Playback Designs MPS-5 - Measerments v. Sound

For all who are curios to read Michael Fremer`s comment
on one of the most controversial reviews in Stereophile (Feb 2010) concerning PD MPS-5 cd player, in which the ultimate question rises again - Can we actually measure perceived sound ?

"Thanks for writing. I would appreciate it if you'd post my response on Audiogon.

It's interesting that you say "it's time to rethink measurement methods" because John Atkinson just took the player back with him to perform some new ones on that player.

It's important to understand that the designer of that player has been at the forefront of DSD technology almost from its inception. Read the bio notes on the Playback website and/or in my review (which was written of course before I had any idea how the player would measure).

Andreas Koch knows what he is doing! That player's measurements are not the result of a botched effort or because he is unable to design a player that will measure as "perfectly" as is expected in conventional terms. Just as it's fairly easy these days to design a speaker that measures "flat" on-axis. But that is hardly the end all and be all of good speaker design!

Atkinson recently met up with Mr. Koch at an event and they had a long discussion about the measurements and that is why JA is revisiting them. The players measures as it does purposely according to Mr. Koch.

Believe me about one thing: you will not hear "noise" as such from that player!

You also understand that there are anti-SACD advocates out there who claim that SACD is not a high fidelity medium! Those include Dr. Stanley Lipschitz, in who I distrust all the time, but he's got the measurements to "prove" his case.

I can "prove" to you that LP playback measures way worse than CD playback but the listening is what counts to me. We don't measure everything. Our brains are far more sensitive than any measurement yet devised. Yes, we also can be fooled but we are also excellent receptors.

JA admitted to me that he's not quite sure what Mr. Koch was getting at in their discussion but that he's open to learning and understanding. JA understands that Mr. Koch is well aware of what he's doing in that design and perhaps one day we'll all understand what he's doing and why what he's done makes that player sound so good.

I suggest you listen to it. Or measure it. If you measure it you may reject it, but if you listen, you might find it's the player you want to own....

-Michael "
Michael - Certain measurement such as noise or jitter are important but spects might be useless. I would not buy , for instance, an amp on specifications alone and would tend to pick for audition one that has poor measurements.

SACD - is one bit PWM scheme similar to class D amps. It is pretty much output of Sigma-Delta converter before filtering. It is used in recording studios in 4-bit wide format known as DSD. Resolution of SACD is equivalent to 20 bit/96kHz. It provides dynamic range of 120dB and frequency range of 100kHz (often CDP limited to 50kHz) - I would say that it is high quality media.
I had the opportunity of listening at some length to a very well broken in MPS-5 2 years ago in Denver on a few different systems. The player belongs to DCSTEP. The device is in fact remarkable for its resolution and musicality. The only situation where I heard MPS-5 at a slight disadvantage was when it was matched against an Esoteric P-03/D-03/G-03 stack. Yet, in this particular case, some imperfect cabling matches rendered the comparison of the 2 front end systems of doubtful value. Mayhaps sometimes I'll be able to listen to an MPS-5 in my own system. G.

I’ve never understood those who stand by specs and data sheets devoutly, with due condsideration to amp & speaker matching of course, over the info their own eyes and ears provide them. To each their own I suppose.

As substantive as may be the info gleaned from critical measurements can imply or even dictate now and then, the only capacities which peak my own interest are size, weight, color choices, and cost, predominately, with the possible exception of a troublesome impeadance load a loud speaker set may abide.

Certainly for a source item, it’s representation of the recording is paramount.

Doubtless no one will buy an item which reads great but performs poorly…. Or at any length they won’t own it for long. Remarkable specs are fodder for forums and the occasional chest beating.

My hat is off to those pieces which yield excellent specs…. But my wallet is out to those who offer greater performance. The only pair of items which will draw the wallet out quicker would be those which possessed both great performance and great value…. And naturally, the fact I’m in the market for such a thing.
I've experienced a brief opportunity to listen to the PD MPS-5 in Mike Lavigne's system. There is no doubt - it is a contender.

