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playback designs

MPS-5 Player

as reviewed by Dave Clark







Reimer Speaker Systems Tetons (with the Hi-Vi Isodynamic Planar tweeters and series crossovers) heavily treated with Marigo VTS Dots, with Townshend Audio super-tweeters.

Clayton Audio M200 monoblock amplifiers (with Hi-Fi Tuning fuses), Sutherland PhD phonostage (treated with Marigo VTS Dots), and a Cary Audio SLP-05 preamplifier w/Pope 6SN7s (with Hi-Fi Tuning fuses).

Digital: Playback Design MPS-5 player, the EMM CDSA SE (with Hi-Fi Tuning fuses) and a Cary Professional 306 SACD/CD (with Hi-Fi Tuning fuses) players treated with Marigo VTS dots, Shakti Onlines and Stones, and the Audio Magic Pulse Gen ZX.
Analog: Transrotor 25/25/60 Leonardo turntable with a Shelter 901 MC cartridge w/Marigo dot. Sennheiser HD540 headphones and Meier Audio HA-2 headphone amplifier.
Computer Based System (main system): MacBook (iTunes 9.0.1 or Amarra 3184) to an Empirical Audio Off Ramp 3 via Locus Design Nucleus USB cable (or direct to the DAC via a van den Hul Optocoupler II Toslink cable). Purist Audio Contego S/PDIF RCA or AES/EBU, von Gaylord Chinchilla AES/EBU, or DH Labs D-75 AES/EBU digital cables feeding the digital inputs on the Cary Professional 306 or Playback MPS-5). Thermaltake Muse NAS-Raid 5 (three 500 GB Hitachi Enterprise drives). Shakti Stones and Onlines. Cat 6 and Netgear gigabit switch. (Read this article for more).

Kubala-Sosna Emotion, Purist Audio Proteus Provectus, Audio Magic Clairvoyant 4D, and/or Soundstring interconnects. Kubala-Sosna Emotion, Purist Audio Proteus Provectus, and Audio Magic Clairvoyant 4D speaker cables. Kubala-Sosna Emotion, Dynamic Design Spirit-C Digital (CD players), Audio Magic Clairvoyant 4D (preamp), and JPS Aluminata (amps) AC cords.

Audio Magic Transcendence power conditioner, Nanotec Nespa #1, Furutech RD-2 demagnitizer, Acoustic Revive RR-77 with KingRex DC power supply, Bybee XLR Golden Goddess Tails, Golden Goddess Super Effect Speaker Bullets, Blue Circle BC86 Noise Hound (amp circuit) and Audio Prism QuietLines (throughout the house). Dedicated 20 (amplifiers) and 15 amp (everything else) AC circuits. Tons of Shakti Stones and On-Lines, and Original Cable Jackets (frig's AC). Various Marigo VTS Dots used extensively throughout the system and room (window behind listening seat). EchoBuster acoustical treatments and Shakti Hallographs. BDR cones and board (turntable), BDR cones and Jumbos (under speakers). Mondo racks and stands and Townshend Audio 2D (amps) and 3D Seismic Sinks (CD players and preamp). Walker Audio Ultimate High Definition Links, Talisman, and SST, and Furutech Nano Liquid. Clever Little Clock. Various hard woods placed here and there along with numerous Peter Belt treatments. audioexcellence az AudioDharma Cable Cooker for all cables.


As good as it gets? But in a good way… a really, really good way. Or is it more like… this is as good as it gets—that it can't get any better than this? Or the proverbial beauty is more than just skin deep… or in other words, it is way, way more than just a pretty face.

