Review: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Series 2 DA converter

Category: Digital

I was itching for more reports on the Alpha DAC Series 2 other than the Robert Harley review in TAS. Personally I get the feeling he is a little too much "in love" with all the BADA products and wanted some more first hand accounts, but they are few and far between. I had owned and loved the original Alpha DAC for 3-4 weeks (I am a gear whore) until I snatched up this Series 2 here on the 'Gon and so I was lucky enough to have them both at the same tame for comparison. This review is more of a comparison of the Series 1 vs Series 2 versions of the BADA.

Actually I am lazy and not very articulate, so I am just going to post my notes here. I find discussions more informative anyhow so I will do my best to answer any questions that may be posted.

- 1st impression softer, less leading edge definition, more "analog"... only "better" depending on taste.
- Wait, notes actually rounder, more depth - circle vs sphere.
- Imaging more solid.
- More detail, nuances, delicacy, air, openness, texture.
- Moderately wider soundstage.
- More liquid flow with saxophone.
- Sweeter highs.
- Hear snare drum head skin more as opposed to chains with S1, more pop.
- Cymbals more splashy with series 1, bit glassy in tone by comparison.
- Toms more resonance and body
- "Fat bass" referred to in S1 review better defined, tighter.
- Accompanying piano in jazz ensemble better delineated.
- Better balance among instruments in ensemble. Series 1 ride cymbal overpowers piano.
- Better sense of vibrato with strings during "normal play" (and not just with long sustained solo notes).
- Kravitz electric guitar esp. good - more creamy, dense grunginess - very distinct in soundstage.
- Voices more focus.
- Just more musical.

The Series 2 Alpha DAC retains very much the same basic tonal character of the Series 1 but at the same time is very much improved in the ways stated above. However, I must say it took me a little bit of listening to definitively prefer it to the Series 1. In the very beginning I thought it might have sounded too soft with less of a direct vibrancy about it, but it didn't take long to realize the Series 2 is just superior. One way to describe that main difference is that the images with the Series 1 are more carved out (but NOT hard or shrill!) whereas they are more "lit from within" with the Series 2. I think some may actually prefer the Series 1 but the strong majority would take the Series 2. The Series 1 is still a great DAC, but the Series 2 is significantly more refined.

When I first replaced my Bel Canto DAC3 with the BADA Series 1 I was quite surprised that they shared a lot in common, with the BADA being more refined and deeper tonally. If I had to put number to it, I would say the BADA was about 20-25% better than the DAC3. With the Series 2, I now put that number at about 45-50%.

If you can swing it, the upgrade will most likely be very much worth your while...

*** I must note that the Series 2 I purchased was slightly modified with the stock fuse having been replaced by an Audio Magic Liquid Nano fuse and some cork added to the chassis for dampening. I don't know how much this contributed to the sound of my Series 2, but I do know it sounds damn good!

Associated gear
- Zotac ZBox HD-ND22 PC running Windows 7 64-bit, 8 GB RAM, SSD
- Foobar2000 WASAPI and JPlay via JRiver Media Center playback software
- John Kenny JKSPDIF Mk3 low-jitter USB to SPDIF interace
- Stereolab Reference XV-Ultra BNC-BNC cable
- Von Gaylord Audio LAD-L2 preamp with Shuguang Treasure CV-181z tubes.
- Von Gaylord Audio Nirvana 110 WPC triode mode monoblock amplifiers with Shuguang Treasure CV-181z input tubes and Ruby 6550 output tubes
- Tannoy Turnberry SE speakers on spikes
- Von Gaylord Audio Chinchilla interconnects from DAC to pre and pre to amps
- Von Gaylord Audio Legend 7000s power cord to preamp
- Von Gaylord Audio Chinchilla power cords to amps
- Audience powerChord e power cord to DAC
- Audience AU24e speaker cables
- Audio Magic liquid nano fuse in DAC
- Cork dampening lining DAC chassis

Room dimensions: 17 x 15, 16-18 ft cathedral ceiling peaked at the center of the room between listening position and speakers.

Speakers ~3 ft out to the drivers, 2 ft from right wall, 5 ft from left wall.
Listening position up against rear of room with large window with thick blinds directly behind.

Similar products
- Berkeley Alpha Dac Series 1
- Calyx 24/192 DAC
- Bel Canto DAC3
- Bel Canto DAC2.5
- MHDT Havana

Others not worth mentioning.
I had his DAC in my possession for about a week and returned it feeling pretty unimpressed. Easy going sound with you could say "analogue" presentation but it just didn't do the trick in my system.
Interesting. What did you feel was lacking and what have you found that satisfies you? What is your type of sound? I take it you're not turntable guy? I think this is not an exciting DAC that reaches out and grabs your attention. Definitely on the polite and refined side of the fence.

