Review: Playback Designs MPS-5 CD Player

Category: Digital

1st impressions of the Playback Designs MPS-5.

briefly; The MPS-5 plays redbook and SACD's; it can also be used as a DAC for a music server as well as as a transport. i do plan on getting into server based music and so i like that part. the MPS-5 is also set up so it's software is easily upgradable.

Playback Designs is a new company. this is their first product.

at 1:40pm PDT today the fedex driver pulled up and dropped off the box.

finally; after 5 weeks without.....I HAVE DIGITAL AGAIN.

mine is one of the first 2 units shipped, and the first to arrive. i had heard a prototype a few months back and made a decision to replace my EMM Labs SE Combo with this new product. i had not compared the my EMM Labs Signature directly to that prototype; but i did like some things i heard and made the change.

first; the packaging was perfect and easy to unpack; i was playing music in about 2 minutes after openning the box. the player itself is very handsome; fit and finish are impeccable, a beautiful aluminum case, brushed silver metal on top and black anodized on the bottom. the remote is similarly elegant, and feels very nice in your hand. large, easy to use buttons and it's back lit.

the EMM Labs never had this level of industrial design; but prior to that i owned the Linn CD-12 and before that the Levinson dac and transport. performance is my only criteria; but i also enjoy audio jewelry assuming it can deliver the sonic goods.

how does it sound?

my very first impression in the first 30 seconds was big and bold. the Playback Designs uses a transformer based power supply instead of the switching power supply of the EMM Labs SE Combo. i wonder if that is a factor here.

i must point out that my EMM Labs SE Combo was packed up and shipped to it's new owner in late April. so my aural memory of that is 5 weeks old. OTOH i owned EMM Labs for 5 years, and the SE for the last 2 years. so my sense of that is pretty good.

i'm hearing a sound that fills the soundstage to a greater degree, and the bass seems to have more authority.

beyond that initial impression; like any brand new digital player; the sound started off somewhat congested, sluggish and closed in. after about 45 minutes things started to open up a bit and i could hear farther into the soundstage. it's now been about 90 minutes of play and things are getting more interesting.

it's still somewhat closed in on top but i'm getting more lively micro-dynamics and a bit more transparency in the mids. the bass is getting cleaner and tighter, a few more hours and.......

i like where this is going.

anyway; i'll be breaking this baby in over the next week or so and will continue to offer impressions.

Associated gear
Click to view my Virtual System

Similar products
EMM Labs CDSD SE Transport, EMM Labs DAC6 SE
now at approx 4 hours and my whole digital reproduction reference is significantly changed.

my above comments related to the first couple of hours; as i studied the manual i had a very familiar disc playing on repeat, Burmeister II. i had heard how things were changing cut by cut. then i took some time to post my very 1st impressions.

45 minutes ago i started playing some of my best reference discs; and i must now state that i have never heard any digital that has this level of resolution, while having a wonderful combination of solidness and bass slam, and with a wonderful ease and naturalness. i hear far into musical textures, each musical line has it's own space and decay and transient events are superlative and unique in my digital experience.

i have heard a few digital masters played back and this tops my recollection of those experiences.

i will stop for now as where do i go from this.

anyone who has one of these on the way is going to go nuts when they hear it. i just called a couple of friends to see if i could get someone here to make sure i've not lost it. they didn't answer.

i could be mad.

stay tuned.
ok here are links to pictures of the Playback Designs MPS-5. i had to use a 70mm--300mm VR lens for this as my shorter focal length lens is not yet here.....and i'm not much of a photographer to begin please be gentle.

the MPS-5

back of MPS-5

on the shelf turned on

the remote

the remote has a phase toggle and a dim button to turn the front panel lights off, the remote is also back lit.....very nice and feels comfortable in your hand. the buttons are big enough and well placed so i quickly got a feel for it.
I notice its a 110V unit not a 120......

Excellent review, great room. Obviously, serious music lover. The room is the thing, all else follows.
among other things, I am jealous because the remot is backlit.

As usual, all the audiophiles are at least one step behind mike.

Mike and others help convinced me to get the dartzeel amplifier and then recently I hocked some silver, some gold, and sold my soul to the proverbial devil to get the dartzeel preamp. Now I have an even wider monkey grin but of course this may well be the next evolution in cd players. It looks nice and cute too! I wish players would provide more information on the track playing. My marantz reference lists the track name for sacds but not cds.

