Playback Designs MPS-5 CD/SACD Player

Category: Digital

I recently added the Playback Designs MPS-CD/SACD player to my system and now that I've got some hours on it I thought I'd share my impressions.

First, realize that I don't have any references in the same price band as the PD, so the comparison will be to a grossly different universal player (a modded Pioneer Elite DV-58AV with a Superclock 4 and beefed up I/O stages). The Pioneer was actually pretty decent with SACD, but I longed for much more with redbook CD. I found myself listening to lots of vinyl or listening to SACDs and DVD-As.

There are now two or three reviews out about the MPS-5, most notably Mike Lavignes, supplemented by an excellent addendum by Ted Smith. David Robinson is working on a detailed review, but gave a preliminary thumbs up.

Well, I listened and listened and went back and forth from the Pioneer to the Playback Designs. The PD was clearly superior, but how to describe it was my issue, other than use words like bigger air and imaging.

All became crystal clear when I ABd using Enrico Rava (trumpet) and Stefano Bollani's (piano) latest CD "The Third Man". (BTW, this is a fantastic, etherial, jazz CD. Rava is one of the worlds great jazz trumpeters IMHO). If the pictures on the CD cover and insert are accurate, this is recorded in a live studio with hardwood floor and just a couple of mics. One mic is stuck right in the piano, with the lid open and the other is stationed in front of Rava, sitting about five-feet beyond the foot of the piano.

The first cut, "Estate", starts with just piano. I think a touch of reverb is added because of the very close proximity of the mic to the strings. With the MPS-5 the image of the piano stretches from about three-feet inside my right speaker to two-feet outside. (That reverb might actually be very light "flange" effect or "chorus", stetching the image so far). That image goes from my floor to a foot or two above the right speaker, but it's focal point is about six-inches inside the speaker about three-feet off the floor.

In contrast, the Pioneer doesn't go outside the speaker at all and stops about a foot from the floor and at the top of the speaker. I'd matched levels, but I tried to expand the Pioneer's image by turning up the volume, but no go, it just got louder, not bigger and "fuller".

Let's talk about Rava's trumpet image. The engineer has placed him to the left of center, but not out at the speaker. His mic is about four feet from the floor in the picture and he's sitting casually and playing. His mic is where you hear the atmosphere of the room, with both direct and reflected trumpet sound coming through, stretching from the piano edge to the left speaker, with a real strong focal point about four feet high and 30-degrees to the left of center. Once again, the Pioneer nails the focal point of the trumpet. You can hear the room, but it's much less obvious.

Didn't I say "fuller" earlier? Let me talk about it more. With that piano intro that I mentioned earlier, there's an incredibly rich and complex set of overtones, strongest at the piano's focal point, but showering the surrounding area with a overtones that decrease in richness as you move away from the focal point. Unfortunately the Pioneer is lacking the best overtones. The piano sounds "clangy" and thin in comparison. With the MPS-5 it sounds like there's more bass, but there's also way more high overtones. It's not all steel sound, but you hear the wood sound clearly.

The trumpet gains the same luxurious coating of overtones, high an low, making it sound fuller and richer and less edgy.

I don't have Rava's album on LP, but I do have a couple of Nora Jones albums on CD and LP. I'd stopped playing the CDs after I got my Pro-ject TT. Now the CDs are back out. In direct comparison, the glare and edge I was hearing in Nora's voice on CD is now gone. The images are now as big as the LP. The improvement is VAST.

Still, I think it took a sparely recorded album like Rava's to clearly demonstrate to me what I was hearing. Everything sounded fuller, more dynamic and just plain better, but now I can explain better why.

The excellent Reference Recordings CD "Crown Imperial" shows a couple of other advantages of the MPS-5. When things get really complex, with everybody playing loud but different lines at the same time it's much easier to pick out each line. I've played this before as a trumpeter, so I have a very good idea what's going on. Even knowing that I'd lose lines with the Pioneer, where the PD kept each line separate and easy to follow.

The controls are simple and intuitive, with a nicely backlit remote. The drawer is solid and fast. Like most drawers, if you push on it when it's open, it'll close. The chassis is heavy aluminum plate. At this price you might hope for a chassis machined from aircraft billet, but instead you get a solidly made chassis that's attractive, stiff and heavy.

There are balanced and unbalanced analog outputs (I used balanced into my Rowland Continuum 500 integrated amp). There is a wide selection digital inputs and outputs, but no HDMI either in or out. (My Pioneer has DSD-out via HDMI, so I miss the potential to use that with the Playback Designs).

Playback Designs' web site is not up yet, but it will be reasonably soon, I hope. I leave that to give you more technical details. I'm only here to talk about sonics.

Sorry that I didn't have any 10 and 20-thousand dollar players to compare the MPS-5. Mike, Ted and Dave have started that and there'll be more to come.

