Reviewing or writing about updated versions of products is something I rarely do. For the most part, I am just not as interested in the incremental updates so often placed into audio components, as I am interested in products that are new or significantly changed. I've been disappointed in the past to learn of manufacturers who release "Mark II" of a product only because a single internal component of the original version is no longer available. It's just as disappointing to see the unaware spend hard-earned money on such an upgrade. This type of thing happens across all industries. It's the nature of capitalism and consumerism. Fortunately, we are in the golden age of the Internet, where people can freely publish opinions about products without any trouble. We've all see numerous follow up reviews of version 2.0, where the writer says the upgrade isn't worth it or the upgrade didn't make any difference. Oh wait, today is November 1st, not April 1st. I can't recall ever seeing such an article. Back to my distaste of wasting virtual ink on incremental version upgrades. Aside from my skepticism about such upgrades, my lack of interest would no doubt lead to lackluster articles. Ever try writing about a topic with which you have zero interest? If the piece turned out good, you're a much better writer than I. Working for myself, I have no boss breathing down my neck to get a follow up review done. Without such pressure, I physically can't write such an article. It's just not in me. How does any of this relate to the Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Reference Series 2? The DAC is obviously version 2 of the original, but in this case I can't not write about the RS2. The difference in sonic quality between Series 1 and Series 2 is substantial. This difference makes the decision to upgrade from from S1 to S2 a no brainer, and puts the Alpha DAC Reference Series back into play for people who may have written it off based on previous listening sessions. The Alpha DAC Reference Series 2 is easily Berkeley Audio Design's finest work to date and a reference by which other DACs will be measured.
Back in June 2016 I wrote an article previewing the Alpha DAC Reference Series 2, roughly 24 hours after receiving the unit. At that time I had more information about the DAC and what the S1 to S2 upgrade entailed than I had about the sonic qualities of version 2. Rather than repeat myself by listing the few technical details that are available about the RS2 again, I suggest everyone read the preview before consuming this review. Those seeking a plethora of design details and filter coefficients won't find either in the preview or this review. Berkeley Audio Design is famously secretive about its intellectual property and any items that may give competitors a view into what makes the Alpha DAC Reference Series 2 such a great audio reproduction device. In a time when people ridiculously suggest "information wants to be free," I completely understand the reasoning for not revealing that which isn't required. A quick Internet search can reveal much about component designs that either help a competitor or help an armchair engineer build a case against a product. I'd certainly love to publish schematics and design notes from Berkeley Audio Design, but I understand the company isn't a charity and deserves to be compensated for its work.
Link to original Reference Series review - LINK
Link to Reference Series 2 preview - LINK
All audio products inevitably help us accomplish one thing, reproduce music. How well these products reproduce music can't be judged on a universal numerical scale or by a specific set of universal measurements. It all comes down to how each of us thinks the component sounds in our audio systems. Based on my extensive use of the Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Series 2 in my system, here are my subjective thoughts about Berkeley's best work to date.
Note 1: Berkeley Audio Design doesn't support playback of native DSD or DoP in any of its devices. In addition, all current 'Berkeley' devices support a maximum of 24 bit / 192 kHz audio.
Note 2: Berkeley Audio Design is working on its MQA implementation for the Reference Series. The current plan is to offer MQA capability as a field-installable upgrade to the RS2.
My audio system makeup for the majority of this review consisted of: Sonore microRendu > Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB > Alpha DAC Reference Series 2 > Constellation Audio Inspiration 1.0 Mono amplifiers > TAD CR1 loudspeakers. I tried the DAC into both the standard XLR input and the Direct input of the amplifiers. After much listening I settled on the standard XLR input as my preferred interface. This input has little extra gain that gave the overall sound better punch. The Direct input (still using balanced XLR terminations) sounded a touch too soft for me, when connected directly to the Alpha DAC Reference Series 2 DAC. I also used the Constellation Audio Inspiration Series PreAmp 1.0 sparingly with the RS2. The sound going through the preamp had slightly less resolution, but offered a nice balance between the sound of the standard XLR and Direct inputs.
Let's start with Tracy Chapman's self titled debut album. Released on April fool's day in 1988, the Tracy Chapman debut album has since sold around 12 million copies worldwide. Recorded on a Mitsubishi x-850 digital 32-track 16-bit digital recorder, this was one of the first all digital albums. It's surprising how good the album sounds given the less than stellar reputation of early digital recording devices. Tracy was recorded live in a vocal booth with her guitar, as this was how she had played all her life. To prevent sound leakage and to split the recorded sounds between vocal and guitar microphones, the engineers used cardboard place on top of her guitar. To capture her wonderful vocals, a Neumann TLM 49 microphone was used (TLM = transformerless microphone). One thing to note about this microphone is its K 47 capsule. According to Neumann, this capsule has a linear response up to 2 kHz. Over 2 kHz there is a 3 dB boost.
