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    Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC RS2 MQA Update

    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.

     

     

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    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.

     

     

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    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 Information:

     

    • Product - Berkeley Audio Design, Alpha DAC Reference Series 2 MQA ($19,995)
    • Product Site - Link
    • Product User Guide - PDF

     

     

     

     

     

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    Where To Buy:

     

    The Audio Salon

     

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    Ciamara

     

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    Associated Music:

     

     

     

     

     

    Associated Equipment:

     

     

     

     

     

     

     


    User Feedback


    “I feel incredibly dense that I was unaware of the drum / cymbal roll that's so delicately played by Jones.”

     

    Can you explain this comment a bit more. What are you trying to say about the DAC here?

    Because of your reference, I queued up the track as I read. That Jones bit can be clearly heard listening to the track streaming from Tidal over my iPad and its internal speaker...

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    Some high end DACs are bringing MQA now and this review is timely.

    From your article You do not state if the improvements you heard were due to the firmware upgrade or due to MQA. 

    In your review of the Meridian Explorer you did some PCM/MQA comparisons. Have you done anything similar with the Reference 2?

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    Programmer audiophiles like Michael Pflaumer, Peter Stordiau(Phasure), Rob Watts(Chord Electronics) and Ted Smith(PS Audio) appear to be the present and future of computer audio.

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    9 hours ago, firedog said:

    “I feel incredibly dense that I was unaware of the drum / cymbal roll that's so delicately played by Jones.”

     

    Can you explain this comment a bit more. What are you trying to say about the DAC here?

    Because of your reference, I queued up the track as I read. That Jones bit can be clearly heard listening to the track streaming from Tidal over my iPad and its internal speaker...

    Very good question. 

     

    It’s a tough one to explain because what you say is 100% true. This information has always been there and can be heard through an iPad speaker.

     

    There’s just something about listening to it through this DAC that is special. It feels like my brain is in a totally different place that enables me to hear each musician as if he is playing a solo. 

     

    I really wish I could explain this better. As it is, I sound like the classic audiophile cliche spewing writer :~(

     

     

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    6 hours ago, paglop said:

    Some high end DACs are bringing MQA now and this review is timely.

    From your article You do not state if the improvements you heard were due to the firmware upgrade or due to MQA. 

    In your review of the Meridian Explorer you did some PCM/MQA comparisons. Have you done anything similar with the Reference 2?

    The improvements I heard are entirely due to the firmware update. Of course I listened to some MQA material through the DAC but I purposely avoided using that in the review. The topic is too loaded and would distract from the real story that is the firmware update. 

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    Excellent review.  Regardless of one's opinion of MQA at least all the big DAC manufacturers are at least now offering this option to their customers. MSB, DCS and Berkeley.

     

    I've noticed the DA2 in Chris's signature but, where does EMM Labs stand on MQA? 

     

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    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.

     

    Hey Chris, from what I recall of my time with the Model Two, there are no actual HDCD processes @ 24/192 - they're simply not necessary at these depths & rates. But the HDCD indicator on your Berkeley will still light up, which is cool.

     

    What's perhaps even cooler is that at 4fs, the Model Two does not over-sample, using instead a simple analogue filter. It's the only ADC that I'm aware of that does this.

     

    I'm not surprised that you're happy with the sound of the transfers :).

     

    Mani.

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    2 hours ago, mdp632 said:

    all the big DAC manufacturers are at least now offering this option to their customers. MSB, DCS and Berkeley

    I think your perspective is a bit off. Those are not the "big" DAC manufacturers, unless you are referring to price.

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    6 hours ago, mdp632 said:

    Regardless of one's opinion of MQA at least all the big DAC manufacturers are at least now offering this option to their customers.

    There are many more high end DAC manufacturers who are not offering MQA at this time.  Ayre, Bricasti, Jeff Rowland, etc.

