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.

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.