I don't know. I guess any of those will work, but the simple truth is that this has been one of those reviews that simply escapes me… the Playback Designs MPS-5 (or if you need it spelled out, the Music Playback System 5) imparts so little of itself onto… or perhaps even better "into" the music, meaning that what it is doing to the music is rather difficult to characterize… when compared against similarly priced competitors (like the EMM CDSA SE and Cary 306 Professional—both stellar players in their own right though from different perspectives). I am to a great degree, at a loss in how best to say how the player 'sounds'… so maybe it would be easier to just write about how it does not sound. Though I suppose if push came to shove I could easily say that the MPS-5 is quite honest about what it presents to the listener sonically, though not honest in a way that is analytically sterile or without natural color and musicality. You will get to hear everything on your discs, bits, or whatever, with such a great sense of neutrality (say neutral and yet again oh-so musical), that the player is really more about getting 'out of the way' of the music as opposed to getting 'into the way' of the music by doing this or that. That is it ain't coloring or editorializing whatever it is playing back—either as a DAC or as a CD/SACD player.

Yeah it is both—meaning that the MPS-5 is basically a transport combined with a DAC that allows for just about any sort of playback via a disc (or input from some source to its RCA S/PDIF, AES/EBU, Toslink, and USB which is limited to 16/44.1… sigh) at any sampling/bit rate (16/44.1 up to 24/192 and yes it can even handle a DSD signal via its proprietary inputs) that you want to toss its way (except for DVD-A). Every signal the player 'sees' (either from spinning a CD or from any of its digital inputs is converted into DSD) and Playback suggests that all the digital inputs should not only sound the same as each other, but when used as a DAC any digital input from a whatever source should sound identical to a spinning Red Book CD as long as all things are done right (ripping quality, bit integrity, file format, etc., you know all the stuff that we cannot agree on that impacts a file being played back from whatever… like a computer!).

But before I go headlong into the sonics of the MPS-5, let me digress here a bit… the MPS-5 is somewhat unique in that it does not use conventional DACs per se. That is, what it features is not the usual DAC design based on a plethora of whatever DAC chips are the flavor of the month, year, decade, or whatever… no, the MPS-5 is from a whole different mother—that born of the computer brethren. See, Andreas Koch[i] has figured out that by using what someone else is offering as a DAC chip (like Burr-Brown, TI, Wolfson, Analog Devices, etc.) then he is limited to, well… what someone else is offering and all he can do is work to make that better, which for Andreas, is like putting a Band-Aid on someone else's booboo. So instead of being pigeonholed by the limitations of some off the shelf chip (even with a gaggle of the best 24-bit chips available), he went the route of using general gate arrays that can be programmed with his own discrete and proprietary algorithms that allow the MPS-5 to do what he wants it to do… and in a way that would address all the other issues realized and dealt with in other more 'conventional' CD players and/or DACs. Like digital filtering/brick wall filters and pre- and post-ringing.

To quote from the Playback site: "Most standard off-the-shelf DAC chips introduce unnatural frequency effects ("brick wall filter effect" and others). With its discrete approach Playback Designs has control over every little step and algorithm inside the digital-to-analog conversion process and was able to address the fundamental flaws of the off-the-shelf chip solutions that other manufacturers generally use."

In speaking to Andreas on the topic of pre- and post-ringing (see the Ayre site for an excellent explanation on this matter), the design of the MPS-5 addresses (eliminates, deals with, mitigates… whatever you prefer to use here works for me as the proof is in the listening) the issue of pre- and post-ringing so that the 'audible' end result is as free of this digital artifact as realized in any analog signal. And of course jitter is dealt the "not-an-issue" blow by means of their PDFAS (Playback Designs Frequency Arrival System) which eliminates the need for conventional PLLs and clocks to re-clock an incoming signal… to minimize or mitigate jitter to levels that have no audible impact on one's music. How so you ask? Well, to paraphrase from the site a bit… "The PDFAS completely eliminates jitter out of the audio signal by how jitter is 'seen' via the player's proprietary algorithms." To explain a bit further, Playbacks says that, "the DAC design inside the Playback Designs product line does exactly that: clock jitter from incoming digital audio signals can be described as an analog signal that gets mixed together with a quantized digital signal (our ideal and constant sample rate clock). So before any processing can happen we need to bring these 2 components into the same domain: The Playback Designs system quantizes the clock jitter into a digital signal, where it then can be subtracted from the original sample rate while the latter is converted to analog at the same time." Cool…. No jitter, no pre- or post-ringing, and basically no digital nasties to get in the way of one's music. With the MPS-5 you get just the music and nothing more.

