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Impressions:  The Playback Designs MPS-8 Reference SACD/CD Player with Quad DSD DAC and StreamX Streamer Module, Part 1

08-14-2018 | By David W. Robinson | Issue 98

Ye Olde Editor, Happy Valley, Oregon, 2018. Portrait by John Robinson.

Playback Designs has returned again…with a vengeance! Their Dream Series of digital audio designs debut here at PF River City with their MPS-8. Part one of my impressions is here…read on for my take on what Andreas Koch and company have achieved.

Playback Designs MPS-8 Reference SACD/CD Player

The powerful and seductive Playback Designs MPS-8. (Image courtesy of Playback Designs)

It's true:  Andreas Koch of Playback Designs shipped me a sample of their Dream System MPS-8. This is their new state-of-the-art all-in-one is a true reference design, featuring just about everything that an audiophile could want in a beautiful, compact design.

Hardware Profile

According to Playback Designs' Web site, the MPS-8 features:

  • Up to 384kHz PCM and up to 11.2MHz DSD
  • USB I/O, AES, Coax, TosLink, PLink I/O
  • Balanced and unbalanced analog outputs
  • Digitally-driven, analog volume control
  • differential discrete DAC
  • differential high-end analog stages per channel
  • two regulated analog power supplies with two transformers
  • Special designed high-end SACD/CD transport
  • optional built-in StreamX Streamer (installed in this review sample)
  • Easy and intuitive remote control via iPad or Android

Now this is what I call "I/O":  a very solid set of input/output options for the audiophile…

Essentially, the MPS-8 is a "one-solution" configuration for audiophiles and music lovers who want to have it all in a single form factor, and who demand the very best in design and execution in their fine audio components. It handles both SACD and CDs in a true state-of-the-art transport and engine, so for those of us who have substantial investments in optical discs in those formats, this comes as a great relief. (For example, we have nearly 7,000 SACDs in the Positive Feedback library here.) With Esoteric's future being clouded by the bankruptcy of Gibson, and with OPPO Digital leaving the game, Playback Designs has provided a stellar solution for our optical conundrum.

Playback Designs MPS-8 rear view (Image courtesy of Playback Designs)

But it also has the ability to handle file-based music with its world-class DAC, also built in. It does DSD out to Quad DSD (DSD256 at a sampling rate of 11.2mHz), and PCM out to 384kHz via USB. S/PDIF Coax, AES/EBU, and even the venerable TosLink are also present, all at lower data rates. In addition, its StreamX streaming audio option ($2,400 upgrade) allows the connection to Tidal, Qobuz, Deezer, and vTuner via applet control (iPad and Android). More on that side of things in part two in Issue 99, my concluding article.

The MPS-8 with the top down:  note the two toroidal power transformers to the left. (Image courtesy of Playback Designs)

There are significant improvements in the internals of the MPS-8, definitely helping it to outpoint its earlier sibling, the MPS-5. Among these that Andreas has discussed with me were the "big two" of digital:  the power supply, and the analog output section. Over the years, I've seen a general consensus among DSD and digital audio designers about the critical nature of these two elements in achieving the best possible playback quality. Andreas says that the MPS-8 features two linear power supplies, one for the digital domain, while the other handles analog. This separation increases the isolation of the two, leading to greater purity in the output. I can certainly hear the improvement.

Image courtesy of Playback Designs

The analog out has a volume control, accessible via the remote that is digitally directed but operates in the analog domain. Precision, without the compromises of digital volume controls. It's very useful to be able to adjust the volume of the MPS-8 without the intrusion of PCM into the process…always a bad thing, in my book.

Associated Equipment

There have been two different audio systems here during the two months (and counting) that the MPS-8 has been here.

The Audionet STERN Reference Preamp

The initial configuration was wrapped around the stunning Audionet reference pieces:  the STERN preamp and a pair of the HEISENBERG monoblocks. The system was cabled with Kubala-Sosna Realization RCA (MPS-8 to the STERN), Kubala-Sosna Elation! (STERN to HEISENBERGs), K-S Elation! power cables, K-S XPander Power Distribution Unit, and Synergistic Research Galileo UEF reference loudspeaker cables. The STERN preamp was on our Stillpoints ESS Grid Rack#2 with Ultra V Isolation Feet…

The Audionet HEISENBERG Reference Monoblock Amplifiers

…while the HEISENBERG monoblocks rested on a Critical Mass Systems double QXK Rack; while the MPS-8 was on another Critical Mass Systems QXK rack. The loudspeakers throughout were the Evolution Acoustics MM2 with the spectacular EXACT External Crossover.

