The CAL Labs Alpha: A Tube DAC For The Ages?

Have you ever wondered — What does a 25-year-old DAC sound like? Well, I’m here to tell ‘ya.

To recap from the In Barn For Flashback-Fi post, the California Audio Labs Alpha Tube Analog Processor (DAC) here for a listen was manufactured in 1995, which predates the Alpha’s 24/96 ‘upgrade.’ This means we’re talking about the original version of the Alpha that employed an 18-bit/48kHz Cirrus Logic Crystal CS4328-KP 18-Bit Stereo D/A Converter.

As with every Alpha DAC, a pair of 12AX7s sit in the analog output stage to amplify the analog signal before sending it on its way via single-ended RCAs to your hifi.

Digital inputs include Coax S/PDIF, Toslink, AT&T Glass (used by companies including Wadia), and balanced 110-ohm XLR which could be used between the Alpha and matching CAL Delta Transport. Remember, the Alpha was intended to play back CDs as streaming was not a thing in 1995.

I owned a CAL Alpha/Delta combo back in the day and paired it with a Melos SHA Gold preamplifier feeding a SimAudio Celeste W-4070 amplifier which drove a pair of Von Schweikert VR3s. How’s that for some blasts from the past! So extra-special curiosity awaited the sound of the CAL Alpha now fed from a Bluesound Node 2i and mated with the review sample Bryston B135 Cubed Integrated Amplifier driving the DeVore O/96 and Golden Ear BRX (the CAL visited during the listening phase of my Bryston review). Since the Alpha maxes out at 16bit/44.1kHz, I had Roon take care of the downsampling from higher PCM resolutions and this didn’t bother me one bit.

Age Is Just A Voltage

While I don’t recall the sound of the CAL Alpha/Delta combination after 40+ years, I do recall buying them after a number of lengthy auditions at Audio Nexus in Summit, NJ, along with the rest of the system, because the the CAL combo sounded the least digital of the digital playback I auditioned. Back in the late ’90s you could very well buy a CD Player that made music sound as if it was made from shards of glass.

I also remember some of the music I used to carry with me on CD when I auditioned hifi at that time and one favorite, and one that remains a favorite, was the Lounge Lizards Voice of Chunk. Back when this record came out 1988, it was only available directly from the band via mail order. Yes, I said mail order. To be even more specific, the title track featured a ripping solo by Marc Ribot and early on he switches his pickup settings and I remember, as if it was yesterday, how the CAL combo made this shift in the guitar’s tone readily apparent, where other CD players glassed over this aspect of the recording’s finer details. I am happy to report that this quality is still very present in the Alpha DAC. Still tone-ful after all these years. Nice.

During my listening time with the Alpha, one thought that continued to pop into my head uninvited was, damn, this DAC sure is smooth. Because it is. Some will suggest this has to do with the Alpha’s tube output stage, the Cirrus Logic chip, or even that chip’s 8× digital interpolation filter and 64× oversampled delta-sigma modulator! The fact of the matter is the correct answer is D., all of the above (and then some). Every piece of hifi kit is made up of parts that create a whole and when we listen to music, we are are never hearing parts, we are hearing the whole. I know, obvious stuff but it bears repeating since some myths never die.

Moving into today’s music, I’ve been loving Haley Heynderickx’s debit album I Need to Start a Garden for its simple beauty and the Alpha loves, loves presenting guitar and vocals with their intimacy in tact. While I would not call the Alpha a resolution beast, like the totaldac d1-tube, it does a wonderful job of conveying a healthy portion of the tone, texture, and nuance that makes music moving. The Alpha runs on the rich side of digital replay, which is just how I like mine served.

When music gets more complex as it does on Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso No. 5 for violin, piano, and orchestra, it reveals the Alpha’s somewhat light-weight sound. When things gets massed with kettle drums pounding, gongs gonging, strings singing, and horns blaring, the overall presentation is not as weighty as I’ve heard from my favorite DACs like the resident totaldac d1-tube. Which is to say that the Alpha is not on the same level as today’s better DACs. What, a, shock!

It’s also the case that when a recording is rough around the edges, the Alpha highlights those edges more so than the modern DACs I enjoy. The Voudon Effect by Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou is a great record that drives hard with complex poly-rhythms but the simple recording methods used can sound a bit compressed and edgy and they lean that way through the Alpha to a greater degree than I like. That being said, I can say the same thing about any number of today’s DACs and some listeners might even call this accurate.

Back in 1995, you had to cough up $1450 for a new California Audio Labs Alpha Tube Analog Processor, which translates into about $2500 in today’s denaro. Not cheap. I’m well aware of the narrative out there that says don’t invest too much money in today’s digital because the improvements in digital replay come hard and fast. I have to admit to having slipped down this slope myself, probably because so much early CD replay sounded just plain bad and some experiences stick with you, like a scar. But that’s the problem with generalizations, they don’t account for everything.

I enjoyed my time with the CAL Alpha DAC well beyond its blast from the past appeal. To answer the question, How did the Alpha age?, like a fine cheese or my knees?, I’ll simply say you can easily get much worse digital sound from any number of contemporary DACs.

Twittering Machines’ Flashback-Fi gear is provided courtesy of High-End Audio Auctions and StereoBuyers