How do I know that all this works as PD claims? Well, not so sure I do, except when listening to say any other digital product that the manufacturer claims to be low in jitter (how low can you go before it is all moot—50, 25, 10, 5, 1, .05 picoseconds—no one seems to have a clear definitive statement that everyone agrees with and with the MPS-5 they ain't saying) and/or where the effects of pre- and post-ringing have been addressed, well, there exists an audible commonality to this "jitter-free-digital-free-nastiness-ness". That is the music has a musical liquidity that is about as stress-free as one can get. There is—to a greater degree than DACs/players that do not purport improvements/advancements in these areas—an absence in grain, grit, or digital glare and hardness that makes the music annoying and well, sound more digital-like than say analog-like. Meaning there is a wonderful sense of space and ambiance along with a natural presence of details and openness; as opposed to being more 2D than being 3D while having either a washed over presentation (lacking in 'proper' details and resolution) or one that is closed-in and lacking in a living presence. Or for lack of a better description, where it sounds less "real" or being unlike something one recalls having experienced in a live event. And the tonality, quite nice that it is… a very real-like realness to whatever is being reproduced here. I heard this tonal rightness with the Ayre CD player which features their MP filter to address pre- and post-ringing… and I hear this tonal realness with the MPS-5 as well. Way nice indeed.

To go further, what I hear with the MPS-5 spinning CDs is an enveloping presence that is rich in details, ambiance, and an overall spatiality that is substantially larger than any other digital source I have had in house—and that is in every direction: depth, width, height, and the proverbial palpable 3D presence. The soundstage is cleanly huge extending way beyond the walls of my listening room… but only when allowed for by the recorded event of course. Which means that there is no sonic trickery making any and all recordings something they ain't. If it has it, you will hear it, simple as that. And depending on how one wants to define this—and I find either acceptable—the MPS-5 will either place the listener more 'into' the musical space or it will bring more of the musical space into the room… both in a way that is quite amazingly so when compared to say either the Cary 306 Professional or the EMM CDSA SE. In my system, the Cary has a more distant and somewhat less 3D perspective and the EMM has more of an upfront and less 3D perspective when compared directly to that of the MPS-5. Whereas, the MPS-5 ain't really either—it simply has more there there. Make that a big real-time there. If the recording is laid-back or upfront than that is what you will get… the MPS-5 will not make any recording one or the other.

Earlier I wrote that the MPS-5 is quite rich in details… make that wonderfully resolving, but being so rich in details one could easily suggest that the MPS-5 might be construed as being analytical as say "the cut-from-similar-cloth by its heritage" EMM CDSA SE tends to be. Yeah the EMM does present the music as being all-that and then some; that is the EMM is a very resolving player and in many instances one that is to the nth degree. The EMM is clearly more so than say the Cary 306 which is itself a resolving player, but one that resolves musical details and such in a darker and more easy going less forceful way. But for many listeners who have visited our system, the EMM can be a wee bit over the top this resolution; and as such these listeners tend to go with the Cary's overall musicality to that of the EMM's more viscerally driven resolving presentation. On the other hand (like with Carol for example), the EMM's quality of being more upfront and visceral can be quite captivating and the darker quality of the Cary can be, well… less so. What's so nice about MPS-5 is that it gets you the best of both worlds without going to such an extreme—the details are there in spades, as is the visceral engagement, but in a way that is more reminiscent of the best in analogue; easy and right with nothing going over the top. You want it, it's here, but it won't draw attention to itself in a way that begs the listener to "listen to me, look what I can do"! Again, the MPS-5 is more about what it is not doing to the music—no hype, no over exaggeration, and simply no emphasis of any one thing over another—than what it is doing to the music.

