Any insight with the Berkeley Alpha DAC ..??

Reference Recordings, which had had some spectacular CDs on the market is launching a "HRx" DVD-A product which is 24bit and sampled at 176.4 or 88.2 kHZ ...They recommend using a Windows XP desktop fitted with a Lynx AES 16 card and a Media Monkey as it's player and play this 2 channel DVD-R disk through a BERKELEY Audio Design Alpha DAC.

This has been favorably mentioned as a breakthrough in the Absolute Sound April/May edition....has anybody had any experience with this???

I would appreciate your response. Thanks
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I am working on it. I already have a Dell Inspiron 530 with the Lynx AES 16 sound card installed. I am using Media Monkey to rip and manage my CD collection. The computer will be used solely as a music server.

I should be receiving the Berkeley Alpha DAC late next week or shortly thereafter. This is my first foray into PC Audio--it is a bit nerve-wracking, but I have simply run out of space for further CD storage, so this is a move I was going to have to make sooner or later. Also, I like the idea of having my collection available at my fingertips, and the Berkeley sounds intriguing enough to take a chance on.

Sorry I don't have anything more to report. Maybe in a couple or three weeks, I'll have some impressions to share...
Thanks...I will be very interested in your progress. I am in the middle of attempting to purchase the Berkeley through my dealer in NYC. I am also trying to convince them to set up a demo...I already have the Lynx AES on order and am seeking a suitable non Vista PC

Some questions...What type of connection will you be using between the Lynx and the Berkeley?

Will the Berkeley feed into your Preamp?? or directly into your amp??

I am using the Lynx with the XLR breakout cables. I am under the impression that the Berkeley sounds best running direct to the amplifier, but my experience has always been that a good preamp adds body and texture, so I will be trying it both ways--direct, and with my preamp--to see what I prefer.
I listened to the Berkeley Alpha DAC last week and came away very impressed. The setup was not optimal yet it was easily the best sound I've heard from a digital source (I'm an analog guy). The alpha DAC was being used only as a converter for a Cd redbook transport and I never listened to to it with any other source (HRx, HDCD, etc.).

I was so impressed that I spoke with michael Ritter yesterday for more info. After a long conversation, here are a couple of points he made that I came away with: 1) jitter from a hard drive digital source is typically much less than a transport. 2) he prefers WAV files to flax as the processor has less overhead to process and less noise, therefore.

I plan to do a lot more evaluation but came away impressed.
i'm using it on redbook with a nagra as the transport. it's connected by a tara labs zero aes ic. incredible!!
What's the price tag on the Berkley? Can't find too much about it on the net, any comments on it's sonics? Comparisons to previous digital you've owned?
it costs $5,000 US. this dac is capable of converting PCM from redbook up to 24/192. i've spent most of my time listening to CDs, and couldn't be happier with it's translucent resolution and timbral accuracy. there's an overall coherency from top to bottom, three-dimensionality and ease which is frankly a steal for the $.


Are you running straight into the amp, or do you have a preamp in the chain?

I also read that the Berkeley sounds best running directly to the amp. Am I guessing correctly that the gain (or volume) controls are in the PC for this preferred arrangement??
i think the Berkeley is the best sounding digital i've heard running directly into the amps. however, in my system i still prefer using my Blowtorch preamp. my guess is that only the finest preamps could best the Alpha dac direct. fyi, when using the Berkeley, the volume is controlled on the front panel or by the dac's remote - in 1/10 db increments.

Your statement "HRx DVD-A product” is not correct. HRx has nothing to do with DVD-A.
RR states: “HRx DVD-R data discs contain exact, digit-for-digit copies of the original Reference Recordings 176.4 kHz / 24-bit digital masters." "To play HRx, the files on the DVD-R data disc must be uploaded to a computer music server, which then will play the music files through your audio system. (You cannot play them on CD, DVD, or SACD players"
Typo error on my part..HRx DVD-R is indeed correct..thanks for the nudge
What is the best way to set the Alpha Dac up running thru a Sooloos and not wishing to run it direct to amp?
I am not sure at this point. My current thoughts are to run it threw my ARC tube preamp and then try without. I have heard about the SooLoos but have no experiance with it//sorry.
I'm running a Wadia 270SE transport into my AlphaDac and then into an integrated tube amp driving my Trios.
It's the best my system has ever sounded.
I got mine a couple of weeks ago, but due to a hectic schedule have not yet been able to spend enough time with it to make any definite determination about whether I like it best with or without a preamp in the chain. It sounds really great both ways. I am using it with a Dell Inspiron 530 and a Lynx AES 16 sound card. I am slowly but surely ripping all my CDs to the hard drive--about 500 so far. What I can say is that this is the best, most liquid and organic sounding digital I have heard in my system by far. This much is apparent pretty much immediately. It is truly breathtaking, even on good old redbook CDs. I was listening to the Stones' Sticky Fingers last night, and just got goosebumps listening to "Moonlight Mile"--the Berkeley just uncovers nuances in the music I have not experienced, at least not with digital.

