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Article: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB Review

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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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Chris, you have hinted before that you were going to review the dCS Debussy. Now that Berkeley has a complete package It would be very very interesting to review the Debussy as compared to the Berkeley set. They are of similar price range and are pretty good representation of their price range.


Macbook Pro/MacMini/dCS Debussy/Cambridge 650BD[br]Vitus Audio SS-010/Living Voice OBX-R2 Speakers/Ultrasone Edition 8 phones[br]Airport Express/Meridian AD88[br]

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I am not angry. I just like being direct. As I said before I have not made any comments about the general usefulness of Chris's reviews or this site.<br />

<br />

My biggest concern in getting a new BA DAC would be the limitation on its sampling rate (at 192hz). If I were in the market for a new DAC I would at least make sure it can play DSD or 384hz (after all this is the one advantage digital music has over analogue - whatever your feelings about that might be), if I wanted to keep the dac for more than 3 years.<br />

<br />

Anyway in answer to your question about SQ I think BA DAC employed the same technology (or at least general technical approach) in the USB unit than with its DAC (i.e. electrical isolation + clocking). I said in my post above, the system did not benefit from this but what I really meant was it did not benefit it in the way I liked (because of course, more isolation always benefits).<br />

<br />

I feel its dynamic range and response could have been better and it was not as full in the upper mid range (surprising given the help it had from the valve setup from the lamms). But it improved transients and has good frequency response - so it is up to you which characteristic you are going for (and type of music you like). I personally felt the extra isolation was not required because the characteristics in the dac remains and will never be improved without overhauling the dac.

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<cite>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. [...] The setup (with the lamms and magico) was recommended by the owner.</cite><br />

<br />

Since you're familiar with the Lamm ML3 + Magico Q5 combo, could you describe its general characteristics? On the one head, I read somewhere that the Q5 is a real power hog and even Spectral DMA-360 is not enough to bring them to live. On the other hand, SET amps are generally quite finicky about speaker load. Being a SET head, I find this combo rather counter-intuitive. So can the Lamm actually light up the Q5? What front end does sound alive with the combo? Just curious...<br />

<br />

Andy

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easternlethal - Can you point me to a review that was written to your satisfaction?<br />

<br />

 <br />

<br />

<i>"I have not made any comments about the general usefulness of Chris's reviews or this site."</i><br />

<br />

With all do respect I think you are either trolling or trying to rewrite history. You said -> "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. Sorry but this is as faulty a review process as I ever seen."<br />

"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 />

To me this is clearly a statement that the review / site is not useful.<br />


Founder of Audiophile Style

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<i>" 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)."</i><br />

<br />

Can you clarify your statement about the oscillators?


Founder of Audiophile Style

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@accwai - sorry it was the Q1. I got confused with the magico model numbers (it's hard when one can't even tell what they look like from their site). Yes ML3 wouldn't have been able to drive those big units. The general characteristic... hmmm lets just say I think I would have preferred something with higher sensitivity like horns :-) but that shop does not sell horns so... <br />

<br />

@chris - i said I did not make any comments about the GENERAL usefulness of your review or site. This was a response to Paul's comment about your previous recommendations being helpful as well as your own earlier comments about me not liking your 'service'. Why do you insist on broadening the scope of what I am saying? I criticised your specific review of the BA USB unit and that was it. So if you think I'm trolling, then fine. I'm trolling. My comments are STILL valid.

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Hi easternlethal - I believe you've made a distinction without a difference with respect to comments on the site in general versus my Alpha USB review. All my reviews are similar. So be it. You're not a fan and that's totally OK with me. <br />

<br />

I agree with you 100% that your comments are valid. I think this is just a case of two points of view that couldn't be more opposite. <br />

<br />

P.S. The Magico site has full photos and diagrams with measurements of each speaker. I would love to hear the Q1 with Lamm electronics. Not so much the Q5. The Q5 is one of my favorite speakers but the amplifications requirements are huge. The Q7 is a whole new animal. Low power requirements and sound like I've never heard before.


Founder of Audiophile Style

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Chris is reviewing a USB to S/PDIF converter here. Not a DAC. Leaving aside the sales puff from Berkeley, it comes across as a good one. Rather more expensive than, for example, a Musical Fidelity V-Link 192, but so what?<br />

<br />

If you want a USB to S/PDIF converter and can afford the Berkeley, audition it. Maybe alongside the M-F and others. The Berkeley is only one of lots of these things, at lots of different prices.<br />

<br />

Forget the 'Berkeley philosophy' or whatever, it's a USB to S/PDIF converter review. You want Chris to run comparisons? Fine, but they should be comparisons with other USB to S/PDIF converters and one DAC, not comparisons of this converter performing with many DACs, most of which don't need such a converter anyway. <br />

