The Alpha/ QB are old Farts. Get the 202.
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I had Berkeley in my system for quite a while and auditioned Weiss 202 in my system awhile back. Berkeley has bigger, slightly darker sound, fatter, somewhat slower bass. Weiss in comparison has more open and liquid sound,thinner, faster but may be a bit leaner tonal balance. Berkeley is perhaps a bit more analogue. I think both are roughly at about the same level so it is pretty much up to your preference and your system synergy. I heard QB9 a few times and was not impressed but it was an unfamiliar system and not under ideal situation so it was hard to tell for sure.
I had the Berkeley for a good long while, using it with a computer configured as a music server and a Lynx sound card. It was a great DAC, and improved a significant notch with the addition of the Straightwire Info-Link cable in place of the Lynx cable. In my opinion, if you are using the Berkeley with a Lynx sound card, the Straightwire is a no-brainer upgrade.
In my system, the Berkeley was incredibly dynamic, with an excellent sound stage and startling clarity. It was the best digital I've ever had in my system by a good margin, and I heard it in direct comparison to several excellent digital players.
With that said, I tried and bought the Weiss DAC202, which is equally dynamic, but more organic than the Berkeley. In my system and to my ears, it is more analog than the Berkeley--which is not to challenge Suteetat's viewpoint as much as to stress how important it is to hear these DACs in your own system if possible.
I would say the Berkeley is the best digital I've heard, but only because the Weiss is the least "digital sounding" player I've heard. Both are great DACs, but in my system and for my preferences, the 202 is on another level.
I have no experience with the Ayre. I think you would likely be very pleased with either the Berkeley or the Weiss.
Thanks for your comments on my system--it has been a long process, that's for sure, but it has been worth it.
You're right about the Alpha. Over the past couple of years, it has maintained its value very well, a testimony to its excellence and reputation, I guess. One thing is for sure. I can count on one hand the number of times I have broken even on audio gear!
In a way, Walter is also right to think that Weiss in more analogue. I guess it all depends on what you consider to be analogue like. Weiss definitely has very liquid, smooth midrange and high that is free from the usual artifact one associates with digital. Berkeley certainly is not quite as liquid and a touch coarser through the midrange. My analogue setup at that time has VPI/Dyna XV-1s which had big, bolder sound and not the last word in smoothness in comparison to my current Air Tight cartridge and I find Berkeley a little closer than Weiss to my analogue setup in that respect. I just wish Weiss would have a bit more bottom weight that would make lower chords on a piano sounds like a real 9ft concert grand rather than a baby grand.
In the end, I did not change from Berkeley to Weiss as I think it was more of a lateral move rather than a true upgrade. Btw, I was using Lynx card with Cardas Clear cable to connect to Berkeley and Weiss was connected via firewire with Oyaide firewire cable when I made the comparison. Eventually I replaced my Berkeley with Playback MPS-5.
Interesting I had the PB and thought that it did not have a very organic midrange. If it did I would have kept it because everything else about it was top notch. My modright modded Sony 5400ES is what I am using now and like it much better than the PB. Really the only units I would be curious to hear is the new Esoteric X-1 and the new Meitner 25,000 cd player. I hear both have an organic midrange that they never had before.
Glory, yes personally, I find PD to be a significant upgrade over Berkeley. The biggest improvement is in the lower frequency where I feel Berkeley is a bit sluggish, as it has big,fat bass but a tad slow and a bit less well define. PD improves significantly on that. Midrange on PD is a bit more forward but overall, on most part, I think PD improves upon Berkeley in just about everyway, not always a huge different but I did not find PD lacking in anything in comparison to Berkeley. Whether the improvement is worht $10,000 or not, I am not sure but I also gain SACD capability and an excellent transport as well.
Forgot to add, I also auditioned EMM XDS-1 in my system and heard Esoteric K-3 in comparison to PD but in an unfamiliar system. The EMM unit is very nice, more laid back, a bit more detail than PD but I did not feel that overall it was any better. I actually prefer PD slightly over EMM but another friend of mine prefers EMM. However, considering the price difference, there was nothing much to think about. Beside, EMM can still be a bit quirky when used with computer server for hi rez material.
K-3 is a significant improvement over the older Esoteric. I used to own D05 for awhile. Much smoother midrange and high and lacked the digital glare that I did not like in D05. However, the tonal balance is still a bit too cool and lean for my taste. Another friend who has PD also comapared his to K-3, he preferred his PD but some other friends preferred K-3. So all in all, digital source at this level will depends very much on personal taste as well as the rest of the system.
In case you haven't seen it, there was a review in Positive Feedback several months ago that compared the Ayre, Berkeley, and Bel Canto DAC3.5vb directly that I found pretty interesting. I had the BC DAC3vb in my system as a loaner and was highly impressed, so the 3.5vb (another one you might want to add to your list) and Weiss DAC202 are two at the top of my list. I'd be interested if anyone has compared those two directly in their own system.
Bill - haven't read the whole thing yet, but the DAC202 was praised as being very natural sounding and likely to appeal to those who love vinyl and have a hard time warming up to digital. I think he said dynamics were not a strong point, images were a little less sharply defined and separated in space, and that the upper treble air and transient snap is somewhat stunted.
By comparison he found the Debussey to sound very accurate and detailed but a little clinical sounding relative to the others. Surprisingly he liked the Bel Canto DAC3.5vb (least expensive of the bunch) most as it combined a lot of the musicality of the Weiss but had more detail in the upper treble range that gave it a little more snap and dynamic excitement.
To me, as with most things audiophile, it sounds like they're all excellent and would probably come down to personal tastes/system synergy, but I noticed he had some of the same reservations about the Weiss I think you had as well.
Again, I really just skipped to the end and skimmed through the rest, but I think those are the main takeaways as I remember them (always a dangerous proposition). Hope it helps.