BTW, the retail price is $15,000 and there's an introductory price of $10,000. I have no idea how long that'll last, but I suspect it'll end soon, when the web site is up and marketing swings into full force.

Dave, thanks for the very well written and thorough review ... great contribution. Won't be replacing my TRL modded Sony anytime soon. The MPS-5 is a bit too rich for my blood; but really appreciate Rava's "The Third Man" recommendation. Just ordered it. An erstwhile trumpeter myself, I'm always on the lookout for previously unknown stuff. Happy listening!
TRL does great work.

I hope you enjoy Rava as much as I do.

Some questions came up over in another forum that I thought might be of interest here:

"how this player compares to other players. What I care about is how it renders acoustic instruments. Does it get the violin right with the correct balance of fundamental and overtone and without fatigue? Does it capture the full dynamics of a piano? Does it get the cello bloom right? Does a full orchestra sound coherent and dynamic? You really need to be familiar with acoustic instruments to make this kind of judgment."

String sounds –
Great question. BTW, I play trumpet in several regional orchestras. Yes, I know string sounds. One of my very favorite recordings is Starker's Bach Cello Suites and his Kodaly. Right now I'm listening to the excellent SACD "Boston Symphony Chamber Players -- Mozart -- Chamber Music for Winds and Strings" (a "must have" IMO). I play guitar and have an excellent Ramirez classical as well as several exceptional archtops. My favorite big orchestral piece is MTT and San Francisco doing Mahler's 6th. It's an incredible recording with wonderful massed strings, with lots of work for the cellos and basses The sound of a symphony orchestra in a hall, playing a big piece, is as accurate as I've heard.

I've had, since the early 1990s, a great recording of the "Haydn 'London' Trios" with Rampal, Stern and Rostropovich. It's simply miked, with no spotlight mics close up to the strings, so you get a full bodied presentation. Still, when Rostropovich digs in then lets the body ring you hear the full, deep resonance, ringing for a count or two, as it should. You never hear just strings or just wood, you hear them together and separately at the same time. Stern sometimes really digs in and you get some of that raw-edged string sound, but it's realistic with no electronic edge added.

Frankly I'd retired my Starker Bach Suite CD and gone to vinyl prior to the arrival of the MPS-5. I brought it back out and it's now wonderful. You hear fingers on strings, cello body, bow on strings. I'm sure that a player could tell me how much rosin is on the bow. The fatigue is gone and the glare that drove me away from the CD is gone.

I listened for six hours straight this afternoon, mostly to CDs and about 1/3d strings or orchestra, the rest was female vocals, trumpet and a little pop. I'm amazed how the CDs have closed the gap with LPs and SACDs. You really don't miss the other formats. I don't have any CD-SACD duplicates, so I can't say anything in comparison until I go buy a CD that I already have on SACD. The CD vs. vinyl shortfall has TOTALLY disappeared. (Vinyl huggers please don't bash, I'm keeping my vinyl, just not adding to it quite as fast now that CDs are a full option, with no penalty).

More about string sounds. I've got several of the SACD reissues of Heifetz with Boston and Chicago. Although simply miked, his violin really commands the stage. On the melodic passages his tone is big, woody, singing and rich. When he digs in you can imagine the rosin flying. BTW, the orchestral strings are wonderful, not steely and reedy as mics of the day tended to present (these reissues are wonderful). Back to Heifetz, his highs are crystalline, not tiring. The harmonics POP off the strings. When he digs in you get that raw sound of the string really being ripped into with gusto. On the double-stops and triple-stops you hear each note clearly.

I played trumpet on "Carmen Fantasy" for violin and orchestra a few weeks back. There are lots of soaring highs for the soloist in that piece. On CDs, in the past, those sounded steely, now they sound sweet and glorious, like the real thing.

I should have mentioned this in my main review, silences are totally dark and I hear dimuendos down to the last bit of breath or the very ends of the bows, thanks to the lack of background. Dynamics are huge. Massed bass sections are full and rich, cellos (my favorite string) are simply glorious.

I don't know what else to say. I think this player is any music lover's dream. For a string lover, that tiring extra glare added to already high pitched strings is gone.

Piano –
I’ve heard great piano up close and personal. One of my friends is a world-class concert pianist who's performed in Russia, Europe and a number of second and third-tier US symphonies. When she was still working on her Master at North Texas I heard her play beautiful 9-foot Steinway in a "piano parlor" that opened on two sides to two large rooms, in a home. I sat about ten-feet from the foot-end of the piano with the lid open. Wow!!

Anyway, today I got out my SACD reissue of Rubinstein playing Beethoven's "big four" Sonotas, "Moonlight", "Les Adieux", "Pathetique" and "Appassionata". The lyrical parts of "Moonlight", for instance, are just scrumptious with every subtle various in this amazing player's touch being apparent. I can see him in my mind's eye, leaning over the keys very precisely caressing the notes out of the keyboard. He holds a chord and then starts a bass note to complete the chord at exactly the right moment. The resonance of that bass note is so satisfying and perfectly played in relation to the rest of the chord, it's a marvel. The body and resonance of the piano are glorious. Forget about the tape hiss, this is an incredible performance. At the end he lets the chord ring for several seconds before damping it, it almost fades to nothingness, yet you hear the damper move as if you were sitting ten-feet from the piano.

