California Audio Labs Alpha-DAC DACs

Alpha-DAC

California Audio Labs has designed the Alpha 96k DAC for the true music lover. Featuring extensive digital input options, a cutting-edge digital-to-analog converter, and a standard-setting processing stage, the Alpha represents the culmination of CAL's relentless pursuit of exceptional sound quality.

User Reviews (23)

Showing 1-10 of 23  
Brian Haddock   Audio Enthusiast [Aug 17, 2012]

I'm running with a Denon DCD-2560 player which has a decent DAC. The alpha just sounds more natural and open. If you like CDs this DAC will let you love them all over. Upgrade the tubes and you will not regret it. After all a stereo is the sum of all of its components, and will only sound as good as its weakest link.

OVERALL
RATING
5
VALUE
RATING
5
colin   AudioPhile [Sep 28, 2009]

What a surprise. I moved up from a heavily modified Zero DAC coupled with a Darkvoice 337 pre/headphone amp which outputs into a pentode tube triple western electric transformer amp. Puts out about 10 watts cost me 5000. This dac's value is huge, even today. Bested my Zero easily and the tubes are a great compliment to my already extensively tubed system. Soundstage just blossoms, and everything is just liquid smooth. No more harsh digital extremes, everything seems as if it is being played through butter. Textural imaging is wonderful, it moves beyond just details and into instruments themselves. The listening here's the reverberation of the notes off the instruments as well as the actual notes. Amazing. All in all this is a wonderful buy, mine is the 96/24 version, and I would recommend it for a tube lover. What really holds the dac back are the original tubes, take the advice of the really long review and get some other tubes (Tungsram 12AX7)!! This bad boy will sing!!!!

OVERALL
RATING
5
VALUE
RATING
5
Dave Wallace   Audio Enthusiast [Oct 28, 2008]
Strength:

Price it can't be beat!!! Build, inputs. Very easy to get the sound right with NOS tube's.

Weakness:

I just love it!!! None!!!

I just love this DAC, very easy to set up with lots of inputs. Well made and can really change the sound with different 12ax7 type's. This DAC loves NOS tubes, very quiet, good bass and the mid range/ highs not to bright. It's not rolled off either in the high's, like I said great tubes= great sound!!! I have a set of Mullard's NOS ECC83 from Upscale Audio in now, they work well with the rest of my system.
I have the Jusicy Music new Peach II preamp, the best preamp I have ever owned!!! The 6h30 supertube that this preamp uses is so clean and clear. Mark the the owner is also the best, try one of these preamps and your mouth will be wide open!!!!
Hafler DH200 mono-block amps, at 300 watts/channel, getting ready to send them out to Musical Concepts for John's magic. He's the man for any modd you may want. I think I will also send him the Alpha 1st for some modds to the power supply and upgrade Opp-Amps. Some burrbrown OPA 627 if possible.
My Aerial 10t's speaker's at 2500/pair used are the best speakers, I LOVE THEM. The hole system is coming together, it can crank up to some high level's and stay very clean, clear without hurting your ear's.
I also have the old MIT music-hose speaker cable's, NO Boxes on these which is a good match with the Aerial's. Signal silver dig. with bullet plugs.Silver IC also.
So I think the Alpha is a keeper, and onlying going to get better with tweeks!!!

Customer Service

No longer around, but many great people to work on it!!! Pro-digital is one, in Media PA.

Similar Products Used: AH4000 with upsampler, CAL Icon with powerboss upgrade "Alpha is much better" SonyES7000, Oppo 981, Elite DV37 for video. Now use Samsung BD-P1200 for video bluray it's the best bluray on the used market!!! And as a transport for the CAL Alpha.
OVERALL
RATING
5
VALUE
RATING
5
magnawhite   Audio Enthusiast [Sep 06, 2006]
Strength:

focus, depth, musicality.

Weakness:

The click sound when changing tracks.

I got this DAC from a local ebayer. For a 24/96 version, the price is pretty good. The original owner changed the tubes to military grade ones (Svetec ?). The reason I bought tis dac is to improve the harshness of my Pioneer T-07A and the haziness of Luxman D-105u. Both are good cd player in their own right but felt wanting. The Alpha 24/96 improves soundstage dramaticly. It adds depth and focus. Smooth out the edge but maintain the resolution. I was considering getting a Sony cdp-555esj but found this dac at the same cost. After reading trevious reviews, I decided to go for the dac. I also tested a used Musical Fidelity A324 DAC. It had more resolution but not musicality (at twice the price). Thank you all who post reviews here.

