Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Reference Series 2

Ne Plus Ultra

Equipment report
Digital-to-analog converters
Berkeley Audio Alpha Reference DAC Series 2
Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Reference Series 2

This greater timbral liquidity coupled with increased resolution is one of the twin pillars of the Series 2’s achievement. The second pillar is the extraordinary dynamic expression realized by the Series 2. Notes just start faster with the Series 2, and do so with more lifelike attacks. Moreover, this transient speed and punch isn’t accompanied by hyped edginess. Rather, the Series 2 more accurately renders the way the sounds of instruments start and stop in life. It’s not just percussion, piano, a drum kit, and other instruments which produce sharp transients that are rendered more realistically—a wide range of other instruments benefit as well. One instrument that struck me as being reproduced with greater clarity, dynamic expressiveness, and realism by the Series 2 was acoustic bass. During Scott Colley’s extended and expressive bass solo on the track “Never the Same Way” from Gary Burton’s Guided Tour, the Series 2 portrayed the attack of each string pluck with greater speed, impact, and clarity, bringing the instrument to fuller life. Another vivid example is Stanley Clarke’s playing at the beginning of “Song to John” from the acoustic trio album (with Jean-Luc Ponty and Al DiMeola) The Rite of Strings. He creates a sustained sound during the introduction by rapidly but gently plucking one of the bass strings. Through all other digital I’ve heard, the individual attacks of each note tend to get blurred together. The Series 2 revealed, for the first time in my experience, the dynamic detail of this passage. I use this as an example to illustrate a point, but the real benefit of the Series 2’s dynamic clarity is in the DAC’s ability to convey the full measure of a musician’s dynamic expressions and nuances. You can simply hear much more of what each player is doing. It’s interesting to hear intimately familiar music through a component that breaks new ground in some aspect of sound quality; through the Series 2 I had a newfound appreciation for subtleties of dynamic expression that were previously unresolved. It’s impossible to overstate the role of dynamics in fostering a lifelike sense of music-making.

But in addition to that quality, the Series 2’s dynamic alacrity infuses the entire presentation with a sense of life, vitality, air, and openness. The album Live in America by flamenco guitarist Paco De Lucia exemplifies how the Series 2’s dynamic expression brought music to vibrant life. The Series 2 conveyed the speed and zip of the lightning-fast guitar runs, the handclaps, and the zapeteo (percussive footwork) with a thrilling vividness, yet the sound never became edgy or fatiguing. This track also revealed the Series 2’s superior resolution of spatial cues, particularly image focus and the space between instruments. On this album, and so many others, the musicians just sounded more exuberant and energetic once the sound was liberated from its dynamic confines. There was an unfettered and joyous quality to some music that I simply hadn’t fully experienced before.

Low-level detail was also better-resolved, particularly very fine treble textures. Cymbal strikes were more gentle, now sounding more burnished bronze and less “white.” The cymbal strikes seemed to be surrounded by a larger and better-defined envelope of air, and hung in space longer as they decayed. Moreover, I could hear more deeply into the cymbal’s harmonic structure; it was less like a burst of noise (a gross exaggeration) and more like a delicate shimmer. I’m sure that you’ve all heard that characteristic of low-quality digital in which the treble is bright yet lacking in top-end air and extension. The Series 2 is the antithesis of this sound; it is less bright in the upper-mids and treble than the original Berkeley, yet is more open, extended, and airy. The sound was “illuminated from within,” to use Jonathan Valin’s evocative phrase. Less bright but more open and extended may seem like a paradox, but it’s the way live music sounds. And that’s quite an achievement to realize in an audio component, particularly in a DAC.

After I listened to a wide range of file resolutions through the Series 2, it struck me that the most impressive aspect of this DAC isn’t its all-out performance with 176.4kHz/24-bit files (which is spectacular), but what it can do with garden-variety CD files. The sound quality difference between CD and high-resolution sources is less stark through the Series 2 than through any other DAC I’ve heard. It’s surprising how good CD can sound when played back through a state-of-the-art system (CD ripped to an Aurender W20 and decoded by the Series 2 with the Berkeley Alpha USB converter). Because so much of my favorite music is available only on CD, this quality of the Series 2 is particularly welcome. I’m surprised that improvements in digital playback continue to extract more and more information from digital recordings, particularly CD. To our great fortune, our CD libraries contain much more music just waiting to be uncovered by improvements in digital-to-analog conver-sion.

The Alpha DAC Reference Series 2 delivers significantly better sound quality than its predecessor, and in ways that matter the most to musical enjoyment. After listening to music through the Alpha DAC Reference nearly daily for the past two years, I’m shocked that the Series 2 can push the state of the art that much further. The fact that owners of the original can upgrade for the price difference between the two models, and that Berkeley will offer MQA capability as a software update later this year, is icing on the cake.

The Series 2 seems to have crossed an important threshold in digital’s long slow march toward musical realism. This DAC’s sound is open, airy, transparent, highly detailed, lively, and fast, yet at the same time smooth, liquid, relaxed, and non-fatiguing. Throw in a newfound dynamic fidelity, ultra-high resolution, and a stunning rendering of spatial cues, and you’ve got the recipe for maximum musical engagement.

Specs & Pricing

Input sampling rate: 32kHz-192kHz
Input word length: 24-bit
Inputs: AES/EBU, SPDIF on BNC (x2), TosLink
Outputs: Balanced on XLR jacks, unbalanced on RCA jacks
Output level: Variable: 6.15Vrms at 0dBFS (balanced); 3.25Vrms at 0dBFS (unbalanced)
Digital volume control and balance: 0.1dB steps, 0.05dB L/R balance, 60dB range
Remote control: Volume, balance, input selection, absolute polarity reversal
Digital filter: Custom, user selectable
THD+N: <–110dBFS at maximum output
Firmware: Upgradable through signal inputs
Warranty: Three years parts and labor
Dimensions: 17.5" x 3.5" x 12.5"
Weight: 30 lbs.
Price: $19,500

(510) 277-0512

Loudspeakers: Magico Q7 Mk.II, EnigmAcoustics Sopranino self-biasing electrostatic super-tweeters
Preamplifier: Constellation Altair II
Power amplifiers: Berning 211/845
Digital sources: Aurender W20 music servers, Berkeley Alpha USB
Support: Critical Mass Systems Maxxum equipment racks (x2), Maxxum amplifier stands (x2)
Loudspeaker cables: MIT Oracle MA-X SHD
Interconnects: MIT Oracle, AudioQuest WEL Signature and AudioQuest Wild
Digital interconnects: Audience Au24 USB, AudioQuest Wild Digital AES/EBU
AC: Four dedicated AC lines; Shunyata Triton 2, Triton DP, Typhon (x3) conditioners, Shunyata Sigma power cords
Acoustics: ASC 16" Full-Round Tube Traps, ASC Tower Trap, Stillpoints Aperture Panels
Accessories: Shunyata cable lifters, Stillpoints Ultra2 and Ultra6 isolation