The third movement of the "Moonlight" the piano is in for a beating. Good Lord, the man doesn't look that big in the pictures, but he positively pounds the piano. It's a beautiful pounding, of course. The dynamics are huge and the overtones come spraying out of that lucky piano. Wow, again!! My friend I mentioned earlier was doing a Chopin recital, but I was hearing the same kind of sounds that I heard at that pre-recital.

I'm really proud of my speakers and amp. I didn't have my SPL meter with me, but the peaks were surely beating 100dB with some regularity. I set the level at the opening of "Moonlight" based on what I remembered the piano sounding like in that music parlor and then I let it ride. The sound got huge, but not clangy or distorted on the top. I got chills several times.

I did some comparison of CD to SACD and CD-layer vs. SACD-stereo-layer on some hybrid SACDs:

I've only got a handful of discs with both a pure CD release AND a hybrid SACD. In every case, the original CD and the CD layer on the hybrid sound very different, but mainly due to apparently different choices made by the respective mastering engineers rather than any difference in the basic technology.

Comparing the CD layer to the stereo SACD layer on the same disc, the CD layer tended to have more bloom in the bass and more harmonics throughout the frequency range. The SACD layer was more precise and better controlled. I think this may largely be due to the upconverting logarithms that my Playback Designs MPS-5 applies to the CDs and CD layers, upconverting 16/44 to DSD.

Through the MPS-5 the SACD vs. CD differences are very small. I didn't pull my old Pioneer Elite universal out to compare again, but the CDs through the Pioneer had glare and hardness that made them tiring over any kind of long listening session. The MPS-5 not only gets of that glare but closes the gap to SACD to the point where I could be comfortable without SACD.
I received my Analysis Plus digital coax cable this week and inserted my Pioneer Elite DV-58AV universal player (modified by Ric Schultz)to use as a DVD-A and odd format transport, feeding into the Playback Design's digital input and DAC.

First, I played every DVD-A that I own. Most are 24/96 but "iRobot" is 24/192. The PD had no trouble locking into any of the DVD's signals. For a while I kept the analog-out of the Pioneer hooked into my Rowland integrated via unbalanced RCA so that I could bypass the PD and truly compare the two. Well, all sounded better through the PD, even "iRobot". I wasn't sure what to expect because when the digital signal was captured the screen would change from "44.1" (expecting CD I guess) to "COAX 48kHhz", even with the 24/192 disc. I'm not sure what was going on and I guess I'll need to write Andreas unless someone on the forum knows. I suspect that the sampling rate may have been limited to 48 kHz by the Pioneer. I can't find anything clear in the Pioneer's manual and specs, regarding its digital output; however, it says under "Compressed Audio Compatibility", "Sampling rates: 32 kHz, 44.1 kHz and 48 kHz." So, I suspect that's the highest digital-out offered by the Pioneer, no matter the disc's capacity.

Let me talk briefly about Redbook, where I'm certain there's no down-conversion, just straight 44.1 into the PD's DAC. I used three cuts off Jennifer Warnes CD "FamousBlueRaincoat" listening to "Joan of Arc", "Ballad of the Runaway Horse" and "If it Be Your Will". Those tunes give quite a range of deep bass, great vocal, atmospheric out of phase images, depth and width. Earlier in the thread I talked about the Pioneer's Redbook vs. PD. It was no contest, with the Pioneer showing a much smaller image in width and height, much less richness in the mids and deep bass and all made worse with a glare over the top. Using the Pioneer as a transport and running through the PD's DAC really narrowed the gap dramatically. The main difference was in solidity of bass and the image size was now only slightly smaller when using the Pioneer transport vs. the PD's Esoteric transport. It was actually very good and would put the Pioneer in a top echelon. Said in other words, about 90% of the gain from the MPS-5 is in its DAC. Using a fairly mundane transport gave me much of the gain of the full MPS-5 treatment on Redbook. The PD's Redbook performance is truly astounding, lagging only slightly behind SACD (see my separate post on that matter elsewhere in this thread).

With DVDs the story is a little different. The sampling rate of the DVD didn't seem to matter. I found the "iRobot" final cut "Genesis" was astounding on my Pioneer. It's very thick and complex, with lots of out of phase signal creating a huge 180-degree wide image. When I ran that DVD through the PD's DAC, the image got taller and the bass got more solid, but it wasn't anywhere near as dramatic an improvement as with the CDs. The Pioneer is actually a pretty darn good DVD player. (Remember, Ric Schultz beefed up the input and output stages and put in a Superclock 4, among other things). Still, there was a major gain from going through the MPS-5's DAC.

