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    Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB Review

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    alpha-usb-front-200x63.pngThe Berkeley Audio Design<sup>®</sup> Alpha USB<sup>®</sup> converter was one of the most highly anticipated computer audio products of 2011. Fueling the anticipation were several delays during development and initial production. Many computer audiophiles wondered what Berkeley Audio Design was doing since early 2010 when rumors of the product started circulating. During that time the perfectionists at Berkeley Audio Design fine tuned the Alpha USB using unique design approaches, the best measuring techniques available, and extensive listening sessions. Shortly before production began Berkeley Audio Design rejected critical components from suppliers for quality unbecoming of a true reference converter. Following many months of research and development 'Berkeley' wasn't about to rush the Alpha USB to market. Fortunately good things come to those who wait. Sonically the Alpha USB is extremely impressive. After four months using the Alpha USB, in combination with the Alpha DAC<sup>®</sup> Series 2, I'm continually astonished by its level of performance. In fact, the Alpha USB is so good I've yet to hear a better digital interface. Period.

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    <center><img src="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/graphics/2012/0303/alpha-usb-front-584x187.png"></img></center>

     

    <b>The Alpha USB Interface</b>

     

    The Alpha USB from Berkeley Audio Design is an external asynchronous USB to AES or S/PDIF interface. It's strictly a D to D converter accepting USB digital audio input and delivering AES or S/PDIF digital audio output. Because humans can't hear digital signals a Digital to Analog Converter (DAC) is also required to reproduce music in one's home. A simple audio playback flow chart consists of a PC -> Alpha USB -> DAC -> Preamplifier -> Amplifier -> Speakers. Such an interface can play a critical role in presenting the cleanest audio signal to a DAC or may be necessary in order to use a DAC without a next generation interface such as USB or FireWire. Plenty of wonderful DACs without USB or FireWire interfaces are as good or better than new DACs with interfaces for every source imaginable. When users find a sound they like there is no need to change. Fortunately these users can add a device like the Alpha USB to extend the life of their already great digital to analog converter.

     

    There are a couple competing schools of thought when it comes to the best place for a USB interface. Just as in everyday life, there is no free lunch with either design approach. One school advocates for the USB interface to exist within the digital to analog converter. This allows the DAC chip to receive data using its native I<sup>2</sup>S protocol. In theory this design is capable of lower jitter if implemented without an intermediate conversion to S/PDIF before I<sup>2</sup>S. This USB implementation can also incorporate such methods as opto-isolators and grounding to isolate an internal USB interface from the sensitive DAC circuitry. The other school of thought insists USB interfaces must be completely separate from the chassis of the DAC. Physical separation allows for an otherwise unobtainable level of isolation between the noisy computing environment and the delicate digital audio environment. This isolation eliminates any direct electrical connection to the DAC's chassis and is required to reach the highest levels of USB audio performance according to proponents of the separate chassis design. In addition these proponents believe the benefits of a direct I<sup>2</sup>S data path are not worth the tradeoffs of reduced isolation and increased noise from a single chassis design. Needless to say Berkeley Audio Design believes strongly in separating the USB interface from the chassis of the DAC.

     

    No matter what USB interface school of thought is most appealing one mustn't hyper focus on this single element of component design. Each design element or internal part selection only equates to a certain level of potential. Reaching that potential is what separates the armchair engineers and the component assemblers from the truly brilliant designers. The bottom line is not about numbers and theories. It's about the component as a whole being much more than the sum of its parts and the sound it helps reproduce in one's audio system.

     

     

    <b>Separating The Alpha USB From The Pack</b>

     

    The Alpha USB's retail price of $1,895 is the most readily visible item that distinguishes it from much of the competition. This interface is expensive and that fact is not lost on Berkeley Audio Design. The company is intent on producing products with great value. As such the wholesale margin on the Alpha USB is lower than the Alpha DAC which is already one of the lowest in the industry. Berkeley Audio Design is a humble, down to Earth company. Trust me these guys won't be retiring to a private island with the spoils collected from Alpha USB and Alpha DAC sales. The fact remains that it's expensive to build components that achieve the highest levels of performance. The Alpha USB is no exception.

     

    The Alpha USB is all about clocking and isolation. This sounds fairly straight forward at first blush. Upon closer inspection and research it appears the Alpha USB is in a class all by itself. The Alpha USB employs clocking components that weren't available prior to its development and isolation techniques that may be unique in all of high end audio. Now comes the part where I, and every journalist, grow frustrated. Because of the highly competitive nature of consumer electronics and the value placed on intellectual property, manufacturers are unwilling to divulge too many technical details in public. This is a fact of life. Fortunately consumers have the option of listening to the end product to decide if any of the public or private details really matter. In my conversations with Berkeley Audio Design's Michael Ritter I was able to glean some details worth noting.

