Berkeley DAC Series 3
The long-awaited Berkeley Audio DAC Series 3 has arrived at Pearl Audio.
The Berkeley Audio DAC, known in in-the-know circles as The BADA has been a bit of a legend in the hifi world. The first BADA, aka the BADA 1 set the world a twitter back in 2009. It looked, and still looks, like a piece of pro-audio gear, but in that simple pro-esque casework hides some the finest bespoke components available along with digital design that comes from Berkeley and only Berkeley.
Pearl Audio as a high end audio dealer has always been on the listen-out for the best in any category, and back then heard glowing reports of the Berkeley DAC from one of our East Coast high end audio dealer friends. As they put it, "dis ting is da best sounding DAC out dere, pro-audio looks in alls". We borrowed a sample, absolutely loved it, and have now been a Berkeley dealer for over a decade.
Berkeley as a company is the direct descendent of Pacific Microsonics, the inventors of the HDCD digital format and the historically significant and revered line of Pacific Microsonics DAC's. Keen eyed audio show goers will recall back in the early days of Magico that Alon Wolf himself used a Pacific Microsonics DAC at CES as a source for his early Magico designs. In fact for quite sometimes it seemed a bit of an anomaly that Magico, a speaker company specifically known for utilizing state of the art materials in their speaker designs (graphene, carbon-fiber, machined aluminum) was using a DAC that had not been produced in several years. In succeeding years Alon retired his beloved Pacific Microsonics from show use, and Magico has used the higher model Berkeley Reference DAC 3 at a number of shows in succeeding years.
Around 2011, Berkeley came out with the Berkeley Audio Alpha AC Series 2 and a new product, the Berkeley USB. The BADA 2 was a replica of the BADA 1 with upgraded parts, better clock and improved circuit isolation. Berkeley kindly provided a $350 upgrade path for BADA 1 owners.
Co-released with the BADA 2 in 2011, the mysteriously named Berkeley Alpha USB component was a bit of a hidden star. The Alpha USB is a simple metal box that has a USB coming into one side and AES/EBU + Coax out the other. It's purpose is to convert a computer's USB output to precision clocked ultra-clean SPDIF output. Back in 2011, computer's connected directly to DAC's was common practice, so if you wanted to use a Berkeley you needed this USB.
We have an Alpha USB in the store as one of our indispensable utility components, both functionally, but also for a use we found empirically: We have found on many-an-occasion that we can improve other brand DAC's by using the Berkeley USB as a source rather than the DAC's built-in USB input. Berkeley even refers to it as the "Alpha USB noise isolation device', a spot-on claim. We've compared the BADA to a few USB noise removers and it's bested them all. The very fact that the Berkeley USB is in a physically separate chassis does wonders for DAC performance because it completely isolates the noisy USB cable and USB toAES/EBU conversion electronics from the chassis of an attached DAC. This is the reason Berkeley put it in a separate chassis rather than the more commercially appealing method of building the USB into the BADA or Reference DAC's. On top of that, the Berkeley USB is real-world reliable, interfacing with Windows, and Apple computers or music servers without a whisper of trouble. Longtime digital audio users may recall the compatibility issues of early era USB audio drivers.
Berkeley Alpha USB front
Berkeley Alpha USB rear panel connections
At it's release in 2011, the BADA 2 was definitely a bit more analog sounding and you could tell it had a slightly cleaner analog stage compared side-by-side with the BADA 1, but it was definitely an evolutionary step. In 2014, the BADA 2 was joined by a new bigger brother, the Berkeley Reference DAC which was basically a no-holds barred DAC, followed by the Reference 2 and now Reference 3 which is regarded as state of the art performance, but also priced at $22,000 so in-reach of just-a-few. In the words of Robert Harley, the many who literally wrote the book on high end audio:
"The Series 3 extends the Alpha DAC Reference’s status as thene plus ultra in digital decoding, and will remain at the front end of my reference system."
Here is Robert Harley's review of the Berkeley Reference 3.
Harley's system has always been a cost-no-object affair with $229K Magico Q7's and $200K/pr Hercules mono blocks, so the Aurender W20SE/Berkeley Reference 3 being his source speakers volumes.
So through 2014-20, all was well with the new and much higher price point Berkeley Reference DACs, but what of the BADA? The amazing bargain Berkeley?
So we waited for a new BADA 3. Fast forward almost ten long years, and we finally today have a brand new Berkeley BADA 3 DAC. Just released in May 2021, Pearl Audio has one of the very first ones made, sitting and sounding pretty in our store and keeping company with our Reference 3 DAC and our stable of Aurender servers, including the industry standard Aurender W20SE.
So, what is different between the Berkeley Alpha Series 2 DAC and the new Alpha Series 3?
Physically they look exactly the same, which is of course in keeping with Berkeley's ethos of simple casework and the dollars put inside. The case is dressed up a little these days with a solid aluminum faceplate.
The new remote is very nice. It's solid metal with metal buttons and rounded high polish aluminum sides - it's the same remote you get with the Berkeley Reference 3. It's an excellent remote with a hefty feel and tactile logical layout buttons. You can switch inputs, verify incoming MQA signal, change phase (very useful for getting the best out of recordings), dim the front panel, and control the volume if you wish. A highlight is the speed and precision of the volume control. It attenuates in .1 dB steps and has a lightning quick stop/start/tracking response making it one of the best volume controls I've encountered anywhere.