Unfortunately I ran out of time before I could mess around with music via USB. I'll try to get to that in the next week. Hopefully when I plug my laptop into the MPS-5 it'll recognize it the laptop as a player. I've never sent a music signal out the USB, so any advice would be welcome. (It's a Windows PC running XP with Media Player installed. I can easily add another program if needed). I'm not sure how valid this'll be, because I assume that a computer music server will have a much higher grade sound card.

Dave, your review has gotten me intrigued. How close do you think this player gets to your turntable?
It equals my TT. I'm now indifferent to vinyl vs. CD vs. SACD.

Dave thank you for your feedback. I just realized that you have been posting on AA as well and I have devoured that thread (and Mike Lavigne's thread) with a LOT of interest. For you to say that it equals your TT is high praise indeed. I am interested in sourcing one for my own evaluation. Thank you again for reporting your findings.
I think if you ask Mike, reading between the lines of his review, he'd say that he still prefers his $50,000+ TT system. I'm not certain. He has a thread here on A'gon, so you might see if he'll respond to a direct question there, in case he's not watching this thread.

I'd be curious to see how close he considers the two.

Yesterday I travelled up the mountainside, literally, to visit Neli and Mike at Audio Federation. I’d ordered some HRS isolation bases through them and the main purpose of my trip was to pick up my new HRS bases (review to come). Neli suggested that we also use the visit for me to hear their other products and take the opportunity to compare my Playback Designs MPS-5 to their Meitner CDSA-SE (with the latest German transport).

I spent a total of two-hours checking out their wares before we got around to comparing the CDSA and MPS-5. This was a very informal comparison that lasted just over an hour. We didn’t precisely match levels and we physically swapped out the Meitner and the Playback Designs in the Meitner’s position on their very nice and substantial HRS rack. We used the same power cord and ICs into a Lamm system driving $295,000, 70” tall Marten Coltrane Supremes. The room had good volume with about a 20’ ceiling and easily handled the big Marten’s. Neli and Mike thought that they had over 1,000 hours on their CDSA-SE and I think that I’m between 300 to 400-hours on my MPS-5.

Both units have stout chassis and look to be very well built. Neither is out of billet aluminum, but the chassis are thick enough that RFI containment and rejection should be at a high level. The PD does have the advantage of a full complement of digital inputs, which the Emm totally lacks. I already use the PD’s digital inputs as a DAC when playing DVD-A and other oddball disc formats that the MPS-5 can’t handle on its own. I also plan to make the DAC the foundation of the music server system that I plan to build or buy in the next year or so. (See the Stereophile review of the Sooloos and the poor performance of that $10,000+ unit’s DAC). If you’ve already got a really good standalone DAC this wouldn’t be an issue, but those digital inputs are a big plus to me. The DACs within both these machines are both in the top echelon of DACs, so it’s nice to be able to use them in different contexts.

The reader should treat the following comments as “first impressions”, since there was no rigorous matching of levels and we only switched the players in and out twice. We played a wide range of CDs and SACDs and we’d all hear something, but not investigate further to totally define what we were hearing. The PD was cold when it was thrown into the home of the Meitner, etc., etc. Despite these shortcomings, I feel like the differences were actually relatively obvious and deserve to be added to the comments already made by Mike Lavigne, Ted Smith and others in other threads.

Let’s start out by talking about what both units do very well; they both remove the digital glare that plagues so many otherwise good CDs. One of my favorite CDs for demonstrating that is “Trumpets in Stride” with five trumpets, tuba and piano playing old songs in stride style. A great cut is “Cornet Chop Suey” which gives you all five trumpets, solo trumpet, solo tuba and solo stride piano. Played on lesser machines this wonderful music just eats up your ears with trumpet blare and piano jangle and edge everywhere. It’s clearly a digital artifact added somewhere along the chain to mastering. Before the CDSA/MPS comparison we listened to this cut of this disc on a couple of lesser players in lesser systems and the edge was apparent. With both the CDSA and MPS-5 the glare and edge was gone. Highs weren’t chopped off, they were cleaned up instead.

The imaging of both units is stellar, rendering a bigger soundstage that “ordinary” CDPs and giving coherence to the presentation. Odetta’s performance of “America the Beautiful” on the CD “Strike a Deep Chord” can sound disjointed on lesser machines. Dr. John’s out of tune piano solo can sound harsh and jolting. With both the Playback Designs and the Emm the image and performance was a whole solidified. Yes, Dr. John’s piano was still out of tune, but it fit into the studio and had a full image of a complete piano.

With regard to lack of digital glare and consistently throwing complete, musical images, I’d rate these two players very, very close. Removing that glare and replacing it with natural sounding music with smooth, realistic, sweet highs, makes either acceptable in a fine system. Without naming names, the improvement from typical $3,000 to $5,000 players is close to monumental. Now that I’ve heard this level of playback (no pun intended), I could never go back to those lesser machines. Some great CDs sound great on almost any machine, but average CDs and the worst CDs sound just nasty to me when played on lesser machines than either of these.