     

    Design work on the Alpha USB began in 2009. At that time the clocking components used in the final production version of the Alpha USB weren't available. Berkeley Audio Design knew it wanted to use dual fixed crystal oscillators that performed to a certain level not seen in any digital audio interface product. Thus, 'Berkeley' was involved in co-developing new oscillators not yet commercially available. New computer audiophiles should understand that crystal oscillators are used to generate the clock signals for 44.1, 88.2, 176.4 kHz and 48, 96, 192 kHz audio. These components are critical to accurate sound reproduction. The entire Alpha USB development process was fraught with delays and less than desirable results. After rejecting early components from the vendor, "Everything just came together." said Michael Ritter. The final production version of the Alpha USB contains dual fixed oscillators. One for each sample rate family of 44.1, 88.2, 176.4 kHz and 48, 96, 192 kHz. Only a single oscillator is operational at a time. Even very good low jitter oscillators can produce relatively high levels of low frequency phase noise. Not so inside the Alpha USB. I was unable to obtain actual numbers for these specific oscillators, but I talked to an engineer from a competing high end audio company who was familiar with the products in use by Berkeley Audio Design. He stated a couple times that the low phase noise from these oscillators was unique and remarkable.

     

    Adding to the Alpha USB's excellent clocking is the use of Streamlength<sup>™</sup> asynchronous USB code in conjunction with the XMOS USB receiving chip. Small companies such as Berkeley Audio Design need to leverage design talent. In this case there was no reason to reinvent the wheel. The Streamlength code was selected because it was already well developed and was very robust. Streamlength asynchronous USB code controls the data flow from the computer or music server and the newly developed crystal oscillators take control as the master clock generators. No matter what one believes about the importance, or lack thereof, of asynchronous USB and its oscillator design "requirements" it would be hard to second guess the Alpha USB's design approach.

     

    The Alpha USB's non-standard 2.3”H X 10.5”W x 5”D dimensions (2.55”H including feet) serve one purpose: function. According to Berkeley Audio Design the Alpha USB's unprecedented level of isolation can't be accomplished in a smaller chassis. "The unit is the size it has to be" says Michael Ritter. Mr. Ritter explained that the unique isolation techniques used in the Alpha USB are very difficult to implement and theorized that this difficulty is a major reason nobody else in high end audio has gone to this level. I gathered that many isolation design choices are like a balloon in that pushing in on one side causes the opposite side to stick out. Reduce the measured numbers in one area and increase the numbers in another as a result. All engineers have dealt with similar phenomena in other design endeavors. Michael Ritter hinted that tracing secondary and tertiary coupling paths in addition to minimizing capacitive coupling by surrounding the USB input connector with an inch of plastic were just a few of the isolation elements addressed. The inch of plastic on the rear of the chassis is one item I noticed as being unaesthetic the first time I saw the Alpha USB. It's good to know the Alpha USB's form entirely follows function and there's a good reason for every design decision.

     

    Another major contributing factor to isolation is how the USB interface is powered. Berkeley Audio Design elected to power the USB receiving chip in the Alpha USB via USB bus power from the computer. Power emanating from the computer's USB port doesn't traverse any further than the USB receiving chip inside the Alpha USB. 'Berkeley' uses its proprietary isolation techniques that are said to provide much better performance than traditional opto-isolation methods while keeping computer generated noise away from the sensitive output clocking and driver circuitry. Powering the audio output side of the Alpha USB is a low noise linear power supply. This noise filtered linear supply feeds clean power to the oscillators and the digital audio output circuitry.

     

    On the rear of the Alpha USB are two outputs; balanced AES (XLR) and coaxial S/PDIF (BNC), and an output selection switch. Many devices with more than one digital output keep all the outputs live continuously no matter what output is in use. According to Berkeley Audio Design the highest levels of performance simply cannot be reached without deactivating the unused output(s). Thus, the reason for the Alpha USB output selection switch. The user must toggle either the balanced AES or the coaxial S/PDIF output on/off.

     

    Berkeley Audio Design strongly recommends using the balanced AES output of the Alpha USB when possible. In theory a true coaxial 75 ohm S/PDIF connection is better, all things being equal. However, all things are not equal in practice. Given that balanced AES does not use true 110 ohm connectors I inquired into this recommendation a bit further. The answer I received from Michael Ritter was mainly voltage, and some noise rejection. Even though S/PDIF when implemented with 75 ohm BNC connectors is a true 75 ohm coaxial connection its limitation is that it delivers .5 volts peak to peak. Balanced AES on the other hand benefits from a 2 to 7 volt signal amplitude. In fact the Alpha USB's AES output delivers 4 volts or eight times the signal level of the S/PDIF output. This higher voltage is key to maximizing data receiver performance and reducing effective jitter. The balanced AES connection also offers common mode noise rejection. In addition to recommending the balanced AES output Berkeley Audio Design also recommends using a 1.5 meter AES cable and USB cable when possible. This recommendation has everything to do with reflected versus original digital signal energy caused by return loss. A cable and its connectors is not a perfect transmission line as it suffers from reflected energy. When a 1.5 meter cable, 3 meters round trip internally, is used this reflected energy is delayed enough to minimize confusion with the original signal at the data receiver. These may be small or insignificant details to some, but are important and critical details for those seeking the highest level audio reproduction.

