“I know you will want to hear what will comes next from Playback Designs. Unlike your MPS-5, this new series will be made up of 3 different components; 2 complimentary double-box units “endgame” sort of stuff, a transport / streamer and a DAC; lastly, an all-new, all-in-one player, streamer and DAC, similar to your MPS-5. Needless to say, each is an all-out assault at state of the art in digital playback and each will significantly improve over the 5-series and Merlot series. Naturally, each will come with a lifetime supply of Toblerone chocolate as well.”
Save for the last drool worthy sentence, a complete and wishfully selfish fabrication on my part, that was the content of an iMessage exchange I had with Andreas Koch, owner and chief designer of Playback Designs, a company he had founded in the mid 2000s. No stranger to digital, in fact, Andreas is one, if not the digital Yoda, he pioneered many aspects of digital conversion used in modern day converters. Indeed, this Swiss Yoda’s digital genius first caught the eyes of his then employer, Studer, where in the early 80s he already began experimenting with many of the soon to be digital conversion themes that found their way to the professional recording industry, including of course, Studer’s own digital recorders. From early psychoacoustic filtering to splitting the audible music band into several bands which could then be digitized independently at their level best, so impressed was the top echelon of digital gods, that Andreas found himself called to duty pretty much anywhere digital analog conversion was required. From Skywalker ranch to several high-profile side projects, it wasn’t long before sometime in the mid 90s, Sony came calling. Sony of course was well on their way designing the next generation digital platform built around a core single bit strategy which became known by the marketing term Direct Stream Digital, or DSD for short. I sometimes think that even as of today, this seems forever and a half ago. In reality, in the grand scheme of all things digital, this was all rather fairly recent from a historic perspective.
The rest as they say, is history. Having continued the underlying science and foundational working principles of 1-bit delta sigma converters, modern day DSD – Direct Stream Digital, was born. Though the work was rewarding and ultimately produced the Compact Disc’s successor, SACD, Andreas felt called to something bigger still and thus, removed from corporate shackles, their evil bean counters and nothing burger marketing departments, he founded his own company, Playback Designs. The mission was clear, yet profoundly optimistic: create the best DSD based digital playback gear known to man. The first product, the Playback Designs MPS-5, used a famed Teac CD/SACD transport to deliver optimal physical media playback. Still very early in the development of what was then became universally known as “streaming” or computer enabled playback of digital files, the MPS-5 also incorporated a USB input, which at the time (think 2007/8) was a complete novelty in the realm of high-end digital audio. Further, to literally Warp factor 9 ahead of the competition, which used generic, off the shelf DAC chips, Andreas designed his converter based upon an FPGA chip, or field programmable gate array. In short, an FPGA chip gives the designer complete freedom to deliver a conversion process built completely from scratch. Bonus? Much like Apple does with each iteration of iOS, a simple software update can unlock even more performance without any changes to the hardware. Cunningly legit. Looking back, a decade plus later, it can’t be stressed enough just how pioneering and forward-thinking Andreas’ use of an FPGA chip really was. No longer beholden to the inadequacies of existing mass-manufactured chips, Andreas could let his mathematical design genius fly completely free. To boot, those freely available software updates continued to bring forward hidden sound qualities, enabling the MPS-5 to be more of a platform for bigger things than just a buy-once-be-done with it DAC.
When it was launched, the MPS-5 became an instant hit: heralded by virtually everyone in the high-end press as the best sounding, most analog digital playback system available, customers far and wide lined up with their checkbooks and orders went through the roof. Having heard what the fuss was all about for my own ears, I bought one myself. Digital bliss was here to stay. That was sometime in 2009. Since then, the MPS-5 has seen several significant software updates and two generations of outboard USB inputs, surpassing the built-in option (which really came down to available USB chipsets) by leaps. Throughout it all, the MPS-5 remained my digital reference. Given that digital conversion technology development moves by way of light years, it is a true testament to Andreas Koch’s wits that his first product performed so well, especially given the heated competition that sprouted across the globe. Sure, a few digital bits and bobs did this and that a little more, a little better, but none did it conclusively, consistently better as once complete package. Andreas’ own success brought forth even greater accolades as he then also branched out into OEM design work and shared his knowledge base with for example, Ted Smith at PS Audio, whom he taught the ins and outs of DSD and FPGA. Nagra was another recipient of Andreas’ depth of knowledge and so it wasn’t a surprise to see those products raise to the occasion as well.