Actually I bought the Series 1 after months of looking for a used Bel Canto DAC3.5VB or VBS-1 to upgrade my DAC3 to 3.5VB MkII status. I'm still interested in hearing that DAC. Also the Weiss, but my impression is that may be too lacking in leading edge definition for my taste. It's also a bit pricey for me.
I do admit I was coming in with big expectations based on raving reviews. It's got a little dryer presentation like most solid state dacs, and it's got really no punch to it, so anybody who listens to electronica beware. My dealer here sweared by it, and was curious what came pretty close to it for much less money...I brought over my 1500 Red Wine Isabellina with some midrange oriented tube which I think sounds just as good, if maybe the control of the frequency extremes is not as good (different tube would make it sound just like Berkeley). Mind you, even though Isabellina has tube, it does not have the "lit up from within" sound like Ayon cd-5 that I have on loan or Lampizator. Anyway, I think even the dealer had to admit that the Isabellina for less than 1/3 performs very well.
Funny that you say that because it was on my list, but it seems like they are "flying off the shelves" and with no local dealer, it turned out to be too much of a hassle to arrange a home audition. Maybe in the future...
Question for Eugene81

I noticed you have a fair amount of Von Gaylord electronics
in your system. Did you ever consider the DAC they make?
Were you able to AB the Berkeley DAC with the Uni?

I also have Von Gaylord products but currently no DAC.
Ray says his DAC sounds the best. I know they are a little
behind the times with connections etc. but I was curious
if you tried one.

Thanks Ron

Great review. Thanks for the effort of writing this all down.
Question: would you consider the upgrade from BADA Series 1 to BADA Series 2 in the same ballpark as an interface upgrade from Hiface to JKMK3?

Ron, I did try the Uni DAC... actually a demo unit that has one chassis instead of the usual separate power supply. It is the most "analog" sounding DAC I've ever heard. This has been said about the BADA 2 as well but it doesn't compare to the Uni in this regard. Very smooth, but very detailed as well. Hard to describe but it does sound like a high quality turntable. You'll have to take my thoughts on that with a grain of salt, though, as I don't have a lot of experience with vinyl. Ultimately I found it a bit too soft on the leading edge for my taste. It was a tough decision, but input flexibility and hi-res support factored into it as well. IIRC the Uni doesn't even do 24/96. But it doesn't really matter much because if you prefer the sound of the Uni to another DAC on 16/44.1 then 24/96 or probably even 24/176.4 or 24/192 is not going to push that other DAC ahead. I could easily be happy with the Uni as well.

Hans, I haven't had the regular Hiface, just the JKSPDIF. I am now using the Weiss INT203, which is more lively and open sounding than the JKSPDIF. If I had to choose between an interface upgrade and Series 2, I would probably start with the Series 2. It is not a subtle change. The interface upgrade would probably follow quickly, though, haha.

I actually downgraded my DAC to a Metrum Octave in an effort to scale back my system, but ended up with a highly modified MHDT Havana and it is the best one yet for me.

Power transformer replaced with an R-core, key resistors replaced with Shinkoh Tantalum, Vishay diodes, all Nichicons electrolytic caps replaced with Elna Silmic II, output coupling caps replaced with V-Cap Copper Teflon (<- this is the biggest upgrade!) as well as input caps and one more, other foil caps replaced with Auricap, WBT silver output RCAs, SPDIF RCA replaced with Vampire BNC. These changes transform the Havana into a new beast with the same heart and soul.
Hey Eugene,

try to audition a NAD M51 dac if you're after analog-like sound. in my oppinion it's a fantastic DAC, with 3d sounstage, neutral(as in no coloration), involving, superb voice and instruments timbre. I'm really currios how the NAD would sound in your sistem since I've heard a lot of good things about the Turnberry SE and probably it would be a nice match.
Hi Eugene,

I was wondering if you could provide some insight on the different filters on the dac?


Hi Cam,

Sorry I don't know much about the filters. They do change the sound slightly and Berkeley recommends leaving it on filter 1. Not sure whether 16 or 24-bit. IIRC 24-bit sounds a little bigger, maybe a little more open, but less focused. It's best to try and decide which one you like best, but the filters do not change the character of the DAC.

The NAD M51 looks very interesting. Seems there are lots and lots of good DACs out there these days. I am currently borrowing a PWD Mk2 from a friend and it is really good indeed. Quite relaxed, very refined, and easy on the ears, but really detailed and really solid, stable, deep imaging as well. I think my modified Havana (now with Duelund CAST PIO-Cu output caps) has more natural and complex timbre and harmonics -- it is truly fantastic in that regard -- but the PWD really digs out the inner details cleanly while managing to be smoooooth and soothing. I think it does give the BADA 2 a run for its money, though I would still pick the latter. Feature-wise the PWD Mk2 is awesome.
I have owned in the past the original BelCanto dac 3, and then all of the upgrades to to it, now I have a Belcanto Dac 3.5 VBS mk 2 . I can tell you that the new low phase noise clocks they are now using are incredible. The best digital that I have heard. I have not however, heard the Berkeley, but I have heard some very expensive digital from wadia, Audio Research and Air that to my ear is not as good.
Anyone know how many fuses are in the BADA DAC series 2 and what their values are?
I noticed the series 2 took a lot longer to break in than the original. The original took about a week, the series 2 about a month.
My dealer loaned me a berkeley audo alpha DAC 2 when my W4S DSD DAC 2 needed repair. And that was all i needed - i bought the berkeley dac. A whole new ball game.

It's been over 4 weeks waiting for delivery - they are really slow.