November 13, 2011

Payback For Playback! Playback Designs MPS-5 CD/SACD Player.

The very smart looking two toned aluminium box of the Playback MPS-5. Note the ergonomically designed hand held remote with back lite. I just loved holding it for the sake of feeling it in my hands!

If there's ever a product that matches the cliche called "The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread?" this Playback Designs MPS-5 CD/SACD player is it! To find out why I would think of it this way? Read on........

If this player looks familiar to you.... then it's because we've covered this very exact one before, in one of our home visits called "Greatness In The Making"! Now our buddy Mark in his quest for greatness, has no choice but to take a temporary rest, as he moves his nest. While he has found a new nest capable of accommodating ever bigger speakers, it had to undergo some major face lift. Which is why, ever the generous person that he is, is allowing us to comb thru some of his toys. This is one of the first in which we'll write about, with his kind permission of course.

Playback Designs is the brain child of Andreas Koch, who had previously held designer positions with some of the most respectable digital audio brand names. The MPS-5 is the flagship product of his company. What makes the MPS-5 special is the upgrade programs on offer for dollar top ups, so that your brand new digital player purchased today, never gets left behind, as technology marches on, which is often the case. There have been so far algorithm and firmware up grades available on the software side, while new, beefier power supply and USB up grades are available on the hardware side of things.  Mark had just up graded his player to the latest spec, making his MPS-5 one of the first that I know of that is truly capable of native 24/384 sampling rates and also 6.1 MHz DSD when used through the USB-X box when playing files from a computer.

I had the re-fresh ed player straight back from the upgrade services. While on previous occasions, I thought the MPS-5 was a good CD/SACD player, it never really struck me like my favorite cuppa teh tarik(sweetened condensed milk tea, which is a Malaysian national beverage). However, the latest round of upgrades really had me convinced now that Playback is now a formidable high end digital contender!

Playing CDs and SACDs really digs out all the available information out of those shinny five inch disc. It's is naturally comparable to the TAD D-600(our current reference). The thing that immediately impressed me was that fierce and gutsy bass. Kick drums kick just a bit harder and bass lines just swells a little fuller, with the right amount of gutso too. Dynamics response of this player is a very strong point and playing hard rocking tracks never disappoints. Great sounding too are those Reference Recordings orchestral SACDs. The mids have just enough of warmth to portrayal of believable vocal. I must say though that the similarly priced Vitus SCD-010 does sound somewhat sweeter and sexier in this regards, especially when it comes to ladies like Stacy Kent. Is the Vitus more correct? I don't know, and only one can determine what's desirable for one's self. The highs of the MPS-5 is just very slightly truncated, again compared to the (nearly twice as expensive)TAD. I know it's not a fair comparison, but sonically, all these 3 players are so well positioned, the comparison just begs to be done, especially when we had all three rotating between us.

The modular internals of the Playback Designs MPS-5. It's got various digital inputs and outputs accessible via the back panel.

The MPS-5 possesses the darkest sound stage presentation, with laid back imaging and layers well separated. The TAD, on the contrary, gives a bit more "air" in it's presentation and is somewhat more revealing of the timbre plus harmonic textures of un-amplified string instruments, like piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass. Ditto for wood wind and horn sections, making it the most natural sounding of the 3 players. At this exalted level of playing playing field, I believe it's the little things like these that matters the most. The Vitus balances the other two players in between, by being the most forward imaging, yet without a hint of edginess.

However, it is when it comes to feeding hi-rez files in to the MPS-5, via my Bryston BDP-1, with the AES/EBU digital cable, made me realised just how much synergy this combo had, much like with case of the TAD too! Doing hi-rez music files via the Playback really made me forget about the comparo and just enjoyed the music. The Playback had a very analog sound to it with hi-rez materials, which relegated my analog front end to temporary dust magnet status. It practically matched the TAD blow for blow in this regards and that shows the DAC performance in the Playback to be of superior quality, as with the TAD. It is when I realised that the transport section of the TAD is the more capable of the two. It is rather unfortunate we did not get to do the hi-rez thing with the Vitus, due to time and scheduling constraints, because it would have been interesting.

Bryston BDP-1 and Playback Designs MPS-5, sonically match made in hi-rez heaven.

Make no mistake folks, we are playing at the pinnacle level of digital performance available today, now and a foresee able future.  I could really lived happily ever after with any one of the three digital players mentioned, especially with the TAD or Playback(if my budget doesn't go as far!), when pairing either of them with my Bryston BDP-1. For a brief month or so, I was in digital heaven. I've since being made to come back down to more earth bound performances.

Playback Designs is not available from any authorized dealers as yet in Malaysia. I hope some smart cookie of a dealer will be brave enough to bring it in to our shores, the horrific sticker price aside. However on the audio performance front, coming back to an answer for my opening question. The Playback MPS-5 is almost the best sounding digital player since the TAD D-600 left my room(just like the best thing since sliced bread!), and that's a very tall order indeed.

Lastly, I wish to thank Mark for sharing his exclusive toys with us. Stay tuned for more to come!

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