Customer Service

not used

Similar Products Used: Lite dac-60
Musical Fidelity A324 DAC
OVERALL
RATING
5
VALUE
RATING
5
Kenr   Audio Enthusiast [Feb 03, 2006]

I bought this DAC to use with my Squeezebox. My reference CD player is a 15 year old CAL Aria. I still enjoy listening to it especially compared to my denon DVD player. I hadn't heard the Alpha but based on the reviews here and my prior experience with the Aria I thought that the Alpha would be a great match for the Squeezebox. Surfice it to say the Alpha/Squeezebox is a huge improvement. This DAC has just the right amount of warmth to tame digital stored music. I will post more later after I have had more time to listen to the combo.

Similar Products Used: CAL Aria
OVERALL
RATING
5
VALUE
RATING
5
nurxhunter   AudioPhile [Dec 17, 2005]
Strength:

Musical DAC. You can customize/tune sound exactly to your liking with tube rolling. Mates well with tube gear. Responds to attention. Nice 4-input switching from front panal. Balanced digital in and out. Tubes run very cool and should last thousands of hours (10,000 or more, they say).

Weakness:

Generic tubes do not do it justice.

Used in excellent condition these go for $375-$475. Add $200 for 24/96. The ratio of 18:24 models that come up for sale is around 1:4. VERY musical DAC. Mates VERY will with tube gear. Nice soundstage. A good value still today. The 24.96 unit is more transparant than 18 bit--but--not a huge difference. What will make a huge difference is NOS tubes. You are short-changing this DAC with generic tubes; you really are. An older Alpha will better the higher bit with the right tubes in it. In order of my preference (will depend of course on your other components in the chain and your taste). Prices for tubes are average at this writing (12/17/2005). Unless noted, I did not track exact variant within class. 1- Tungsram 12AX7 (70s issue, I think) for transparency AND balance. Some feel best 12AX7 ever made. Get the yellow-print, made in Hungary--not elsewhere. Rare. $70-100/pr NOS 2- Mullard CV4004 (Early 1980s issue)if you like warmth. Solid presentation and beat all others, until Tunssgram, above. Nice extension. A bit vieled and less lively compared to Tungsram or the 5751 below. The most balanced of the lot. Available. $100-$120/pr. NOS. 3- Raytheon 5751 3-mica blackplate--a great all arounder. Will sound great in any piece. Superb midrange, excellent bass. Rare. $100/pr NOS 4- GE 5751 3-mica (1950s), 50:50 with the Rays. Toss-up and depends on taste. A bit more lively. Available. $50-$100 NOS. 5- Sylvania 3-mica gray plate (1964 milspec). Nice vocals and mids, airy highs. Vary lively. Missing a bit of body, but a nice tube. Worthwhile $50 N-NOS. Telefunken 12AX7 (60s)smooth gray plates. Available. $40-$60 used. Well balanced. Nothing stands out across freq. curve. Would depend on other components. Good with bright SS electronics, I feel. These sound quite nice in my Sherwood 5000II. JJ Tesla ECC83S for current tube. Supeisingly good and cheap @ $10 each. Solid body, somewhat veiled, though--more so than Teles. GE JAN 5751 1980s. Quite available. $30/pr NOS. Entry-level 5751. Sovtek 12AX7LPS. Would be good with dark-sounding equipment. Foe example, in my Sherwood, the Rays are the best for feeding outputs and the Sovteks mate beautifully in tone positions--better than Mullards! So it all depends, sometimes. I have queued Amperex 12AX7 (Holland Med. Grade)and RCA 5751 3-M-B-1956. Debating whether I will buy Sylvania GB-5751 @ $120/pair. Trust me, tube roll with NOS. You'll hear the difference. Fun. Like wine tasting or gourmet cooking. All tubes used were either NOS or Near NOS. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: http://www.audioasylum.com/audio/faq/joes-tubes.html#12AX7 Dr. Joe is more or less spot on. Pricing is outdated. Too bad DJ did not review the Tungsram 12AX7--it really sounds more like a NOS 3-mica, blackplate 5751 with respect to transparency and extension.

Similar Products Used: MAny DACS. All tests done with: Cal Icon II or Delta Luminous Audio Axiom passive pre CJ MV52 amp Monitor Audio Silver 9i Medium-end, well reviewed cables all around.
OVERALL
RATING
5
VALUE
RATING
5
bryndildaddy   Audio Enthusiast [Oct 21, 2004]
Strength:

Soundstage huge and deep, image tight, phenomenally open sounding.

Weakness:

Wildly systeminterconnectsource material dependant. Post 24/96 models still command top dollar - upgrade availability non-existant.