If the Playback sounds anything like the stacked Esoteric combo I would not be interested. Esoteric sounds to me analytical and hifi ish and thin. There is no sense of musicality. I hope Playback is not like the Esoteric.
I heard the PD unit at a dealer using dartZeel electronics and Evolution Acoustics speakers. It is not at all as you describe the Esoteric (which was pretty much my impression of the Esoteric as well, though perhaps not to the degree you felt)--the PD is an extraordinarily musical piece of equipment. Certainly at the high level of my EMM Labs combination and other top players. I dare not listen to it in my system because I can't afford it right now!
"If it measures good and sounds bad, it is bad; if it measures bad and sounds good, you have measured the wrong thing."

- Daniel R. von Recklinghausen,
former Chief Research Engineer, H.H. Scott
If Esoteric gear like X-01 D2 or P-03/D-03/G-03 combo does not have over 1,000 hours on it, do not bother listening to it, it is rather painful to behold. Once it is broken in, I personally adore it. Whether of course this means that I have no musical taste, is entirely a plausible hypothesis from some point of view.
In the forthcoming Feb Stereophile magazine, and in his column – As We See It - JA concludes his effort of many years of trying to understand and explain the phenomena well known by audio enthusiasts that reproduced recorded music through loudspeakers can never really imitate the live event of real instruments, by saying –
"Ultimately, therefore, it is perhaps best to just accept that live music and recorded music are two different phenomena". He basic explanation for that conclusion is fixed in the missing of one parameter that is never captured by the recordings – the "intensity" of the original sound.
Reading his conclusion and then reading the PD player review and his measurements findings of that player, made me wonder how could he miss the obvious conclusion, that maybe it is time for some rethinking of the fundamentals, meaning the basic measurements method that through many years "helped" perpetuating this sad outcome that we all face when we go the endless route of trying to capture the moon in our pond.
Papaya - How can you expect "intensity" from the source (CD, LP) that has compressed dynamics. Just grand piano alone has huge dynamics that cannot be reproduced without speakers "buzzing" on boom box or cheap system. Audiophiles represent very small buying power - no incentive to make uncompressed media. Higher compression allows higher average loudness that sells CDs.
As usual, I'll take the minority view. I agree that recorded and live are inherently different, and that attempting to reconcile the 2 forms of music amounts to a futile enterprise. . . as for recorded music being inherently less intense. . . it truly depends. I have heard plenty of examples corroborating or disproving the assertion in question. I prefer to suggest that recordings are a form of hyper reality, which requires a certain amount of 'congruence' with physical performances to be satisfying. . . but for the time being I deliberately leave the meaning of 'congruence' free to float. G.
One of many reasons why I love "Golden Era" recordings(late 50' - early 70') is audibly less compression there - as compared to most new original recordings....
I was with Guido when the Esoteric stack and PD were compared and I disagreed with him at the time. IMO, the Esoteric only got close when we inserted Guido's high-dollar Audioquest IC (was it the "River" Guido, or something like that?). I still preferred the PD, but the Esoteric did indeed fill out and become much, much better with his IC. It wasn't close using whatever they had in the system before, IMO.

This points out another issue with these multi-box set ups. The quality of the connecters has a very significant impact on what you hear at the end and they can add greatly to already monumental cost.

I like PD's approach of providing good usage of the internal DAC and clock, without resorting to separate boxes.

Dave, the ICs I provided were Audioquest Sky. In the end, we simply did not have enough ICs and PCs of the same brand/model to make the testing environment truly uniform and meaningful. While I did prefer the Esoteric stack, this was with a full triple stack with external clock, not just P-03/D03. Furthermore, I really do not remember if we were using the G-03 clock on the MPS-5. And of course, the fact that I prefer one solution over another, simply points to a purely personal preference, and is no indication of one device being 'better' than another. G.
Eactly Guido.

The PD was using its own internal clock. We simply transferred the CD or SACD to its tray after the Esoteric. I remember that we had your CD, but don't recall if we listened to any of my SACDs.

"the fact that I prefer one solution over another, simply points to a purely personal preference, and is no indication of one device being 'better' than another. G."

Couldn't agree more Guido!

if anyone has one now they regret buying they can send it to me and lessen their despair & anguish. In return I'll make another (but this time, very large) donation to the folks in Haiti in your name.

