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Article: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB Review

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Great review. Did you get a chance to compare the interface to a dCS Puccini U-Clock, which is essentially a USB-spidf converter too?


- Mark

 

Synology DS916+ > SoTM dCBL-CAT7 > Netgear switch > SoTM dCBL-CAT7 > dCS Vivaldi Upsampler (Nordost Valhalla 2 power cord) > Nordost Valhalla 2 Dual 110 Ohm AES/EBU > dCS Vivaldi DAC (David Elrod Statement Gold power cord) > Nordost Valhalla 2 xlr > Absolare Passion preamp (Nordost Valhalla 2 power cord) > Nordost Valhalla 2 xlr > VTL MB-450 III (Shunyata King Cobra CX power cords) > Nordost Valhalla 2 speaker > Kaiser Kaewero Classic /JL Audio F110 (Wireworld Platinum power cord).

 

Power Conditioning: Entreq Olympus Tellus grounding (AC, preamp and dac) / Shunyata Hydra Triton + Typhoon (Shunyata Anaconda ZiTron umbilical/Shunyata King Cobra CX power cord) > Furutec GTX D-Rhodium AC outlet.

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Hi,<br />

<br />

Thanks for the review!<br />

<br />

Does such interface isolate DAC from the music server good enough to make server specification not important?<br />

I mean to buy such a device and then build media server without taking any care of the quality of the components (sound wise). I could make some $$$ savings on the server side and this would justify Alpha USB price.

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Hello Chris, thanks for your review. <br />

Truly sounds like a wonderful component. I see from your equipment list that you are using Spectral Electronics and am wondering whether you are using the gain stage of the pre-amp with the Alpha DAC or the digital volume control of the DAC. <br />

I recall Berkeley claiming that direct connection to the amplifier was the clearest signal but also suspect the Spectral gear is so good that this might not be the case. Spectral is on my wish list for new electronics.<br />

Regards, Warren

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Great through review Chris.<br />

<br />

I your review, you state that a simple audio playback flow chart consists of a PC -> Alpha USB -> DAC -> Preamplifier -> Amplifier -> Speakers. <br />

<br />

I am planning to replace my entire home theater / stereo system. Using your flow chart example, I am thinking of getting the Aurender S10 > BADA Alpha USB > Classe SSP-800 Pre Pro > Parasound Halo A51 amplifier > B&W 803Di speakers.<br />

<br />

In my flow chart above, you notice that I have omitted a standalone DAC. The Classe SSP-800 has its own high quality DAC built-in. My question to you is that can I omit buying the BADA Alpha DAC2 and just use the internal DAC in the SSP-800 and still get good sound?<br />

<br />

<br />

<br />

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Hi, Chris! Glad to see your comments on the BADA USB. Nice work, and thanks for digging in there.<br />

<br />

I don't think you've done with the companion piece with the Series 2 DAC, yet, have you? If not, let me request that you try and tease apart the contribution of the USB transport? Running the Alpha USB into both the Series 2 and into, say, a dCS Debussy (I think that'd have to be by BNC S/PDIF, wouldn't it?) or another DAC of similar "level" that also sports an on-board USB interface may help us get a handle on what the Alpha USB does, or doesn't, do for the DAC over and above what using an on-board USB receiver might do. <br />

<br />

I've found that the Alpha USB can certainly "level up" just about any DAC I've used it with, even on DACs that have explicit isolation and great oscillators. Not sure why that is as I'd think that adding in an additional translation into and out of S/PDIF would do bad things to the overall sound quality. There are DACs out there that take USB and translate into I2S, for example, instead of translating into S/PDIF first, yet again, every DAC I've tried it with, benefits. <br />

<br />

IME, the Alpha USB really helps the Berkeley DAC shine and I completely agree with you that the bass on the Series 2 DAC is one of it's comparative strengths. With the Alpha USB, the already very good bass on the Series 2 is far better (best I've heard out of that DAC). <br />

<br />

But you have access to, and way more familiarity with, more DACs than I, and more DACs of varying character. So I am curious, does the Alpha USB "add bass to" (improve the bass performance of) bass-light (or DACs that aren't necessarily known for their bass performance) DACs? What about "liquid DACs", that is DACs that really do mid range well like a tube DAC (LampizatOr or AMR DP-777), or an "airy DAC" like the dCS -- any contribution of the Alpha USB there to the (non-bass) character of those DACs?<br />