The MPS-5 just does things more right than either the Cary or the EMM. Which does not mean it will necessarily be the right player for you. That is, if you find the need for your music to possess or not to possess more of this and less that, than the MPS-5 might not be the way to go. Like wanting more or less tonal richness or color… or whatever depending on how your system is balanced (we listen to a system and not individual components, so in the end it is all about how everything is playing synergistically together—to varying degrees). Now adding or subtracting whatever tonal quality to one's music is not necessarily a bad thing if that is what you want in all your music… all the time. For example, we all like a little sugar now and then and I have heard this in other player/DACs to varying degrees where it makes all our music quite beguilingly lush and sweet, but in the long run one tires of this dishonesty and, well… it can make things a wee bit boring over the long haul. Not that the MPS-5 is lacking in tonal richness and lushness. It has that, but only if that is what the music possesses—it will not add or subtract this to the mix like other more or less "colored" players or DACs will.

Nor will the MPS-5 be the player for you if you desire a player that is presented as being neutrally flat—which far too often means that the player or DAC is lean and lacking in musical color and flesh… can you say hard and analytical? Yes, the MPS-5 certainly has a wonderful sense of neutrality, but here it is really more about being neutral in the sense of being, well… tonally balanced and, well… tonally right where nothing raises it pointed little head. Certainly the MPS-5 is not neutral in the sense of being lean and tonally flat or bland like other player/DACs which then present this characteristic as being highly resolving and open—which they all are to a great degree, but in all honesty this is a clear misrepresentation of the facts. In actuality these 'neutral' or in actuality leaner and hence more analytical or sterile players/DACs will sound more resolving simply because they are emphasizing this over that for whatever reason. That is some players/DACs will appear to be more resolving but in truth they ain't, it's just the way the music is being presented tonally that tricks one into thinking such things.

And I know I am repeating myself here, but the MPS-5 is pretty spot on where no one sonic thing is presented with any greater importance than any other thing, and as such, this will suggest for some that, in certain systems, the MPS-5 will not appear to be as resolving of the minute musical details as other players/DACs… that are characterized as being highly resolving because they are really just rather sterile. The greater issue here is that the MPS-5 is not about hype or tonal 'trickery'. But if that is what you want then go for it… me I find solace and musical pleasure in the natural 'evenness' of the MPS-5. With the MPS-5 we hear it all; the subtle details that makes whatever sound more real than not, the air and space of the venue, the overall coherence of the sonic tapestry, yadda, yadda, yadda. You get the idea… with the MPS-5 it is all there but not in a way that draws attention to the pieces within the music… no, the MPS-5 simply draws one's attention to the music… as a whole.

And naturally many other players will not be as resolving as the MPS-5 if they are handicapped by higher jitter, simple power supplies, circumspect digital-to-analog and analog output stages, etc. One has to remember that even though a player/DAC is promoted as having low jitter or perhaps where jitter is not an issue for whatever reason (even in the MPS-5), there is more to making it all work than just this or that one thing. A player/DAC is the true sum of its parts and design in totality, so simply having a better something than another player does not insure that one product will ultimately sound better than another. Different for sure… but better in all aspects is, well… in the eye of the beholder.