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    On 11/11/2017 at 10:08 AM, firedog said:

    I think your perspective is a bit off. Those are not the "big" DAC manufacturers, unless you are referring to price.

    No, Price doesn't dictate subjective taste but, at this price level a manufacture should offer it. The $100 AQ Dragonfly offers MQA.

     

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    Hello,

    I have the RS-1 and recently did the MQA firmware upgraded. I found that by becoming more aware of the facts and goals surrounding this new codec (Robert Harley's interview with Robert Stuart in TAS #253 & #263) has reassured me that the platform is solid in performing its task to deliver music like never before.

     

    While streaming content from Tidal's Masters section which offers many MQA titles. The window on the DAC displayed 352. which for me is the highest its ever been listening to files from 2L's playlists sampler. But according to Berkeley specifications the envelope of performance only goes 192/24. I contacted Michael Ritter of Berkeley Audio Design to ask what's going on. He explained that the MQA process isn't a straight PCM process and that improvements (enhancements) to the Alpha DAC Reference platform whether one has the RS-1 or RS-2 of this new MQA firmware upgrade are only going to be perceived as beneficial to the musical expression and yet don't fall into the specifications laid down for the DAC as a rendering device in the two step process. But just how high can these benefits rise to, is yet to be seen or heard. I must write, these days I'm just  loving music even more and look forward to getting my RS-1 upgraded to RS-2 when Berkeley is ready to accommodate my need. This is indeed an exciting time for digital music enthusiasts. Cheers!

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    Stevebythebay,

     

            I don't used the Alpha USB. My Baetis Reference S (Windows 10) media server is my source using Tidal's desktop app. So it's AES connection through MIT's Oracle Digital to the Berkeley RS-1. Personally, I just like to keep things as simple & straight forward as possible. 

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    Lydon-  your comments are interesting. I just spoke to Michael the other day and he was incredibly generous with his time. I use an Aurender S 10 with AES and he thought  that it would sound better going through the Alpha USB converter rather than straight AES into the RS2 MQA. 

     

     Personally I don’t really understand this-but he thinks the Alpha USB would even further isolate noise from the server. 

     

     My goal was to stay away from USB all together and go straight AES but he said it is a noticeable difference going with the alpha USB. 

     

     Does anybody else have any thoughts on that or has anybody tried it? I’m guessing many people here have 

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    Having tried out the Baetis years ago (though I passed on it), I did find that the AES output was best into my then Berkeley pre-Reference DAC.  However, that's not always the case as others may find.  All is in the implementation.  

     

    The Alpha USB is really a great D-D converter, though it has "aged" some given that the technology (hardware) underlying its design is many years old.  Clocks have certainly gotten better.  

     

    And as you know, Aurender has improved their products over time.  The S20 and even N10 are likely less "noisy" than the initial S10 (independent of either USB or S/PDIF output).  

     

    I used the N10, but after trying both a Sonore microRendu with Signature Power Supply(better), and now using the dCS Network Bridge (no USB, yea!, and much better still), my Alpha USB is collecting dust.

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    Stevebythebay,

     

            I don't used the Alpha USB. My Baetis Reference S (Windows 10) media server is my source using Tidal's desktop app. So it's AES connection through MIT's Oracle Digital to the Berkeley RS-1. Personally, I just like to keep things as simple & straight forward as possible. 

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    Blaven, 

               My choice resulted somewhat on the elimination or great reduction of common mode noise that can be had when using a dedicated music service that's purposefully build for two/multi channel playback. We all hear what we want to hear, but to the point, from our own personal experiences how we listen plays a strong role. Do we always do the critical listening routine or do we enjoy our music and listen with a less critical ear? Example, jRiver's (Media Center 23) recently starting offering a 64-bit version of their program that was said to offer a 5-15% performance enhancement over the 32-bit version. From the start, I immediately could detect it working as advertised. I suspect that a similar effect would be had with Berkeley's own Alpha USB, but I personally don't have that experience. Enjoy!

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