Note: I can hear the sirens and see the red lights spinning on top of a few computers as I write this article with the letters MQA in the title. Fear not, this article is neither a referendum on MQA, nor an endorsement or rejection of MQA. Take a deep breath before continuing to read on.
Berkeley Audio Design recently released an update to its Alpha DAC RS 2 digital to analog converter. The official name of the product is now Alpha DAC Reference Series 2 MQA. At first blush, one may think this firmware update just enables MQA on the RS2. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Ok, in this world there are many things further from the truth, but I used the phrase as a figure of speech. This update is for MQA AND non-MQA playback.
Berkeley Audio Design started the process of investigating MQA and figuring out how to best implement the technology over a year ago. The team at 'Berkeley' just can't leave well enough alone, it has to go over the top with everything implemented in its products. As such, they worked nearly that entire time on 1. How to best implement MQA and 2. How to improve overall DAC performance at the same time.
To begin, Berkeley Audio Design didn't just "upload" sample code to the Alpha DAC RS2 and start listening and tweaking. Oh no, 'Berkeley' engineer Michael "Pflash" Pflaumer wrote the entire update in assembly language! Yes, assembly language. This update, to firmware version 3.0.0, was written in assembly language to enable the absolute most control over everything and make sure nothing extraneous was included in the code.
One detail that gives the CA community a view into how this company works, is that this update was written to optimize processing in the DAC so that it remains uniform over time. Sure, 'Berkeley' could have enabled the processors to run at 100% and call that "uniform over time." But, that's not the 'Berkeley' way. Pflash spent many months perfecting his code to optimize both MQA and non-MQA PCM playback.
The MQA part of the update enables the RS2 to handle MQA rendering only. That's the final step in the MQA process. Berkeley Audio Design believes that the decoding process, prior to rendering, is best done outside of the DAC. Similar to the company's belief that USB interfaces are best kept separate from the DAC (i.e. Alpha USB). The theme here is to keep all forms of noise outside the DAC and to keep its operation as stable as possible.
Playing MQA content through the Alpha DAC Reference Series 2 requires an application or piece of hardware that decodes the MQA music for output to the DAC. This can be as simple as the Tidal desktop application, Audirvana+, or a hardware decoder such as the dCS Network Bridge or Aurender (coming very soon) that outputs AES into the Alpha DAC RS2 MQA for rendering.
For most of my testing with the updated RS2, I listened to standard PCM material, of which I am very familiar. I know what this music sounds like on many DACs, including the pre-upgraded RS2, making comparisons very easy. Bringing MQA content into this evaluation doesn't really help anyone at this time. There are too many unknowns to make a fair judgment and provide a service to the CA community.
A couple weeks ago I received a nice surprise from a friend in Northern California. Having previously expressed my love of the album Relaxin' with the Miles Davis Quintet, this friend made me a copy of his SAFETY MASTER tape of this album, at 24 bit / 192 kHz. Not only that, it was done on a Pacific Microsonics Model 2 A to D converter and HDCD encoded. That's where this story ties into Berkeley Audio Design nicely. The principals at 'Berkely' were founders of Pacific Microsonics, where they invented HDCD and spent exorbitant amounts of money on audio research. Actual research in audio, not Audio Research components.
With this single 38 minute high resolution file of one of my favorite albums, I listened to the Miles Davis Quintet like never before. You're My Everything is my favorite track on the album, and it didn't disappoint. Through the newly upgraded Alpha DAC RS2 MQA, I could hear into the recording incredibly well.
I'd really never noticed the cymbal work at the very start of the track by Philly Joe Jones, until I played this master tape transfer and used the RS2 MQA. I feel incredibly dense that I was unaware of the drum / cymbal roll that's so delicately played by Jones. He lays the groundwork, in addition to Red Garland's block chords, for Miles' unmistakable trumpet. Once Jones, Garland, and Davis are joined by Paul Chambers on bass and John Coltrane on tenor sax, the track elevates from really cool to something that's out of this world. I could literally listen to this combination of master tape transfer and Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Reference Series 2 MQA for days on end. If the RS2 MQA could pump smoke into my listening room, I'd swear I was in a Jazz club or even Van Gelder Studio in Hackensack, New Jersey on May 11th and October 26th, 1956.