In short, I could not be happier with the Berkeley Alpha DAC, and look forward to experimenting with it over the next few weeks and months until I figure out what sounds best to me.

I hope others will keep posting their impressions.

I'm not technically knowledgeable about computer audio, so I'd like some help understanding why Reference Recordings recommends the use of a sound card in the playback equipment (BTW, I own a number of RR CDs and am glad it is back in business).

From what I know, the original sound cards were an all-in-one device that first converted the digital data from the hard drive to SPDIF and then converted the SPDIF to analog. It may have even amplified the signal after the final conversion. The sound card also took the SPDIF feed from the CD-ROM and converted it to analog. The net result was that speakers were the only sound equipment external to the computer needed for playback.

Audiophiles rejected these sound cards in favor of external conversion devices because (1) the noisy electronic environment inside the computer created distortion, (2) sound cards were cheap devices made to a price point to sell as part of the computer package and (3) sound cards limited the type of sound produced and external DACs did not. As I understand it, quality computer audio systems bypass the sound card for conversion to SPDIF (and therefore for conversion to analog too) by taking the digital feed from the hard drive outside the computer. If this is so, why is it necessary to use a “high quality” sound card or any sound card at all? Does the sound card perform some other functions that require very high quality parts or sophisticated design? Or does the Berkeley Design Alpha DAC perform only the conversion to analog, leaving the conversion to SPDIF to the Lynx AES? If so, why not substitute a good quality USB DAC for the Berkeley?
I think you need the sound card in order to pass the 24/192 in all its glory.
Dougmc wrote:
"As I understand it, quality computer audio systems bypass the sound card for conversion to SPDIF (and therefore for conversion to analog too) by taking the digital feed from the hard drive outside the computer. If this is so, why is it necessary to use a “high quality” sound card or any sound card at all?"

There are two ways to get audio data out of a computer:
1) using the audio software stack
2) using network - ether net/WiFi

#1 can output data three ways:

1) USB to S/PDIF converter
2) PCI bus using sound card or on-board logic with S/PDIF output
3) Firewire to S/PDIF converter

There is no direct S/PDIF from a computer. It must implement one of these three in order to get S/PDIF digital output. If it appears that these are "bypassed", it is because #2 is implemented on the motherboard. It is still there, not bypassed.

"Does the sound card perform some other functions that require very high quality parts or sophisticated design?"

Each of #1-#3 require high quality parts and low-jitter clocks to achieve good results.

Steve N.
Empirical Audio
Steve, is there any inherent advantage to any of the three approaches? Specifically, on a Mac, one could go out via any of the three -- USB, Firewire, or S/PDIF via the optical out. Which is better? And for the future, when we can hopefully expect to start downloading 24/96 or even 24/192 music, which solution will support the high rez stuff and be most future proof?
Drubin - as for devices that use the audio stack in the computer, they are all the same in theory. However, the implementations and protocols used make some devices superior to others.

PCI cards are the worst because they rely on too much of the computer infrastructure, including the clocks and power system. Outboard converters, both USB and Firewire are generally better. However, there are good and poor chips available for both USB and Firewire, so it depends on the chip that was chosen for the converter, as well as the implementation.

By implementation I mean the Power System, PC board design, circuit design, cabling etc..

24/96 is supported on some USB converters/USB DAC's that use the TAS1020 chip from TI, as well as some Firewire converters. Only a couple of PCI cards support 24/192 at low quality, however they can be reclocked to provide high quality 24/192.

If you have to have 24/192, then a PCI card driving a reclocker is the best solution. If you are happy with 24/96, then USB is the best solution IMO.

Steve N.
Empirical Audio
Thanks Steve. There are an increasing number of USB-capable DACs out today, including the Benchmark, the Bel Canto, PS Audio, and several Wavelength models. At least for the first three, my impression is that their USB inputs are not exactly setting the world on fire. Why is that? Is there a trick to processing an audio signal via USB?