But back to Playback Designs. When, a few years ago, Andreas launched his all new Merlot series of products, he purposely built them around a cost factor principle: offer up almost top-level performance at real-world prices. To life came a new series of DACs, ADCs and streamers that performed well above their asking price. Soon after, in conversations with Andreas, I dug for more intel: “I’m willing to bet you are working on a replacement series for the MPS-5… aren’t you?” Then, a few months and a phone call later, Andreas proposed a meeting at his design studio to show me something he was working on. That of course turned out to be what was to become the Dream series of components all under the MPS-8 series name. Dream implied best in class, which in turn really only meant reference class, go big or go home. Still in its early prototype stages, the boards inspired confidence: fully separate, regulated power supplies for digital, analog and ancillary operations; a single clock for all operational aspects, the latest generation FPGA chips; latest design analog output stage and last but not least, an all-new reference level Denon based, all metal CD/SACD transport custom built to address high-end audio specifications and needs [I believe that this same drive is also used by dCS in their new Rossini transport].
“I’m about fifteen minutes out”, a cryptic iMessage read. Giddy with anticipation, I had warmed up the HiFi and left a spot open for the MPS-8 Dream Player. “Wow, did you add a few bricks for kicks?”, I quipped as I unboxed the well packaged player. Noticeably heavier, taller and appearing as a single block of CNC machined aluminum, my first impression of the MPS-8 Dream Player was rather positive. The old MPS-5 series’ two-tone, square-ish, angular chassis was replaced by an all new Playback Designs theme: if Apple had produced it, the color would without doubt be called “space grey”. Refreshing, I thought. A distinctly different chassis color to set itself apart from the monotone silver or all black you see so often. Next, you notice the all-new unibody looking chassis, which, though it is made of different panels, hides all screws internally: all you see is one smooth, wave-y front and side plate with an angular beveled top plate. CNC cut on the top, is a subtle, yet distinct Playback Designs logo. Similar to the MPS-5, the right side of the top plate contains five aluminum buttons to control the unit from close-up. Also like the previous reference player, the same split red LCD display is split by the new CD/SACD all metal drive. On the point of that LCD display, it may surprise you to hear that here too, Andreas went his own deterministic way. Fancy displays with color, OLED, etc., would all make for pretty graphics, but ultimately, the penalty for that would be adding significant engineering solutions regarding the clocking of such a display. In the case of Playback Design products, Andreas decided to keep it simple, therefore sticking to a minimalist LCD that can run off the same system clock, synchronized to the audio sample rate, as the rest of the digital circuit. This eliminates issues at the core and ultimately produces better results, both measured and audible. The back of the unit contains all of the usual I/O including a few new ones; most notably, if you have the optionally available streamer module – Stream-X – an ethernet port. YES!. Also on-board is PLINK, Playback-Designs proprietary optical link (not to be confused with Toshiba’s ancient TosLink standard) to connect other external Playback-Designs hardware or future outboard modules.
While I have noticed an increased use of CD playback over the past few years, my de facto go-to digital solution is entirely Roon based, courtesy of my Roon Nucleus and eero network leashed QNAP 32TB NAS, which hosts about 6TB of various 16/44 and hi-res 24-bit and DSD files. Convenience always wins, though with Roon so perfectly integrating my entire digital library, I can easily enjoy Tidal, Qobuz as well as thousands of internet radio stations all accessible via Roon’s sophisticated iOS and Mac app. The fact that the Stream-X option makes available Tidal, Qobuz and other streaming platforms, is a bonus for those who wish to remain Roon-free. All in, it’s easy to see that ten years have passed since the MPS-5 came to life.