Having decided to finally close the curtain on my 16 year old Adcom's illustrious career, I jumped on the convergence bandwagon by purchasing an upper end Samsung DVD player to handle my CD listening needs. After the first few listening sessions it became apparent that an outboard DAC was in order (either that, or gouge my eyes out with dull butterknives). I picked up an obviously pre-24/96 Alpha from '93 on eBay (above price includes shipping), and connected it using low end Kimber product. Soundstage awesome, image adequate, timbre impeccable. Yet, the tonal balance was just way too bright, and the midrange at higher volume levels tended to splatter. The output from the Alpha seemed really high, as evidenced by my keeping the volume control on my ancient integrated in the lower 40, and the nearly overwhelming midrange. Apparently the preamp of my beloved Luxman was being overdriven. I decided to install fresh tubes as the first step in my dialing in process, and went with a pair of low output Ruby Tubes attained through Musicians Friend. OH MY GOODNESS! The soundstage now occupies the first half of my listening area, the image is dead on, and the inner detailing superb. I find myself saying "I didn't realize that she had an over bite", when listening to Portishead, or "They really need to tighten that snare down", when listening to Placebo. The tonal balance still isn't quite to my liking, but let the tweaking begin! As an aside, this unit will blow you away when reproducing naturally mic'd recordings. The sense of air, breath, and timbre is astonishing. Overly procressed (intensely busy) electronica, and hard rockmetal don't fair quite as well, seeming relatively thin and anemic. Ah well, life with tubes.

Similar Products Used: none
OVERALL
RATING
4
VALUE
RATING
4
bubbles   Audio Enthusiast [Feb 22, 2004]
Strength:

superb sound quality,will bring you cd collection to life,clean,crisp well focused and fast.

Weakness:

maybe looks.

Never judge a book by the cover,thats what i must conclude by this product.It really does look a plain Jane,not the sort of thing thats going to catch your eye.It gives of a sort of home made DIY feel about it,but ignore its looks because I can say only one thing..this thing ROCKS. It will make a superb second hand buy and will elevate CD reply to something that is a last worth listening too,it will have you plowing through thoes cd collections as your marvel at the sound reproduction this little baby produces. I was previously using a Micromega DAC,and was always happy with it,and was getting frustrated that even though the model was from 1997 I just didn't hear anything that grabbed my attention and made me think it was worth changing. Then I heard the name Cal Audio being mentioned and people were singing its praise,luckily I found one bought it blind and had it sent down to me in Spain.Had I taken a gamble,do all cd players sound the same? I was using still a Micromega Drive transport,I hooked up the Cal via the AES/EBU connections using a VDH digi cable.The rest of my kit was a Conrad Johnson PV10 pre Bel Canto evo 200.2 power,B&W P6. From the first few bars of usic it was easy to hear the stuning sound quality this unit gives off,it destroyed the Micromega,the sound was so much more alive,involving real,it just sored free from the speakers.at last CD was geting good,and this wasn't the lates upgraded version,but it was still a giant killer.It had speed,rhythem,clarity and pure envolvement,it placed instuments and the vocalist there right in front of you,treble was crisp and clear and well extended,I didnt feel it was rolled of or smoothed over,just clean and natural and free from glare and spit. The midrange also was clean as a bell,very natural,unforced with a real presence and authority,that let you hear any reflections in vocalist voices,the lows were again deep and clear and it timed and held the tune well. Yes the cal is that good,amazing really as what i can say,and for a second hand price you'll be laughing,I just can't see how the company went belly up with a product as stunnig as this,I think you'll be VERY hard pushed to get better than this for sensible monies.

Similar Products Used: Micromega DAC
OVERALL
RATING
5
VALUE
RATING
5
victorcleaner   AudioPhile [Jan 05, 2004]
Strength:

Theta, Audio Note, Tact, NAIM, Krell, Jeff-Roland, Linn, Oracle, Kuzma, Bellini, the list goes on and on… my personal favorites being Wilson Audio (hands down), Cary or Jeff-Roland, and Wadia. Maybe when I feel like plunging back into another Audio Hell and spending far too much money on a pretentious snobby hobby… you just have to let go at some point! And I believe I’ve given clues to some of the best bargains out there in the process… LOL Hope this has been helpful… (Has anyone listened to FM Acoustics that have some comparisons to mention?)

Weakness:

Read above...