Mike keep us posted on your progression and how does the sacds sound?
Radiohead; thanks for the kind comments......i try to keep pushing the envelope. you must have an excellent system considering your wise choices. :)

SACD's sound superb.......breathtaking.....more analog and with terific spacial definition. in the first second of sound you get that sense of space and foundation.

SACD is benefiting as much from the MPS-5 as redbook. all my comments go for both formats. today the player is sounding a bit more open and now has about 25 hours on it.

earlier today a good friend brought his EMM Labs CDSD (with USB) and DAC6e over to compare. this is what i owned for three years and then replaced with the EMM Labs SE combo. so it did allow for a valuable reference.

i will wait to comment myself until he comments.
above i mentioned that a friend had visited me this afternoon and would be commenting on our session. here is a link to those comments;

Ted Smith's impressions

i wish i could write like Ted.

I've known Ted since 2000; he is a frequent visitor to my room and one of my audio mentors. Ted is an SACD expert (he owns 4000 SACD's) and has a world class multi-channel setup. Ted has designed digital audio workstations among other technical talents. Ted is also a moderator and Board member at audiosylum.
Wow, Ted really does write well. I thought he only knew how to write code :)

Can you add your observations as to the perceived differences as best you can remember with the se edition of the dcc2 and transport versus the standard verdion that ted brought over to

regarding comparing the standard EMM with the SE version; two years ago i had the first SE version DAC6 and CDSD (the CDSD was the same as any with the USB input). when i first got the SE combo i still had the standard version for a couple of months. so i had lots of time to hear the differences. my friend Ted came over then also and we did the comparison.

there were differences; but they were subtle. the SE had a slightly lower noise floor, a bit blacker black. the SE version was somewhat more natural and had more ease. and the SE version separated instruments a bit better (likely related to the noise floor issue). some listeners did not easily hear the differences. i heard them and liked them. it was an upgrade. the DCC2 SE has the same exact circut boards as the DAC6 SE, it just only has two of them instead of 6.

anyway; if you are asking how much closer would the SE version have been to the Playback Designs than the standard version Ted brought over yesterday; i would say, almost no closer. the order of magnatude of difference between the standard/SE and the standard/Playback Designs is is huge. and it is huge in many, almost every, possible perameter.

the EMM Labs SE gear is still an excellent digital player that is competitive with all other digital out there except the Playback Designs. i expected to like the Playback Designs but until i heard this on Saturday i really had no idea that it would be this good.

when i write of extreme differences most times i pause and consider whether i really am confident of what i am writing before i hit 'submit'. this is not one of those times.
Thanks for the great review Mike. It may be time for me to take the plunge.

What happens when you insert a DVD-A? Does it try to do anything, or just sit there glaring at you? Have you tried any other file formats?

Do you know anything about the technology and sampling rates? I too would consider using its DAC as the basis of a music server system, so the sampling rates will be important.

Dave, thanks.

i don't personally know the digital design of the Playback Design MPS-5. the manual does specify which kind of discs it plays and i know DVD-A is not included. i have played redbook, both commercial and CDR's, without problems....also SACD's are fine.

i know that the DAC was custom designed and is unique to the Playback Design. how it handles DSD, whether it converts to PCM, whether it does DxD, or anything along those lines i have no idea. whatever the design; it works better than any other i have heard.

sorry i can't be of more help on this.
Just got to hear the unit in a friend's system, and ML's on the money. It's very, very good. Smoother than the Meitner, more like analog without losing resolution.
Skull, thanks for adding your thoughts. if you recall other impressions, please share them.
i did get some clarification;

the DAC in the Playback Designs has an open architecture; it can be 1 bit-5.6mhz or 32 bit-196mhz, 72 bit-496 mhz or anything they want it to be. thru the USB port the software can be updated to whatever they want.

algorithms can be updated.
06-05-08: Mikelavigne said:
"the DAC in the Playback Designs has an open architecture; it can be 1 bit-5.6mhz or 32 bit-196mhz, 72 bit-496 mhz or anything they want it to be. thru the USB port the software can be updated to whatever they want.

algorithms can be updated."

Ah, that's what I was hoping hear. With 1-bit and upgradeable firmware, maybe they'll have everything that I need for both a player and a DAC for my planned music server.