So while I am on this subject of being a sum of its parts, did I mention that except for the custom transport from Esoteric, the MPS-5 is made completely here in California? I mean completely… stuffing the boards (specifically ceramic circuit boards which have much smoother traces than typical boards which is reputed to lead to a purer signal path and cleaner sound), machining the case work, and the final piecing it altogether sort of thing. Nothing is done overseas… well except the Esoteric transport, but I said that already. Oh, and the MPS-5 features two very well thought-out power supplies—an analog one for the analog side of the player and a digital one for the digital side of the player to keep things clean and separate. These two power supplies take up one-third of the player's layout and are quite robust and special in how they feed power to the player. There is also a unique pure class-A balanced analog output stage, a circuit layout to minimize EMI/RFI, the digital design as noted above, and every part has been chosen for how well it will play along with everything else so that Andreas can get a sound that is as close to that as to what he has experienced from analog… well as close as he can realize at this point in time. Andreas is always working on how to make his designs that much better—case in point, mine has gone through several firmware updates that have not-so-subtly improved the sound, especially so on Red Book. Easy to do too.


Now all of the above results in the MPS-5 making music that is palpable and oh so organically smooth… with vocals presented in a way that makes them oh-so believable. Like how David Sylvian's vocal phrasings from his Nine Horses releases sound so beautifully rendered via the MPS-5… tonally captivating, it's as if he is here speaking to me or I am there… either way he is still speaking to me. But is that how he should sound? Is the MPS-5 an accurate player? Well, with the MPS-5 he does sound more real… whatever that means. Well, for me that means he sounds more like what I think he should and all in a way that makes his singing more tangible than with either the Cary (too much chest and weight) or the EMM (too little chest and weight), but then again, since it is a recording all I care is that it is as engaging musically as anything can be. Is it the absolute sound? Shit man, you can crap on that in a hat! We have no clue what our choice in music should sound like… there is no absolute sound for what we listen to… all we care is that it sounds good, and with the MPS-5 it sounds soooo phucking good. Actually the whole concept of recreating some absolute sound is quite noble but ultimately rather ludicrous, but that is for another day…

Listening to complex recordings such as those from Burial, Radiohead, Mogwai, and others, well… the MPS-5 unravels the mix with a greater sense of pace, rhythm, timing, and delineation more so than either the Cary or EMM. All the little things within the mix are more easily discerned with respect to the flow of the music and what is going on not only at that moment but also with respect as to how you got there and where are you going next. The MPS-5 is simply more engaging and more resolving of these sonic qualities that allow for the music to be just that more fun and involving. In Burial's mixes (incredibly complex dub step) the drumming is so wonderfully delineated that the dub step rhythm is easy to follow. Other players tend to mash this up making the music more a clattering of this and that as opposed to an actual step one can follow along to. On Radiohead's "Reckoner" (I recall a review where the writer referenced this track as having a complex polyrhythmic drumming where in actuality it doesn't have that at all… yeah it is complex, but that ain't polyrhythmic drumming) one can easily fall into the cliché of air drumming as the track unfolds… yikes, now that is not something anyone should ever see! Toss on the any cut from Mogwai and as the music build from sparse guitar and drums to a wall of sound, the MPS-5 keeps it all together allowing each instruments to retain its individual contribution to the song. Yeah, both the Cary and EMM present Mogwai quite spectacularly, it is just that the MPS-5 goes a few steps further in resolving what is going on in the mix.


Toss on some Burnt Friedman (say the Atom Replicant Rumba Rockers release) which via the MPS-5 has a wonderful decay and a propulsive start and stop that it is mind numbingly good. For an all-electronic Latin re-mix of sorts, there is also a 3D soundstage with instruments possessing a believable sense of real-ness to them… even though they are more than likely not real. Way cool.