The Actual Saftey Master
Moving on to Jack Johnson's Brushfire Fairytales (2011 remaster 16 bit /48 kHz), was absolutely delightful. Jack is no Pavarotti, he's a surfer and a musician, but his voice, when played through the updated RS2, sounds incredibly intimate and realistic. It's as if I can relate to him more because he sounds like a real person singing in the corner of my listening room.
On track number 3, Posters, I can't get over how much decay I can hear in this pop recording, through the upgraded RS2. For example, listen to the track at about 0:05 seconds to hear a crashing cymbal with incredible space and decay that floats away from the drum set. By far, the most incredible decay in this track is at 1:00, 1:12, 1:53, 2:04, and 2:22. Percussionist Jack Tool gently taps a bell, and the deal goes on forever. It seems to just hang in the air and is clearly audible even though other instruments are playing louder. The updated RS2's ability to convey these low-level details and delineate each instrument is really something special.
Because of a hectic travel schedule of late and using a completely different system while writing about the Schiit Audio components, I had forgotten how special this DAC really is. Of course, I remember my glowing praise for the original Alpha DAC , the original Reference Series , and Reference Series 2, but the sound I hear through the newly upgraded RS2 MQA is on another level. Perhaps I don't remember this sound because I hadn't spent much time with the upgraded unit and haven't ever heard it like this prior to the upgrade.
Performance improvements such as this RS2 MQA upgrade can be very frustrating for me. I love the fact that this DAC is now even better than all previous Alpha RS DACs, but I want nothing more than to explain to the CA Community why the performance is so much better. I want to lay out, step-by-step, exactly what Berkeley Audio Design did to squeeze a few extra percent out of the RS2, but that's just not going to happen. A company with a large intellectual property advantage over many competitors doesn't take out a billboard in Times Square to give away all its secrets. If I didn't hear such a big improvement, I'd call BS on this upgrade. However, based on my listening tests, I am 100% certain Berkeley has engineered the Reference Series into a new league.
The Alpha DAC Reference Series 2 MQA upgrade is available direct from Berkeley or from Berkeley Audio Design dealers worldwide for $595, plus $20 for shipping. Berkeley sends instructions, identification stickers for the rear of the RS2 MQA, and a letter certifying the upgrade for each specific serial numbered unit. No hardware changes are required to RS2 DACs. Berkeley says the upgrade also provides a great improvement in fidelity when installed on an original Reference Series. Yes, this update will also enable MQA and the PCM benefits on an original Alpha DAC Reference Series. Those of you with non-reference series Alpha DACs, should also be excited because this update is coming very soon for your hardware.
The price of a new Alpha DAC Reference Series 2 MQA is now $19,995. That's up $495 from the previous RS2, but includes the MQA upgrade.
- Product - Berkeley Audio Design, Alpha DAC Reference Series 2 MQA ($19,995)
- Product Site - Link
- Product User Guide - PDF
Where To Buy:
- Source: Roon ROCK, MacBook Pro Running Roon, JRiver (Windows 10 and macOS High Sierra)
- DAC: Emm Labs DA2 , dCS Rossini, Schiit Audio Yggdrasil
- D-to-D Converter: Sonore Signature Rendu SE, dCS Network Bridge, 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: Roon Remote
- Remote Control Hardware: iPad Pro
- Playback Software: Roon, JRiver
- 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, Wire World Starlight and Chroma
- Network: Cisco SG200-26 Switch, Baaske MI-1005 Ethernet Isolator, ASUS RT-AC3200, Calix 716GE-I Optical Network Terminal, ZyXEL C1100Z modem / router, CenturyLink 1 Gbps download / upload