     

    All of the aforementioned design elements including oscillators, isolation, asynchronous USB transfer mode, USB bus power, and linear power are only equivalent to potential. Data sheets and application notes for each internal component contain nothing for designers seeking to push the boundaries of what's possible. A brilliant engineer and a holistic design approach are required to master the interaction between all the potentially excellent internal components. All of this must come together to produce an excellent product such as the Alpha USB.

    <center><img src="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/graphics/2012/0303/alpha-usb-rear-480x161.png"></img></center>

     

     

    <b>Where The Rubber Meets The Road</b>

     

    After all design and engineering is complete any product can still be a colossal failure if the sound quality doesn't meet expectations. The Alpha USB is far from a failure. Its unprecedented design is commensurate with its astounding sound quality. The Alpha USB has opened the door to use almost any DAC with any computer or music server source. The old formula of using a Lynx AES16 audio card in a desktop computer to feed an AES signal to my Alpha DAC now seems antiquated and mid-fi at best. The Alpha USB works flawlessly with desktops and laptops running Windows, OS X, and Linux. It also works perfectly in combination with the Aurender S10 and SOtM sMS-1000 Music Servers. All sample rates from 44.1 kHz through 192 kHz are supported on all platforms. Because Windows does not support Class 2 audio, users are required to install the supplied device driver for proper operation. The driver in use today is the same driver I received when the unit was first delivered to my house. This is a good sign that the driver is stable and developed by people who know what they are doing. The same can't be said for all USB device drivers used in other products.

     

    The Alpha USB paired with the Alpha DAC Series 2 is possibly the best digital I've heard in my listening room. At the time of this writing the Alpha USB alone is the best external audio interface I've heard anywhere bar none. During the extended four month review period I used the Alpha USB with numerous sources and DACs from many different manufacturers. The standard AES and S/PDIF digital outputs on the Alpha USB make it compatible with almost any DAC. Even the BNC output can be connected to a coaxial RCA input through the use of an adapter. I compared the Alpha USB to a few different D to D converters I had on hand between November 2011 and early March 2012. Most of the compared interfaces were fairly inexpensive ranging from around $200 to $500 with one interface retailing for near $1,000. The results were unambiguous. Only the $1,000 interface came close to the performance of the Alpha USB. However, close isn't good enough for those of us seeking the ultimate interface.

     

    The Alpha USB provided an immaculate digital audio stream to my Alpha DAC Series 2. The result was incredible detail and extremely controlled bass. This was very evident listening to both Ray LaMontagne's Are We Really Through [<a href="http://www.amazon.com/God-Willin-Creek-Dont-Rise/dp/B003QCCS36/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1330804650&sr=8-3">Link</a><a href="http://www.amazon.com/God-Willin-Creek-Dont-Rise/dp/B003QCCS36/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1330804650&sr=8-3"><img src="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/ca/icons/ex.png" style="padding: 0pt 0pt 0pt 3pt;" alt="link"></img></a>] and the Kansas City Symphony's performance of Passacaglia at 24 bit / 176.4 kHz [<a href="http://www.referencerecordings.com/HRx120_DETAIL.asp">Link</a><a href="http://www.referencerecordings.com/HRx120_DETAIL.asp"><img src="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/ca/icons/ex.png" style="padding: 0pt 0pt 0pt 3pt;" alt="link"></img></a>]. The detail I heard in Ray LaMontagne's voice made me giggle. When something is so good I tend to respond in abnormal ways. I was almost in disbelief because of the incredible breathy detail. Changing styles with the Kansas City Symphony I was again thrilled by what I heard. I've used Passacaglia (track #6) many times to evaluate components and I've never heard more detail or better controlled bass from my system. The entire 7:16 track is full of low level detail and wonderfully powerful bass. Less patient readers may want to jump ahead to the 4 minute and 25 second mark for a minute and a half of serious dynamics that will test the quality of any component. Don't get me wrong, this is not an audiophile demonstration disc. I simply love this recording more every time I listen.

