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dCS Bartók – Béla Bartók would have been proud!

What’s it all about?

The Bartók is the first foray of dCS into satisfying the huge demand of premium headphone systems with an ultra premium DAC offering to boot. It’s an upsampling DAC and streamer and comes with or without a headphone amp. The model I have on test is the headphone variant.

dCS is a company based in Cambridge or nearby Swavesey to be more accurate. They have a background in defence contracting and making analogue to digital converters and were at the forefront in the development of hi-res audio in the 90s. dCS are reputed as being one of the best, if not the best manufactures of HiFi DACs, and as Jeremy Clarkson would say….IN THE WORLD.

I got a proverbial dollop of insight recently, having the pleasure of visiting dCS during an all day meet with heads of departments and a factory tour. A lot of technicality was proffered and I’ll do my best to explain given the time they took to explain to me. Because of this I break from my normal tradition of not going excessively into technicalities.

Watch the film instead or both?

Featuring….

dCS easily use the best finished cases of all HiFi I’ve checked out to date. I thought the German HiFi firm AVM have taken it as far as it can go, but oh no…. dCS take it to another level! It’s more than a device that might look like something that exists in a defence facility with national security relying on it – this is a piece of artwork that might belong in a museum!

The aircraft grade aluminium is milled from a solid block by one of dCS’ two suppliers, who incidentally are UK based. The flat sides and front fascia plate look simple enough to make but underneath they are intricately milled to fit around the internals. Incidentally dCS don’t populate circuit boards themselves and again they are supplied by a UK manufacturer. No Chinese manufacturing here.

After being milled from a solid block, the smooth aluminium is bead blasted which makes it slightly rough to the touch. The case is then anodised with black cases needing a thicker layer to stop the aluminium’s surface colour showing through. This combination of bead blasting and anodising creates a luxury surface look. The aluminium is a sizeable cost contributor and it’s known to have a sonic effect too, being a shield to high frequency noise. But because the Bartók uses aluminium milled panels all around and not just on one side, it’s incredibly and fastidiously well built. Even the volume knob and feet are made in the same way.

Each product takes two weeks to make. Incidentally with dCS clock units, the circuit boards are heat tested from -25 to 50 degrees centigrade, whilst the crystals of the components are calibrated. After laboriously building the units to exacting standards, each Bartók is then electrically soak tested over 96 hours in cycles, as normal for HiFi manufacturers. To do this dCS have had to build their own testing machines with electronic components, as none are commercially available. The attention to detail in the factory is quite astounding and before each product leaves, it is signed off by three different people. Before you can even go inside you must wear an anti-static strip on your shoe too!

What’s in a box?

Lots of HiFi manufacturers who make DACs don’t, according to dCS, need to take much care in design. They bolt in a digital input stage to a DAC of the likes of ESS Sabre and from there onto an analogue output stage. This approach only takes you so far, dCS say, which is fine for basic DACs where the designer doesn’t require in depth knowledge. But designing a DAC for class leading sonics is another matter. It tends to mean that with ‘basic’ DACs the designers mess around with the output to get the sound they want, rather than concentrating on the DAC itself. Most manufacturers make DACs this way. dCS don’t. In this sense it’s clear they have a technology company mantra in their approach to serving high end Audiophiles.

So instead of using off the shelf silicon chips, dCS have developed their own ‘Ring DAC’ technology which involves using FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) chips which are programmed for digital to analogue conversion and digital filtering needs.

The point of this technology is to achieve very low distortion and good linearity which conventional based DACs or some ladder DAC designs just can’t achieve. The approach dCS follow is to ensure no such unwanted harmonics are introduced when testing DACs and a measurement centric approach determines their whole ethos to designing DACs. Chuck in a tone signal and if it measures really well, so far as criteria like distortion, it will sound good too. Not much tweaking is then needed in listening tests according to dCS. When you build DACs as uncompromising as dCS I can see how this approach works.

Each DAC from the Vivaldi, to the Rossini, to the Bartók, use a control board which in the Bartók is split into two levels for reasons of limited space within the chassis. The Bartók and Rossini use a commonly designed board. Looking inside the cases at the factory is like electronic component ‘porn’ such is the quality of the circuit boards.

The headphone amp section is a class A design for powering high impedance and low impedance headphones. It naturally uses a different power supply to the internal blue box encased toroidal transformer, which powers the rest of the electronics. At the front you get a balanced connection and a 1/4 inch jack.

In using it with your HiFi, dCS are a firm believer in taking out a pre-amp and going straight into power amplifer(s) for reasons of maintaining signal purity. Given the quality here, I didn’t even bother to try it with my pre-amp as it would be futile! Connections wise it has what you’d expect ; coaxial S/PDIF, coaxial BNC, Toslink/Optical and AES/EBU (XLR). Of course the ethernet connection for network and streaming music as well as USB A and B.