Do you know, will they be at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest?

Mike, thanks so much for the follow-up.

This is getting VERY tempting. I may pull the trigger.


from what i understand Playback Designs will not show at RMAF. maybe someone will bring one to use in their room.

i'll be there; it's my favorite show.
Mike, there's lots of good beer in Colorado. We'll have to find some and clear our ears.

Yeah, I talked to Jonathan last night and he seems to be aiming for the next CES and then returning to RMAF in '09.

Dave, i'll be looking forward to both the beer and getting together. i'd also enjoy hearing about your impressions of the Playback Designs if you go that way.

i noticed on your system page that you are musician and do live recordings; i wonder if your Korg (a raw DSD recorder) might be able to play directly into the Playback Designs at full resolution? that would be very cool if it could be figured out.
Hi Mike,

OMG, I hadn't even thought of that. I just looked and the Korg has USB out, so it looks very possible.

BTW, I ordered the PD player yesterday. Jonathan is showing a shipping date of 6/18 on my invoice.

If any programming is needed a couple of us may need to team up to make sure the DAC will serve the Korg and whatever music server we may use. Jonathan told me the jitter was absolutely -0-, so I'm thinking that this could be an incredibly powerful DAC and foundation for a server, on top of being a great player. We'll see...

Hrrrumpf! *grins* Mike, this is like. . . totally depressing. . . Is there a site/page for this new device. . . and what are intro prices for it?
Spoke to Jonathan this aft. . . very intriguing device. Hope to be able to listen to it at RMAF in one form or another. . . would love to a/b it with my trusty TEAC X-01 Limited.
Guido, if you want to wait that long, then you'll be able to listen to mine at RMAF. We could probably run it through a Capri/312/Mahler combination with Soundings' help so that you can hear it in a somewhat more familiar setting. It'll probably need to be after-hours because I doubt that Soundings would be a dealer, but you never know.

In fact, you'll be very busy, since I suspect you'll need to alot time for a Rowland Criterion audition and maybe beers with Mike and me(or wine if that be your preference, I've got an incredible Chianti).

I'd loan you mine, but if you end up doing a review I might never get it back. It's better to come from the manufacturer. ;-)

Hi Dave, you are perfectly right. . . if you loan me your Chianti. . . I may never return it! :)
Querceto Classico Reserva 2003

The best Chianti I've ever had and it's only about $25 per bottle. There MAY be a bottle or two left in October...

i did get some updated info from Jonathan as my son is putting together a music server for me and we are trying to figure out the best approach. i have not personally confirmed this info.

at this time the USB input will only accept 16/44.

the RCA input (S/PDIF) will accept up to 196/24 PCM. you would need an 1/8th inch RCA (mostly every PC outputs from this type interface) to to full-sized RCA digital cable.

the Toslink will also accept up to 196/24.

the MPS-5 will then convert (with zero jitter it is claimed) the digital source to analog simply by selecting that input with the remote.

the manual has some helpful tips on optimizing the digital output of your PC along with a source for a driver to configure your PC to input to the MPS-5.
Ok, so no Korg DSD to MPS DSD, at least for now.

For long-term archiving I plan to convert the Korg files to 24/196 and put them out on a server. I'm hoping to ultimately have a remote server linked to a TB harddrive, with files in 16/44.1 to 24/196 depending on their sources, connecting to a wireless device behind or around the PD-MPS-5.

Latency and compatability are still issues right now, but I'm thinking that'll be solved soon. Of course, I could alway run another damn wire.

I'm using an Apple TV now to show photos on my HDTV. That's a promising device ruined by some unfortunate flaws purposely imbedded by our kindly control freak, Steve Jobs. My geek daughter wants me to hack it, but I'm leery of the regular Apple updates that render many hacks dead.

Please keep us informed as you pursue a similar path. Your need for hi rez will surely yield a good end result.


Looking forward to knowing from you the performance of the Music server connected to the player via USB to understand how it compares to the cd-transport of the player.