Berkeley Alpha DAC 3 Series 3 Remote
But the Berkeley still looks physically like what it's always looked like: A dressed up pro-audio component. The message and fact being the money was spent on the inside. Lots of companies will say things like that but in Berkeley's case the point is easily proven by simply listening to it. Even accounting for The BADA 3's superior digital design, there is absolutely no way of obtaining the extraordinary sonics and cleanliness of a superior analog stage other than to put high end parts in, and you can hear that with the BADA 3. Put any component source on Pearl Audio's resolution-monster Boulder/Magico M2 system with Isotek Nova + Titan power Isolation and extra-quiet ASC sound room, and one can easily discern analog stage quality.
Berkeley Alpha DAC Series 3 Front Panel -at Pearl Audio
Around the rear panel of the Alpha Series 3, you can see it has Toslink, 2 SPDIF and AES/EBU. The AES/EBU is the best sounding. You can switch the inputs from the front panel or the remote.
Berkeley Alpha DAC Series 3 Rear Panel
Functionally, the BADA 3 still has PCM quality up to 192 KHZ and adds MQA rendering to 384 kHz but does not support DSD natively.
Berkeley's stance on DSD is still that you obtain superb performance by externally converting DSD to high resolution PCM, store that PCM, then play it back PCM through the DAC. In talking with Berkeley's technical design guru Michael Ritter on this stance, his very good, real-world explanation was that the noise level of having a DSD device near a PCM device introduced noise and affected the performance of the PCM device and he didn't want that performance compromise. You can still play back DSD, but the technique is to use a computer or better yet a music server to externally convert DSD to 24-bit 176 kHz PCM then feed that to the Berkeley.
More and more these days, we find ourselves using PCM based streaming services, specifically Qobuz, which have a plethora of superb quality 24-bit PCM recordings available with more coming continuously. Oftentimes these music services just have better sounding versions of recordings - I speculate it's newer mastered versions - than the older DSD files I have on-hand, in particular old-school classic rock recordings. With users increasingly favoring Qobuz and other PCM only music streaming services, Berkeley made the right choice to give us 10/10 performance with PCM rather than 9/10 PCM performance and DSD capability.
To feed a Berkeley DSD files, the best way we've found is to use a higher shelf music server like the Aurender N10, N20 or W20SE. We begin with the N10 because it's the least costly Aurender to support built-in on-the-fly DSD to PCM conversion. Plop your DSD files onto the N10's network accessible hard drive and let it do the rest. It automatically converts to high resolution 24-bit 176 kHz PCM and sends that out the AES/EBU port to the Berkeley - with absolutely no work nor effort on your part. The N10 still outputs DSD files over it's USB port, but also auto-converts to PCM for output over Toslink, COAX or AES/EBU. We use this same solution for our PCM-only Audio Research CD9SE DAC and McIntosh D1100 Reference DAC. For even greater performance the Aurender W20SE can upsample incoming PCM files up to 24 bit/ 384 kHz for output to AES/EBU, Toslink and Cox. This greatly improves the sound of incoming music streaming services like Qobuz. Robert Harley details this in his review of the Aurender W20SE.
Like its big brother the Reference 3, the BADA 3's MQA rendering automatically senses incoming MQA and renders up to 384kHz and above. If you are using a music server with MQA Core decoding, you should turn that feature off so your music server will send the pure MQA signal to the BADA 3 for rendering. This will give you the highest form of MQA rendering available. A typical music server MQA core converts to 88/96kHz so you're missing out on resolution vs having the BADA 3 render the pure MQA signal up to 384kHz and apply studio-specific correction values.
In playing the Berkeley BADA 3, I find it's actually much closer to a baby Reference 3 than not. It's considerably more analog sounding than the BADA 2 was and brings about a sizable helping of the Reference 3's unique organic sounding digital and class-leading resolution. The Reference 3 is still absolutely positively the better sounding DAC and the highest resolution standalone DAC in our store.
Compared to my somewhat distant memory of the few 2011 BADA 2's we had traded in on Reference 3 DAC's in recent years, I don't hear the slight grain or older digital ring signature the BADA 2 had. The BADA 2's did sound like older DACs compared to our newer offerings. Not so with the BADA 3 - you can hear the clock is quite a bit more precise as evidenced by the analog smoothness the old BADA 2 did not quite have. You can also hear that the slight digital ringing you could hear with the older BADA 2 is absent. I heard a similar improvement effect when Ayre upgraded their digital algorithms in the QB9, DX-5 and QX-5 to reduce digital ringing a few years back. It's a little different sounding than a better clock - it's almost akin to what I hear when I get the angle of a high-end MC cartridge just right, this distortion you almost didn't know was there until it was gone. It's almost a sense of relaxation you feel rather than something you hear.
Sonically the BADA 3's strengths are an extremely wide soundstage, incisive transient speed (you should hear this with our Boulder system!), an organic analog smoothness combined with extraordinary simple resolution. You literally hear more information coming from a digital recording than lessor DAC's.
Functionally, the Berkeley BADA 3 also has a major trick up its sleeve: It's a very good preamp. Like the BADA's before it, the BADA 3 is one excellent digital only system building component where you use the Berkeley's built-in digital volume control to direct drive an amplifier. True you will give up some of the drive, (tube) bloom and presence brought about by a reference level preamplifier but from a cost-saving perspective, mating a BADA 3 to a nice stereo amplifier brings you a nice digital-only system. We build similar systems with our Linn Streamers which also have volume control capability.
Pearl has the BADA 3, Berkeley Reference 3, Audio Research CD9SE, Ayre QX-5 Twenty, McIntosh D1100 and all of the Linn streamers: Linn Majik, Selekt Katalyst, Akurate Katalyst, Klimax Katalyst, and just-released Klimax Organik on demonstration.