Review: Playback Designs IPS-3 Integrated Playback System
Remember the days of the old three-in-one? One of my earliest memories as a child is of a beautiful old furniture piece, made of real timber. It had dark red cloth sides on the outer bottom corners that covered the inbuilt speakers, and a smooth cover that lifted to reveal a turntable. It had an AM radio and of course an amplifier. I don’t remember the brand but I do remember the sound and the feeling of joy listening to many old records.
For many years manufacturers produced audio equipment that housed everything that you needed. You simply added a pair of speakers you were good to go. Then at some point, things changed and you needed separate components if you wanted the best sound quality. Of course, the ‘receiver’ has been around for many years, but these are predominantly linked to audio-video systems.
Many people now live in apartments or simply won’t tolerate having lots of separate components in the sound system. Significant others are always in favour of slimming down the equipment rack; but we don’t wish to compromise on sound quality.
Enter the IPS-3 Integrated Playback System from Playback Designs based in California USA. The IPS-3 is effectively a high quality integrated amplifier with an inbuilt DAC. I’m not sure that strictly qualifies it as a traditional three-in-one but it certainly has three functions housed in an attractive slim case. Playback Designs is distributed in Australia by Pure Music Group, and the IPS-3 is available locally for $19,900 RRP.
The IPS-3 is a slightly unique product in a world of conformity. Created to exist in the world of the true high end, it has an impressive design and specifications. As previously mentioned the IPS-3 is really three products in one single box.
Firstly, it is a class A/B stereo amplifier that is a capable of producing 130W/channel into 8ohms and 260W/channel into 4ohms. The fact that it doubles the output into 4ohms usually denotes that the power supply has been optimised for high current capability and it doesn’t short change the amp when it’s driving speakers in the real world.
The built-in pre-amplifier is controlled by a very well made metal remote control that feels very nice in the hand and in use. The remote enables the user to change volume, inputs and phase. When a button is pressed, a blue back light comes on for around 3 seconds, which is a good feature, but in a darkened room you may not know the correct button to press until a button has already been pressed. Alternatively there are 5 small buttons on the top right surface of the unit that also controls the most often used functions. What I found strange is the lack of an on/off button or even a standby mode. The only way to switch the unit off is to either use the master power switch at the back of the unit or to remove the power cord from the unit. Obviously the unit is meant to left on at all times but more on that later.
There are no published technical specifications I could find for the preamp. There are 2 x unbalanced RCA inputs, and 1 x balanced XLR input that could be used for a phono stage, reel to reel player or music server.
Certainly a highlight of the IPS-3 is the internal DAC or digital to analogue convertor. Playback Designs have a reputation for their high quality playback systems, and in particular, DAC’s.
One of Playback Designs’ products is the stand-alone MPD-3 DAC that sells for $10,000 as a standalone unit. Essentially that product has been built into the IPS-3.
A discrete dual differential DAC is utilised to produce the cleanest jitter free signal that is possible. Rather than utilise an off the shelf DAC chipset, Playback Designs essentially create their own DAC built from FPGA’s with custom software that is able to give them precisely what is required. Many of the world’s finest DAC’s are designed this way.
The digital inputs include an AES/EBU (XLR Connector) for PCM up to 24 bit / 192 kHz and 64FS DSD, a Coax (RCA Connector) for PCM up to 24 bit / 192 kHz and 64FS DSD and USB for PCM up to 24 bit / 384 kHz and DSD up to 6.1 MHz from either a PC or MAC. It also features an unusual ‘PlayLink’ input, which is a proprietary optical link for connecting other Playback Designs equipment such as an optional USB extender via optical cable (Up to 1000 feet). There is no traditional Toslink optical input.
Andreas Koch, the chief designer for Playback Designs, told StereoNET of their preference and recommendation for USB inputs rather than the commonly used SPDIF (Coax):
USB always sounds better than SPDIF, because in USB the DAC is clock master. In SPDIF mode the clock is generated by the connected source - and that is usually bad.
The IPS-3 also incorporates the use of a newly developed apodizing upsampling filter for 44.1 and 48kHz sample rates, that the manufacturer says makes CD’s sound better than ever and have a more analogue like quality.
What is an apodizing filter? Playback Designs states:
Apodizing filters are special upsampling filters that compensate for some of the ringing effects caused by brickwall filters in the Analog to Digital Converters (A/D) used during recording. Depending on the recordings apodizing filters can provide audible improvements. This is not a new technology and is used mostly to improve reception signals from the edge of dish antennas (satellite). Since brickwalls in A/D converters are akin to edges on dish antennas the same principle holds for digital audio and similar filters can be used in DACs with noticeable improvements.
Starting his first audio consultancy business in the early ’80s whilst also working professionally in the electronics industry, Mark now splits his time between professional reviewing and AV consultancy.