Joy and Joe Lavrencik of Critical Mass Systems, after installing the PASS Labs Xs 150 two-box monoblocks on a double-decker CMS QXK Rack in the fall of 2017. Prodigious!

The second (and current) system configuration subtracts the Audionet reference products above, and substitutes the exceptional PASS Labs Xs two-box preamp, and a pair of Xs 150 two-box monoblocks. All else remains as described above. The Xs components are PASS Labs' reference-level designs, and will provide an ongoing platform for this impressions project.

The Sound

The MPS-8 profile is a fine (and increasingly necessary) suite of capabilities. But now that oh so important question:  How does the MPS-8 perform on the optical side of the ledger?

We've had the MPS-8 here for two months now, as of the date of publication. I've put a lot of miles and hours into my preliminary impressions, with tons of SACDs in particular through it, with some CDs going through as well. Since I haven't had the time yet to turn to its integrated Quad DSD DAC or StreamX section…that will be in the second part of this review…I'll focus on its optical performance here.

"Zappa, Hendrix, Dylan" by Dan Zimmerman

Because, after all, if the MPS-8 can't make music, why would you bother, eh?

So…some of the SACDs that I've listened to on the MPS-8…longtime references and newbie impulses:

My dearly beloved reference for decades now, the Analogue Products reissue SACD simply mopped our listening room with tons of soundstaging width and depth, deep growly strings, detail, and middish-hall placement that the MPS-8 resolved in superlative fashion.

Rimsky-K on the Analogue Productions reissue SACD simply clobbered on the MPS-8. Its many sonic virtues brought this exceptional performance to life via the MPS-8. No congestion; no veiling; just greatly moving music, telling a fascinating story. This is a real reference-grade show-stopper. You should hear it on the MPS-8!

I can't get by without saying that the MPS-8 took this newer three-disc SACD addition to our library and lit the room up with it. Von Karajan is unforgettable in this collection of recordings on SHM SACD, and the transfer to DSD is truly transparent and natural sounding. What a treat to voyage through the late Mozart symphonies courtesy of the MPS-8!

I have mentioned the virtues of these SACD titles before. As a longtime lover of Chopin, I snapped up the two volumes of his Nocturnes on SACD just as soon as I found them. Rubinstein's interpretation is dreamy and introspective, as should be, but well controlled, with a brilliant feel for the emotions that the compositions embody. Smashing! And presented to a turn by the MPS-8…I couldn't be more pleased with what I heard here.

If you have not yet checked out the ECM Jazz reissues on SHM SACD, you really should. At first limited only to sales in one place in the world…Tower Records in Tokyo…I started receiving these last year. They were uniformly excellent, and every one a world-class title, so I took the step of notifying Chad Kassem of Acoustic Sounds that they should be sourcing and distributing these ECM SACDs ASAP. He immediately agreed, got his folks on it, and then, weeks later, began to stock them. You'll spend some dollars obtaining them, but I can tell you that every one of these titles belongs in any Jazz lover's trove. You'll find them HERE, if you're interested in purchasing them.

A particular favorite is Pat Metheny's Offramp, a recording that I fell in love with back in the 1980s. My favorite track, "Are You Going With Me?" is a jazz instrumental that starts quietly, building up its syncopated yearning throughout to a mounting sense of sadness. The MPS-8 presents this track with surety, rendering the melancholy feel of Metheny's performance with brilliant musicality. Clear, crisp, yet always organic. Gotta love it.

Likewise, the ECM SACD of Keith Jarrett's The Koln Concert, satisfies the soul and delights the heart. I could hardly believe it when I found out that this title had been reissued; it would have been on my list of top five titles to transfer to DSD.

It's hard for me to describe where Jarrett's incredible concert performance in Koln takes me. He's like a jazzic Phillip Glass for me. His music puts me into a place of waking dream and contemplation, and the utter sense of liveness, and the oneness of Jarrett with his music and his improvisational work, is riveting. There are times that he takes the pounding tension right out to the breaking point, and other times when he descends into understatement and quietness. The repetitive moments pound away at emotions, Glass-like. As always…the second Van Cliburn that he is in this way…the moments when he talks, croons, exclaims, and implores his piano are special moments.

