Playback Designs MPS-3 CD Player/DAC

Device Type: CD Player / Digital to Analog Converter
Input: Asynchronous USB Audio Class 2.0 384K /24, DSD 2.8224MHz and 5.6448MHz ; XLR connector for AES/EBU 24/192kHz, RCA connector for S/PDIF, 24/192kHz
Output: RCA (single-ended) or XLR Balanced
Dimensions : 3.5” X 17.1” X 16.7”
Weight: 24 pounds
Availability: through Authorized Dealers
Price: $8,500.00

Playback Designs MPS-3 CD Player/DAC
The MPS-3 CD Player, while offering a CD transport, is really a full featured DAC with Asynchronous USB input that supports high resolution files of up to 384/24 kHz PCM and 6.1 MHz DSD through USB with either a PC or MAC. A better name for this product is the Music Playback System 3. Playback Designs offers the same product without the CD transport for $6500 that is called the MPD-3.

The Company
Playback Designs, founded by Jonathan Tinn and Andreas Koch, released their first product, the SACD Player/DAC MPS-5 in 2008.

Jonathan had worked as the vice-president of global sales and marketing for EMM Labs, a well-known manufacturer of professional and digital audio playback systems. Jonathan had also been involved with the distribution of numerous high end audio products through his Blue Light Audio company. Today Blue Light distributes not only Playback Designs, but also darTZeel, Evolution Acoustics, and Wave Kinetics.

Andreas Koch’s resume is extremely impressive. (What follows is an abbreviated synopsis; the complete history can be seen at the Playback Designs site.) As an engineer, Andreas’ employment began with Studer ReVox in Switzerland in 1982 where he designed the world’s first fully asynchronous digital audio sample rate converter. In 1985 he went to work for Dolby Labs in San Francisco and built the digital signal processing for the AC-1 and AC-3 digital encoders. In 1987 he returned to Studor ReVox where he managed the development of a 48 channel digital audio tape recorder that used ½ inch tape. In 1989 he was transferred to Studor’s EdiTech in Menlo Park, CA where he managed the development of the Dyaxis hard disc recorder. Andreas later joined Sony in 1997 where he started and managed the development of Sonoma; the world’s first 8-channel DSD recording / editing / mixing machine.

In 2003, Andreas went into business for himself as an independent contract engineer. For the next four years he designed all of the digital components, algorithms and architecture for EMM Labs digital audio products; professional and audiophile.

In 2007, Andreas combined his considerable digital audio design background with Jonathan’s marketing experience to create the first Playback Design product.

The Design
The MPS-3 does not rely on standard chips for digital processing, but utilizes Field-Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGA) programmed with proprietary algorithms developed by Andreas. PDFAS (Playback Designs Frequency Arrival System) is a technology developed by Andreas Koch that eliminates the need for conventional PLLs, also known as “Phase Locked Loops” to reduce jitter. Playback Designs claims that their PDFAS, regardless of the source, whether it is an external transport, music server, personal computer, portable MP3 or disc player, reduces jitter to a level far lower than what can be achieved with conventional PLL designs.

The MPS-3 runs at a rate of DSD 2X, so anything that is feed to it that is less will be converted to DSD 2X before it becomes analog. In addition, the MPS-3 has an apodizing filter that is part of the upsampler for 44.1/48kHz. This apodizing filter is only used for 44.1/48 kHz files or CDs where it has the most benefit.

I asked Andreas how he implemented isolation of computer noise from the DAC:

On the MPS-5 the USB interface is external to the player and DAC, but on the 3-series the USB interface is internal. However, the 3-series has a dedicated power supply for all the analog stuff and then the analog stuff sits on a separate PCB inside its own separate enclosure which acts as shield, all far away from USB. While other implementations use a standard processor running at some high frequency which is not derived from the audio clock, I have rolled my own USB processor inside a FPGA that is clocked with the audio frequency. Only the USB PHY is running at the mandated USB clock and that part sits quite isolated from all sensitive parts in the chassis. Because this is a proprietary USB implementation, I was able to implement many strategies and software architectures to optimize the sonic performance.
The analog stage of the MPS-3 was designed by Bert Gerlach. The linear analog power supplies are composed of 4 symmetrical output stages that are totally isolated with high bandwidth and zero-phase design. The architecture is discrete with no chips or op amps.