Let me talk more about imaging. When you throw “Dark Side of The Moon” at either, or Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” you get HUGE images, extending well out in front and to the sides and over the speakers. These images literally filled the end of Neli and Mike’s demo room, all the way up to the top of the 20’ ceiling. The Coltrane Supremes didn’t strain in the least in throwing these huge images. I’d rate these types of images as very similar, but different. So many sounds are coming at you from so many angles that it’s hard to keep track of them. Mike thought that the CDSA-SE kept better track of such things, with more stability. Perhaps that was because he was hearing what he was used to hearing. We all agreed that the images were different, yet both were very attractive. Of course with heavily manipulated studio masterworks it’s really impossible to say what’s right. If you like “blow your mind” style images, then either player delivers in spades.

A little more down to earth is Odetta’s “America”. The MPS-5 placed her higher and to the left in a larger space than the CDSA-SE’s similar placement. If the CDSA-SE presented a 6’ sphere of sound, then the MPS-5 was a 10’ sphere. What’s right, who knows?

While still on the subject of imaging, let me jump to the end of the session when Neli put on one of her favorite recordings by the Portuguese singer is Cristina Branco. OMG, it starts a capella with the song, “Sonhie Que Estavea El Portugal”. Both the artist and song are totally new to me, but the vocal floored me. With the Playback Designs it was like she was elevated between the two speakers with a voice that was several feet tall and wide. I asked Mike if he knew how they had miked that cut and wondered aloud if they had two mics and she’d stood between them. The timbre and richness of her voice was overwhelming.

What really confused me was when we put the Emm back into the system as I prepared to leave. One of us said, let’s listen to that again. When we did, the image was more like you expect, covering less space and seeming to come from one point rather than a much larger area. This difference was very large. We turned the volume up on the Emm to make sure that we were just hearing a gain difference, but the image stayed where it was.

We were at a loss to explain these imaging differences. When we listened to orchestral, or piano the images were much closer in size and placement and seemed “correct” on both machines. I’m thinking that there may be a little studio trickery in the Branco recording. It’s seems to be recorded in a very reverberant space with either one or two mics for the vocalist and maybe a touch of some processing added. I wonder if that processing is playing with the phase information on the disc and the two players are interpreting it differently. All I know is, they presented this disc very differently. Both were very pleasing, but considerably different.

One thing that we all noticed immediately and totally agreed on was the midrange presentation. On the Playback Designs singers and solo instruments are slightly more forward. There was only a step or so difference, but you notice this easily and quickly. Piano has slightly more body on with the MPS-5 and solo instruments had slightly more prominence.

What can I suggest to anyone that is choosing between these two machines, but doesn’t have the opportunity to compare them? First, you should rest assured that both are very good. Neither is obviously and clearly “righter” than the other. I can only offer this; if you like a lighter presentation with slightly more emphasis on detail, then go for the Emm. If you like a little more body and forwardness and you like bigger images, then go for the Playback Designs. You can take comfort that neither machine does anything wrong. If you could use an excellent DAC with external sources, then the Playback Designs has a clear advantage in this one regard.

Thanks to Neli and Mike and Audio Federation for their hospitality.

Fab report Dave, can't wait to hear your MPS-5 in mid September!
i completely agree. this 2nd review seems more credible than the Jun review (comparing a $10k CDP to a Pioneer universal player just doesn't make any sense to me).

anyway, thks for sharing. hope you had fun doing the A/B comparisons!!
Wow, that was one great report !
Thanks guys. I'm not a "reviewer", so my references are just what I have, unless I get a nice invite for a session, as extended by Neli and Mike.

Unfortunately, family medical issues will keep me from going down to Austin to meet Guido and compare to a dCS stack. Oh well. Maybe at RMAF I'll get more chances.

Worry not Dave, we will reschedule the Austin meet before long! By the way, the DCS stack in question is not mine but Gshelley's. I run a TEAC X-01 Limited. G.
Mike of Audio Federation took some nice, detailed pictures of the PD MPS-5 that you may want to see.

Also, they've said that they'll soon be adding their impressions of this same session.

Audio Federation has added their reactions to the comparison at their Blog Check it out.

Interesting. As one would have thought, the MPS-5 isn't the end all; but, rather, is a good player at its pricepoint.
Keep in mind how much AF has vested in the Emm.
Of course, but who is without bias; not the dealer of a line (e.g., AF), not the owner of equipment (e.g., you) and not the owner of other equipment (e.g., me).

The comments don't convince me that the Emm is better than the PBD; rather, they are enough to determine that the PBD isn't nearly the world beater it's been made out to be - it's a good CDP at its price point; nothing more.
Bar81, I totally agree with your assertions about bias, but given that, how can you then turn around and coclude "...that the PBD isn't nearly the world beater..." I don't think there's enough information to conclude anything, other than it's a contender.