The artist and his instrument are clearly one, as it is with all artistic masters.

The MPS-8 proved itself to be a musical instrument. The dynamics and nuances of Jarrett's performance are rendered with the sure-footedness of a sage mountain goat, able to leap about without stumbling or missing a landing point. Bravo! The MPS-8 really makes The Koln Concert soar in the way that it must.

Shifting gears entirely, the reissue of Linda Ronstadt's What's New (1983) is a welcome addition to my library. I have both the Japanese Warner Brothers Japan SACD and the splendid Analogue Productions QRP 200 gram vinyl…that's how good this album is.

The SACD is absolutely reference caliber. Linda Ronstadt was in her prime, the production values were breathtaking, and the recording itself is simply superlative. The sound is lush and enveloping, a real full-diva treatment, and Ronstadt took command in each and every one of songs. Among the stand-outs for me:  the title cut, "What's New," "Someone to Watch Over Me," and "What'll I Do?" Killers, all.

Once again, the MPS-8 was up to the challenge of this dynamic and lush recording. There was an excellent sense of the organic nature of the music, with a supple integration of all frequency ranges in an exceptionally balanced presentation of an SACD that I consider to be a must-have in every audiophile and music-lover's library. The way that the MPS-8 handled complex passages with such ease, such analogicality, was a pleasure to my ears and a thrill to my heart.

But then…yeah!! Can the MPS-8 rock?!

Answer:  yeah!! Bloody right!!

The Sex Pistols absolutely killed it with their release of Never Mind the Bollocks:  Here's the Sex Pistols in 1977. Talk about a grenade being tossed into the middle of the later '70s rock garden party! There's a part of me that deeply digs the raw edge of punk, grunge, techno, smasho, and all forms of alternative rock…that'll never change, I reckon. It's the warrior in me.

I love all the tracks here. They're giant dollops of crashing, crunchy, punch-ya-in-the-mouth-and-wipe-ya-out alienation. A medicine for leisure suits and comfortable mediocrity in later '70s rock; a Molotov cocktail in place of martinis and tequila sunrises. Yeah!

The MPS-8 does edgy and raw with the same ease that it handles grand, orchestral, and complex. Naturally these recordings were always compressed, loud, and not produced to create audiophile wet dreams during old funky White guy demos at high-end audio shows. (So what? No loss.) There is noticeable roll-off from companders, of course, also pretty common…do wish we had more audiophile production values in alternative modes, that's for sure.

Kickin' killer sound, with as much clarity as can be pulled in Single DSD from the master tape. As always, the Japanese SHM-SACD single-layer (no CD layer) arrives with purity, kick, and authority. It's easy for this record to sound overly congested, but the MPS-8 avoids that with apparent ease. Massive!

To round out the mentions here, I had to try out the Japanese SHM-SACD of The Velvet Underground & Nico, an early (1967) recording with Lou Reed. Talk about raw! Like, down towards the rootishness of edgy, for bloody sure. Lou Reed and company pound strings, the percussives, and the walls…but sometimes do quiet (and weird) passages that seem childlike and strange. All over the block, this.

"I'm Waiting for the Man"…well, what can I say? This is rocket fuel for rock, setting the stage for a number of musical strands to follow. Love it.

This is a difficult recording, but the MPS-8 once again lays it out in all of its flawed glory. I haven't heard this SACD sound better in our system here, which is a major compliment to this Playback Designs unit. It excels on every type of music that I've thrown at it over the past two months…and I've got a lot here.

Naturally, there were very many other SACDs from all genres that I tried with the MPS-8. In every case, it showed itself to be the best optical player that I've ever heard in my listening room. 

Final Thoughts, Part 1

I've been reflecting on this remarkable player for two months now. Where am I on the MPS-8 now? How is it stacking up?

In a word:  exceptional! Or, better yet, as the French might say, "Ne plus ultra!"

Let me tell you why I say this.