Satyam Bachani.
Has anyone who has listened to the MPS-5 listened to players such as the ARC
CD-7 or AMR? Many people have preferred these over the EMM player/separates. What about separates such as the Acustic Arts Tubed DAC/
transport or MBL 1500 series or 1600 series? Any such comparisons would be
helpful in determining how much of a "breakthrough" product the MPS-5 player
hi Satyam,

i was working (actually my network engineer son) on putting together a music server to use thru the Playback Designs. we were considering the various sound cards and connection choices. it turns out that most of the connections have limitations that restrict them to redbook level data. previously i had mentioned that i was told that Toslink and ASEBU RCA could handle hirez downloads. upon further discussion with Playback Designs it appears that the ASEBU XLR connection is the one that has both the speed and the likely sound card support to handle hirez.

after some discussion, Playback Designs is working on some specific soundcard choices and writing drivers to make it all work. these things can be quick or they can be slow to happen. as i am not the one doing this i cannot say which way this will go. i will be waiting for Playback Designs to recommend a specific card and software choice.

if you are only interested in 16/44 downloads most anything will work fine right now thru any of the digital inputs. my interest is in hirez downloads. i am a disc in the hand guy for CD's.

specifically; the USB is only capable of 16/44.

as soon as i have information with more specifics i will post it.

regarding a music server into the Playback Designs verses the transport....let's say we are talking redbook here. i read about how servers will out do transports; but i have yet to speak to anyone who has actually had that experience.

since the Playback Designs is able to eliminate jitter from the server based input; maybe it will be equal or better than the internal transport.

i know that there are some server based users who will be getting their Playback Designs any time now; possibly they can share their viewpoints on this issue.
Mike, I understand the advantage of a server or harddrive-based system is the lower error rate in reading a hard drive vs. an optical transport reading a CD or SACD. There's no advantage attributable to the DAC; therefore, like you, I'm very much looking foward to implementing a server solution that incorporates my MPS-5's DAC.

You might ask your son about one attribute that I seek, I've already mentioned it to Jonathon and Andreas, I want my server in another room from the two-channel system. I'd like an AppleTV-like device (without the technical limitations and Jobian control freak operation limitations) sitting right behind the MPS-5 to send the digital input into the DAC and system.


my son and i have spoken about where the server should be. we have CAT-5 wired to both sides of my room in the barn as well as draft 802.11n WiFi in the barn and house. i also have a conduit from my listening room to the attic that my air line for my tt compressor runs thru. i could place the server directly above my room near my compressor and then run any special cable down to the MPS-5 (such as the ASEBU XLR which Andreas thinks might be ideal).

ideally; assuming no sonic penalty; i would have a 3 terabyte server in the house and just a tablet based control in my room in the barn. i am not personally familiar with the various interface choices and their limitations. which one's could handle hi-rez; who knows?

worst case; i would have a solid state memory hard drive/ fan-less power supply playback server sitting next to the MPS-5 in my room and download music from the 3-terabyte server into it as i need it. this would keep the interface as short as possible.

until we actually listen it is hard to say which approach will perform the best. unfortunately; my son's knowledge does not include any listening tests of network solutions.

until Andreas recommends a sound card and interface solution we are on hold.
Mike, I am also curious to learn if -- at least in stratospheric systems such as yours -- a server has a chance of outperforming a top shelf drive. Raw error rate is not necessarily the underlying issue, as unhandled errors are very rare in both. Yet jitter elimination definitely may be a factor. Hard disk drives are optimized for timing synchronization at sector level, which is much coarser than the bitwise synchronization required for elimination of audible jitter. So the question is. . . Can jitter control/hardware/software bring the stream from a hard drive to the even smoothness of what is yielded by a traditional optically encoded worm drive? Or has the 'inherent' sonic superiority of hard drives been postulated a priori and perhaps a little oversold?

Only time will tell. . . Guido
"Mike, I understand the advantage of a server or harddrive-based system is the lower error rate in reading a hard drive vs. an optical transport reading a CD or SACD"

Doesn't the content originate on CD and get read through optical drive prior to landing on the server in which case any data that would be lost during the optical read process is already lost before it hits the server drive. So in this case, how can reading from the server be any better?

"Hard disk drives are optimized for timing synchronization at sector level, which is much coarser than the bitwise synchronization required for elimination of audible jitter"

Don't most digital audio systems that read data from a storage device cache the data prior to use to isolate the playback from the performance bottlenecks of the native storage device, in this case the performance of the server hard disk drive? If true, then as long as the cache can be kept filled with the needed data before use, the performance of the storage device (optical, magnetic or otherwise) shouldn't matter. doesn't matter.

