Berkeley Audio Design's Alpha Reference DAC broke new ground in digital-audio sound quality when it was introduced two years ago. The Alpha Reference delivered state-of-the-art performance, in my experience. But Berkeley didn't sit on their laurels and consider the problem of digital-to-analog conversion solved. Rather, the Alpha Reference's unprecedented technical and sonic performance provided a platform for discovering previously unseen techniques for improving sound quality. Designer Michael "Pflash" Pflaumer spent nearly two years researching these cutting-edge techniques to create the new Series 2.
The Series 2 looks and operates identically to its progenitor. The original was priced at $16,000; the Series 2 is $19,500. Owners of the original can upgrade for the $3500 difference (contact your dealer or Berkeley Audio Design for details). Note that Berkeley Audio Design is an MQA licensee, and will offer a software update to the Alpha Reference and Alpha Reference Series 2 later this year. The units need not be returned to the factory for the MQA upgrade.
I was skeptical that the Series 2 could offer a significant sonic upgrade considering the exalted performance of the original. How much room was left for improvement? A lot, it turns out. With the original and the Series 2 in my rack fed from the same source (an Aurender W20 and Berkeley Alpha USB USB-to-SPDIF converter) for side-to-side comparisons, it didn't take long to hear the startling improvements wrought by the Series 2. I'll have a full description of the Series 2's sound in my review in Issue 266, but can tell you now that the Series 2 has a liquidity, spaciousness, and resolution that exceed even those qualities in the original. Instrumental timbre was so natural, smooth, and lifelike. By comparison, the original had a trace of hardness and glare. This quality alone greatly contributed to the Series 2's ease, realism, and lack of fatigue. But what really surprised me was how much better transients were portrayed. They had a suddenness of attack without a hint of unnatural edge. The reproduction of the drum kit was revelatory through the Series 2, with startling impact like you hear from the live instrument. All these qualities were presented within a larger and more transparent soundstage, with tighter image focus.
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 Reference DAC nearly daily for the past two years, I'm shocked that the Series 2 could 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.