     

    Over the course of four months I listened to a fair bit of music. A few recordings played through the Alpha USB really grabbed my attention. Ottmar Liebert's One Guitar at 24 bit / 96 kHz [<a href="https://www.hdtracks.com/index.php?file=catalogdetail&valbum_code=HD783707392707">Link</a><a href="https://www.hdtracks.com/index.php?file=catalogdetail&valbum_code=HD783707392707"><img src="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/ca/icons/ex.png" style="padding: 0pt 0pt 0pt 3pt;" alt="link"></img></a>] can really demonstrate the sound of an unamplified acoustic guitar. If I were a guitar player I'm sure I could identify the strings and model of guitar he used on this album simply by listening. Near the end of the review period I started listening to the newly released Leonard Cohen album Old Ideas [<a href="http://www.amazon.com/Old-Ideas-Leonard-Cohen/dp/B0067LY4WG/ref=sr_1_1?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1330804987&sr=1-1">Link</a><a href="http://www.amazon.com/Old-Ideas-Leonard-Cohen/dp/B0067LY4WG/ref=sr_1_1?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1330804987&sr=1-1"><img src="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/ca/icons/ex.png" style="padding: 0pt 0pt 0pt 3pt;" alt="link"></img></a>] and a Blu-ray rip of Leonard's Songs From The Road at 24 bit / 96 kHz [<a href="http://www.amazon.com/Songs-Road-Blu-ray-Leonard-Cohen/dp/B003VSVWAA/ref=pd_sim_m_35">Link</a><a href="http://www.amazon.com/Songs-Road-Blu-ray-Leonard-Cohen/dp/B003VSVWAA/ref=pd_sim_m_35"><img src="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/ca/icons/ex.png" style="padding: 0pt 0pt 0pt 3pt;" alt="link"></img></a>] (both albums Mastered by Doug Sax and Robert Hadley at <a href="http://www.themasteringlab.com/">The Mastering Lab</a><a href="http://www.themasteringlab.com/"><img src="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/ca/icons/ex.png" style="padding: 0pt 0pt 0pt 3pt;" alt="link"></img></a>). Leonard's 77 year old baritone has wonderful texture on both albums but more so on Old Ideas. Using the Alpha USB this texture was palpable. The tones of his voice and the bass guitar weren't smeared in the least as can happen with less refined digital interfaces. I felt like Leonard was singing / talking right in my ear. Either that or the microphone used to record him was placed directly in front of his larynx.

     

     

    <b>Conclusion</b>

     

    <a href="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/ca/cash-logo-black.png" class="thickbox" rel="cash-alpha-usb"><img src="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/ca/cash-logo-black-thumb.jpg" style="padding: 2pt 10pt 5pt 0pt;" align="left" alt="CASH-List"></a>Slow and steady wins the race and good things come to those who wait. Alpha USB design work started in 2009, before some components used in the final product existed. Production units began shipping in September 2011. The many months in between were filled with more R&D than many high end audio products. During this time Berkeley Audio Design participated in development of highly accurate oscillators with incredibly low phase noise. In addition 'Berkeley' mastered the balancing act required when using the unprecedented methods of isolation found in the Alpha USB. All of this isolation, clocking accuracy, and low noise design means nothing without proportional sonic performance. Fortunately the Alpha USB was well worth the wait. As it stands now I know of no better digital interface converter. The sonic purity heard through the Alpha USB is something to behold. In fact there is no way I'm giving up the review sample. This level of design and sound quality comes at a price above that which most people are willing to spend. Audiophiles prepared to part with $1,895 will no doubt be delighted with the Alpha USB connected to any source or any DAC. The Alpha USB has solidified my view that a reference level digital interface will play a critical role in achieving all that computer audio can deliver.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    <b>Product Information</b>:

    <ul>

    <li>Product - Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB</li>

    <li>Price - $1,895 (black only)</li>

    <li>Product Page - <a href="http://www.berkeleyaudiodesign.com/products4.html'>http://www.berkeleyaudiodesign.com/products4.html">Link</a><a href="http://www.berkeleyaudiodesign.com/products4.html'>http://www.berkeleyaudiodesign.com/products4.html"><img src="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/ca/icons/ex.png" style="padding: 0pt 0pt 0pt 3pt;" alt="link"></img></a></li>

    <li>Where To Buy - <a href="http://www.berkeleyaudiodesign.com/us_sales.html'>http://www.berkeleyaudiodesign.com/us_sales.html">For U.S. Customers</a><a href="http://www.berkeleyaudiodesign.com/us_sales.html'>http://www.berkeleyaudiodesign.com/us_sales.html"><img src="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/ca/icons/ex.png" style="padding: 0pt 0pt 0pt 3pt;" alt="link"></img></a> | <a href="http://www.berkeleyaudiodesign.com/world_sales.html'>http://www.berkeleyaudiodesign.com/world_sales.html">For International Customers</a><a href="http://www.berkeleyaudiodesign.com/world_sales.html'>http://www.berkeleyaudiodesign.com/world_sales.html"><img src="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/ca/icons/ex.png" style="padding: 0pt 0pt 0pt 3pt;" alt="link"></img></a></li>

    <li>User Guide - <a href="http://files.computeraudiophile.com/2012/0303/Alpha_USB_User_Guide_v1_1.pdf">Link (PDF)</a><a href="http://files.computeraudiophile.com/2012/0303/Alpha_USB_User_Guide_v1_1.pdf"><img src="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/ca/icons/ex.png" style="padding: 0pt 0pt 0pt 3pt;" alt="link"></img></a></li>