If I understand "jitter" correctly, this (as well as other types of distortion) could still be an issue regardless of caching and/or storage medium depending on how accurately the analog signal is assembled from the digital source by the DAC.
06-27-08: Mapman said:
""Mike, I understand the advantage of a server or harddrive-based system is the lower error rate in reading a hard drive vs. an optical transport reading a CD or SACD"

Doesn't the content originate on CD and get read through optical drive prior to landing on the server in which case any data that would be lost during the optical read process is already lost before it hits the server drive. So in this case, how can reading from the server be any better?"

My understanding is that in transfer the program re-reads the optical drive rather than "correcting" the error with a logarithm, except as a last resort. Obviously, you need a download program that checks for errors and re-reads, but I can't name a program for you.

"My understanding is that in transfer the program re-reads the optical drive rather than "correcting" the error with a logarithm, except as a last resort."

That could only help and not hurt. You don't have to have a server storage device in the picture though for this to be done. A storage devices job, including optical, is to deliver any and all data quickly and reliably, so it would make sense to build the re-read functionality right into the optical drive unit for best results regardless of where the data goes from there.

Why is it that no CD player or similar digital source I am aware of provide a meter that indicates a % of bits expected that were actually received?

That would take the guess work out of the picture for me by providing an objective means of determining how well the device is really performing, rather than guessing or trying to figure it out with my ears, Listening is a subjective process based on the listener and not an objective measure.

Or maybe there is a test device that can be connected to objectively measure the bit rate?
See this "Memory Player" write up about it's reader:
Memory Player Ad

At a glance, the write up does indicate that the reader component is where the re-read occurs, which makes sense.

The key benefit of a music server though is to enable easy access to large amounts of music rather than having to swap CDs. I doubt there is anything inherent in the fact that it is a server alone that results in better sound. Take the ability to store large amounts of digital music on high capacity drives out of the picture and the sound should remain the same.

Looks like very well thought out and flexible design overall in this case that surely sounds very good. I'm sure that the optical drive and DAC used are major factors in the resulting superior sound.

The (server) box in this case includes what is apparently a very robust optical drive/reader component and a very sophisticated DAC, but the fact that the bits read from CD are first stored on a magnetic server drive before played probably has little or nothing to do with the sound quality.

Magnetic media server drives are inherently faster than the optical drives, which I believe are relatively slow, but proper use of caching in any practical data delivery system solves the data read rate problem.
Mapman, makes little difference. . . data cachhing does not typically perform bitwise synchronization. . . wordwise if you are lucky, probably coarser than that. The only problem I see in using hard drive servers is many seem to be operating on a born-again urban legend which states that hard drives servers are 'inherently superior' to traditional worm drives. . . meaning what? Said who? . . . if convenience were taken into account then. . . totally different ball game.

All I am saying is that the proof shall remain in the pudding. . . whose aledged supreme delicacy I have regretably not sampled as yet. . . but that I am quite willing eventually to taste test.

sorry for the delay in my response, it's been a busy busy time.

i'm am not that knowledgable about the challenges of the PC environment....but i am quite skeptical that any hard drive can compete with the best optical drives.....particularly after living with the Playback Designs.

there is another factor which affects how i feel on this subject; which i bring up at the risk of de-railing this thread. that is how the tourmaline hair dryer tweak affects any digital disc performance. i seriously doubt any sort of hard drive server based digital or even a 'so-called' Memory Player can compete.

anyway; the bar is set very high for server based digital to reach.

i do see many logistical reasons for using a music server and do plan to pursue this direction myself to see what is possible.
Mike, I'd never say "never."

I think that all the components are there, but yet to be put together correctly. yes, optical readers have finally gotten very good, but flash hard drives have much potential.

Thank you Mike, I agree with you. I may consider a hard drive music server system in the future for pure convenience. As for its preported audio superiority. . . it is a perfectly good theory. . . and therefore can, at least in principle, be proven, or found to be flawed, provided we keep a reasonably open mind on the subjectd. Guido
I was asked a question on my thread, so I thought I would post my response here as well ... FWIW.


I'm not sure if I can add anything more meaningful to what has already been said about the PD player.

