In September 2014 I reviewed the original Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Reference Series digital to analog converter. I began that review by saying,
"Rarely do I hear a component that's truly a game changer, a component that's so good I can't stop listening through it, and a component that's so good it renders much of the competition irrelevant. I can't remember, off the top of my head, the last time I heard such a component. That is, before the Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Reference Series arrived. The Alpha DAC RS, every bit a true game changer, blew me away from the first listen in my system. Since its arrival I've listened to more complete albums and heard more new sounds from old albums than any time in my life."
Looking back at that review I am reminded of the impact the Reference Series had on my enjoyment of this hobby. It's crazy how one can get used to the new normal and easily forget about life before a significant event or change in one's life. I guess that's just part of being human. It actually keeps us sane in the face of tragic events, but it also dulls the enthusiasm for that new car smell with each subsequent ride. I've lived with the Alpha DAC Reference Series for almost two years and in that time I've simply become accustomed to the quality of sound it can reproduce. I know that statement may sound crazy, but it's true. My new normal, or reference as it may be called, is one of the best products available in HiFi. Call me jaded or any number of adjectives that describe this first-world problem and that's OK. I get it. But, I also haven't completely forgot my roots. There was a day back around sixth grade when my new Technics receiver and sixty-four dollar Kenwood loudspeakers totally blew away my Toshiba boombox and changed my life forever. Perhaps it's these adjustments to new things in life that partly motivates engineers to improve their products. The thrill of listening to a component that brings one that much closer to the real thing, can't be denied.
Bringing this back to Berkeley, in more ways than one, I was in Northern California's Bay Area last week doing some work with audio dealer Tim Marutani. Tim has been on the cutting edge of digital playback for many years. In fact, Tim overnighted me an original Alpha DAC for me to do some computer audio testing back in June of 2008. Prior to leaving on this trip to California, I asked Tim to schedule a dinner with Berkeley Audio Design engineer Michael "Pflash" Pflaumer if possible. I always like to meet with respected people in the industry when I can, to increase my knowledge of certain topics which helps me educate the CA Community. Call it coincidence or something else entirely, but when I made this request I had no idea Berkeley Audio Design was close to announcing the Reference Series 2 DAC. Needless to say, my dinner with Tim and Pflash was very fruitful and enabled me to learn quite a bit about the upgraded Alpha DAC Reference Series 2, or RS2 for short.
As this is just a preview of the RS2, and because I've only had the unit for less than 24 hours, I'm not going to go deep into the gritty details. The major theme to the upgrade is this: small but sonically important updates to the digital side of the DAC, with most of the upgrade revolving around the analog section of the RS2. To understand the upgrade, one must go back a couple years to the design of the original RS. The RS was a breakthrough product with many advances coming during its design, among them was the conceptualization and manufacture of new crystal oscillators with incredibly low phase noise. These oscillators didn't exist prior to the original RS. Once Berkeley Audio Design had the oscillators, it had to figure out how to preserve this low phase noise all the way to the DAC chip, in other words, make a real product out of this technology. After many months of development the original RS was released. To Berkeley Audio Design the original RS turned into a new platform that enabled the company to hear more than ever and it opened up new possibilities that didn't exist before the existence of the RS. It's much easier to improve other parts of a component once you have a breakthrough platform on which to build. Shortly after the RS was released Berkeley Audio Design started looking into how to further development using the new RS platform. Over the last couple years the company has been able to enhance its digital algorithms to a level not previously possible. In addition, the new developments enabled 'Berkeley' to majorly improve its analog section. Once the digital algorithm and analog sections were completed, it was time to manufacture the Alpha DAC Reference Series 2.
With many kinks worked out during the original RS manufacturing, I expect Berkeley Audio Design to deliver the RS2 to it dealer network this month (June, 2016) at a price of $19,500. An additional note from the RS2 press release also reveals welcomed news for current RS owners, "Because Berkeley Audio Design doesn’t believe in planned obsolescence and because the original Alpha DAC Reference Series represents a significant investment, Berkeley Audio Design will upgrade the original Alpha DAC Reference Series to the Alpha DAC Reference Series 2 at a cost of $3,500.00 plus shipping, which is the difference in retail cost between the original Alpha DAC Reference Series and the Alpha DAC Reference Series 2. That means existing Alpha DAC Reference Series owners will be able to upgrade to the Alpha DAC Reference Series 2 for the same total cost, plus shipping, as a new Alpha DAC Reference Series 2... Upgraded units will be identical in performance to a new Alpha DAC Reference Series 2."
The Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Reference Series 2 has been in my system for less than 24 hours. In that time I've listened to five albums from start to finish. I was up until the wee hours of this morning listening to new and old music. One of the best things in this wonderful hobby of ours is listening to one's music again for the first time. Placing a new component into the system sparks a desire to listen to so much music in order to hear it clearer, more refined, more airy, etc... than previously heard. Based on my several hours with the Alpha DAC Reference Series 2, I can say I heard my music like never before. For example, I'm still trying to figure out what is making a certain sound on an album I've heard a hundred times, yet never heard this sound previously. On the Reference Recordings 24 bit / 176.4 kHz HRx release of Nojima Plays Liszt from Minoru Nojima (HR-25), On track one Mephisto Waltz, I hear a clicking sound in the left channel, especially present during the first three minutes of the track. I described this to a colleague as a mouse clicking sound, as if someone was surfing the Internet next to the microphones during the recording. I'm guessing this is a sound made by the piano, but I'd love to know for sure. At any rate, this entire album sounds fantastic through the new RS2. Even better than the original RS, by what I consider a wide margin. Solo piano music isn't in my normal wheelhouse for extended listening sessions, but with a recording this good and equipment to match, I was easily lost in the music and transported to the Oxnard, CA Civic Auditorium on December 17-18, 1986. Nojima's Hamburg Steinway sounds absolutely magical through the RS2.
I also listened to Jack Johnson's Brushfire Fairytales, 16/48 remaster, twice last night. Again, I was brought closer to the music through the RS2. Then I got on a Miles Davis kick and spent some time with the 24/192 release of Kind of Blue, and the Analogue Productions release of Someday My Prince Will Come. Listening to Kind of Blue, I had t remind myself that this album was recorded and originally released in 1959! How can a 1959 recording sound this good? Miles' trumpet went from smooth to irritatingly brash and back again, with astounding realism. When music sounds this good, I frequently want to know more about the music and musicians. Thus, last night I started wondering if anyone had written a book about the recording of Kind of Blue and the events surrounding the album. Based on the characters involved, such a story has to be amazing.
Anyway, this is just preview and the Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Reference Series 2 has been in my system for less than a day. Things should only get better from here. If you want to hear the RS2 this weekend, it will be in Salon B at the T.H.E. Show Newport, June 3-5. After that, get in touch with a 'Berkeley' dealer and enjoy the music.
Where To Buy:
The Audio Salon
Manufacturer: Berkeley Audio Design
- Source: SOtM sMS-1000SQ Windows Edition, Sonore microRendu
- DAC: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC RS
- D-to-D Converter: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB
- Amplifiers: Constellation Audio Mono 1.0 / Monoblock Power Amplifiers
- Preamplifier: Constellation Audio PreAmp 1.0
- Loudspeakers: TAD Labs CR1 Compact Reference
- Remote Control Software: JRemote, Roon Remote
- Remote Control Hardware: iPad Air 2
- Playback Software: Roon, JRiver Media Center
- Network Attached Storage (NAS): Synology DS1812+, CAPS v4 Cortes Server
- Audio Cables: Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Interconnects (XLR & RCA), Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Speaker Cables, Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 Digital Cables,
- USB Cables: Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 USB 2.0, AudioQuest Diamond USB 2.0, Nordost Purple Flare USB 2.0
- Power Cables: ALO Audio AC6 Power Cables
- Ethernet Cables: AudioQuest Vodka Ethernet Cables throughout system
- Network: Cisco SG200-26 Switch, Baaske MI-1005 Ethernet Isolator, Apple AirPort Extreme, Calix 716GE-I Optical Network Terminal, ZyXEL C1100Z modem / router, CenturyLink 1 Gbps download / upload