Now then, with the MPS-8 Dream Player ready, set and connected to my EINSTEIN The Preamp and Power amp combo, via Kubala-Sosna’s Elation! balanced interconnects, in turn feeding YG’s Sonja 2.3 via KS Elation! speaker cables and all powered through KS Elation! power cords, I was ready to enjoy the fruits of Andreas Koch’s labors. Intuitive as it is simple to use, the supplied all aluminum, backlit, remote control allows all functions of the Dream Player to be controlled from the palm of your hand. A simple press on either of the up or down arrows selects the input for the DAC section: from TosLink to streamer, to disc playback (and all other inputs) you can easily switch between sections. As always, Andreas has given his utmost care to ensure that only the selected input is powered on and supplying digital bits; all other inputs are turned off and essentially out of the way. Thus, when you select the CD/SACD transport section, the time and track display is on; when you select any other input, the drive and all of its ancillary power is completely shut off and out of the signal’s way, ensuring maximum signal protection and noise elimination. One of the first CD’s I placed in the Dream Player’s drive was Yello’s latest, Live in Berlin double-disc set [Polygram]. Perhaps the single best recorded live album of electronic music (really of any kind) I am aware of, this disc is a tour de force of Yello’s rich music catalog. The Race, the album’s last cut, is a sensational demo that will expose any system’s flaws and accolades alike. From the roaring car racing through your living room at the beginning of the track, to the pulsating beat and Dieter Meier’s raspy, chesty and unmistakable voice, all aspects of your system are challenged. Here, the Dream Player simply shines. Given YG Sonja 2.3s ruthlessly revealing canvas, whatever the source delivers, you will hear. No more, no less. Bass is tight, firm; explosive, with dynamic contrasts that literally beg the question of just how much information a Compact Disc can actually store. Anyone claiming that for genuine high-end digital playback you need hi-res files, simply has to listen to this disc and then re-check their claims. Constricted or bandwidth limited? Nope. Not revealing enough or missing sparkle and shine? Nada. Hi-res? Absolutely. 16/44 CD? Indeed.
What has always impressed me with the MPS-5, CD playback, the MPS-8 Dream Player takes further, farther, for real. CD for crying out loud. You know, the format that’s been around bona fide since ca. 1983. Case in point, Mark Knopfler’s latest, Down The Road Wherever [Blue Note]. Undoubtedly a hi-res studio recording, downsampled to 16/44, Good on you Son, shows off Knopfler’s classic ease and free-flowing artistry. Opening up with a guitar riff, you hear perfect timing; not just in the manner of his command. There’s a fullness, a body and weight to the riff, easily discernible on hi-res stuff, not necessarily Compact Disc. What Andreas Koch’s FPGA packaged algorithms have done is nothing short of astounding, taking a 40 year old medium to heights likely never envisioned.
Could SACD be better still? You bet. Plucking my trusted go-to disc, Getz / Gilberto [Analog Productions/Verve], is a delight on so many ways. On Vivo Sónhando, Getz’s playful mastery of the tenor sax is a marvel in musicianship, recorded or otherwise. The old feeling of “you are there” is enveloping, downright materializing in front of you. Crystalline, pure highs, with no signs of stress, the MPS-8 Dream Player resolves the critical midrange and upper registers of the spectrum without any hint of exuberance or editorializing. The tape is in fact the master and the master, brought to you by DSD, is masterful. The softly faded percussion and piano, clearly in the background, nevertheless take on a lifelike presence that opens a window to the recording session. That this session is now close to 60 years old, is immaterial. Preservation is king. That this is the best I’ve heard this disc in my house is a remarkable achievement given that the MPS-5 was no slouch. Similar, though clearly not nearly as organically resolved, the MPS-5 masked certain elements that you really only register in direct comparison to the MPS-8 Dream Player. Percussive elements are ever so slightly smeared; the faint piano not quite as impactful and open. New is indeed, new, thus its lights out and practically game, set and match for Mr. Dream Player.