BTW... I have my own ICs & PCs.
O.k., just made the jump and orderd PD MPS-5. Lets see what the fuss was all about. Measurements v. The truth of sound..... Blindjim - if it won`t work your my first option of salvation.
if there's no future proof on the above players are worthless IMHO.
And by future proof (which is now for me and many many others) i mean USB-asychronous interface for native 24/96 or firewire capabilities to much high-end music servers.

Esoteric can be upgraded
Playback only restricted to 48khz.
Weiss, dCS, Wavelength, Ayre already fully complied
Wadia, I'm not sure yet.

And one question
If it measures good and plays even better
Then what?

Happy listening.
Kops, Esoteric D-03 can be upgraded. I believe that X-01 series and below cannot be upgraded, except for SA-60 that already has USB built in. G.
I believe SA-50, not SA-60, has a USB input.

Dealer disclaimer
Kops, you can go to AES/EBU, S/PDIF or TOSLINK to achieve 192 kHz/24-bit operation with the Playback Designs today.

I'm not sure what you mean when you say "future proof". With USB, the PD's firmware can be updated (it has been a couple of times since I've owned mine) and there are ample ways to use external devices to obtain 192/24 operation in the current hardware/firmware configuration. No device is likely to cover all potential future hardware possibilities, since we won't know them until we see them.

Thank you Bill, for some reasons I keep confusing Esoteric SA-60 with SA-50. . . suspect it's age. . . will only get worse (grins!) G.
Convinced that we are still not measuring the parameters that are meaningful to determining good sound.

Ever see a 1KHz square wave recorded on analog tape!!! (It's a cockeyed sawtooth at best, but nearly everyone loves analog tape's sonics).

If it sounds good, it is good! Measurements are for us repair guys, they do tell you whether something is functioning, just not whether it sounds great!
Hi Dave,

What did you compare the MPS-5 with before you pulled the trigger?
Kiwi, at the time I had a modded Pioneer in my system. I'd listened to Emm, dCS and others at shows, but never in my system. I had a PS Audio Lamda and one of their DACs from the early 1990s, but mechanical failure had done them in.

Ric Shultz and I were discussing whether there was anything else that could be done to raise the standard of the Pioneer's RBCD performance, which I was still unhappy with after getting very good SACD and DVD-A performance with his mods. He suggested that I look into the PD. I then read Mike Lavigne's review and spoke with him and ordered the PD somewhat on the basis of his recommendation. Thanks again Mike!

Subsequently I've done direct comparisons in the same system with Emm, Marantz and Esoteric's single-box and mulit-box solutions. I've heard the PD in the same system with Boulder's new box, but not at the same time. I've also heard dCS top single and multi-box systems, but I've not had the PD in the same systems.

So, I made the purchase on the basis of others' reviews, but I've been fortunate enough to validate the performance for myself directly against many fine systems and indirectly against others. I'd recommend it to any friend that's seriously into high rez digital and really high performance RBCD playback.

How does it compared with Linn Klimax DS player?
Where can I read Mike Lavigne's review? I know it is now a bit dated, and there are others obviously including Mike Fremer's but also the two others (David Robinson and David Clark). Nonetheless it would be helpful. Thanks
I just had the pleasure to audition the MPS-5 along with other fine digital sources. It was the EMM Labs XDS1, Linn Akurate DS, and my current Krell Standard MK3. An Ayre C5XE-MP will be coming soon, and hopefuly a dCS Puccini as well. To be honest I don't have that much motivation to test other digital players after hearing the MPS-5.

I don't think I can add much value to the other reviews, but I can say I agree with everything they said. I preferred the presentation of the MPS-5 over all the others. The XDS1 was also very good, but it's so much more expensive, and yet I still preferred the sound of the MPS-5. Fit and finish on the XDS1 might be just a tad nicer, the buttons pressed a bit firmer, the transport seems like it "slid in" with a firmer grip (I heard the XDS1 uses Esoteric's most expensive transport, but I can't confirm that, and I had also heard that it's the same as the PD MPS-5), and it had a repeat button which I find very handy.

But all this is so minor compared with the sound. The MPS-5 was bigger and bolder, the bottom end fuller, the soundtage wider and higher, and the decay of pianos longer and more natural. Those were the most obvious differences. As far as resolution, I didn't have enough time to go through enough music, but any difference are probably minor.