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<cite>@accwai - sorry it was the Q1. I got confused with the magico model numbers (it's hard when one can't even tell what they look like from their site). Yes ML3 wouldn't have been able to drive those big units. The general characteristic... hmmm lets just say I think I would have preferred something with higher sensitivity like horns :-) but that shop does not sell horns so... </cite><br />

<br />

Hmm... What in the sound of the combo makes you prefer higher sensitivity and what changes do you think a pair of horn would bring?<br />

<br />

The reason I'm asking is I have heard the Berkeley sounding delicate and *very* lit up in front of much more mundane SET systems. Certainly not dull and milky as you stated. Now Wilson Benesch, for example, has partnered with deHavilland and uses the latter's Aries GM70 amps on their mid size speakers at shows quite a bit. So amps in the ML3 and Aries power class can work with the medium efficiency speakers. But still a lot depends on the load characteristics and linearity of the speakers. I don't think optimal match can be taken for granted in all cases.<br />

<br />

This brings me to my original question: What is an example of a front end that would sound alive in front of the ML3 and the Q1?<br />

<br />

Andy

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I didn't say the Berkeley sounded dull (that was somebody else). I said it lacked dynamic range and response (not quite the same) and the USB solution did not really improve on that. I'm not sure what you mean by 'lit' but if you mean frequency range and response and transients then I agree (the USB did improve on it). I'm not saying DAC+USB is no good at all. Just not good enough for what it charges.<br />

<br />

I just think low wattage SETs benefit high sensitivity drivers because they are extremely detailed and the 'greater acoustic output' of horn topology gives all that fineness and sensitivity the 'oomph' without destroying too much of it. Something loudspeaker cabinets just don't achieve as well (even for the very best designs).<br />

<br />

What do you mean by 'front-end'? Do you mean source or other converter? If converter I think sonicweld is better and I am very curious about the off-ramp. If you mean source then that'll be for another discussion. But if I had to change something in the ML3 - Q1 combo I would not change the 'front-end'. I would ditch the Q1 and get something better (like a Cessaro).

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<cite>I'm not sure what you mean by 'lit' but if you mean frequency range and response and transients then I agree [...] I just think low wattage SETs benefit high sensitivity drivers because they are extremely detailed and the 'greater acoustic output' of horn topology gives all that fineness and sensitivity the 'oomph' without destroying too much of it.</cite><br />

<br />

That's what I meant by lit from within. It's almost like the music is shimmering light. In my mind though, doing this almost inherently requires staggering PRAT and micro dynamics. So what you described of the Berkeley can't a very lit up.<br />

<br />

<cite>What do you mean by 'front-end'? Do you mean source or other converter? If converter I think sonicweld is better and I am very curious about the off-ramp.</cite><br />

<br />

If I'm not mistaking, the Sonicweld costs quite a bit more than the Alpha USB. As for the Offramp, I believe it has many configurations. I bet the ones that people are doing shoot out with are pretty maxed out, which can also costs quite a bit more than the Berkeley. So one would certainly hope they are better.<br />

<br />

<cite>If you mean source then that'll be for another discussion.</cite><br />

<br />

Yup. I'm pretty discussed out now. So lets leave it at that.<br />

<br />

Andy

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Hi Guys<br />

<br />

When I posted my comment I was on my way down flood ravaged Eastern Australia trying to figure out a route that was not flooded out. We made it to our destination - Canberra - just. I have come down to help a friend install a home theater set-up.<br />

<br />

Anyway now have a bit of time to post more info. Here is a link about it:<br />

http://www.stereo.net.au/forums/showthread.php/43836-Listening-sessions-with-the-PDX-amp-BRYSTON-DACS.<br />

<br />

I also tested the Berkeley into a Metrum and the Bryton compared to a fully optioned Off-Ramp with other audiophiles on more than one occasion. The Off-Ramp was clearly superior. I was using a Patek amp and Mac 501's into Lenehan Audio ML3 Reference fully optioned with Dueland VSF Copper capacitors through-out. The Off-Ramp was clearly better. Guy out US way and elsewhere may not know these speakers but they are EXTREMELY transparent.<br />

<br />

Thanks<br />

Bill<br />

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Would be good to know which version of the offramp, and options (clock, power supply, AES or bnc cable etc) was used to test your comparison with the Berkeley.


Kamil

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Chris mentions 1.5 m for USB and AES cables. Is there any advantage to having them equal in terms of the sound quality? Running from computer via USB to Berkeley Alpha USB and on via AES to BAD2.