Yes, but what about the Stream-X option? I have to confess that for the past few years I have preferred the playback quality of physical media to any stream, be it via a copied disc on my NAS, a hi-res file on my NAS, a Tidal or Qobuz stream. No matter the source, the physical disc – even if said this was merely a CD – generally always trumped the streamed version of the same cut. This has been my experience with dCS’ Rossini, AURALiC’s Vega G2, and yes, even my previous reference, the MPS-5. I don’t know what it is – aren’t bits, bits? Apparently not. In some cases, the differences where easily heard, in others, not quite as profound, but always swinging back to the physical format. Would the MPS-8 take things in a decidedly different direction? Yes. No. Maybe. Let me qualify that. First, the basics: my QNAP’d 32TB NAS attaches via Cat 5 to one of four eero mesh network routers located in my home office. There, about 6TB of various hi-res files in DSD, double-DSD and various hi-res PCM formats sit, waiting to be called to duty via Roon’s Nucleus, also attached to the same eero router. I haven’t yet decided the deal or no deal on network cables, so these are standard IT-grade Cat 5 cables, in other words, nothing fancy. Tidal and Qobuz arrive via my fiber optic Verizon, ne, Frontier 100/100 service and are then routed to another eero router in my living-room. CDs and SACDs obviously have the benefit of being physical present; the pits are in fact the bits. What comes next is somewhat perplexing, somewhat vexing. Why would bits derived from a stream – all clocked to be decoded properly – sound any different from bits derived from a CD’s pits, spinning around a mechanical device at high speed? I really don’t know. Fact is, that even with the far superior number quetching power of the MPS-8 Dream Player, those bits seem to take a back seat to their physical cousins. Perhaps the delta is somewhat shrunk; on some cuts it’s as easy as ever to discern the difference; on others, not so much. Sorting my audition notes, I scribble “faint”; “excessive”; “two-dimensional”; “timing is off”. In general, and not specific to any genre, these attributes seem fitting. A fault of the Stream-X option? Hardly. Given Andreas Koch’s digital design genius, his system delivers precisely what his system gets. Data. Here, I find myself in the following pickle: when I want to listen to music, I’ll use the svelte remote to select the Stream-X input; cue up Roon on my iPad or iPhone and bliss away. Everything works, each and every time. No hiccups, nothing to configure. Up to single-rate DSD and 24/192. Sounds terrific, it really does. But, if I really want to enjoy an album, a cut or song, I pull the CD, open the all-metal disc drawer of the MPS-8 Dream Player and play away. Somehow, this sounds better. On the newly released, and remixed from the original 24 track, 2” session tapes by Warner Sound [La-La Land Records], soundtrack of Superman, the original Christopher Reeve movie, John William’s score is a bombastic experience of truly epic proportions. Via the EINSTEIN leashed YG Sonja 2.3s, his score truly comes to life in a manner that can only be described as epic. Cinemascope wide soundstaging, with proper depth, width and height, unfold a symphonic score searching for equals. Cut two, The Planet Krypton, shines akin to Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra. Hearing is believing. The QNAP’d copy? Ever so slightly less so.
That the latest Playback Designs MPS-8 Dream Series is an all-out assault on state of the art in digital playback is no surprise. You get a no-nonsense digital transcoder that, like its predecessor, will be upgradeable for at least as long, packed full of the latest technologies available. At $28,500, it’s not cheap by any means. Given the outstanding sound quality it produces, a fair price, especially considering the ever-escalating price points some manufacturers dare ask for their level best. In my book, Andreas has done it again, designing a genuine reference quality all-in-one DAC, player and streamer built to the highest standards. Frankly, the last disc player you may ever need. A+++++
Product: Playback Designs MPS-8 Dream Player w/ Stream-X option
Product Page - LINK
Product Brief - LINK (PDF)
Owner's Manual - LINK (PDF)
Wilson Audio Alexx
YG Acoustics Sonja 2.3
EINSTEIN The Loudspeaker
EINSTEN The Preamp
EINSTEIN The Last Record Player, CD source
EINSTEIN The Silver Bullet Mk II, OTL mono block amplifiers
McIntosh MC611, mono block amplifiers
Kubala-Sosna Elation!, speaker cables, interconnect and power cables
LessLoss C-MARC, power cables and S/PDIF
15” MacBook Pro 2018, source
Roon system consisting of Roon Nucleus and Roon software
HRS M3X equipment base
Tabula-Rasa, solid wood equipment rack
QNAP 32TB 8-bay NAS
eero in home mesh network / WiFi