I've heard a number of very fine…and a pile of merely OK…optical transports. The earlier Playback Designs MPS SACD/CD player; the Playback Designs Sonoma line, including the OPPO BDP-103 with OpBox optical connection to the Merlot Quad DSD DAC; a couple of the Esoteric SACD/CD players, one of which (the DV-60) I still own; a pile of OPPO universal players, modified or stock; a Marantz or two; EMM Labs; even a dCS, back in the day…all of these come to mind immediately. All offered at least good performance, with the MPS-5, the Sonoma stack, and the Esoteric units being generally excellent.

The earlier MPS-5 player used an Esoteric drive (very expensive, even at OEM prices) that was modded to improve its performance. It was my reference standard for years. But Andreas and Playback Designs were forced to make the decision to switch from the Esoteric drive for the MPS-8 due to the fact that Esoteric had suspended the production of all OEM drives. Instead, Playback Designs had to find an alternative. In an earlier revision of this essay, I had stated that Playback Designs went to their own custom all-metal transport, built in Europe to Andreas' exacting specifications. That had been my understanding from earlier conversations with him. Andreas has notified me that this is not correct. Instead, the production version of the MPS-8 utilizes drives sourced from D&M in Japan. He told me, "It is the same drive used in their high end Denon and Marantz products. It is less spectacular than making my own, but also a heck of lot less expensive."

Makes sense to me. Correction noted.

Playback Designs MPS-8 Reference SACD/CD Player

The drive is certainly impressive in every way:  silky smooth machined metal on the tray, better than any tray and transport that I've ever seen; a quiet load; and very responsive to remote control. Frankly, I've never experienced a finer transport for the sheer mechanics of the drive. Touching the tray is positively sensual. The remote control is also machined aluminum, nicely hefty, easy to use, and quite definite in its operative modes over the MPS-8. It's a pleasure to use a transport with a remote like this.

The sonic results are quite commensurate with the mechanicals and remote. One would certainly hope that a tray/transport/engine done at this superlative level would render discernable results in SACD/CD performance, and it's clear to me that it does. To the extent that the transport can improve or detract from the reproduction of optical discs, I can say that the MPS-8 was definitely outscoring it little brother, the Playback Designs Sonoma OPPO BDP-103 with OpBox optical output feeding the Merlot Quad DSD DAC via PLink (ST Glass), and not by a little. One would expect this, of course, given the price point of the 103, even after modding it, but nonetheless, the improvement by comparison with the MPS-8 was not subtle at all. "Night and day" is more like it. Clearly transports make a serious difference, all by themselves. Precision is the name of the game. Metal beats plastic on that playing field, every time.

CD playback also benefits immensely from the MPS-8 system. Like its earlier iteration the MPS-5, the MPS-8 takes the feed from the CD…standard 44.1kHz/16-bit PCM…but then goes way beyond the MPS-5. According to Andreas, it converts the CD's PCM feed to Double DSD, and then further processing using Andreas' new and proprietary algorithm at a mind-blowing 45.1584mHz, outputs it as analog. I have spent some time listening to CDs, and I can tell you that this is the best optical CD playback that I've ever heard. Incredible detail, soundstaging, and imaging…well beyond what CDs usually sound like…and big-time improvements in the loss of glare, brightness, flatness, two-dimensionality, and edginess that are usually our lot with little beasties. Instead, they really do begin to sound musical, and more organic than before.

"Just as good as SACDs or analog?"

No, of course not. But a helluva lot better optical CD playback than we've had elsewhere, believe me. Even better than my old reference, the MPS-5…and that's quite a standard to excel when it comes to CDs.

I'll cut to the proverbial chase:  The new Playback Designs MPS-8 SACD/CD player must rank as the finest SACD/CD player that I've ever heard. Period.

Playback Designs MPS-8 Reference SACD/CD Player

Image courtesy of Playback Designs

Part two of my evaluation is going to focus on the StreamX and Quad DAC via USB side of things, which will complete my round-up of the MPS-8 as a world-killer design.

More to come.

Retail:  USD $25,000. Note that StreamX is an option that adds $2400 to the price. Contact Playback Designs for information on the latest prices.

Playback Designs LLC

Alamo, CA  94507



[email protected]


All photographs and image processing by David W. Robinson, unless otherwise noted. The drawing "Zappa, Hendrix, Dylan" is by Dan Zimmerman. The Cheshire Cat by Sir John Tenniel is in the public domain.