<br />

Thanks, Chris. Appreciate the comments and still loving the site 2.5 years in. ;-)

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<cite>Does such interface isolate DAC from the music server good enough to make server specification not important?<br />

I mean to buy such a device and then build media server without taking any care of the quality of the components (sound wise). I could make some $$$ savings on the server side</cite><br />

<br />

Same here. Specifically, I'm wondering if Chris has done comparison between feeding from CAPS v2 through the SOtM USB card vs from the motherboard USB port. First, the SOtM USB card accounts for a large chunk of the cost of the CAPS v2. But more importantly, it imposes a lot restrictions on the architecture of the server. For example, it also requires a PCI bus that some newer Atom motherboard don't have. And by getting rid of the separate USB card altogether, embedded system type boards like the Alix can now be used. This could really open up a world of possibilities...<br />

<br />

Andy

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That the isolation of any half-decent DAC is every bit as good as this Berkeley pair. And with a single box you avoid the SP/DIF conversion. Which, despite what Berkeley say, must be a 'good thing'.<br />

<br />

I have only one computer, have no requirement for a second one, so I am not willing to spend the time and money building, for example, a CAPS2. So I have to go by what others say.<br />

<br />

But I am beginning to think that once you have 'bit perfect' output, simple enough to achieve with any computer, OS, and software player, that given good isolation in the DAC, or in this instance converter plus DAC, the computer does not matter at all.

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Chris <br />

Thank you for for a great review(as usual).<br />

I have both Alpha USB and Alpha Dac series 2 running via Aes/EBU and directly to Ayre amplifier using balanced cables(Audioquest).<br />

I like the sound very much to the point that I sold my CLEARAUDIO Ovation turntable.<br />

I spoke with Berkeley and they confirmed that digital cables should be 1.5 meter long.<br />

Now questions:<br />

1.What brand of Aes/EBU Mogami,Straightwire or others?<br />

2.What brand of USB cable?<br />

3.Have you compared Alpha Dac 2 to Debussy sound while using Alpha USB?<br />

4.Dac 2 to amplifier or via separate preamplifier.<br />

Paul

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Chris, thanks for your review. A nice read, as always. The downside is no real comparision to the COMPETING products.<br />

<br />

By competing I mean dCS U-Clock, Diverter HD and the Off-Ramp Turbo 4 (soon to be superceded by Turbo 5).<br />

<br />

I have already read a review where prefered someone preffered the (cheaper) Off Ramp Turbo 4 to Alpha USB ...


Adam

 

PC: Hot rodded CAPS v4 Pipeline: Teradak ATX linear PSU, Jcat Femto USB card, UpTone Audio JS-2 + 2x LPS-1.2 combo, Jcat SSD battery PSU, Jcat SATA cable, TotalDAC D1 USB cable, SOtM sMS-200, W4S Recovery USB, Jcat USB Isolator, Win 2012, AO v2.10

Digital: Lampizator Pacific DAC

Amp: Dan D'Agostino Momentum Stereo

Speakers: Magcio M3

Cables: AudioQuest WEL Signature IC / Shunyata Anaconda Z-Tron SC

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Please post a link for:<br />

<br />

"I have already read a review where prefered someone preffered the (cheaper) Off Ramp Turbo 4 to Alpha USB "<br />

<br />


- Mark

 

Synology DS916+ > SoTM dCBL-CAT7 > Netgear switch > SoTM dCBL-CAT7 > dCS Vivaldi Upsampler (Nordost Valhalla 2 power cord) > Nordost Valhalla 2 Dual 110 Ohm AES/EBU > dCS Vivaldi DAC (David Elrod Statement Gold power cord) > Nordost Valhalla 2 xlr > Absolare Passion preamp (Nordost Valhalla 2 power cord) > Nordost Valhalla 2 xlr > VTL MB-450 III (Shunyata King Cobra CX power cords) > Nordost Valhalla 2 speaker > Kaiser Kaewero Classic /JL Audio F110 (Wireworld Platinum power cord).