When a less biased review comes along, if ever, then we'll know, OR you can listen for yourself and judge for yourself, which I've fortunate enough to do.

Now, if I can compare to dCS and AMR and maybe one or two others, like modded Esoterics, then I'll have more conclusive, but biased, opinion. Making those head-to-head comparisons are harder than you might think.

Here are a few things that I'd do different if doing this comparo again and only had an hour to an hour and a half:

First, I'd avoid Pink Floyd and Radiohead. As much fun as they are to listen to, they're chocked so full of purposely out of phase signals and flying voices and electronic noises that you can't evaluate what's "right". These albums sounded so different on these two players that it was mesmerizing, but not real useful.

Next, or really first, match levels. We didn't do this and it's really critical. The machines clearly had different output levels, yet we simply adjusted by ear, a real no-no.

Next, set up both players with equivalent ICs so that you can move back and forth with ease. Physically switching is a chore and reduced the comparative analysis that we might have otherwise done.

Limit your listening to three or four discs, each with a purpose. On CDs, this needs to include one loaded with glare on lesser machines to see what magic is done, if any. Another disc should focus on midrange accuracy, so a female vocal, either a cappella or with a small group. Next, listen to a BIG orchestral piece that has micro dynamics and blockbuster sound. (I love Mahler for this). Focus on both ends of the dynamic spectrum. Include a really densely scored disc to see how the lines stay separate, or not. (Mahler is good again). Include a solo piano disc with big dynamcis.

When possible, listen in balanced and unbalanced modes. (Both were unbalanced in this case, despite the PD's balanced mode excellence.)

On a hybrid SACD compare the CD layer and SACD layer on both machines.

We could have done that in an hour, IF we'd been focused on getting it done and had all the needed parts. We spent too much time enjoying music and didn't "work" hard enough.

The goal should be to identify performance in both CD and SACD modes, balanced and unbalanced, and comment on balance, musicality, micro and macro dynamics, timbral presentation and, above all, never use the word PRaT. (Just kidding Mike).

Given way more luxurious time, I'd run the transport of one through the DAC of the other and vice versa, if possible (the Emm doesn't allow this). I've found this useful for hearing differences between DACs and transports.

With more time, I'd also pull in the Pink Floyd and Radiohead and do some phrase by phrase comparisons to see what's happen, or at least be able to say, "this one did this and the other one did that."

Finally, with more time I'd just spend...more time, seeing where the investigation leads me and just enjoying the process.

You'll be able to hear the MPS-5 for yourself at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest this October. Look for it in the Soundings/Rowland/Sumiko high-end room (they'll have two rooms). It'll be the source in the system demonstrating the new Vienna Acoustics "The Music" reference speakers, driven by Jeff Rowland Design Group equipment, hopefully including their new Criterion battery powered pre-amp.

There won't be any A-Bing with the competition, but you can listen to the PD and go to other rooms to hear Emm, dCS and others that are certain to be there.

The Democrats just proved that Denver's pretty easy to get to, so plan to come and listen.

Won't miss it for the World! Guido
We can see BNC analogue outputs at the Audio Federation MPS-5 rear pictures - are they intented to drive the 50 ohm inputs of the Dartzeel NHB-18NS preamplifier using the special Dartzeel interconnects?
I am using the Bnc with the playback to darzeel

The Bnc is still breaking in but already sounds better than the audioquest Colorado RCA (absolute sound golden ear 2008 winner) that I was using before
David Robinson of Positive Feedback added his review at:

Positive Feedback Review of MPS-5

I agree with everything said; however, I think there should have been more comment on the MPS-5's CD playback, which I consider to be one of its strongest points. You expect it to deliver on SACDs, which it does, but the upsampling of CD bring that media amazingly close to SACD.

Still, it's a great review.

An absolutely excellent job all around Dave. Thanks for your wonderful contribution.

Wish I could hear this machine, maybe someday I'll call Tinn and ask about it.
Thanks Albert.

BTW, Frontier has some great flights to Denver from DFW. Several Texan A'goners are coming in for the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (two blocks from my home). It'd be fun to have a nice Italian dinner at a great place I frequent just blocks from the sight. Anyway, let us know if you decide to pop in.

I read the PF review....why wasn't the Marantz player-a PF favorite-alluded to
and shown in the review, compared to the Playback designs???
I don't know if Robinson watches here, but he does watch the Asylum. If you ask your question there, he might answer there, OR you could correspond directly with PF.

I suspect it was because he'd previously put the Emm two-box unit at the top of his pecking order, so that's what he compared to. Also, he labels the review as "First Impressions" so maybe there's more to come.

Dave, I always go to Denver for Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, I'm the one that's supplied show coverage for Audiogon since the very first show.

I would love to visit, provided it's not imposing on plans you already have in place. Email me and we can trade phone numbers.