The CD drive utilized is a CD Pro Phillips. The drive is fast and very responsive in terms of reading and responding to remote commands.

The fit and finish of the case and remote are first rate. Silver colored aluminum with buttons on the top of the case to control the CD player. The remote is used to select different inputs including your computer USB output.

Components Used in Listening
An Early 2011 MacBook Pro (Mtn. Lion) 2.3GHz i7 Quad Core; 16 GB RAM, Samsung 840 Pro 256GB SSD for the OS; Promise Pegasus Thunderbolt Drive for the music library; Synergistic Research Thunderbolt Active SE cable. Synergistic Research Tranquility Base with Galileo MPC for the computer.

A Synergistic Research Tranquility Base / MIG feet with Galileo MPC was used as a base for the MPS-3. I also tested the DAC without the base.

USB Cables: Audioquest Diamond, Synergistic Research USB Active SE, and Wireworld Platinum Starlight

Music Software: Audirvana Plus and Pure Music

The Asynchronous USB interface of the MPS-3 that utilizes the native USB Mac driver supported Direct Mode / Integer playback with Audirvana Plus.

General Sound Characteristics
The other DACs I have reviewed here at the AudioStream, while presenting a balanced sound from top to bottom, were “slightly “dark” in character. The MPS-3 is also balanced with no predominance of bass or highs, but has a “lighter” general tonality. Quite frankly, I think Playback Designs has it right. The other characteristic of the MPS-3 that impressed me was that this is an extremely dynamic DAC with excellent transient reproduction from top to bottom. This DAC reproduces bass with the most impact and detail of any DAC I have heard without sounding excessively lean or stripping away the natural fullness of the bass. The midrange and highs are also very detailed with outstanding focus and delineation in complex musical passages. The soundstage is wide with moderate depth. Now it’s time to get specific about the sound of the MPS-3:

Incomparable Dynamics
The MPS-3 handles dynamic changes better than any other DAC I have yet experienced. This DAC appears to be faster and portrays both the micro and macro dynamic changes that gives music its life and allows reproduced music to sound real. This is no small accomplishment after hearing the $20,000 Da Vinci with its wonderful dynamic qualities. The Da Vinci was different in the way it handled dynamic changes as compared to the MPS-3. The Da Vinci had the deepest and quietest background that allowed dynamic events to simply emerge in a very natural way. The MPS-3 is, for a lack of a better word, more explosive in nature. While the MPS-3 does not have the deep black background of the Da Vinci, subtle dynamic changes are more apparent to the listener. The pace and rhythm of this DAC is also second to none. It just sounds more real than other DACs I have heard.

I recently purchased an Acousence Records download from Linn (192/24) of Junko Inada playing Rachmaninov’s Corelli variations and Preludes. This is a wonderfully dynamic recording with a rating of DR12. The MPS-3 handled the rapid succession of notes without blurring the sonic delivery. Loud passages were reproduced with great power, but at the same time seemed effortless.

The new Aaron Neville recording My True Story (HDtracks 192/24) is reproduced with a great sense of pace and rhythm that seems lacking when I switched back to other fine DACs. The rhythmic changes of the MPS-3 seem so real, that you almost want to get up and dance around the room!

Details Emerged with Great Speed and Precision
The bass, midrange, and high end all benefited from the MPS-3’s ability to render detail with great precision. Subtle notes of the harpsichord, guitar, and cymbals were beautifully reproduced. The MPS-3 is very good at unraveling complex musical passages.

When listening to Chesky Records’ Monty Alexander recordings Calypso Blues and The Good Life (both 192/24), the cymbals had a natural shimmer with the subtle decay of the real thing. The bass notes had good impact and definition as did Monty’s piano. I have heard these recordings many times with many different DACs, but have never heard the aliveness with the wonderful delineation of the individual instruments that I experienced with the MPS-3.