    <li>Data Sheet - <a href="http://files.computeraudiophile.com/2012/0303/Alpha_USB_Preliminary_Data_Sheet.pdf">Link (PDF)</a><a href="http://files.computeraudiophile.com/2012/0303/Alpha_USB_Preliminary_Data_Sheet.pdf"><img src="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/ca/icons/ex.png" style="padding: 0pt 0pt 0pt 3pt;" alt="link"></img></a></li>

    </ul>

     

     

     

     

    <b>Associated Equipment</b>:

    <ul>

    <li>Source: <a href="http://www.aurender.com/">Aurender S10</a>, <a href="http://www.computeraudiophile.com/content/Computer-Audiophile-Pocket-Server-CAPS-v20">C.A.P.S. v2.0 Server</a>, <a href="http://www.apple.com/macbookpro/">MacBook Pro</a>, <a href="http://www.sotm.sonore.us/">SOtM sMS-1000</a></li>

    <li>DAC: <a href="http://www.berkeleyaudiodesign.com/">Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Series 2</a>, <a href="http://www.dcsltd.co.uk/product/debussy-dac"><i>dCS</i> Debussy</a></li>

    <li>Preamp: <a href="http://www.spectralaudio.com/">Spectral Audio DMC-30SS Series 2</a></li>

    <li> Amplifier: <a href="http://www.spectralaudio.com/">Spectral Audio DMA-260</a></li>

    <li>Loudspeakers: <a href="http://tad-labs.com/en/consumer/cr1/">TAD Labs CR1 Compact Reference</a></li>

    <li>Remote Control Software: <a href="http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/aurender/id426081239?mt=8">Aurender iPad App</a>, <a href="http://www.jremote.net/">JRemote</a>, <a href="http://www.katoemba.net/makesnosenseatall/mpad/">MPaD</a></li>

    <li>Remote Control Hardware: <a href="http://www.apple.com/iphone/">iPhone 4</a>, <a href="http://www.apple.com/ipad/">iPad</a></li>

    <li>Playback Software Windows 7: <a href="http://www.jriver.com/">J River Media Center 17</a></li>

    <li>Playback Software: <a href="http://www.apple.com/macosx/">Mac OS X 10.7.x</a>, <a href="http://www.channld.com/puremusic/">Pure Music</a></li>

    <li>Cables: <a href="http://www.spectralaudio.com/">Spectral Audio MH-770 Ultralinear CVTerminator Series II Loudspeaker Cable</a>, <a href="http://www.spectralaudio.com/">Spectral Audio MI-350 Ultralinear CVTerminator Series II Analog Interconnects (RCA)</a>, <a href="http://www.mogamicable.com/category/bulk/dig_interface/aes_ebu/">Mogami W3173 Heavy Duty AES 110 ?</a>, <a href="http://www.mitcables.com/available-in-stores/power-products/oracle-ziii.html">MIT Oracle ZIII Power Cables</a>, <a href="http://www.wireworldcable.com/products/107.html">Wire World Silver Starlight USB Cable</a>, <a href="http://www.audioquest.com">AudioQuest Diamond USB Cable</a>, <a href="http://www.kimber.com/products/interconnects/digital/usb/bbus/ag/">Kimber Kable B Bus Ag USB Cable</a>, <a href="http://www.wireworldcable.com/products/53.html">WireWorld Ultraviolet 5 S/PDIF Coax Cable (BNC)</a>, <a href="http://industrialcomponent.com/oem/mi1005.html">Baaske MI-1005 Ethernet Isolator</a>, <a href="http://store.microconnectors.com/servlet/-strse-NETWORKING/Categories">Micro Connectors Augmented Cat6A Ethernet Cable</a></li>

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

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    Hats off to you for your patience and incredibly tactful, zen and open first response to easternlethal. You're a much better man than I!<br />

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    @ easternlethal<br />

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    I just love the way you're NOT using your own "personal feelings" all over the place and have the balls to say so with a straight face. That reminds me of the good ol' days of Clinton telling the world with his pointy finger in the air that he DIDN'T had any relationship with Miss Lewinsky. With a straight face also. Priceless!<br />

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    And yeah, I am mocking you here. Cuz you deserve It. <br />

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    Google "ranting". You might learn something.<br />

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    <br />

    <br />

    <br />

    <br />

    <br />

    <br />

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    I sure hope we can all have our share of being honest. And, personally I did not see any disruptive comment from e.l. on my forum - then better address me for that.<br />

    But then of course, all messages are clear, and they just are so. And you know what ? This isn't anything about any review within itself - just that it could be more helpful to people. Like my own comment about the Alpha (and you), which is *is* my comment, and if you read through it, the comment is only about all could be more helpful. That this takes my own viewpoint about the device concerned, well, so be it.<br />

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    Let me add, please, that I didn't visit CA until 20 minutes back. I am sure you can check this. I mean, I had no clue what was going on here.<br />