Also, regarding Dave Robinson. He has been offered a wonderful new job opportunity and it's taken quite a bit of his time recently. I won't discuss here, until I find out if it's proper for me to do so.

Perhaps Dave will drop in here or has posted comments already at Audio Asylum.
I went on to Audio Asylum and found someone posing the same question re-
garding the lack of comparison to the Marantz player. There's also someone,
along with 2 friends, who did an MPS-5 and Marantz 7SA-S1 comparison and found the latter to be the winner. As I recall in PF, Dr. Sardonicus preferred
the Marantz to the EMM player, which according to most people is somewhat
different but equal to the EMM separates. I have heard none of these but am
certainly interested in the Marantz. I wonder if anyone has compared any of these machines with the Audio Research Ref 7, which I am very familiar with.
Lula, I have little doubt that PF will ultimately post a follow up addressing your question. It's his style to start with a Preliminary Impression and then come forth with further details. He said very little about RBCD performance, which I consider a strength of the PD, so something's going on there, I suspect.

I'm interested to see if those Marantz lovers on the Asylum post some follow up details. It wasn't quite as bad as, "Marantz rules, PD sux, dude" but they haven't been forthcoming with any meaningful dialogue so far.

Let me just weigh in with my simple observations as I sold my marantz 7SA-S1 and bought the playback designs player. In my humble opinion, the marantz is nowhere near as good as the playback design.

I had owned the emmlabs 2 piece dcc2 se and cdsd se but sold it because the transport was too noisy to keep it at that price point. I sold it and bought a dartzeel preamplifier to go along with my dartzeel amplifier and with the money I saved I bought the marantz 7SA-S1.

In the plus column, the Marantz 7SA-S1 is built like a tank, the transport is quiet not noisy, and the display does give album information for the sacds. The downside with the marantz is that its too mellow. Sure it does not sound harsh and digital as many players do but if you want to listen to rock music its the wrong way to go. If you like folk, pop, or jazz its really quite nice especially for the price. The playback design works wonderfully for all types of music easily besting the marantz at rock and is still a ways better at jazz and pop. The playback also has the build quality and quiet transport. The playback is superior to the emm labs providing a much more seamless presentation of the music. The emm labs was a bit harsher and more dry and analytical. The playback sounded a lot more like the better attributes of vinyl with the advantages of digital.

Look my pocketbook wanted to keep the marantz but the ears don't lie. The marantz is real good, the emm labs is even better, but the playback is the best that I heard. I have not heard the dcs two piece system but can't afford it anyhow!
Thanks, that very good information Radioheadokplayer. I hope you don't mind if I link the Asylum over to your comments here. I suspect that your findings are in line with what David Robinson will report when he gets around to comparing to the Marantz.

I'm trying to track one down for my own comparison, but that may take a few weeks.

Has anyone heard or compared the APL NWO3.0? to any of these?
For the fortunate Agoners going to RMAF this year, I have just found out that you will be able to hear the Playback Designs MPS-5 CD/SACD player in the Conifer 1 room on main floor. Sounds Real Audio will have this room again this year. Should be worth a listen.
Ronnjay, that's correct, AND you can hear the PD in the Soundings room, through a Rowland/Vienna Acoustics system. Also, at Soundings, you can compare the PD to the Marantz 7S1. Soundings is a dealer for Marantz and Sounds Real is a dealer for PD.

If you're really interested in the PD, you owe it to yourself to listen in both available systems. I suspect that Sound Real will have a Wilson Benesch system. Audio Federation will have the Emm player and, I'm almost certain, with a little looking you'll be able to hear and AMR and a dCS, among others.
Soundings will be at the Marriott in the Tower, suites 505 and 507. See:
Dave, That's a good thing! When one room gets crowded or you don't like their choice of music, you have another place to listen.
Yeah, and be sure to bring your own music.
First a disclaimer. I am a dealer in Colorado.

I have been looking for a high quality player for a few years, having never been convinced that the expensive ones were worth anywhere near the asking price. A friend mentioned the Play Back Designs. He said there were some reviews on Audiogon. I contacted Dave and he was willing to bring one by for me to listen to but to fast forward a little I called Jonathan and in about 3 weeks one showed up at the door.

I have placed the MPS-5 in with a pair of Wilson benesch Curves loudspeakers and the deHavilland integrated 845 amplifier, the Ios. Let things warm up a little bit and sat down for a listen. Well the music that came out of that system was really remarkable. The Curves came to life in way I have never heard them do. They tend to be a little warm and very involving. With MPS-5 in the system everything that I value was there. A very rich and weighty presentation with terrific tonal quality, the 845 Ios amp has these qualities and they now showed more improvement. Voices sound exactly like they are supposed to. The extension of the MPS-5 at both ends is remarkable, it changed/improved the sound of those speakers in a way I didn't think was possible. The one thing that really stood out is the soundstage and imaging. Voices with all the nuances are placed on the stage with the most life like realism I have ever heard.