Native DSD Reproduction
Given Andreas Koch’s previous background in DSD recording, he has been a major proponent of the DoP Open Standard for native DSD playback over USB Audio 2.0. I have a number of DSD64 files from Blue Coast Records and Channel Classics Records. I also have a number of ripped SACDs that were obtained using a modified Sony PS3. I was able to compare the native DSD files with the converted PCM files. Some of the PCM files were those sold by Channel Classics and Blue Coast Records. Others were derived from the Korg Audiogate software.

Using Audirvana Plus in Direct Mode / Integer, and Pure Music I was able to play native DSD64 files without issues. The MPS-3 transitioned from PCM to native DSD playback smoothly with no noise or other sonic disturbances.

Channel Classics Records’ Ivan Fischer / Budapest Symphony Orchestra recording of Mahler’s 1st Symphony was listened to in native DSD .DFF files and 192/24 PCM both purchased from the Channel Classics Records’ web site. In my opinion, this is one of the best recordings I have heard of an orchestra and is a true DSD recording. While the PCM 192/24 files sounded very good, the native DSD 64 playback was superior. The PCM converted files did not present the “body” or weight of the .DFF files and sounded a little thinner. The native DSD64 playback had greater ease with less hardness and superior reproduction of the acoustics of the hall. I felt that the soundstage was larger with better depth in native DSD playback

I then compared the native .DSF files to my converted PCM 176.4/24 files of Blue Coast Records’ Jenna Mammina and Matt Rollings. Again native DSD64 playback was superior to the converted PCM files. Jenna’s voice was richer and had less of an edge than that I heard with the PCM files.

I ripped my SACD of Stile Antico Song of Songs and compared this to the 88.2/24 files I purchased from HDtracks. This recording is one of early music performed by a 12-voice vocal ensemble. The native DSD64 playback was less hard and definitely more natural sounding than the PCM files. The St Jude-on-the-Hill, London acoustic space was better reproduced in native DSD64 playback.

CD Playback
For those that require and enjoy CD disc playback, the MPS-3 does a great job with its apodizing filter that seems to improve the sound compared to other CD players I have heard. I would describe the sound of a CD played with the transport as detailed and focused. Using the computer with Pure Music or Audirvana resulted in a bigger soundstage with slightly less focus than that heard with the CD transport. But for most of us, the computer playback of these files is equally enjoyable if not more so, and will offer us a $2000 savings by purchasing the MPD-3.

Final Thoughts
It should be obvious to all that I enjoyed the time I spent listening to the MPS-3. The tonality, speed, dynamic qualities, and definition of this DAC are superb. The ability to play native DSD files is also a big plus for this product. Compared to the best that I’ve heard, the MPS-3 does not deliver the deepest soundstage, nor does it present the ultimate in sonic richness and background silence that I have experienced with DACs costing far more. Playback Designs offers a more expensive DAC, the MPD-5 with an external USB Extender Box for superior USB noise isolation. But at $6500, the MPD-3 (no CD drive) offers outstanding performance with state-of-the-art features that will delight most computer audiophiles.

Associated Equipment

Axiom05's picture

"Using the computer with Pure Music or Audirvana resulted in a bigger soundstage with slightly less focus than that heard with the CD transport. But for most of us, the computer playback of these files is equally enjoyable if not more so..."

I find this statement interesting, would you elaborate a bit more, re., CD vs computer playback? Are you saying that the CD provides more focus/detail than the ripped CD? Is there a reason the computer file would have less focus? What about space around instruments and voices and soundstage depth? I am just trying to understand how a CD vs the ripped file differ.

Steven Plaskin's picture

Playback using Audirvana and or Pure Music of CD files was preferred. I was just commenting on what I was hearing computer vs CD drive. Both 44.1 files are processed with the apodizing filter. I did find more depth and air around the instruments and voices with Audirvana or Pure Music over the CD player. Changing software and changing USB cables changed the sound.

Theoretically, there should be little difference using different software players and USB cables. But in my real world listening, I find differences.

The ripped CD files are error corrected ( if needed) while being stored on your hard drive. The software loads the file into memory for playback. All of this makes a difference. 

I probably could have found a combination of player / cable that more closely matched the sound of the CD player if I wanted. This is the hobby :)


labjr's picture

If they can somehow get the price down to about $595 they may have a winner.

Axiom05's picture

Steven - Thanks for your response, your comments are helpful.