Back to the Berkeley Audio unit, I wonder how the new Bryston DAC stacks up against it. The Bryston, at 40% of the price of the Alpha DAC, seems fairly comparable features-wise, with the exception of no volume control and no HDCD. Just curious to hear peoples' impressions of both of these as they start to get out into the market. Given the price difference, you would think the Berkeley would be in another league -- and it may be -- but Bryston is, after all these years, probably quite efficient at design and manufacturing and they maybe can deliver more for less than a small company like BAD can. Maybe.
Drubin - I dont like to comment on the performance of other companies products on the forums, so I will send you an email.

The Bryston DAC unfortunately uses one of the lesser TI chips, not one of the good ones. However, I am actually in talks with Bryston about them designing my OEM USB module into their DAC, so this could improve significantly. There are several other manufacturers already designing the module into their products and you will see some of these debut at RMAF in October.

The Berkeley DAC is evidently designed by the Pacific Microsonics team that designed the excellent D/A modules in the past. I'm sure that the D/A module is a good one, however I believe this is their first "system" product. Have not heard one yet.

Steve N.
Thanks Steve. I look forward to seeing those products at RMAF. I assume you'll provide pointers to brands and room as the date approaches?

Thanks for your response to my question. I haven't been back to this thread for a few days, but if your still around maybe you can clarify something for me.

You said:
There is no direct S/PDIF from a computer.

I take that to mean that you cannot extract digital information from a hard drive in S/PDIF format - it is first extracted in a different digital format and then converted to S/PDIF. My question is, where does that conversion take place and does it require a sound card? If you are saying that the conversion to S/PDIF must occur inside the computer, with the assistance of a sound card, then what does a USB DAC do that is different from a normal DAC? I was under the impression that a USB DAC converts the computer's digital format to S/PDIF as well as convert S/PDIF to analog, but I'm not really sure. Even if my impression is correct, maybe the sound card "sets up" the conversion to S/PDIF by performing some necessary preliminaries, like clocking.

I want to get the basic steps straight before tackling the details of implementation.
Update to my last post. Just read some other computer audio threads that suggest that the designation "USB DAC" refers to the way digital information moves from the computer to an external DAC, not any extra conversion that takes place in the DAC. Does that mean that the conversion to S/PDIF must take place inside the computer or could the computer's digital information be transported outside the computer in a format other than S/PDIF and then converted? Hope the other readers of this thread will excuse these plodding questions, but there's very little information available that spells out the basics in a clear, step-by-step way.
Hello Steve,

Sorry, two questions, can I use one EMM labs DAC2 , that have USB input, directly from the USB output of my Mac? and second if I want 24/192 what I need Thanks in advance
A bump to Waltersalas -- how's it going with the Berkeley?
It is going swimmingly. I was really struggling with making a decision between the Berkeley/Computer-based music server, the Marantz SA-7S1, or the Abbingdon CD-77. I couldn't really arrange any auditions in my own system--which is really the only kind of audition that would tell me much (in someone else's system, how does one sort out the characteristics of the digital player from those of the preamp, or the speakers?).

I decided to take a chance on the Berkeley, primarily because I have a fairly large CD collection (4,000 or so), and I liked the idea of putting it all on a hard drive and having it available at my fingertips. I figured I could always punt and sell it if the Berkeley did not meet my expectations.

I would still love to hear those other players, but it is really hard for me to imagine that they would deliver more than the Berkeley is delivering. It really is astonishing, even on redbook recordings. The sound is just so liquid, yet detailed and spacious. The separation and layering of instruments is excellent, without being exagerrated. Images are the size and shape they should be, and the timber and texture of the music--the harmonics--sounds just right to me. Unlike other players I have had, it excels on all types of music, which is very important to me, as I have wide-ranging taste and need a player that can do Joni Mitchell, John Coltrane, Nickel Creek, or the New York Dolls, and sound equally adept with all of the above. I guess you could say it is equally capable of finesse and impact, grit and subtlety.

I'm certainly no reviewer, and lack the audiophile vocabulary to accurately describe its attributes. I just can't think of anything the Berkeley is not doing that I wish it would or could do.

By the way, I really love the computer-based approach as well. Being able to change albums instantly, or being able to play a couple of particular tracks I may be in the mood to hear while getting ready for work in the morning has really been amazing. I am really an album guy at heart, and tend to listen to albums all the way through, but it is really nice to just have it all right there in front of you when you are feeling impulsive. I've played a lot of music I haven't heard in years due only to the convenience factor.

Sorry for rambling. If you get a chance to try the Berkeley, I would be surprised if you weren't impressed with it. It is exactly the digital upgrade I've hoped for for the past several years (and there have been a few disappointments in there, believe me).