    At least I have the sincere hope that I am as objective as can be, and that I would exactly *never* express anything about any other product quantitively. I must emphasize : not even on my own forum. It is not my style. Only when I'm challenged for it, like happened today.<br />

    That this encouraged me to say the very same (about boxes and stuff) as others seem to think, is just a truth as how it can live in a person. So, I didn't read this thread before my posting concerned, nor did Chris obviously read my posting - which wasn't there yet.<br />

    It lives like this, and without good explanation it will live on.<br />

    <br />

    Kind regards,<br />

    Peter<br />

    (and apologies when my English doesn't come across as intended)

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    Chris, since you are familiar with the dCS Debussy and at one time hinted you were going to say a few words on it a comparison between the Debussy USB in direct and through the Berkeley USB box would be very useful.<br />

    <br />

    And not to worry about your opinions being taken as the last words, the British press are not shy in comparing similar products directly. Even the commercial HiFi World is bold enough to do blind comparisons between similar products every issue. We all know these are opinions and will audition before making any purchasing decisions anyway.

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    <i>All things being equal, I prefer to use cables that CA readers can purchase instead of vaporware.</i><br />

    <br />

    Not inexpensive(!), but returnable as long as you don't get a custom piece: Omega Mikro makes some very different-looking AES interconnects. If you decide to try out something from them, tell them where you want to use the interconnect - it may affect what they recommend.

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    <i>Like my own comment about the Alpha</i><br />

    <br />

    I noticed in the comment on your site that you mentioned various components in your hardware were switched off when not in use. I noticed in Chris' review that he said the same about the Alpha USB.<br />

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    This goes along with a view of mine that extreme care in implementation has a great deal to do with ultimate sound quality, along with design theory. Thus I wouldn't get terribly hung up on the fact that designers of the Alpha USB have made decisions somewhat against the present flow, just as I wouldn't get hung up on the changes between your original hardware and your present design. (Of course it's easy for me not to get hung up on any of this, since - to my regret - neither your DAC nor the Berkeley setup is within my audio budget at the moment.) Your present design took some tweaking - some particular care in implementation - before it provided its best sound quality.

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    Bill, who wrote the comparison between his Offramp4 and the Berkeley, is also a contributor here. Maybe he will chime in.<br />

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    http://www.stereo.net.au/forums/showthread.php/41477-Bryston-Berkeley-Alpha-And-Off-Ramp?highlight=ramp+berkeley<br />

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    He's got a lot of experience comparing DACs and converters in his setup.<br />

    <br />

    BTW, Empirical is now selling the OR5, which is supposedly slightly better than the OR4.

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    Another great review, thanks Chris. <br />

    <br />

    Question - would you use the Berkeley running into a Weiss DAC2 (my DAC currently using FW from a MacPro) rather than using Firewire? <br />

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    I have a weiss dac2 and was thinking the same thing. From my experience the firewire driver of this device leaves quite a bit to be desired and one would need to decide whether to upgrade the connection or just sell the dac and use that money (plus the money you were going to spend on the BA USB) to upgrade to a better<br />

    Dac. This is why it's important to understand the merits of the different data path options available (usb-spdif-i2s, soundcard-aes-i2s, usb-i2s or firewire-i2s) as well as other reasons that may have nothing to do with spdif such as cleaner power or better mechanical isolation.<br />

    <br />

    So a more helpful test might involve comparing first with a pure spdif converter like the hiface or offramp (no batteries) to see whether there is an improvement, then if so, comparing that result against solutions that offer isolation as well as spdif such as the BA USB and sonicweld diverter and then finally against an isolation solution that does not offer spdif but does offer isolation like the vertex hirez (using the original firewire). This type of comparison should help you decide on technology as opposed to just what 'brand' is better. And if you do it for spdif + power solutions then you'll be able to rank your preferred solutions and assess audiophile components that way instead of just taking cues from the subjective opinions of other people. Who knows... After all that you might even find out it's the weiss's burr-brown dac chip you don't like and end up upgrading the dac.

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    <cite>[...] This is why it's important to understand the merits of the different data path options available (usb-spdif-i2s, soundcard-aes-i2s, usb-i2s or firewire-i2s) as well as other reasons that may have nothing to do with spdif such as cleaner power or better mechanical isolation. [...] This type of comparison should help you decide on technology as opposed to just what 'brand' is better.</cite><br />

    <br />

    So why are you so sure that this type of comparison can be done and the type of categorical conclusions that you are looking for can be made in a fair and meaningful way?<br />

    <br />

    I've learned over the years that components should be judged in the context of specific systems, and system configurations should be judged case by case. Collecting a bunch of well regarded components into a system and you might have too much of a good thing. Some unlikely combinations might work really well although it's going against conventional wisdom. Etc...<br />

    <br />

    The key here is synergy across the whole system, and to arrive at a system with good synergy requires a lot of leg work. Asking around on the net is unlikely to be a substitute for that leg work...<br />