Construction wise, the player seems to be built like a tank. It doesn't have any funny quirks and noises that are associated with EMM. It reads discs extremely quickly and has been performing without any glitches. I have to admit that the styling isn't all that remarkable (I prefer the looks of the EMM, which isn't saying too much), but it does look better in person than any pictures that have been posted - no big deal for me. The display is easy to read and provides meaningful information. I suppose only time will tell, but the build quality gives me a lot of confidence.

The thing about the PD that I noticed when I first plugged it in was that this sound had a tremendous sense of ease about it - and not in a rolled off boring sort of way. It just sounds more real - more liquid. After about 5 hours of burn-in, it started to open up and you could tell that there is something special about this player. It has all the details and dynamics of the EMM, but the sound is not forced at you - music just flows in a very natural way. One of my favorite discs right now is Katie Melua - Piece by Piece. I have never heard her guitar and voice sound so smooth and real. It exceeds the EMM in the way it extracts subtle nuances and inner detail, but not in a over-hyped and exagerated way. Digital isn't supposed to sound this way.

The PD player has a deeper soundstage. Images float more realistically in space and have a sense of larger/fuller dimension about them. The illusion of Katie being in my room is greater; you can almost reach out and grab her - hmmm :).

The PD excels in the bass region. A lot more foundation, digs deeper with greater authority and punch. The EMM sounds thin in comparison.

It took my player about 150 hours to really open up. The mids started out congested when compared to the EMM, but that criticism has totally disappeared now.

The EMM is still an incredible player, but compared to the PD, it sounds more digital and less refined. I was contemplating upgrading my EMM to SE, but when I started reading all the positive comments, the current introductory pricing and knowing this player was a fresh design from the former partner at EMMLabs, it was really hard to pass up. Jonathan Tinn was also a pleasure to deal with. -- I'm very glad I took that leap of faith.
As for build quality, I've got a Rowland amp to compare it to, which is made out of billet aircraft aluminum with a beautiful milled faceplate, machined buttons, etc.

OTOH, my PD is not quite up to that level. It's just a smidge down. If the Rowland is 100th percentile (I think it is) then the PD is 90+th percentile. The chassis is solid and attractive. If were to judge purely on chassis, then the top Ayre is one of the few that competes with Rowland (I think their chassis are made by the same machine works). The Emm is certainly not in the very top league as the Rowland either. Looking at pictures of the DCS, it seems comparable to the PD. The Chord is so different looking that I can't tell much from the pictures.

So, focusing only on the chassis, the PD is not quite as good as it gets, but it's reasonable close. Given what Rowland has to say about RFI/EMI and how the chassis can mitigate that, I can say that I'd rather have an even heavier Rowland-like chassis, but the plate of the PD is reasonably thick and surely Andreas was fully aware of the digital RFI/EMI issues and addressed those, given the beautiful resulting sound as evidence.

BTW, I do go balanced into my Rowland from the PD, but I used it for a few days with unbalanced ICs while waiting on my new Analysis Plus balanced ICs. When I switched from AP unbalanced to AP balanced I heard no apparent difference; however, I must say, I wasn't really thinking in terms of A-B comparison at the time. Certainly no change jumped out at me. So, I think that the PD will work well in an unbalanced system.

Hey everyone,

have just bought a MPS-5. Was very intrigued by the approach taken by Playback Designs and ive always been a sucker for original and innovative audio .

Ive been listening for just under 50 hours, so its a bit early for a definitive opinion and im going to wait a few weeks to get rid of new buyer enthusiasm which kinda always taints one's objectivity.

Lets just say that it's the most organic and classy sounding player i've ever own (previous players include Audio Aero, Accuphase, Wadia). I listen to a variety of musical genres, from classical to hard rock: everything ive thrown at it was a revelation. Im very bad at analogies and i find them overused, but i'll still do it: it was like listening to music coated with honey without the syrup.
Although it's a bit thin and closed in, this is normal for a brand new unit. Its supposed to go 3D at around 200 hours (wow, cant wait for that).

I cant believe there's 300 hours of break in to go which should make this player even better !!

Important note for all you MPS-5 potential buyers out there: ive seen reviews saying this unit is quiet operation, it is NOT. It makes a very audible motor and spinning noise when starting and stopping tracks. It is less audible when playing, but its still more noisy than most CD players out there. So if you're sitting right next to your rig, this might be a problem.