 

Power Conditioning: Entreq Olympus Tellus grounding (AC, preamp and dac) / Shunyata Hydra Triton + Typhoon (Shunyata Anaconda ZiTron umbilical/Shunyata King Cobra CX power cord) > Furutec GTX D-Rhodium AC outlet.

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Adam

 

PC: Hot rodded CAPS v4 Pipeline: Teradak ATX linear PSU, Jcat Femto USB card, UpTone Audio JS-2 + 2x LPS-1.2 combo, Jcat SSD battery PSU, Jcat SATA cable, TotalDAC D1 USB cable, SOtM sMS-200, W4S Recovery USB, Jcat USB Isolator, Win 2012, AO v2.10

Digital: Lampizator Pacific DAC

Amp: Dan D'Agostino Momentum Stereo

Speakers: Magcio M3

Cables: AudioQuest WEL Signature IC / Shunyata Anaconda Z-Tron SC

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Thanks for this review. I'm sorry you chose not to name the competition you compared to, but it was a very interesting review none the less. I'd love to hear what you think of the Berkeley in comparison to the Offramp 5.

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AFAIK Off Ramp Turbo 5 is not out yet.


Adam

 

PC: Hot rodded CAPS v4 Pipeline: Teradak ATX linear PSU, Jcat Femto USB card, UpTone Audio JS-2 + 2x LPS-1.2 combo, Jcat SSD battery PSU, Jcat SATA cable, TotalDAC D1 USB cable, SOtM sMS-200, W4S Recovery USB, Jcat USB Isolator, Win 2012, AO v2.10

Digital: Lampizator Pacific DAC

Amp: Dan D'Agostino Momentum Stereo

Speakers: Magcio M3

Cables: AudioQuest WEL Signature IC / Shunyata Anaconda Z-Tron SC

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Can someone help me out: are we talking optimal length of AES and USB cable of 1.5 meters or is that the minimum length. IE, I just got a 5 foot USB and a 6 foot AES. If I exchange those for 1.5 meters will I be optimizing anything?


MG555

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I don't understand. CA had this unit for four months and instead of comparing against other similar products, he uses that time to compare between different sources and DACs. <br />

<br />

Then, when it comes to comparing against other converters he uses units that cost half as much at most before concluding a) another unit which costs $1000 actually comes close, and b) he knows of no converter better than the Alpha USB. <br />

<br />

Firstly I think a lot of users would actually not mind paying nearly half the price of the Alpha USB for another product that comes close (despite what he says about close not being 'good enough'), secondly I am not surprised he thinks it's the best converter since he only compared it against cheaper products. Did he even compare against any products in the same or higher price range, like the sonicweld diverter? If he did then why didn't he mention it?<br />

<br />

Sorry but this is as faulty a review process as I ever seen.

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@wdw - <i>"I see from your equipment list that you are using Spectral Electronics and am wondering whether you are using the gain stage of the pre-amp with the Alpha DAC or the digital volume control of the DAC."</i><br />

<br />

Great question. I am using the gain stage of the Spectral DMC-30SS Series 2 preamp. I et the Alpha DAC digital volume to 54.<br />

<br />

 <br />

<br />

@roubaixpro - <i>"My question to you is that can I omit buying the BADA Alpha DAC2 and just use the internal DAC in the SSP-800 and still get good sound?"</i><br />

<br />

You most certainly can get good sound with your proposed system. <br />

<br />

 <br />

<br />

@Mark Powell - <i>"That the isolation of any half-decent DAC is every bit as good as this Berkeley pair. And with a single box you avoid the SP/DIF conversion. Which, despite what Berkeley say, must be a 'good thing'."</i><br />

<br />

I see your inner armchair engineer coming through once again. It appears that you are satisfied with mediocrity and not interested in pushing the boundaries of engineering. That's totally OK with me. As long as you're enjoying this wonderful hobby of ours that's all that matters. You are enjoying it right?<br />

<br />

 <br />

<br />

@pawel8 - <i>"Now questions: 1.What brand of Aes/EBU Mogami,Straightwire or others? 2.What brand of USB cable? 3.Have you compared Alpha Dac 2 to Debussy sound while using Alpha USB? 4.Dac 2 to amplifier or via separate preamplifier."</i><br />

