Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Series 2 MQA vs. PS Audio DirectStream DAC (Windom)

Disclaimer: this is my first post on an audio forum and English is not my first language so please bear with me 😊

I have owned a PS Audio DirecStream DAC for almost a year, using it exclusively with the latest firmware Windom, and been enjoying it a lot. My front-end is a Metrum Ambre connected to the DS via AES/EBU and running Roon. To my ears, a very fine combination.

I recently acquired a second-hand Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Series 2 MQA out of curiosity as over the years I’d read enthusiastic reviews. I was thus able to compare it to the DS with the same front end and connection.

Both models are still current. The price for the DS is USD5,999; for the Berkeley it is USD5,590.

Below is a summary of my impressions– I hope they can be of some use for anyone considering either one of these DACs. I only played PCM (non-MQA) files because the Berkeley does not do DSD.

  • Both DACs are excellent and propose, in their own way, a very musical presentation.

  • The DS has more input options, including USB and I2S, and the possibility to add a bridge to turn it into a DAC/streamer.

  • Both DACs have a built-in volume so theoretically could be used as a preamplifier. I did not try that option with either. Maximum output level is higher on the Berkeley than on the DS.

  • The DS has a warmer presentation, more density and body to the sound. The Berkeley is cooler and leaner, but never clinical.

  • The Berkeley had noticeably superior transparency and more accuracy in tones. It had better resolution and revealed more micro-details, possibly due to a lower noise floor. It sounded very pure, whereas in comparison, the sound of the DS seemed a bit processed (maybe due to the DSD conversion?).

  • Both DACs are very smooth with only minimal traces of digital glare on some rare recordings. Listening fatigue should not be an issue with either, but the DS may be the more forgiving of the two.

  • Bass had more weight on the DS, but seemed slightly loose in comparison to the Berkeley which had more definition. Treble was airier and more detailed on the Berkeley – no harshness on either DACs. Midrange was superb in both cases.

  • PRAT was better on the Berkeley, it was easier to follow complex rhythms and overall more of a toe-tapping experience.

  • Soundstage was comparable, the Berkeley noticeably excelling on depth and the DS on width.

  • Dynamics and slam were also comparable, but neither DAC was outstanding in that respect. If I had to choose on this criterion alone, the DS may be the better choice due to a weightier presentation.

In the end, I preferred the Berkeley mainly because of its superior transparency, resolution and purity of tones. Truly something special to my ears. Although the Berkeley was introduced almost a decade ago, the MQA upgrade is rather recent (2017) and I feel it is still a very competitive DAC today.

Don’t hesitate to post your impressions on either one of these fine DACs !

I find your review to be informative and succinct. I find your english to be excellent, both grammatically and mechanically. Based on your description, I. too, would have chosen the Berkeley although I am actually using a Pavane II.

Welcome aboard.

it is all about synergy, matching of pieces within the chain to find the desired tonality that the owner feels desireable

Articulated succinctly and descriptively.  I agree with the Berkeley DAC sound as I won the same piece...not sure if a preamp would add the missing element of dynamics!