MG555

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Steve licences the technology but it is not a re-branded product - he hand builds everything.<br />

<br />

The Evo is good but an actual re-branded Hiface is used in my PDX and battery powered and it is clearly better than the Evo.<br />

<br />

I have tried externally modified Hiface boards (eg the John Kenny) similar to whats in my PDX against the standard Hiface and they best the Hiface. The Audiophellio, Stello, and Wavelength does as well and the Off-Ramp bests them all. I would put the Berkeley just a little below the Wavelength and above all the others - it is third on my list below the Wavelength and Off-Ramp. <br />

<br />

The only thing that has been able to equal the Off-Ramp was the the internal HiFace board in my PDX. This shocked the maker of the PDX because he knows what goes into the Off-Ramp but I have done some extensive comparisons to verify it. The suspicion is its the tight integration in the PDX that does it ie the I2S paths are optimized to be as short as possible.<br />

<br />

Thanks<br />

Bill

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Interesting to hear about the off-ramp. Would you care to speculate on why it is better? It is the clocking or power do you think? Based on comparisons with the hiface board inside the pdx (which means data path = usb-i2s?) I suspect it is clocking, which supports my earlier statement about better oscillators (further because both converters use two oscillators). It also supports my belief that Berkeley's approach to spend all that time on electrical isolation was not the most optimal way to improve usb conversion (off-ramp employs none i don't think). I haven't been able to find out about what the 'turbo clocks' are.

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Hey Chris,<br />

<br />

Excellent write up, thanks for the hard work. This stuff is so helpful to us tinkerers.<br />

<br />

I was curious why the Berkeley guys in the Alpha Converter manual suggest that kernal streaming mode is still experimental. I find it to sound better than Wasapi in my experiments, which are of course not exactly scientific, done on a Zalman Win7 machine. I tried playing KS mode through the Alpha usb into my Alpha dac and couldn't get it to work. No sound.<br />

<br />

I went back to the standard Wasapi driver and thought the sound was great, very high resolution, but perhaps too much for my ears (on my system). I also preferred the spdif sound to the preferred aes, again because it sounded more natural to my ears, less digital.<br />

<br />

Has anyone else had any success with kernal streaming using the Alpha usb--> Alpha Dac setup? Is it possible? Any chance the Berkeley guys might consider a KS driver for Win7?<br />

<br />

I also played with the Sotm usb interface but got too many FIFO errors (using XXHighEnd) in the control panel. The onboard usb2 bus worked better. Not sure why.<br />

<br />

Am now comparing a Phasure NOS1 (usb) dac and hope to come up with some findings to report. <br />

<br />

/Lee

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>> Chris is reviewing a USB to S/PDIF converter here.<br />

<br />

Understood, what I am curious about is how it would compared with DACs in similar class with built in USB interfaces. The design goals of the built in Vs the separate converter camps are different, and it would be interesting to hear how they would compare. Say, a dCS Debussy via its built in USB converter Vs via the Alpha USB.<br />

<br />

For me, I am also interested in how the Alpha DAC+USB as a complete package compares Debussy USB. They are similar in pricing as a complete package.<br />

<br />

>> If you want a USB to S/PDIF converter and can afford the Berkeley, audition it.<br />

<br />

That is always an option. And reading reviews is another point of reference.<br />

<br />

>> Forget the 'Berkeley philosophy' or whatever, it's a USB to S/PDIF converter review. You want Chris to run comparisons? Fine, but they should be comparisons with other USB to S/PDIF converters and one DAC, not comparisons of this converter performing with many DACs, most of which don't need such a converter anyway.<br />

<br />

Referring to my first point, I as one who owns a DAC with built in USB. But I am also exploring the option of either "upgrading" with an external converter or move to the whole Alpha setup.


Macbook Pro/MacMini/dCS Debussy/Cambridge 650BD[br]Vitus Audio SS-010/Living Voice OBX-R2 Speakers/Ultrasone Edition 8 phones[br]Airport Express/Meridian AD88[br]

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I think you can try upgrading the converter first with something cheaper like a hiface to see what kind of improvement it brings. Maybe that will help with understanding the 'trajectory' of going down the converter route vs upgrading the dac. <br />

<br />

In our hi-fi world, most of the current engineering breakthroughs are happening in the dac-related space, which when compared to amps and speakers have not reached the same perceived level of importance (similar to amplification circuits in the early days). That, and the rapid pace of development in our understanding of digital data transfer means - short product life cycles + components selling for relatively less compared to other components + rapid improvements in performance (small diy manufactured dacs of today can outperform the majority of the best and most expensive from large manufacturers made 1 or maybe only 2 years ago).

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...publishes a great review and the sh%t hits the fan. <br />

<br />

We are a fussy bunch, that's for sure but his statement stands...the best digital I've heard! <br />

<br />

Surprising that any of us can get laid.<br />

WDW

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Now I have DCS Debussy,Alpha USB and Alpha DAC II<br />

I will try 3 diferent setups:<br />

Alpha USB plus alpha Dac via AES/EBU<br />

Alpha USB plus Debussy<br />

Debussy connected to mac mini with SL via its usb.<br />

Both dacs connected directly to Ayre Amplifier via XLR 1 meter.<br />

All cables are Audioquest diamond,columbia and hawk(only 0.5 m.<br />

I am openpen to suggestions.

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