<br />

1. I have a few different AES cables here. The Mogami cable is a favorite of mine simply because of the price to performance ration I receive with it. Ultra inexpensive, non-pretentious, and good performance. I also use a custom made cable that comes from another industry. This AES cable isn't available to purchase but provides awesome performance. I am looking into other AES cables now that the Alpha USB has impressed me so much. All things being equal, I prefer to use cables that CA readers can purchase instead of vaporware.<br />

2. Kimber, WireWorld, and AudioQuest.<br />

3. Yes, but not in a head to head type of way. Both have very different sonic signatures.<br />

4. Very dependent on the components. I use a Spectral DMC-30SS Series 2 preamp. I think it's one of the most transparent components in all of high end audio. And, the Spectral preamp mates well with my Spectral DMA-260 amplifier. Thus, I use the preamp gain stage. <br />

<br />

 <br />

<br />

@Elberoth - <i>"I have already read a review where prefered someone preffered the (cheaper) Off Ramp Turbo 4 to Alpha USB"</i><br />

<br />

Excellent. I encourage everyone to read reviews from as may sources as possible. CA is a single data point among many. Not everyone likes the same components or the same sound. Reviews are similar to legal opinions. If you look hard enough you can find evidence completely contrary to any existing conclusion or finding. That's part of what makes this an exciting hobby. If we all liked the same components it would be pretty boring. <br />

<br />

 <br />

<br />

@easternlethal - <i>"Review method leaves a lot to be desired. I don't understand. CA had this unit for four months and instead of comparing against other similar products, he uses that time to compare between different sources and DACs. Then, when it comes to comparing against other converters he uses units that cost half as much at most before concluding a) another unit which costs $1000 actually comes close, and b) he knows of no converter better than the Alpha USB. Firstly I think a lot of users would actually not mind paying nearly half the price of the Alpha USB for another product that comes close (despite what he says about close not being 'good enough'), secondly I am not surprised he thinks it's the best converter since he only compared it against cheaper products. Did he even compare against any products in the same or higher price range, like the sonicweld diverter? If he did then why didn't he mention it? Sorry but this is as faulty a review process as I ever seen.</i>"<br />

<br />

Thanks for the honest opinion. I should probably clear up a couple things that may help put us on the same page. Computer Audiophile is not like Consumer Reports. The reviews contained here are not scientific longitudinal studies using products that compete on price and performance. CA is not curing Cancer and doesn't submit articles for peer review prior to publication similar to the New England Journal of Medicine or the like. You may still think the review process is as faulty as you've ever seen but my process is probably different than many others. I take an organic approach to listening to components and comparing them to others on hand. My results are not to be interpreted as the final word on anything and not to be used as a rubber stamp for how a component will sound in any system other than mine. As such, comparing components in a head to head or shootout fashion is really a disservice to everyone despite what at first blush may seem like the ultimate in informative journalism. In reality these types of comparisons are used as <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Link_bait">link bait</a><a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Link_bait"><img src="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/ca/icons/ex.png" style="padding: 0pt 0pt 0pt 3pt;" alt="link"></img></a>. Disagreements with my subjective analysis are a natural and healthy part of any publication. When a component is "close but not good enough" for those seeking the ultimate in performance I'm happy to say so. This is strictly an opinion, like all reviews on all websites since the beginning of time. What's not close enough for me might be the best some else has ever heard. In addition what is the best I've ever heard may be child's play for someone else. Not a big deal. I enjoy reading about different methodologies and the conclusions that follow. Also of note is the fact that I've heard many more converters in all types of systems all over the world than I mentioned in this review. When I state that I've never heard a converter better than the Alpha USB I am taking all my listening experience into account. When I say the Alpha USB is better than a specific component I compared during the review period that's also exactly what I mean. Two very different statements that again are only valid for me. Hopefully readers who've followed CA for awhile understand the way I write and the type of sound that I like. Also, I hope my integrity comes through as new and experienced readers peruse the site. <br />

<br />

Thanks again for being brutally honest. I accept all opinions as an attempt at constructive criticism. Hopefully we are on the same page now or at least within the same chapter regarding how this and other reviews on CA are completed.<br />

<br />

<br />

<br />

<br />

<br />

<br />

<br />


Founder of Audiophile Style

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"Satisfied with mediocrity"<br />

<br />

If you think the Debussy, the McIntosh, and the Tannoys are mediocre you are of course entitled to your opinion.<br />

<br />

You may have noticed that I am 'trying harder'. As such I refrained from making one comment, but I will now make it.<br />

<br />

I suspect the real reason that Berkeley introduced the USB to SP/DIF converter is (1) they don't have to update their DAC by adding a USB interface to it, (2) They get to sell two boxes rather than one. That said, It is probably very good.<br />

<br />

Re 'armchair', the rest of us don't get to try all these fancy boxes fot free, and for several months.

