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Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Series 3 Digital-to-Analog Converter

Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Series 3 Digital-to-Analog Converter

Founded by Pacific Microsonics alumni Michael Ritter and Michael “Pflash” Pflaumer, Berkeley Audio Design entered the market in 2008 with the excellent $4995 Alpha DAC—a component that I used and enjoyed for many years at the front of some very high-end electronics and loudspeakers. Although I had much more expensive DACs available to me, the original Alpha DAC had a certain sound quality that I didn’t want to give up. Later, Berkeley Audio launched the significantly more ambitious Reference DAC. The Reference delivered performance far above that of the Alpha, establishing a benchmark against which all other DACs could be compared, regardless of price. That’s not hyperbole: The Reference DAC (now $25,000 in Series 3 configuration) remained undefeated for many years despite facing a veritable parade of expensive competition. It took the $145k Wadax Reference DAC [Issue 312] to dethrone it, but we’re talking about a DAC that’s six times the Berkeley’s price. 

Both Berkeley DACs were upgraded over the years, but, overshadowed by the Reference, the Alpha DAC was eventually dropped from the line. Now, the Alpha DAC is back—not so much as an updated Alpha platform, but rather as an attempt to bring near-Reference-level performance to a lower price. The challenge Berkeley set for itself was this: “How close can we get to the Reference 3 DAC for roughly half the money?” The new Alpha DAC 3 is priced at $10,995, less than half the price of the current Reference 3. Nonetheless, the Alpha incorporates many circuits and techniques developed for the Reference. How close are they in sound quality? I had both in my system for some head-to-head comparisons.

First, let’s look at the physical and functional differences between the two products. The Alpha is housed in a solid chassis, but it’s not the ultra-expensive chassis of the Reference, which is machined from a block of aluminum. In features, the two DACs are identical; two SPDIF inputs on BNC jacks, one TosLink optical input, and one AES/EBU input. Note that no Berkeley DAC offers a USB input. The company believes that connecting a DAC directly to a USB source injects an unacceptable level of noise into the delicate conversion circuitry. To use a Berkeley DAC with a USB source, you’ll need Berkeley’s Alpha USB ($1995), which takes in USB and outputs SPDIF (on a BNC jack) or AES/EBU. The Alpha USB is a small box that has a “dirty” side that connects to the USB source, and a “clean” side that outputs SPDIF or AES/EBU to the DAC. The device isolates the output from noise at the input and re-clocks the signal. It is an absolutely amazing component. I’ve used it with many, many DACs and USB sources over the years, and it has improved every one of them, some dramatically. (A recording engineer I know who travels with high-res files on his computer heard the effect of the Alpha USB in my system many years ago and since hasn’t traveled without one.) I routinely judged the quality of a DAC’s USB implementation by comparing the DAC’s sound with and without the Alpha USB; the more the Alpha USB improved the sound, the worse the DAC’s USB. It’s a bit of a pain to have a small box behind your rack, with the additional cabling and AC cord required, but the device not only adds USB capability to the Berkeley DACs, it also renders a significant improvement in sound quality no matter what DAC you have. I even use it with music servers that offer AES/EBU or SPIDF outputs along with USB, feeding USB to the Alpha USB and then AES/EBU from the Berkeley USB box to the DAC. 

The Alpha DAC 3’s front-panel LEDs indicate if the unit is locked to a source, if the HDCD code is detected, and if absolute polarity is inverted. These LEDs on the left-hand side of the front panel are accompanied by two buttons—source selection and polarity inversion. The center of the front panel contains an alpha-numeric display that selectively indicates the incoming sample frequency, output level (60 is maximum), left/right gain (balance control), the filter selected, and when the unit is decoding an MQA file. You select which of these parameters is shown in the display via the “Mode” button. A pair of buttons next to the display adjusts the output level. Finally, the “Dim” button selects one of four display-brightness settings. This functionality is identical to that of the Reference. I’ve spent a lot of time with this user interface and found it to be extremely simple and intuitive. The Alpha DAC 3 is supplied with a nice remote that duplicates all the front-panel controls and also adds a mute button. Incidentally, Berkeley recommends operating its DACs at an output level of 54 in the display, which is 6dB below the maximum. 

The variable output level allows the Alpha DAC to drive a power amplifier directly, without the need for a preamplifier in the signal path. I’ve operated the original Alpha and Reference DACs this way and experienced no sonic penalty (indeed, a sonic gain compared to some preamplifiers), but I need the functionality of a preamplifier with its analog inputs for other sources.

The Alpha DAC 3 shares much of the Reference 3’s technology, developed over three generations of that product’s lifespan. Starting with the power supply, the Alpha DAC 3 features the same dual transformers as the Reference 3. These transformers are specially designed not to capacitively couple noise on the incoming AC line to the transformers’ secondary windings. Along with the first regulation stages, the transformers are on a separate board within the chassis. (This power-supply board is isolated in the Reference chassis by an aluminum “septum” machined into the enclosure.) The main circuit board is populated with many shunt regulators next to the circuits they supply. Shunt regulation provides greater isolation between power-supply stages than conventional series-pass regulators. Berkeley spent a lot of time researching methods to limit power-supply noise paths, as well as the phenomena that cause noise coupling, for the Reference DAC—methods that are employed in the Alpha DAC 3. In fact, the two power supplies are nearly identical.

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Tags: ALPHA BERKELEY DAC

By Robert Harley

My older brother Stephen introduced me to music when I was about 12 years old. Stephen was a prodigious musical talent (he went on to get a degree in Composition) who generously shared his records and passion for music with his little brother.

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