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dcstep
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Playback Designs MPS-5 CD/SACD Player Review

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 Lavigne's, 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, richer harmonics and better 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 world's great jazz trumpeters IMHO). If the pictures on the CD cover and insert are accurate, this is recorded in a live studio with hardwood floor and just a couple of mics. One mic is stuck right in the piano, with the lid open and the other is stationed in front of Rava, sitting about five-feet beyond the foot of the piano.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave

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Re: Playback Designs MPS-5 CD/SACD Player Review

Dave , am I missing something here or do you routinely throw down 10 large on an audio product because someone on a internet forum whose entire system happens to be from the same distributor gives it a

dcstep
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Re: Playback Designs MPS-5 CD/SACD Player Review

Well sure. I spoke to Andreas, Jonathan, others and Mark Lavigne, inquired about lawsuits, ownership, etc. I've been in business enough that I know when to trust my instincts. Each person needs to evaluate the risk/reward considering their own financial situation and appetite for risk. (My business is actually risk mitigation, oddly enough). I decided that the $5000 incentive was enough for me to act now, rather than wait and pay $15,000. I'm glad that I did.

Dave

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Re: Playback Designs MPS-5 CD/SACD Player Review

Here are some addendums in response to questions:

After someone asked about piano I wrote:

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

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

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

I'm really proud of my speakers and amp. I didn't have my SPL meter with me, but the peaks were surely beating 100dB with some regularity. I set the level at the opening of "Moonlight" based on what I remembered the piano sounding like in that music parlor and then I let it ride. The sound got huge, but not clangy or distorted on the top. I got chills several times.
Someone asked about string sound and I wrote:
BTW, I play trumpet in several regional orchestras. Yes, I know string sounds. One of my very favorite recordings is Starker's Bach Cello Suites and his Kodaly. Right now I'm listening to the excellent SACD "Boston Symphony Chamber Players -- Mozart -- Chamber Music for Winds and Strings" (a "must have" IMO). I play guitar and have an excellent Ramirez classical as well as several exceptional archtops. My favorite big orchestral piece is MTT and San Francisco doing Mahler's 6th. It's an incredible recording with wonderful massed strings, with lots of work for the cellos and basses The sound of a symphony orchestra in a hall, playing a big piece, is as accurate as I've heard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope that helps. I'll try to answer anything more specific. (My classical collection isn't near as deep as my jazz collection. OMG, Stephane Grampelli is incredible. His violin has so much more body than I recall ever hearing.

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Re: Playback Designs MPS-5 CD/SACD Player Review

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

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

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

Through the MPS-5 the SACD vs. CD differences are very small. I didn't pull my old Pioneer Elite universal out to compare again, but the CDs through the Pioneer had glare and hardness that made them tiring over any kind of long listening session. The MPS-5 not only gets of that glare but closes the gap to SACD to the point where I could be comfortable without SACD.

Dave

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Re: Playback Designs MPS-5 CD/SACD Player Review

I received my Analysis Plus digital coax cable this week and inserted my Pioneer Elite DV-58AV universal player (modified by Ric Schultz)to use as a DVD-A and odd format transport, feeding into the Playback Design's digital input and DAC.

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

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

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

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

Dave

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Re: Playback Designs MPS-5 CD/SACD Player Review

Yesterday I travelled up the mountainside, literally, to visit Neli and Mike at Audio Federation. I

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Re: Playback Designs MPS-5 CD/SACD Player Review

Mike of Audio Federation took some nice, detailed pictures of the PD MPS-5 that you may want to see.

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

Dave

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Re: Playback Designs MPS-5 CD/SACD Player Review

Audio Federation added their impressions of our brief comparsion to their blog. Check it out.

Dave

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Re: Playback Designs MPS-5 CD/SACD Player Review

David Robinson of Positive Feedback added his review at:

Positive Feedback Review of MPS-5

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

Still, it's a great review.

Dave

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Re: Playback Designs MPS-5 CD/SACD Player Review

There's been a lot of discussion about how the MPS-5 compares to Marantz's very nice reference CD/SACD player, particularly playing CDs. Here's a link to the thoughts of a former Marantz and Emm owner that traded up to the Playback Designs.

Dave

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Re: Playback Designs MPS-5 CD/SACD Player Review

We compare the Playback Designs and Marantz at RMAF in the Sounding room. I was there once and it happened several other times, I'm told. Everytime, the PD was the preference by all in the room and the difference was easily heard. There were about 8 in the room when I heard it.

We also took the PD to the Esoteric room to compare it to a 3-box digital stack costing several times more than the PD. When the Esoteric upsampled to DSD the results were too close to call; however, in PCM upsampling and all other modes for the Esoteric, I preferred the PD.

Dave

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Re: Playback Designs MPS-5 CD/SACD Player Review

Playback Designs now has a web site at:
Playback Designs web site

For owners, there's a firmware update allowing 24/192 input.

Dave

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