At the far end of the spectrum, the MPS-5 will present the bass frequencies with all the dynamics, slam, and extension one's speakers and room can produce. The Cary was the previous champ here (and still is in the competition with the EMM being a solid second with its visceral solidness-ness), but is now supplanted by the "it-is-just-that-much-better" MPS-5. Man, this player is simply stunning in how it reproduces any tracks from Bill Laswell, Trentemoeller, Scarab, DJ Olive, etc. that all feature a deep and powerful bottom-end. With the MPS-5, bass is simply scary good, and is as viscerally exciting as we can handle! Tactile, rumbling, tight, loose, rolling, slamming, texture, palpable, edge, delineation, punch, pow, bam, oomph, thunderous… whatever it is you will not only hear it, you will feel it. With the MPS-5, the bass is something quite stellar… and yet it never is heard as something separate. No with the MPS-5 the bass remains a part or continuation of the musical tapestry, as well as it should be. Sure you are aware of what is going on in the bass; you are drawn into it, but as an integral part of the music. The bass frequencies are never presented as something that speaks to the listener with its own voice, though with the MPS-5 you will certainly enjoy what it can do in the nether regions. But once again, the MPS-5 is so cohesive and coherent that it simply makes the overall or complete (from top to bottom) presentation that much more involving… or better yet, enveloping for the listener. Naturally, you got to have the speakers and room to hear what the MPS-5 can do here—along with the right tunes! If your system and room tend to be too rich or ripe in the bottom octave, then the MPS-5 will only aggravate this area making the music sound too bass heavy or vice versa, if your system is lean and cannot produce the bottom end, then well… the MPS-5 is not a player that is going to fix what you don't got.

Make it simple and delicate and the MPS-5 gets it all down with a breathtaking touch to the music—light and airy. Oh so sweet and as resolving of the finest details or filigree that one can almost reach out and touch it. Delicate tracks by Low, Calexico, Lambchop, Tom Yorke, Adele, along with more elaborate tracks by Doug Scharin (such as his latest and 1110 under the guise of HiM) reveal such textual liquidity and delineation of the instruments that these releases become a superb late night chill-out; quite cool and organic with again a flow and musical rightness that is very engagingly involving. Especially the HiM releases with all the soul and rhythmic interplay of the musicians being so wondrously presented through a thoroughly captivating recording—even at 320 kbps!


As a side note, if the drummer Doug Scharin and his work as HiM is unknown to you, then depending on the release you come across, it will range in style from a dub-heavy brand of post-rock to a various fusions of rock, post-punk, jazz, Miles Davis inspired experimental funk, Afro-beat, and everything in between (available on Bubblecore and Fatcat). The later releases are more jazz inspired with vocals sung in Japanese, all his releases are very well recorded with many available on vinyl, and all are quite brilliant. The two latest HiM releases—1110 and the latest which is actually not titled in a form that is printable—will be hard to find unless you are in Japan (available on Afterhours) or know Doug—which fortunately I do and is how I got mine… thanks Doug! Actually, many of the HiM titles will be hard to find, but I would highly suggest you search them out.., try iTunes under HiM/Jazz but be forewarned that there is another band named him or H.I.M. that is a Goth metal band—so listen first. For more information on Doug and his activities try Fatcat Records, the Japanese label Afterhours if you can read Japanese, a decent biography can be found at here, his MySpace site is a good place for information, or try this video for different incarnation of the band as featured on the release New Features which does by the way feature polyrhythmic drumming! I have played cuts from New Features at various CES and RMAF shows where anyone who heard it went nuts not only for the superb recording quality and sonics, but the for the simple fact that this great music… and that is what really matters.

As a DAC, the MPS-5 is quite wonderful, but how you get the bits from A to B… meaning from whatever computer you are using to the DAC section of the MPS-5 will affect the sound. Now as I noted above, you have several choices in regards to the inputs (AES/EBU, Toslink, RCA, and USB) and depending on how the bits get out of the computer, they all will sound either quite similar to each other or, well, not so much.

Meaning going USB out of my Mac Book directly into the MPS-5 is not nearly as good as going into a USB converter (the Empirical Off-Ramp 3 with Ultraclock and the Sonicweld Diverter) and then out via either RCA or AES/EBU—both of which sound identical to each other when used with the same cable with either termination. I have tried this with either versions of the PAD Aqueous Anniversary Digital Cables digital cable (AES/EBU and RCA) connected to the Empirical OR3 and both sound identical when switching between the two terminations on the MPS-5. Going directly into the MPS-5's USB from the Mac results in less resolution and an overall softness to the music—you simply get less of everything.