This dual tube stage D/A Converter with 24bit/96K is by far one of the best bargains on the market still. I have compared this unit, with its matching transport the Delta, against Thorens, Monarchy, Classe, and Wadia among others, through various reputable cable manufacturers and a Levinson ML-7, ML-2, Eminent Technology LFTIII system. It should be noted that the controls on the Delta are the most intuitively backwards input command level setup I have ever seen! Not to mention, of the two units I tested over a period of a year, both had program bugs from the factory which rendered this unit nonfunctional. (This is the Delta mind you… no problems with the Alpha.) When it worked, however, and if you could get over its shoddy construction and plastic tray, it sounded excellent. I tried other California Audio Labs products including their new top DVD 24bit/96K unit at the time… and they all sucked (couldn’t emphasize that work enough, btw) worse than everything else mentioned! The Alpha & Delta are the only pure audio products this company makes. All the rest are merely medium-end AV crap, slightly above the lines of Carver, Bose, Sony ES, and other medium-end wanna-be garbage! Literally! Avoid any other Cal gear like the plague if you are a two-channel purist. The repair turn-around on these two Cal pieces was nearly three months here in the US!? Thorens gear was a month turn-around on repairs all the way to Germany!? Go figure!? Thorens digital gear was buggy too, btw. Audio Note digital gear without balanced XLR options sounded the same btw, and was built slightly better with more intuitive controls… I think it is essentially the same product… a much better buy imo. Perhaps Audio Note’s repair service is better and quicker too?! Who wants to be without music or deal with a loaner for that long? Regardless, the Alpha & Delta combination crushed everything I listed above and was extremely close to the Wadia 850x ($5k) in overall sound quality without going into great detail… but surprisingly I still felt the Cal’s actually sounded slightly better than the Wadia, to the point where I wasn’t sure; and figured I would need much better loudspeakers (any Wilson) to even notice this trivial amount suspected. Amazing! Even after a dozen varieties of very reputable burned-in cables from XLR, RCA, and AT&T glass, the RCA unbalanced always sounded best on this combination. Not worth the cost of the AT&T glass option I purchased, except for resale value. In the end the bugs, repair turn-around, shoddy construction, and the fact that I could gain remote control as well as sell my preamp with the purchase of a (still today) bulletproof Wadia that connects directly to my amps; I chose to purchase a Wadia 860x ($7500) to replace the Alpha & Delta (under $3000) combination… and obtain “peace” of mind. Not sure that I gained any substantial sound quality, and may have even lost a little with this painstaking setup. It takes me a few days to merely position the speakers and seating setup properly… after much practice. Transparency is so close that it almost seemed better with the Alpha & Delta as I have said. I haven’t adjusted my Wadia’s output volume yet, so it should improve everything considerably thereafter. The Wadia Levinson gear even sounds better with the pure silver CAMAC interconnects over XLR connections. Bizarre?! (Anyone who doubts spectral-geometric theories needs to listen with functional ears to a capable system… and then start swapping cables to hear the difference. Like you would any other valid reference. If you still can’t hear a difference… you are tone deaf, and should stick to AV gear. I’d guess you also do not fully understand the difference between reproduction gear, recording gear, and production gear… so it shouldn’t matter to you what you’re missing under those colored sunglasses you are wearing.) But the Vintage Levinson ML gear was the only Levinson gear hall tested by Mark himself. The ML-2 amps are Class-A reference amps that still rival some Krell and the like at low power ranges… just buy more of them, therefore, if you need the power. Best deal I’ve heard! New Madrigal gear is somewhat of a joke in comparison… even the other ML class-AB lines fall short as is expected, since they were not at all no-expense spared designs such as these, and were intended to represent the ML-2’s (originally $40K in the late ‘70’s) affordable Class-AB replacements. I have yet to demo Cello and Red Rose. After witnessing all the reference comparisons in my own audio hell… I have very little appreciation for XLR balanced gear of any sort. Read about it and understand it should be better, but have always “heard” in person the exact opposite in fact. Lower Martin Logans lines at easily twice the cost, don’t hold a candle to even the lowly hybrid Eminent Technology models, btw. I’ve since demo’d Wilson Audio, Apogee, Wisdom, Totem, B&W, Martin Logan, Boulder, Cary, Bryston,

Similar Products Used: Read above...
OVERALL
RATING
5
VALUE
RATING
5
T Majz   Audiophile [Sep 06, 2000]
Strength:

Tons of low level , wide soundstage,and satisfying bass!

Weakness:

Not 24/192 ready

I purchased the unit in 1996, replaced the tubes with Yugo's at $15.00 a piece and WOW - end of story! Again in August 2000 I yanked the Yugo's out, sent them to a buddy in MD to experiment with and dispose of and replaced them with Amperex Bugle Boys. The results - UNREAL!! Keep in mind that reviews are slanted towards personal tastes of different people. Let your ears be the judge!

Similar Products Used: Sigma DAC
OVERALL
RATING
5
VALUE
RATING
5
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