I hope this has been somewhat helpful. It would be great to hear updates from others who have some experience with the Berkeley.
Thanks -- great comments!
What is the difference between the ESS and AKM DAC chip? Is the one better than the other? Are Burr-Brown and Philips already outdated?

This is an excellent post.

I can report much of the same experience Watersalas describes in his transtion to PC audio.

I concur with this statement 100%. Very well put:

"By the way, I really love the computer-based approach as well. Being able to change albums instantly, or being able to play a couple of particular tracks I may be in the mood to hear while getting ready for work in the morning has really been amazing. I am really an album guy at heart, and tend to listen to albums all the way through, but it is really nice to just have it all right there in front of you when you are feeling impulsi very good soundve. I've played a lot of music I haven't heard in years due only to the convenience factor."

PC Audio is a big step forward that any audiophile can get into for not a ton of money, almost overnight. And get excellent sound.

We can all be musing about what we can do to make it sound even better as we go along, but for now my advice is, if you haven't already, GET STARTED ON IT!

You'll dig it.
Dazzdax, I don't think BurrBrown is at all already dated, but they have different price levels and intended audiences is all. Once you are at the Bryston and Alpha Dac, you are in some pretty serious territory.

One question I have, do the dcs stacks and Emmlabs products still sit high on the mountian top of DACs, or does this threaten them at all?

with right SW (RR HRX) Alpha DAC is much better then stacks and products. Especially used driving poweramps direct.
Do others agree? Emmlabs and dcs is pretty serious stuff... But, I'm open to it - that is why I ask. Anyone migrate from Emmlabs/dcs to Alpha DAC? Anyone do direct comparo's with those?
How does the Alpha sound if run from a transport? (I will need time to build server based system and convert all my discs)

Currently have MBL 1531 and wondering if running it into the Alpha will be a step up over current performance...
Oh - to be clear, I am assuming we are running RR HRX or other also into Emmlabs DAC, I'm not tring to compare next-gen CDs against old, I'm trying to ask about Alpha DAC vs Emmlabs and/or dcs DACs.
Hey check out this month's TAS.January 2009.
Anyone have any idea (or if you've spent time with it could hazard a guess) how good the Alpha would be using an MBL as transport and Squeezebox Duet as alternate source? I know I need to hear it for myself in my system, just trying to gauge whether or not to go through the trouble of setting that up.

I would like to know how it (Alpha) compares to the Wavelength Cosecant V3...anyone?
Any one have more to add to this thread?
I have had the dac for roughly a year and will not be changing my digital source. I have nothing but great things to say about the Alpha dac. I run it direct to my amp and feed it a digital signal via aes3 from a Logitech Transporter (wireless). It is easily the best digital I have heard. It really shines with a Spectral amp, being able to keep up with all the speed, accuracy and dynamics of the wide bandwidth. Every upgrade I have made (including a ridiculous speaker upgrade) it just keeps getting better. It seems to have no limit. I will say that it seems important to use a good digital cable and power cord if you are looking to get the most out of it. If you are considering the Alpha, I would strongly agree. There seems to be another latest greatest every day but I have zero interest in trying them. This is all not surprising when you consider the minds behind the dac. Good luck with your quest Pedrillo.
I just picked one up recently (I kind of followed your recommendation, Richard) and am absolutely thrilled. Totally agree on cables and PC and I just started putting my SB3 into a Monarchy DIP upsampler and it definatley has equaled my Esoteric X03SE on redbook (listening to an LA 4 SACD now on the Esoteric and it is heavenly, but I digress...). I described it to a coworker who is also an audiophile (has the Puccinni and Uclock) and the most accurate description I could come up with is that the Berkeley just does it 'right'. Seemless soundstage, framed by the speakers, incredible resolution, great detail and dynamics. The way it retrieves the lowest sounds (off a squeezebox) is simply astonishing.
Congrats Cerrot! Glad to hear you are enjoying the Berkeley as much as I do. One thing I found is that the SB3 as a digital source was ok but moving to the Transporter made a significant difference (thanks Richlane where ever you are!). They are harder to get these days but still pop up from time to time and it may be worth a few bucks to make the change. I was very surprised how much better it was simply using digital out.
Thanks, Richard. I was eyeing a transporter or the Berkeley. I did put a Monarchy dip upsampler after the squeezebox, which gave the Berkeley a 96k upsampled signal. VERY nice improvement. (I also have the CI power supply, Revelation audio embilical). I am absolutely thrilled with the SB/Monarchy/Berkeley combo. I heard the touch may have a better digital out than the sb3 so may go there soon but, unless a transporter comes up real cheap (so far, $950 seems bottom price) I will pass, for now. Thanks again for your input.