Playback Designs MPS-5 SACD/CD player Page 2

The upper one of the MPS-5's two well-lit, generously sized front-panel screens displays the sample-rate and input status; the lower displays the disc track and time information. However, neither displays the track text information that is included on SACDs. The backlit remote control of milled aluminum is equally ergonomic. From it you can select among the various inputs, eject a disc, mute the output, invert absolute phase, dim the displays, switch between a hybrid disc's SACD and CD layers (after first pressing Stop), switch from two- to multichannel output, change the transport's time-function front-panel readouts, repeat a track or the entire disc, and directly select individual tracks.

Multichannel SACD playback is easily accomplished by adding the MPD-5 DAC, which is physically identical other than lacking the transport mechanism. In four-channel mode, the MPS-5 mixes the decoded center channel of a five-channel disc into the L/R analog front-channel outputs; the surround tracks exit digitally via the Playlink optical jack to the MPD-5. The MPS-5 can process up to six channels by outputting up to four additional channels of digital information via the Playlink.

While fitted with a clock output, the MPS-5 lacks a clock input—according to the instruction manual, the MPS-5 has an "elaborate and sophisticated" clock generator that doesn't need to be locked to an external source. Incoming digital data are completely shielded from the internal clock circuitry through various buffer stages and unique control algorithms that "remove any incoming jitter." Playback claims its DAC "performs equally well with jittery sources as with higher quality ones."

Given Andreas Koch's long and varied background in digital design, you'd imagine that few off-the-shelf parts would be found in the MPS-5, and you'd be correct. Field-Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) programmed with proprietary algorithms replace the more commonly used OEM DSP chips and DACs. Instead of op-amp chips (not that there's anything necessarily wrong with op-amps), the MPS-5 has discrete analog output components and ceramic circuit boards. According to Playback, the MPS-5 doesn't rely on "3rd party vendors for any solutions."

All digital input data are converted to double SACD's sampling rate ie, 5.6448MHz. More significant is the claim that another Koch-developed technology, Playback Designs Frequency Arrival System (PDFAS), "completely eliminates" jitter by removing it altogether from the audio signal. PDFAS is claimed to permit the elimination of traditional jitter-minimizing phase-locked loops (PLLs) because, regardless of source—MP3 player, PC music server, whatever—Playback says that PDFAS results in jitter-free connection.

The goal, of course, is to produce a signal that's as close as possible to analog—and we like analog.

Unlike the far more complex, more expensive, multi-component dCS Scarlatti SACD player I reviewed in August 2009, using the MPS-5 was so simple that even a turntable geek can do it without consulting the manual. The third letter in the MPS-5's name could well stand for simplicity.

Select Disc on the remote control and the MPS-5's lower screen lights up and its transport awakes. You can remotely open the disc tray to insert a disc, or use the transport controls on the top plate. The upsampling to twice DSD resolution is automatic, regardless of the input data rate. But don't lose that remote—without it, you have no way of selecting among inputs.

The Esoteric transport was fast and responsive, quickly and silently executing track-jump commands. The ease with which its digital inputs can be selected makes switching among them trouble-free, especially compared to the dCS Scarlatti's more complicated protocol. Switch from the transport to one of the digital inputs and it powers down and its screen goes dark—a nice touch that may enhance the MPS-5's audible performance.

The SACD/CD transport plus the multiple DAC inputs allowed the MPS-5 to function as a convenient, pushbutton digital hub for my system's full array of digital sources. It also freed up a few analog preamp inputs. The digital sources I used for this review included a Sooloos music server (coax), an Alesis Masterlink hard-disk recorder (AES/EBU), and a MacBook Pro laptop (TosLink via the Mac's combination optical-digital/analog headphone mini-jack output).

The only disappointment was the Playback's USB port, which is limited to 44.1kHz and 48kHz, 16-bit data.

In every respect, the MPS-5 was a pleasure to use. Switching among files sourced from "Red Book" CDs and 24-bit/96kHz downloads stored on the Sooloos was seamless, the MPS-5 displaying the source signal's sampling rate and bit depth on its upper screen. (When I reviewed the dCS Scarlatti, the Sooloos was compatible only with 16/44.1 CD. Now it accepts 24/96 files—see Jon Iverson's Follow-Up review in October 2009.)

Breaking in
The dCS Scarlatti's flexibility allows the user to choose a preferred upconversion of sample rate or none at all. For the Scarlatti at least, 16-bit/44.1kHz converted to 24/176.4 seemed to produce the greatest transparency and apparent improvement in resolution, while DSD resulted in a sound somewhat more lush but cloudier, and less detailed and three-dimensional.

Playback Designs
4160 SW Greenleaf Drive
Portland, OR 97221
(503) 221-0465