The Linn Akurate had a leaner soundstage versus the MPS-5 and the XDS1, and sometimes at the end of a note could have just the slightest of glare I thought. However, I find the Linn the easiest way to play high rez 176/24bit music. There is just no beating hooking up directly to an ethernet cable and being able to play files off your NAS located somewhere else in the house (my server room where the router/switches are), and controlling it with an iPod touch WITHOUT any computers having to be turned on. A computer (music server, whatever you want to call it) turned on and hooked up to a DAC via AES is not my idea of the future.

An MPS-5 with an ethernet input would be so perfect.

Lastly, my Krell is quite far below any of the above in terms of everything.

Some pictures if there's any interest:
Boulder is updating their 1021 CD player to enable ethernet connectivity...apparently in the last stages of Beta testing
anyone try the PD Vs. Reimyo ?
any comments?
Isaac, thanks for your added input and images. The more sources that hear the same thing, the better.
Changster, thanks for posting. I will be purchasing a MPD-5 (no interest in SACDs) very soon and it was nice to read your' informed thoughts. I have been going through a lot of DACS attempting to find a DAC that can do 24/192khz and at the very least come close in sound (but hopefully better) my John Wright modified Bidat.

A number of newer dacs have come and been slain... LOL!!! Hopefully the Playback will be victorious. I had great hopes for my MSB unit, but while it is very very refined I think I am looking for something a bit different.
"O.k., just made the jump and orderd PD MPS-5. Lets see what the fuss was all about. Measurements v. The truth of sound....."


Have you received the unit yet? If so, what do you think?
Has anyone received the new upgrade board. I think it is an upgrade power supply. I am still waiting for one from my dealer. I wonder how much of an improvement it might make?
I did the upgrade a few days ago, after about 6 month of using the MPS-5 player. Hearing the player the last couple of days after the upgrade I can say for sure – this upgrade is a must. I remember one reviewer who wrought that the player sounded to him a bit "confused" and "uncontrolled" in the bass region. I also heard that . Indeed, the sound was always impressive with bass foundation but the musical picture was, to my ears, sometimes unclear, a bit unfocused in a way that I couldn`t put my finger exactly on it, but made me at times bothered and a bit detached.
I can not say what was the change they did (I have no electrical understanding but I`ve noticed some resistors were changed to capacitors in one part of the power supply section). The company did not disclose why they did the change and how it will influence the sound. But the change is to my ears a real wonder. Everything came into place and bass definition was lifted to SOTA performance, no more undefined or uncontrolled bass, no more blurred picture, and when you get the parts right and in place you get a complete musical picture. Involvement factor is at best. I can now fully "trust" this player`s musical message and for my taste and ears it has more organic and realistic musical presentation than anything else I know including the EMM XSD1 . If you`ve appreciated the MPS-5 player before, I think now you will understand better why. That at least happened to me.
Can this upgrade be performed by the owner or does the unit have to be shipped back to the factory?
It can be done by the owner. Needs the right tools to open the different screws. Pulling out the sockets from the power supply card needs a bit patienc but the player is very impresively designed ,so no problem at all doing it by yourself. If you do the upgrade, let me know what you think of it.
I have never heard anything like it.
Not sure if this is true but my AD said the change to this circuit board (you swap out the entire circuit board where the power supply comes in - I saw it) is mostly to reduce the heat produced. Maybe some people were complaining the player got too hot?
The MPS-5 indeed gets hot, but the same as before the change. I can`t see (feel) any difference in that regard.
I repeat what I have said before, now a few days and many hours after the change. IMO it is important change that has influence on the sound. Makes the player even better one.
The new board appears to have higher capacitance, perhaps endowing it with greater power reserve.
There is an audible improvement in the sound.
I just got my upgrade power supply board. I should have it installed next week while I am away. Will report once I get my PD back with new power supply.
Keep us posted on your findings.
How much does it cost for the power supply upgrade board?.

$ 240 inc. in-house installment by the dealer.
I have the updated board install for a few days now.
Temperature may have dropped a bit but the unit is still quite warm to the touch. So far, I would say the sound is more open with better clarity. The bass has better definition but perhaps a bit less weight and authority than before. One may also say that the bass before was a bit too boomy. Now the balance from top to bottom is more coherent. I am leaving the unit on all the time and let see if the sound will continue to improve over the next few weeks or not.