This unit did have some hours on it but only a few so I am running it while I am writing this and will listen again over the weekend.

I was hoping to bring a really good player to our room at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest this year and this is it. Will have more to say after some more break in time.

Thank you Jim, I am looking forward to meeting you next week and auditioning PD! Guido
Jim, will you have any vinyl in that room to compare to the MPS-5? in my room the vinyl reference really shows how special the MPS-5 really is.

i'll be looking forward to hearing the MPS-5 in your room.
Mike makes a great point. Before the MPS-5 I listend to LP and SACD whenever given a choice over CD. Now that preference is almost neutralized. (I still prefer SACD slightly). My vinyl set up isn't anywhere near the level of Mike's, but very nice. I still love my LPs, but my preference for 45 rpm LPs greatly diminished and now I only buy LP if it includes special packaging or a special mastering.

Jim, you've probably got something in multiple formats, but, if not, let me know and I'll add it to my list of things to bring.

No vinyl in the room this year. We have in the past but this year we are going to focus on the electronics. deHavilland and Playback Designs. In past years listeners come in our room and always ask "what kind of speakers are those", asking about the Wilson bensch. What many don't seem to get is that no matter how good the speakers without deHavilland electronics, the room might just sound ordinary. Check out their show reports on their website. This year should be even better with the MPS-5.

I put another 50 hours on it and listened again and as the Beatles used to say, "I have to admit it's getting better". I am going to keep burning it in until Thursday, move in day at the show, so it should be ready for prime time.

Sorry about the vinyl but take a listen and you might decide the MPS-5 is satisfying enough to compare to a very a good vinyl set up.

I don't have any SACD's. Ouch! Probably to late to order any but if you can recommend one or two "must haves" I can stop at Best Buy and grab a couple.

Friday and Saturday from about 5 pm until we drop, we are going to have change out speakers and amps so people can hear what ever combination they want and also encourage listening to their CD/SACD's. Coors light is possible.

See you at the show and please say high.
Ouch, Best Buy isn't going to have anything worth while. I'll loan you a few SACDs, including a few of the "demo" discs from Telarc and Chesky and then some "real" music with brass, orchestra, etc.

It's very informative to compare the RBCD and SACD layers. The PD brings them very close together, but I still prefer the SACD. On a lesser machine the difference is much greater.

Well, the PD did very well at the 2008 RMAF in Soundings and Sounds Real's rooms.

At Soundings there as an A-B with the very nice looking Marantz SA7. The Marantz had only 100-hours on it by Sunday, but the PD was much more dynamic, imaged more naturally and had better bottom to top balance. I was in the room when about 8 wittnessed the switch from the Marantz to the PD and all preferred the PD and heard the improvement immediately and clearly.

The was no A-B in the Sounds Real room, but the sound was very nice with Wilson Benesch speakers. The speakers were not coupled with the room like I'd like, so the bass was a little reserved, but the mids and highs were crystal clear, transparent and wonderful.

We hauled the PD around to the Esoteric room to compare to the 3-box Esoteric stack. The PD was superior until the Esoteric was put into the DSD mode rather than PCM and balanced interconnects were added, then it got very, very close. Those speakers were not coupled to the room either, so bass was totally lacking, leading to an incomplete comparison; however, based on what I could hear, the Esoteric is a very nice sounding and physically attractive unit. It's too close to call without further listening in a full range system.

I'm hoping that a few others will add their observations, particularly those that were able to A-B with the Marantz.

Marantz SA7S1 in the Soundings room was impressive for a new player that was essentially just out of the box. . . Id did display some understandable slight roughness in the mid treble and a slight propensity for congestion that was already largely abated by the end of the show. . . however the MPS-5 still sounded more 'complete', resolving, with clearer imaging/staging/harmonic exposure. . . seemed similar in authority/headroom. . . it will be interesting to compare the two when both devices are fully broken in.

Comparison of MPS-5 with Esoteric P03/D03/G03 stack was a little difficult to say the least. Esoteric suite had sub optimal speaker placement that generate some brightness at the top and a less than satisfactory bass. Furthermore, we did not have sufficient Esoteric wiring to have completely satisfactory ICs on tristac and PD. . . so we used Cardas Golden Ref between PD and Esoteric C03 linestage and between D03 and C03.

Within the limitations and artifacts outlined above, what were heard were 2 amazingly good digital front ends once the Esoteric tristack was optimized for balanced operations and upsampled to DSD. While I may have subjectively perceived some advantages in clarity, expansive staging, imaging, and harmonic exposure from the Esoteric, we should consider that the tristack with the non Rubidium G03 clock and the additional ICs and PCs costs over 4 times the Playback Designs MPS-5. Besides, MPS-5 has USB server support today, while Esoteric was showcasing prototype USB support capability that will not be available for sale until CES. G.