified by quite a few people that heard it.

Like I said when reading these comparisons you will find different results depending on preferences and system synergies - all such things mean is if a DAC that comes out on top it might be worthwhile seeking it out and listening to it. But of course auditioning has to stop somewhere and if you feel you have done enough then by all means stop your search and get the DAC you like best.

I am trying to stay out of this discussion as much as possible as opinions are very personal.

However, the mistake is to let anything other than a good DAC do the upsampling. No computer software program can do as good a job as a good DAC.

Bill, you might want to try it again having our DAC handle every part of the conversion.

Jonathan Tinn
Playback Designs

I think that some software like JPlay can do an offline conversion that's supposed to be very good. It's not done in real time however and the resulting file is pretty large but some have reported better results with such software conversion.

This was covered in Absolute Sound magazine from a couple of issues back.
The Absolute Sound was wrong.
Hi Johnathan

I have used up-sampling on many DAC's and fully appreciate its effects. In every case I can recall software upsampling sounded better - some benefiting more than others. For some reason the PD is one of the DAC's it made a big difference with.

I am not the only one to hear it with your DAC eg here is what one person posted:

'And yep, it changes a lot with upsampling. I took it all the way to 352.8kHz (8 x 44.1) with both CoreAudio and Izotope SRCs in Audirvana Plus 1.3.5. The top end gained in clarity and sparkle, the bottom end in stomp and bite. Sounded pretty decent.'

Is your view based on listening tests or a theoretical analysis?

Hi Bill,

It is based on knowledge as well as listening.

I really do not know how you have it setup, but I assure you our DAC will do a much better job handling the conversion than a software player can.
Hi Agsain Johnathon

It was a Mac-Mini using Audirvana Plus direct connected to Mac 501's into Lenehan ML3 Reference. You quite possibly know of the MAC's but probably not of the speakers. They are lined with steel to reduce resonances and use nothing but Duelund VSF Copper capacitors in the crossover. Each speaker is individually hand tuned for the best frequency response. They are ultra accurate, ultra revealing and are the fastest sounding thing I have ever heard - they for example blow B&W 802D's out of the water (not hard - I have seen the frequency response of those - without going into the details YUK). I am biased though because they are the speakers I have.

As I said everyone who has heard it noticed the same thing - it benefited greatly from up-sampling.

I am having someone over tomorrow to check out my Off-Ramp and if we get some time may be able to do the test again with a fresh set of ears.

So Jon Obviously using Jriver you suggest using no upsampling and just feed the MPD# native correct?
Just had a guy that over who bought his upgraded and modded Spectron amp. I actually judge it better than Mac 501's. We mucked around with a number of DAC's including the Playback Designs. We played it natively and 384kz upsampled - sorry upsampled was easily and clearly better - both of us heard it.

Both the PDX and the DAC section of the NAD C390DD was also tried. Again it was felt they were both better - the PD was very relaxed and polite - we both thought we can easily understand why some may really like it - if you want to relax into the music this sound could suit - but for both of us it really wasn't our cup of tea.

Anyway in that vein I decided to give a tube amp a go, so my Trafomatic Experience Two was popped into the system. Not sure if it really synergises any better - certainly the midrange magic of the Traf is there - its quite possibly has the best midrange of any amp out there - certainly the best midrange I have ever heard - and the PD for sure 100% exploits that - really nice. But again it sounds slow and lacking in life.

Look guys I paid quite a bit for this DAC and I wish I could get more enthused about it but its not really doing it for me. I think I need try it with some DSD.