Playback Designs MPS-5 SACD/CD player Page 4

While it's impossible to know for sure, I think the MPS-5's SACD playback is even more transparent and spacious than the Scarlatti's. Kenneth E. Wilkinson's recording of Artur Rubinstein, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, and the New Symphony Orchestra performing Chopin's Piano Concertos 1 and 2 (SACD/CD, RCA Red Seal 67902-2; originally LP, RCA Living Stereo LSC-2575) sounded more spacious, and the piano seemed more solid and better focused than I remembered. The image of the piano projected farther forward in space in front of the orchestra through both the Vandersteen 7 (currently under review) and my Wilson Audio MAXX 3 speakers.

After I'd turned in my review of the dCS Scarlatti, Reference Recordings sent along a new SACD transfer of one of its sonic spectaculars, Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra's Exotic Dances from the Opera (RR-71 SACD), transferred from the original analog tapes. This one should be issued on vinyl for sure, but for now the SACD will have to do. It was easy to compare the original CD with the SACD, as well as with the 24/96 file (downloaded from HDtracks.com). Debate may rage between the partisans of PCM and SACD, but assuming engineer Keith O. Johnson accomplished all three transfers with the same playback deck and electronics and without messing with equalization, the clear winner—at least through the Playback Designs MPS-5—was the SACD. Its transparency, harmonic resolution, image specificity and delicacy, bass extension—every parameter you can think of—were superior to either PCM format, but especially compared to the CD, where the strings took on a slight stridency, images were flattened, and opacity trumped transparency.

I've been enjoying Alan Silverman's superb remastering of that neglected Kinks masterpiece, Muswell Hillbillies (SACD/CD, Koch VEL SC 79801), since it was first released. While it was equally transparent and detailed via the Scarlatti, it had more punch and rhythmic drive as decoded by the MPS-5, though some might find the Playback's overall sound somewhat too forward and brash compared to the Scarlatti's more lush, burnished one. This is a case in which, in every way, the SACD and CD layers absolutely destroy RCA's original Dynaflex LP. But listen to the two digital layers and it's easy to hear that the CD is spatially flat, harmonically truncated, and just plain mechanical-sounding by comparison. And those crunchy, tinny cymbals? Feh! But that's not the fault of the player. Even double-DSD processing can't restore what was never on the master tape to begin with.

As an SACD player, the MPS-5 is, or is very close to, the best I've heard, put there by its dynamic capabilities, resolution of transients and detail, image specificity, three-dimensionality, bottom-end extension, and overall punch and immediacy. The Cary CD 306 SACD ($8000, which John Atkinson reviewed in November 2008) sounds exciting and is a reasonably good value, but it's also somewhat lean and forward. The Marantz SA-11S2 ($3400, which I reviewed in February 2009) sounds warm and pleasant and is impressively built, but it failed to engage me the way the Cary could. The dCS Scarlatti ($79,999) is in a class by itself as an ambitious stack of components, but the Playback Designs MPS-5 plays on the same sonic field for less than half as much, even if its sound was somewhat cooler and more analytical.

Red Book Sound
How did the MPS-5 do as a CD player and DAC? Though it converts 16/44.1 PCM to DSD's 1-bit/5.6448MHz, its "Red Book" sound was nothing like the Scarlatti's. In my August 2009 review of the latter I wrote: "The [upconverted to] DSD sounded smoother for sure, but the 16/44.1 playback had better focus, and on most discs produced greater image solidity and three-dimensionality. The better a CD sounded, the better it sounded 'straight up' [ie, no upsampling]—though I ended up preferring 24/176 upsampling, which combined excellent image focus and spatiality with the sensation of hearing more information. The harder-edged a disc's sound, the better it sounded upsampled to DSD."

The Playback Designs offers no "custom tailoring" with filters, but its upsampling to twice DSD didn't soften the sound at all. Instead, it produced a sound very similar, as I remember it, to the dCS Scarlatti set to upsample to 24/176 PCM: very clean, tightly focused, three-dimensional (for CD), rhythmically taut, and fast—reminiscent of what Naim components do so well.

If the recording was lean or cold, that's how it sounded. And if the recording was warm, it sounded warm. For some listeners, and depending on the associated gear, the MPS-5's version of "warm" might not be warm enough, because its overall balance is, like that of Naim gear, on the taut, transparent, and (some might say) cool side. But the Playback's uncommonly high level of rhythmic organization and taut, depth-plumbing bass is a worthwhile tradeoff for the slightly miserly sustain that precedes a long decay extending to infinity. This player's skills at physical and rhythmic organization were, in my experience, second to none. A DAC I have here, based on the Anagram Technologies upsampling to 24/192 PCM circuitry (footnote 1), produced bass that was somewhat softer than and not as taut as the MPS-5's, but the additional texture created by a more generous sustain did, to some degree, make up for it. Still, when you hear the Playback Designs rip through a complex rhythmic passage and lay it out with an iron-fisted grip, you'll be impressed.

Conclusions
I'm not suggesting that a $15,000 SACD player is inexpensive, but compared to some far more costly products that have passed this way, including the $80,000 dCS Scarlatti and the $28,150 Naim CD555, the compact, well-constructed Playback Designs MPS-5 offers impressive sound and build quality, and, with its multiple inputs, great versatility that includes upgradeability to multichannel. And its software-driven DSP means that performance upgrades are only a download away. You can even start with the DAC and upgrade it with the transport mechanism later, should you choose. The one disappointment was the USB input's limitations of a maximum sample rate of 48kHz.

If you have a large collection of SACDs, you'll find the MPS-5 among the best-sounding players available today, combining great transparency, impressive delicacy and resolution of low-level detail, and, when called for, authoritative dynamic slam and depth-charge–like bass.

The MPS-5 is also an equally compelling-sounding CD player. I suggest you listen to your favorite CDs and hi-rez PCM files and make up your own mind. I found the Playback DAC's high-frequency cleanness, silent backdrops, and organizational skills impressive, and its overall sound rock-solid and very well controlled—and for sure better than the dCS Scarlatti's upconversion of PCM to DSD.

So analog-like was the MPS-5's decoding of SACDs and hi-rez PCM files that it has joined the very short list of players that make me want to sit down, undistracted by other activities, and actually listen to digital recordings—as long as I don't go back to the turntable!



Footnote 1: The DAC is actually a Camelot Technologies Round Table DVD player I bought some years ago but that had become a boat anchor since the advent of Blu-ray. I couldn't sell it on Audiogon, so I contacted Camelot's Mel Schilling about adding a digital input so I could use the Round Table as a DAC. Schilling complied, and the Round Table now decodes 24/96 and probably higher. It sounds very good. Schilling now offers the service to Round Table owners as an upgrade for $325 plus shipping.
Company Info
Playback Designs
4160 SW Greenleaf Drive
Portland, OR 97221
(503) 221-0465
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