You will also hear much of this less-ness going directly into the MPS-5 when using Toslink. Sure, it sounds quite nice, but you will not realize nearly as much as heard via USB into some convertor. It is clean and simple and I have written about my experiences with various Toslink cables in some of my Audio Ramblings columns where I wrote, that yes I like it, but it is not in the same league as what one hears via a USB converter… the Toslink being now too warm and lush, while being less resolving, less 3D, and less everything—a lot like what one heard going USB direct. But in the end this is all a matter of preference really.

I think that what is going on here is that one, the USB interface is not as good as it could be (it is limited to 16/48.1 and is no doubt based around a rather inexpensive USB chipset), so going through a good converter addresses any shortcomings allowing one to use a better input; either the AES/EBU or that of the RCA which can both handle 24/192 if your heart so desires (we are at 16/44.1 simply because there is no music at anything higher than this that is of any interest to us… though we do find tons of stuff at 320, 256, and even 192 kbps that is quite fun and interesting). And both of these inputs sound identical, so two, Playback's claim of the inputs sounding the same is born out—though only with respect to the two AES/EBU and RCA inputs and not necessarily the USB input when used directly. I would avoid suggesting that this is clearly an issue of jitter via USB as all the digital inputs end up at the same place in the DAC—meaning that the effects of jitter should be dealt with equally via the MPS-5's PDFAS. So why would jitter be an issue then? Does running the USB through a converter (of which both act as re-clockers) mean that maybe it is… or maybe it ain't and all I am hearing is the effects of the USB cable, the converter's circuit/parts, and the digital cable… I am not an engineer so I will leave this to Andreas and others to haggle over.

The fact that for me Toslink does not sound quite as resolving as electrical connection (sans USB) could either be more an issue of the conversion of the bits from that an electrical signal to one of light and then back again… or simply that the Mac's optical output is not that great when compared to its USB output. Or that going through a USB converter does something to the bits resulting in better sound? Got me… but the MPS-5 sounds like what I wrote above regardless if one is listening to music from either spinning a CD or a computer's hard drive. Meaning, yeah, what one hears via a CD is so close to what one hears via a computer that any differences are moot (and that is using iTunes or Amarra!). Too close to call… the MPS-5 is wonderfully stellar as a DAC for any computer-based audio system. I will report more about this in an upcoming Audio Ramblings and more about the Diverter and how it compares to the Empirical real soon… plus a few other morsels for those into the computer audio thing

Now you can elevate the player's performance a wee bit by swapping in an aftermarket power cord. But you won't change the MPS-5's sound. In the end it is more about synergy and preference than anything else. Using cord A over cord B is more about hearing the cord than what it does to the player… I like the MPS-5 with Dynamic Design's Spirit C digital cord, but then the Tel-Wire cord works quite nice too… as does the Audience 'e' cord. All are slightly different and none of them will turn the MPS-5 into something really different… perhaps just a wee bit difference in being differently better. And naturally plug it into a good AC conditioner… what works for you is a matter of whatever, but give it a clean feed of AC to avoid any electrical nasties that can get in the way of your music.

I did run mine via its balanced outputs which sounded better than the un-balanced ones in terms of slam, dynamics, soundstage, etc… yeah, go that way. I am using the Clairvoyant 4D from Audio Magic which are a bit more open and resolving than those from either PAD or Kubala-Sosna (the Proteous Povectus and Emotions respectfully, of which both are truly wonderful cables) which sound a tad bit darker and less open. Nothing to toss and turn about, but then having these different cables allows me to mix and match to get things just right—after all, it's all about synergy! Also when going USB try the best USB cable you can afford… say any from Locus Designs… their Nucleus is quite intoxicating, but Lee just came out with the new Cynosure and yikes… Lee is one amazing USB/cable guy. This cable is so dimensionally sweet with such a gorgeous mid-range… and yet you get all the resolution with no hint of hype that… hey, this cable sounds a lot like the MPS-5! Killer cable man.