    <br />

    Andy

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    Chris-<br />

    <br />

    I compliment you on how you handle people who confuse their thoughts and opinions with "the truth".<br />

    <br />

    Gordon

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    Here is Peter's quote from Phasure forum-sale pitch?criticizing Alpha:<br />

    <br />

    This latter by itself is a bit nonsense, but let's say this is about money, and that the $1895 or whatever works better than a new Alpha which is $1895 higher priced. Furthermore, "of course" everybody wants to have asynch USB these days, so Berkely may expect to sell quite a few of those converters.<br />

    What about a rip off ?<br />

    <br />

    Maybe I'm not talking blahbah all the way, if you only know that the original NOS1 was not supplied with (asynch) USB, and that people could have it upgraded by the huge amount of 335 euros (say $400). And this included the disassembly of the old stuff, and the assembly of the new. Ok, maybe that's way underpriced because of the work involved, but do notice that it includes the hardware as well, the licenses involved and some more stuff.<br />

    <br />

    When we are at it anyway ...<br />

    The Alpha is the most dull sounding DAC I had in the house, so far. I didn't say "wrong sounding", but just completely dull. Filtered to death. Now, what I would have done - undoubtedly knowing the difference with e.g. a Weiss, was expressing what changed to that with the USB converter in front of it. But no. It is just the best converter - period.

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    This is probably a stupid question. :) <br />

    <br />

    I do not really grok that the sound was more "palpable." I tend to think "richer" or "fuller", but neither one of those seems to fit exactly. Would you expand on the sound a little more please? <br />

    <br />

    -Paul<br />

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    Agree with Andy here. My question specifically was directed to Chris's vast experience and knowledge - so... does he think that bypassing the Weiss DAC2's FW interface and using the Berkeley would be an improvement in HIS system? It's not a money question or issue and I have no interest in comparing it to 10 different interfaces.

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    Hi rangert - It's very possible the Alpha USB could offer an improvement in such a scenario. Unfortunately I don't have any Weiss components here and haven't had one since I reviewed the DAC202.<br />

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    Well, now that's nice. I can't be sure whether this is a ironic call or something, but if it is, when I wanted to say something right here about it, I would have.<br />

    <br />

    But I do hope you read carefully through my Dutch, because this isn't critizing at all. "Critiqueing" would be a better description.<br />

    The "ripoff" ... maybe. But this is what most think.<br />

    <br />

    Well, whatever was intended with quoting me, I don't like it much ...<br />

    What I like the least is that it now (in here !) looks like I'm advertising my own product.<br />

    Gives me a bad taste.<br />

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    Well, I think asking specific question is always fine. And while we're at it Chris, I'm wondering if it would be difficult to answer my question posted way up at the beginning of the thread. Which is: Given Berkeley's claim of all the layers of isolation, how much of a degradation, if any, would there be if one were to bypass the the SOtM USB card and go with the motherboard USB port in the CAPSv2 -> Alpha USB -> Alpha DAC chain? I mean in your system of course :-) Hopefully this test would not be too time consuming to perform.<br />

    <br />

    As an Alpha DAC owner, there is a good chance that an Alpha USB would be in my system eventually. My plan is to drive the setup with a fanless server similar to CAPSv2. But I also find having to design the system around the SOtM card architecturally rather limiting. So I need to get a feel for how much of the hit I'm going to take by skipping the card.<br />

    <br />

    Any insight you could offer would be greatly appreciated.<br />

    <br />

    Andy

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    Myself and others compared it and the Off-Ramp was easily better. I am in a car right now and will post details later.<br />

    <br />

    Thanks<br />

    Bill

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    If only one component in a system at a time is substituted there should be no difficulty in determining the effect that component has on the system no matter how holistic your view is of the total system. There are several technologies deployed within the BA USB and my belief is if you want to understand the overall impact of that unit you should understand the technologies first and foremost by testing against alternative products including only that particular technology (sort of equivalent to scenario analysis). Then having an approximate appreciation of alternative products and the effects of each technology, it's possible to hypothesize on how your system might sound once if those technologies were adopted. Then, with that hypothesized idea, compare against the actual result achieved by the unit. If the sound is different from what you expected then you will know it is not the technologies tested that made the difference, and if such difference is an improvement over the original hypothesis then this residual difference could be implementation or some other technology that was not compared (such as superior quality or construction etc.). Then at least you'll start to approach some ability to quantify the difference instead of just knowing something is different without understanding why. Either way it's a scientific process and something manufacturers themselves do when performing r&d. To get an idea take a look at the program on sean olive's blog, which is used by harman kardan to train listeners to evaluate components.<br />

    <br />

    But not many here seem to care much about the process and just want recommendations from chris or anyone else - who incidentally would not even be able to tell what effect something will have on anyone's system (only his). <br />

    <br />

    This observation i am making on the lack of a scientific process (which applies to the way most people and even manufacturers evaluate their systems - including the specific review above) will no doubt be taken as a personal attack and people might even say they are not interested in it or whatever, but so what. It is still a valid point.

