Playback Designs MPS-5 versus the EMMLabs CDSA SE

This was a rather hurried back and forth shootout that lasted about an hour to an hour and a half. Neli and I were somewhat at an advantage, because we are very familiar with the system – and a very high-resolution system at that.

The system consisted of the Marten ‘Coltrane Supreme’ loudspeakers, Lamm ML2.1 amps, and Lamm L2 linestage. Cables were a mix of Nordost ODIN, Valhalla and Jorma Design PRIME. Powercords were Elrod and AcroLink. All components were on HRS platforms (and the front end on the HRS SXR equipment rack) except the Marten speaker crossover [Hmmm… we got to get this boy a M3 too].

[More photos of the PD in the previous post]

The Playback Designs MPS-5 (PD) only had about 300-400 hours on it so far, so we assumed that it was enough like the CDSA that its break-in process would be go through likewise phases of dynamic compression before opening up at around 700 to 1000 hours.

In some large sense the fact that the PD is still breaking in invalidates some of what we heard. But, considering how many of the reviews out there are of unbroken-in equipment – we thought we’d at least publish a few impressions to add a little sanity to the mix.

The short and sweet is that the PD is a very good player but I don’t think it beats the CDSA SE with the latest transport and software updates.

That doesn’t mean EMMLabs can rest easy – this player has a lot going for it – and it is similar enough to the CDSA [at this point] that it will cause confusion in the marketplace [though at $15K versus the CDSA’s 11.5K, there is a price difference – though the PD does offer additional functionality for the higher price tag by providing digital inputs on the back of the unit).

OK. Details…

The PD had very good PRaT which I thought was slightly better than the CDSA.

The PD had a slightly more colorful tone – which is not to say warm, tho it might be thought of that way – but more like the Kharma kind of exuberance – or that of analog. The Meitner is also known for its pureness of tone – and the PD was like that, only tipped up a little. I did not find it to be out of proportion to reality, necessarily, but it was a definite difference from way the CDSA was interpreting the CD.

Another difference was that either the soft notes were made more prominent – or the midrange and highs were made more prominent – which I think resulted in several more sonic differences [according to my mental model of what is happening]:

1. The soundstage was more forward. This was neither more or less pleasant than the CDSA – it just WAS.

2. There was more ‘perceived’ resolution – a lot of the subtleties of the music were more evident [note that this differs from Dave’s interpretation – by I think I have an explanation for this further on]

3. There was a higher noise floor

4. Because lots of very soft sounds were now more in evidence there wasn’t a clear demarcation between images in the soundstage.

5. This lead to a feeling that there was a larger presence, more of a oneness or wholeness to the stage – perhaps even more ‘continuousness’ where notes flowed well into each other.

All this elevation of low-level detail also to a feeling that there was [is? have to remember – this player isn’t broken in yet, and although the CDSA doesn’t sound like this when it is breaking in – this is not the CDSA] an innate lack of dynamic range between the quietest note and the loudest – and that there was ‘fuzz’ between the musicians. I felt that there were too many ‘cues’ [very low level subtle sounds like the sound bouncing off the guitar] telling the ear where everything was and concluded that there was some information that really shouldn’t be there – that things were moving around too much and too large – and that it also tended to make the notes rounder – even though the notes were great there were just a lot of other sounds around the note that was filling in around it – perhaps making it *seem* rounder.

So, in conclusion, this is a very nice player but CDSA SE owners do not have anything to worry about, …yet. However, if they look in the ‘solid-state players less than $50K rear view mirror’, they will see a new player has appeared out of nowhere where before there was none in sight.

Emm Labs is a company with equipment in most pro studios in the world. This is Playback Design’s first product.

I am hoping that Playback Designs and EMM Labs continue to diverge with respect to the sound of their equipment – both to reduce the potential of litigation [the head engineer at PD is from EMM Labs] and to offer the audiophile more choices.

Our heartfelt thanks go to Dave for lugging his player up all those stairs 🙂


[Whew! Hard review to write, trying to be fair to both players and to both manufacturers who we like and respect – and one of which, Emm Labs, we represent in the marketplace. Also, people get so passionate about their latest high-end audio toy – one of the reasons magazines only publish positive, non-comparative reviews is just to avoid the poop storms :-)].