Oh, and try some different feet under the player as well. I wrote about this extensively in a past Audio Ramblings and settled on the tried and true BDR cones and pucks. They help to mitigate resonances in the environment allowing the MPS-5 to sound its best. Other feet or supports will sound different, so in the end find what works for you with your music.

The remote is cool too… not a cheap plastic off-the-shelf jobbie, no Playback had theirs made from real aluminum (the remote has a nice hefty feel to it) and one can even switch for phase, turn the display off, choose any input, etc. Easy to use.

Huh, I started off thinking that there was not that much to say about the MPS-5 and now find myself 4500 plus words later with, well… not much more to say. Other than the MPS-5 is a truly wonderful player and is recommended for anyone wanting to hear what the best in digital can offer and can afford the price of admission. I say afford as once you hear it, well it is hard stepping down to something else and so you will definitely be interested, but is it worth the $15k Playback is asking? Well, it is made in California, so it does reflect the costs of doing business here in the States, and yes it is reflective of the best thinking and engineering in digital audio today—for the home and professional user; especially when you consider Andreas's background. And yeah it is stellar in what it does with whatever you toss its way… and yeah at $15k it ain't exactly chump change for the masses, but then the best never is. So with all that in mind, then yes it is a good investment, especially when you consider that there are players out there that are substantially more and may not be any better nor have digital inputs. We are buying this one and are not looking back. It works wonderfully well on all our music in any format, we have yet to experience any glitches, glotches, bitches, or whatever… and well, we love it. That's all I can say for now… Dave Clark

[i] Andreas Koch got his start with Studer ReVox in Switzerland in 1982 where he built world's first fully asynchronous digital audio sample rate converter. In 1984 he designed one of the first filter banks for digital audio where some of the same ideas were used later in audio compression algorithms such as MP3, AC-3 and others. In 1985 he worked for Dolby Labs in San Francisco where he built the entire digital signal processing of the AC-1 encoder and decoder (delta modulator). In 1987 he returned to Studer ReVox and managed the development of a professional digital audio tape recorder (48-channel DASH format on 1/2 inch tape). He later was involved in market and technology research for hard disk (PC) recording in professional applications.

In 1990 he transferred to Studer Editech in Menlo Park, CA, to manage a group of engineers designing the ultimate hard disc recorder for professional post production applications. He launched "Dyaxis", a user interface, in 1992. In 1993 he was with Sony in Florida where he oversaw product development for professional audio products and launched various mixing consoles. In 1997 he moved to Sony in San Francisco and managed the development for the world's first 8-channel DSD recording / editing / mixing machine, Sonoma. It is still used today. During the period of 1998 to 2000, Andreas designed all digital parts of A/D and D/A converters that helped establish DSD as a superior sounding audio format in SACD. Around 2003 he expanded the Sonoma to 32-channels of DSD on a single PC and participated in all standardization committees for SACD in conjunction with Philips.

In 2003 Andreas joined EMM labs where he designed the digital componentry, algorithms and architecture for all the EMM Labs digital audio products both professional and audiophile. At Andreas also designed various revolutionary algorithms for sample rate conversion (upsampling), as can only be expected from one of the original inventors of SRC. He also developed discrete D/A converter and unique architecture for clock management from digital audio transmission inputs.

In 2008, Andreas Kock and Jonathan Tinn launched Playback Designs which is an integrated SACD/CD player with a variety of digital inputs that incorporates all the experience, knowledge, and algorithms gathered and developed over the last 25 years, right from the beginning of digital audio.

MPS-5 Player
Retail: $15000

Playback Designs
TEL: 503.221.0465

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