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    I tested the BA USB + Dac on lamm ML3s and Magico Q5s and i have to agree - an improvement over the original dac only solution but still sounding too compressed for what it is.

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    Hi easternlethal - Is that system in your home? Where did you hear it and under what conditions? Great equipment that one isn't incredibly familiar with is very misleading and lead to falty conclusions frequently.

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    @easternlethal<br />

    <br />

    Completely agree. My question was specific to a bypass of the Weiss FW interface, replaced by the BA USB. Chris has had my Weiss DAC2/Minerva and most recently the DAC202 in his system so his opinion on this change is informative even though our systems are completely different. From what people are writing I'd give the Empirical 5 a try first. At the end of the day it's what sounds great to "you"... The Weiss for me sounds great in my system, if I can improve a bit then it's worth it if not then I am still happy.

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    Chris,<br />

    <br />

    Sorry if I seem critical, while your article is useful as a white paper on technology and features, it is impossible to assess how the product sounds as compared to other products especially DACs with built in async computer interfaces.<br />

    <br />

    Almost all reviewers at least provide a list the equipment under test and used comparison. The commercial press usually avoids direct competition by being vague on their comparisons, some use products that are way more expensive to avoid troubles with their potential competitors.<br />

    <br />

    I expect no less from your site. Of course we know this product would sound good given its price and lineage. But how do you think it sounds compared to other products we know you have access to? That is what a reference is for. I know this is only relevant to the context of your system sounding in your room at a particular point in time. We understand that and will read it in that particular context. But without a reference point you might as well skip describing how it sounds. We know it should sound good, but how good?<br />

    <br />

    (I personally have selfish interest since I think you have access to equipment I own. How about a little hint?)

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    I think you misjudge many folks here. Chris's recommendations are for me, a very good match. Never having met him or listened to his much higher system, when I listen to the same gear he has reviewed, I find myself having the same kind of reactions and coming to similar conclusions. <br />

    <br />

    I have no reason to doubt that will hold, regardless of whether he is reviewing a $500 DAC or a $5000 DAC. And there are some areas I disagree with him on, which is to be expected. <br />

    <br />

    Liking something or not is purely a matter of personal taste. I choose my systems partly on whether I like the things, as well as their performance specifications. I personally think to do otherwise is unreasonable. <br />

    <br />

    Also, there are times when I simply cannot audition a hunk of gear, for whatever reason. If it is above a certain dollar threshold, I just don't buy it until I <i>can</i> audition it. If it is below that threshold, I probably will ask people for advice. I'll still choose what I like, this time based upon specs, what other people say about it, how it looks and who is selling it. <br />

    <br />

    That seems eminently reasonable to me. Chris, through his careful reviews, has earned a lot of respect from me. So have other folks. <br />

    <br />

    I'm not sure what you are so angry about (you sure seem really angry) or what baggage you may be carrying, or what score you want to settle. But can you kinda settle it offline? <br />

    <br />

    I'm thinking of saving up for a Berkeley DAC and Alpha USB. I'm kind of interested to hear about any negative impressions of it, based on what it sounds like. It's above the price I am comfortable with without auditioning it first. <br />

    <br />

    -Paul<br />

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    @chris<br />

    <br />

    Most people who are not reviewers would perform their 'tests' in the following way - by going into a shop and hearing it in the shop's system. They are not familiar with the overall setup, but by swapping out the particular unit and listening to the differences they start to build a picture of how it sounds. Unless they are lucky enough to be in a shop that has all components they want, they usually have to repeat this process in several demo rooms using different components and then mentally regressing the results and hypothesizing on how the components they actually want sound together. And when they buy the component(s) and assemble them at home quite a few people actually achieve a very good result. Equally it's also possible for someone to take a component home to test against his own system, decide they like the new component more, buy it, then realise afterwards they could have achieved a similar or better result by tweaking their existing system in a different way at a much lower cost. Faulty conclusion too. So it is not the equipment but the tester.<br />

    <br />

    I did my testing in a room at a local store where I do a lot of testing (as much as I can when new components come in) so I am familiar with the sources and components. I also tested it against a Ray Samuels Raptor and Audeze LCD2 which I own (and brought in). The setup (with the lamms and magico) was recommended by the owner. It did not sound bad but it turned out I did not get a different result using my audeze compared to the magicos. Transients and detail was good as was the frequency response in the mid-range and bottom end. And since the source was a laptop running cplay (usually noisy and bright as hell) I thought the electrical isolation in BA USB would have helped with the dynamic response - but it did not do much. Maybe it will perform better in another system which needs the isolation but it did not do much in these ones. It seems bobbha came to the same conclusion as well with the Offramp (which does not adopt electrical isolation but I think has better oscillators).<br />

    <br />

    <br />

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