The opening track Talkin' Bout A Revolution is enjoyable on even an AM radio, but through the Alpha DAC Reference Series 2 this track is taken to another level completely. The opening acoustic guitar has such a smooth, real, and organic sound, that I was drawn into the song immediately. As Tracy strummed up and down, I swear I could hear each individual guitar string being touched. The clarity and sense of realness to this guitar was enough cause me to start the track over a few times after just the first ten seconds. Through the Alpha RS2 in my system, this guitar has terrific air around it. This is perhaps the hallmark of the RS2 in my experience, air. When Tracy's starts singing at 0:09, her rich vocal has such a unique texture. Not texture like the breathy Leonard Cohen, rather a unique and raw texture that must be heard through a transparent system to be fully appreciated. Giving this track a great foundation was Larry Klein's bass that entered about 0:25 into the track. I enjoyed the bass so much in this track that I had a crazy dream last night. I dreamt I was the new bass player for Guns N' Roses. It didn't end well, but that's probably a story that would cost me thousands of dollars to parse through. Anyway, as the track continued, the percussion section entered in full swing and each instrument sounded so clear in its own audible space through the RS2. A gentle cymbal roll was so delicate and each tap of the drum stick so delineated, one couldn't help but notice the artistry and musicianship. By the time the 2:39 minute opening track was complete, I was sold on the entire album. I had to listen to the whole thing without breaking to read a text message or email.
Continuing to the most well-known track on the album, Fast Car, my listening experience was almost identical to the previous track. Wonderful acoustic guitar, rich vocals, delicate percussion, all sounding incredibly airy and transparent. On the haunting a cappella track Behind The Wall, Tracy's voice is laid bare with a tiny amount of reverb. Listening to this track with the RS2 in my system, it sounds like I am in the vocal booth with Tracy. That's saying a lot for a 16 bit / 44.1 kHz pop recording. I should remind readers that Berkeley Audio Design prides itself on its custom filters and an ability to reproduce 44.1 kHz content as good or better than anyone in the industry. The RS2's ability to convey transients and a larger sound can be heard on the track She's Got Her Ticket. The track opens with a great snare and kick drum that has immediacy and terrific rise time through the RS2. Most of the track mirrors my previous statements about sound reproduction, but this one reveals the great tone of an electric guitar. This guitar sound seems to have a great color to it. The DAC isn't giving it color, it's reproducing the color and tone Jack Holder wanted from his guitar.
An album I play a couple times every year is called Atlantic Records 50 Years: The Gold Anniversary. I'm usually a one artist per album, not greatest hits, type of listener, so this Atlantic album only comes off the digital shelf once in awhile. The album contains 26 remastered tracks, all done with a Pacific Microsonics Model 2 A to D converter in HDCD. Berkeley Audio Design's main guys, Michael Ritter and Michael "Pflash" Pflaumer, are alumni and founders of Pacific Microsonics and Pflash is the co-inventor of HDCD. It just makes sense that I would stumble upon this album again and play it through the HDCD decoding Alpha DAC Reference Series 2. Three tracks that I love from this album are Otis Redding's (Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay, Led Zeppelin's Whole Lotta Love, and Tori Amos' Silent All These Years. I own several versions of each track and can say without a doubt this HDCD version is the best sounding. First up is Dock of the Bay. This track is all about Otis' voice. The backing instruments are just there because the track would sound weird a cappella. Otis' vocal sounds fabulously glossy through the Alpha DAC RS2. There is also more emotion in his voice than can be heard through other systems. I know this may sound strange, but I implore people to get a hold of this disc and listen through an RS2. It sounds as special as I've ever heard Otis Redding. As a 40 year old white guy from Minnesota, I feel like I have a connection with a black man from Dawson, Georgia who died in 1967, at the age of 26, with a set of life experiences vastly different from mine. Hearing deep into his vocal inflections and the tiny nuances between the same words sung during different parts of the song, can evoke emotions like this only when played on absolutely stellar systems. Sure an AM radio can bring out emotions, but not to the extent of an RS2. Led Zeppelin's Whole Lotta Love from this Atlantic album through an RS2 sounds like many people have never heard it sound. That's an unfortunate reality. Right from the start, no wait, exclude Robert Plant's cough / laugh / sigh at the beginning, the track's guitar and bass together sound so rich. They also sound so distinctly separate that anyone seeking to learn one of the two parts as a guitarist or bassist could just listen to the track without cranking up the EQ for one instrument. Individual strings of John Paul Jones' bass can be easily detected while Jimmy rocks the incredibly famous riff. About a minute and a half into the track when Bonzo starts rattling every percussive element of the drum kit while keeping the hi-hat going steady, there is a great amount of space that can be heard around the kit (synthetic or otherwise), and the percussive elements sound strikingly real. It sounds almost spooky even before the spookiness of the theremin enters the track and Robert starts moaning ah ah ah ooooh... Of course Jimmy's wailing on the guitar strings, as the track comes back to the verse chorus verse pattern, sounds fantastic. The screaming high pitched guitar mini-solo sounds as crystal clear as I've ever heard it, in all it's fully-depressed wah pedal distortion and magnetic tape saturation. right or wrong, Led zeppelin doesn't sound like this on other systems or through other DACs. The ninth track on the second disc of this two-cd set is Silent All These Years from Tori Amos. It's likely we've all heard this track numerous times over the years. It can sound pretty good on a good system. The HDCD version on this album is by far my favorite and it's pushed to another level through the Alpha DAC Reference Series 2. Right form the start, the overtones of Tori's piano are rich, round, and reverberating. Tori's vocal is, of course, close mic'd and in your face. Through my system her voice is so present that I swear her spit may fly out from my speakers when she pronounces the letter P in the sentences "Boy you best pray that I bleed real soon, How's that thought for you, My scream got lost in a paper cup..." With about 30 seconds left in the track the tone of the piano and the reverberation change quite a bit. It sounds as if the piano is now mic'd closer than previously heard in the track and the large rounded notes that seem to bounce off the piano cover and the walls, are suddenly sharp hammer strikes of each piano string. This change in sound of the closing "outro" is something I've never noticed in all my previous listens of this track. Maybe I'm just not a discerning listener or maybe the Berkeley Audio Design Reference Series 2 really brings out the truth in every recording. I'm voting for the latter.
