• Preview: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Reference Series 2



    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.







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    Where To Buy:

    The Audio Salon





    Ciamara








    Manufacturer: Berkeley Audio Design


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    Comments 30 Comments
    1. jonmarsh's Avatar
      jonmarsh -
      Very interesting to hear about this... Especially as I've been very close lately to getting serious about this... Probably not until the next speakers are finished, though.

      Will be very interested to hear your full review- how much more evaluation do you plan before that will be out? You must have some pretty specific clear impressions to write what you have so far, so I'm certainly interested in your follow up. I've own their first gen, and am currently very happy with a TotalDAC, but this has been the Alpha RS has been the only thing that has really intrigued me, especially as I rip and convert my SACD's to 176.4 PCM.
    1. Cycleman's Avatar
      Cycleman -
      Chris, you wonder if anyone has written a book about the making of "Kind Of Blue"...well there are two, at least, and this is the one I've read:

      Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece

      More about the music's details than the drama, worth a look.

      Dave, who in a bit of a non-sequitor asks if a recording is older but it's new to you is that still a way of finding new music which is an imperative for him the finding of new music to sooth and enchant and enhance his soul
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Quote Originally Posted by Cycleman View Post
      Chris, you wonder if anyone has written a book about the making of "Kind Of Blue"...well there are two, at least, and this is the one I've read:

      Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece

      More about the music's details than the drama, worth a look.

      Dave, who in a bit of a non-sequitor asks if a recording is older but it's new to you is that still a way of finding new music which is an imperative for him the finding of new music to sooth and enchant and enhance his soul
      Excellent. Thanks Dave!
    1. stevebythebay's Avatar
      stevebythebay -
      Agree with all you've said about the RS (have had mine in place for about 18 months). The moment I saw this coming, I asked my dealer to get my RMA order in. I trust Messrs. Ritter and Pflaumer to really deliver great products, time and again. Can hardly wait. In the meantime I've got to come up with what I'll use instead while the RMA takes place (maybe an Audio Alchemy DDP1).
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Quote Originally Posted by stevebythebay View Post
      Agree with all you've said about the RS (have had mine in place for about 18 months). The moment I saw this coming, I asked my dealer to get my RMA order in. I trust Messrs. Ritter and Pflaumer to really deliver great products, time and again. Can hardly wait. In the meantime I've got to come up with what I'll use instead while the RMA takes place (maybe an Audio Alchemy DDP1).
      The Alchemy would be a great "place holder" DAC for you :~)
    1. hltf's Avatar
      hltf -
      Chris:
      Sounds like a spectacular DAC. Look forward to the full review. I am curious, I have the Liszt recording too and like Minoru Nojima's performance very much. But I do not have the Berkeley Reference RS DAC 1 or 2. Is the clicking you mentioned occurring in sync with the piano keys being struck? I do occasionally hear some clicking of the piano keys as they are struck. Perhaps I hear a bit of what you are referring to, perhaps something else. Anyway, just curious...
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Quote Originally Posted by hltf View Post
      Chris:
      Sounds like a spectacular DAC. Look forward to the full review. I am curious, I have the Liszt recording too and like Minoru Nojima's performance very much. But I do not have the Berkeley Reference RS DAC 1 or 2. Is the clicking you mentioned occurring in sync with the piano keys being struck? I do occasionally hear some clicking of the piano keys as they are struck. Perhaps I hear a bit of what you are referring to, perhaps something else. Anyway, just curious...
      Hi hltf - I'm glad you are familiar with this recording. Do you have the 24/176.4 version?

      The clicking I hear doesn't seem to correspond with piano keys being struck. I really don't know what it is and it's bugging me.
    1. hltf's Avatar
      hltf -
      Chris:
      No I do not have the HRX recording either. Must be due to the higher resolution and the better DAC then.
      Thanks
    1. jhwalker's Avatar
      jhwalker -
      Quote Originally Posted by The Computer Audiophile View Post
      Hi hltf - I'm glad you are familiar with this recording. Do you have the 24/176.4 version?

      The clicking I hear doesn't seem to correspond with piano keys being struck. I really don't know what it is and it's bugging me.
      I hear the same through my Alpha Prime headphones and LH Labs Pulse DAC. For me, it's only in the left channel, and almost sounds like the piano bench ever so slightly creaking in time with the performer bouncing through the intense passages.
    1. hltf's Avatar
      hltf -
      Yes actually I do hear it now, but only if I sit in front of the left channel. I think it could be the piano bench as you say jhwalker or maybe even sleeve buttons against the piano wood.
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Nice to read about others' thoughts are on what this sound could be. It's kind of crazy how evident the sound is through the Alpha DAC RS2.
    1. ecwl's Avatar
      ecwl -
      Quote Originally Posted by The Computer Audiophile View Post
      Nice to read about others' thoughts are on what this sound could be. It's kind of crazy how evident the sound is through the Alpha DAC RS2.
      I don't know what the sound is. I just assumed it was fingernails accidentally striking the keyboard. I only listened to the Tidal version. And I really struggled to listen to it a few times to figure it out on my portable headphone setup and my home speaker setup because there are just better performances of the Mephisto Waltz, like Earl Wild, or even Ashkenazy, or if you don't mind crappy historic sound, Cziffra. And that's just a few on Tidal.
    1. ZenGentleman's Avatar
      ZenGentleman -
      Chris:

      Just curious. Are you listening to the 24/192 stereo or mono version of Kind of Blue?
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Quote Originally Posted by ZenGentleman View Post
      Chris:

      Just curious. Are you listening to the 24/192 stereo or mono version of Kind of Blue?
      24/192 Stereo.
    1. miguelito's Avatar
      miguelito -
      Chris: Can you clarify what PCM/DSD rates are supported? I read somewhere that DSD was supported... Is this DoP over AES/coax? Or is this in a new version of the USB->PCM bridge? The pics indicate there's no USB in hence my question... Thx.
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Quote Originally Posted by miguelito View Post
      Chris: Can you clarify what PCM/DSD rates are supported? I read somewhere that DSD was supported... Is this DoP over AES/coax? Or is this in a new version of the USB->PCM bridge? The pics indicate there's no USB in hence my question... Thx.
      Berkeley will not support DSD.
      PCM supported up through 24/192.
    1. miguelito's Avatar
      miguelito -
      Quote Originally Posted by The Computer Audiophile View Post
      Berkeley will not support DSD.
      PCM supported up through 24/192.
      Series 2 is PCM only and up to 24/192?
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Quote Originally Posted by miguelito View Post
      Series 2 is PCM only and up to 24/192?
      Yes.
    1. Distinctive's Avatar
      Distinctive -
      Is the MKII CE-marked?
    1. astrotoy's Avatar
      astrotoy -
      Hi Chris,

      I don't hear any clicks on my two copies of the Nojima Lizst Mephisto Waltz. I have both the RefRec HRx file (copied from the Silver Disc) and my Tape Project copy of the original master tape. I didn't play my third copy, the vinyl one.

      Larry