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Yes, I am enjoying it. I probably would not have done it at all were it not for finding this site. And your Windows/JRiver guide has given me confidence that I have done it properly.<br />

<br />

It has revived my flagging interest in recorded music, but I enjoy some of the controversies here too.<br />

<br />

My new overpriced 'remote control' using JRemote is terrific. As a phone it is useless, as I find texting on a touch keyboard terrible. But I find that with all touch screens, not just the iPhone. But as I never intended to use it as a phone anyway I am very pleased.

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Okay you want us to treat your review as subjective opinion. That is fine. <br />

<br />

But you dissed the practice of comparing components and said they are a disservice on the one hand then on the other you say in the article "[Alpha DAC + USB] is possibly the best digital I've heard in my listening room". So what... proper comparisons are wrong, but incomplete impressions based on subjective opinions are okay. Is that the kind of style you want us to get accustomed to?<br />

<br />

Secondly you said to Mark Powell regarding avoiding spdif conversion that this means he is satisfied with mediocrity and not pushing the boundaries of engineering. Does this mean that developments in converting usb - spdif - i2s = pushing the boundaries of engineering, wheras developments in converting usb - i2s directly are not? I think XMOS and all the other DAC manufacturers and manufacturers of USB - I2s converters (such as Emprical Audio) would disagree. <br />

<br />

Here's another bit of honesty. BA developed the USB because their DAC has a SPDIF-I2S converter and they just wanted to make something else to sell that can improve the sound without overhauling this architecture . It has nothing to do with advanced engineering or even whether usb - spdif - i2s is the best method of getting data into the dac circuitry (I doubt whether BA themselves would know).

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Hi Mark - Very happy to read CA has had a positive influence on you (but a negative influence on your bank account). <br />

<br />

I don't consider your components mediocre. Just some of your thoughts about component design etc...<br />

<br />

I still can't believe you have an iPhone :~)<br />

<br />

P.S. Thanks for the follow-up comments. Have a great evening navigating your music collection on that beautiful touchscreen :~)


Founder of Audiophile Style

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Hi easternlethal - Perhaps I misinterpreted your comments as being constructive criticism when they now appear to be the rantings of someone very disturbed by what they've read here on CA. <br />

<br />

I think you've taken my explanations, twisted them a bit, then used them as the tip of your spear in your disgruntled response. <br />

<br />

Also, your post on the Phasure forum about my review suggest you may have misread my review or need a bit of clarity from Pater.<br />

<br />

Suggesting your opinion about the reason Berkeley developed the Alpha USB is "another bit of honesty" is preposterous, disingenuous, and reeks of ulterior motives. It's clear you've never talked to the folks at Berkeley. <br />

<br />

Lastly, it's clear you have a serious distaste for my writing and the service, or lack thereof, I provide to readers. Please accept a full refund of the purchase price for visiting Computer Audiophile and don't feel obligated to continue reading the site if it bothers you in such a negative way.<br />

<br />

<br />

<br />

<br />


Founder of Audiophile Style

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Have you tried the Alpha USB with your C.A.P.S. 1 also?<br />

<br />

I guess my question goes along with KarolG earlier question in a way, wondering if the Alpha USB as great as It is, makes the SOtM USB card perhaps less important making the C.A.P.S. 1 vs v2.0 more alike than not?<br />

<br />

I suppose, as with anything else, everything matters, but I am still curious about your impressions here. <br />

<br />

Thanks!<br />

<br />

<br />

<br />


Arcam rDAC / Oppo BDP-83 / NAD 315BEE / Totem Arro

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The USB standard doesn't specify a minimum. I have seen a recommendation for actively driven Ethernet patch cords not to be shorter than 4 feet, but for USB and AES your 5-6 ft is probably close to optimal - any longer, and capacitance/inductance starts to build up.

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