Since 2008, my enthusiasm for Berkeley Audio Design components has been well known. Sometimes I take heat for such enthusiasm, as if a person can't enjoy the sound of a manufacturer's components. This enthusiasm is not exclusive. I've written many positive comments and reviews about other components. Competitors such as EMM Labs and dCS have sent me components and I've enthusiastically written about the experiences. I even said the EMM Labs DAC2X was the most detailed and transparent DAC I've heard in my system and named it product of the year runner up back in 2012. I'm also looking forward to unboxing the EMM Labs DA2, sitting in another room at the moment, and receiving the dCS Rossini at the beginning of 2017. Each of these manufacturers designs components using its own intellectual property and each ends up with a distinctive sound and set of features. Going from memory, I have no doubt I prefer the Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Reference Series 2 over the EMM Labs DAC2X I reviewed in 2012 and have heard many times between then and now. I have yet to compare the sound of the new flagship EMM DA2 to the RS2, but based on its feature set I know I'll need a preamplifier with the DA2, whereas a preamp is not needed with the RS2. Having listened to many dCS components over the years, both at home and in fine listening rooms around the world, I know there will be very evident sonic differences between the RS2 and Rossini. The RS2 leans heavily toward the 3D and airy side of the continuum, whereas the dCS components lean more in a full-bodied, punchier direction. Both dCS and Berkeley Audio Design claim to do digital the right way, yet both do digital very differently and produce very different results. If I was helping a close friend select her next DAC at this high level of quality, I would start by relaying what I just said. Followed by the fact that components are system dependent. For example, I may be able to connect the dCS Rossini into the Direct input of my Constellation amplifiers, bypassing a gain stage, and get a better sound than I heard when the RS2 was connected to that input, but it may not sound better to me than the RS2 connected to the standard XLR input of the same amplifiers. There are many variables at play, the most important being preference. What I hear as transparent, other may hear as opaque in the exact same system or one loaded with tubes and electrostatic panels.
When speaking to the Berkeley Audio Design team, they stress the importance of striving for neutrality with their components. They absolutely, to the best of their abilities, try to design out any sonic flavor. It's not in their ethos to color the sound or produce a sound some people may like. If you like neutrality, or no sonic signature, they build the components for you. To do this, they compare the sound reproduced through the Alpha DAC Reference Series 2, to the sound of the microphone feed at Keith Johnson's recordings for Reference Recordings and also use Keith's master recordings during the design process. These subjective comparisons serve to improve upon the objective measurements. When one reaches the limit of the best testing equipment available, one must have a sense for what neutrality "sounds" like. Given what I know and have heard, I'm willing to bet Berkeley Audio Design manufacturers some of the most neutral components ever produced.
(Note: Keith Johnson is a friend of the company, but not involved with the products in any way).
- Product - Berkeley Audio Design, Alpha DAC Reference Series 2 ($19,500)
- Product Site - Link
- Product User Guide - PDF
Where To Buy:
- Source: Aurender N10, MacBook Pro (running Windows 10)
- DAC: EMM Labs DAC2X, Mytek Digital Brooklyn
- D-to-D Converter: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB, Sonore microRendu
- Amplifiers: Constellation Audio Mono 1.0 / Monoblock Power Amplifiers
- Preamplifier: Constellation Audio PreAmp 1.0
- Loudspeakers: TAD Labs CR1 Compact Reference
- Remote Control Software: JRemote, Roon Remote
- Remote Control Hardware: iPad Air 2
- Playback Software: Roon, JRiver Media Center
- Network Attached Storage (NAS): Synology DS1812+, CAPS v4 Cortes Server
- Audio Cables: Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Interconnects (XLR & RCA), Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Speaker Cables, Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 Digital Cables,
- USB Cables: Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 USB 2.0, AudioQuest Diamond USB 2.0, Nordost Purple Flare USB 2.0
- Power Cables: ALO Audio AC6 Power Cables
- Ethernet Cables: AudioQuest Vodka Ethernet Cables throughout system
- Network: Cisco SG200-26 Switch, Baaske MI-1005 Ethernet Isolator, Apple AirPort Extreme, Calix 716GE-I Optical Network Terminal, ZyXEL C1100Z modem / router, CenturyLink 1 Gbps download / upload