Operation

The front panel and display can be used to access the menu customisation options from changing the DACs filters to cross-feed settings, phase and gain settings and changing clock settings. You can even see unit temperature being shown in real time in settings. How cool is that!

Incidentally, the Bartók can be partnered to the Rossini Clock which acts as a master clock to determine the timing of data to your DAC, for improved sound quality, no doubt by reducing jitter.

The dCS Mosaic app which was introduced earlier in the year and available on Apple and Android devices, is very intuitive. It’s not clunky like many manufacturers apps. Cross source playlists are a possibility which is a very good feature to look out for in any app. In other words add tracks to a playlist, some from your streaming service provider and others from your NAS drive or Roon server.

The Bartók found my music on my Western Digital NAS across the Network. Also you can use the Bartók as a Roon ready end point player. I used it with my Innuos Zenith Mark 2 which is a Roon server and player. I either used a USB connection to the Bartók from the Innuos as a Roon transport or just hooked the Innuos to my network via Ethernet and the Bartók finds it as a Roon Ready server over Ethernet too. A neat feature is that you can control the Bartók’s volume in the Roon app. As far as wireless use, this dCS is not WiFi capable.

dCS Mosaic App – ‘Unclunky’!

So far as streaming services are concerned it will deal with Tidal, Qobuz and Deezer as well as internet radio services. You can play music from appropriately formatted USB drives connected to a rear USB port. You can’t play Spotify directly from Mosaic as Spotify are a little awkward and do things differently… for new products Spotify only allow third party access via Spotify Connect, which is driven by their app.

You can also use AirPlay from your Apple device, for sending music stored on phones of friends or with non mosaic compatible streaming services.

The Bartók utilises a full MQA decoder and when playing Tidal masters a designating MQA logo shows up against the album in the Mosaic interface. This dCS is not really designed for remote control use as you can use Mosaic for all necessary remote functions including volume control however you can buy a remote at optional cost.

You can have the Bartók oversample PCM audio by keeping it on the DXD setting but when on the DSD setting it inserts a DSD upsampling stage towards the end of the PCM oversampling sequence.

The filters are available according to whether you have incoming DSD or PCM and in the former case, if the aforementioned DSD upsampling setting is active.  Four filters are available with DSD and six for PCM and a single MQA filter (M1). All are nuanced and subtle at first but you do start to recognise what they each do, the more you get to know the Bartók. It is definitely true that transient response is better as you go through the PCM filters….no clear winner but more a matter of preference.

Software updates can be downloaded via dCS free of charge and the Mosaic app allows users to check for updates. So given the whole architecture is FPGA based sonic performance can change via updates as new features are added (For example Vivaldi 2.0, Rossini 2.0, MQA, DoP, DSDx2 etc)

The Acid Test

The first thing I noticed with the Bartók on swapping out from a £4,830 PS Audio DirectStream DAC, is that the Bartók has a realism in treble. There is a delicacy in treble which is so far from the obnoxiously sibilant and grainy treble of converters used in budget systems and even around the $2000 price point. This is apparent using it as a HiFi DAC and with some $3000 HIFIMAN HE1000 v2 headphones into the balanced front connection.

The point is that the high frequencies are gloriously accurate without any hint of sibilance or unpleasant airy haziness, that is also apparent in cheaper converters. It’s like HFs sit in space detached and doing their own thing. You catch yourself thinking is that treble correct? Maybe because we get used to HiFi treble being so poor. You then think….. well that’s exactly as I normally hear treble!

I’ve never heard a DAC which has such harmonically accurate bass and it’s spellbinding. It’s uncannily good in the respect of both depth perception and thickness as to being accurate to where the music is being played as evidenced by playing something like Caliban’s Dream by Underworld, recorded at the 2012 London Olympics.

So with the treble and bass on offer here, it is an extremely natural DAC for headphones and HiFi. If you are spending this sort of money you’d expect amongst the best in class and you won’t be disappointed. It excels with most music but classical music is sublime. Carnival Des Animaux by Saint-Saëns could not get much better.

Huge Resolution is what you pay for at this price too and it’s so obvious that it takes other lesser DACs apart at a much lower price. I thought the Chord DAVE took lesser DACs not only to the proverbial cleaners, but through the washing machine, into the tumble drier and onto the ironing board. They are in a similar price bracket, but what analogy to use here? Well I don’t know where I could go with laundry but one thing is for sure that this product is fit for royalty. It should be approved by the Royal Family if dCS haven’t asked Liz’s staff yet.

What this resolution means is that the layers in the music are so obvious and even less good recordings are elevated. The Chord DAVE pitches up into chucking every bit of detail at the cost of a little tonal refinement and perhaps bass responsiveness. I’ve maybe lost myself to a bit of HiFi pretentiousness here…..Sorry, but the Bartók is totally blowing my mind. It has at least the detail of the DAVE, maybe more, and there is as much layering as a Walls ice cream factory full of Viennetta’s. But compared to the DAVE it is more refined, a little tonally thicker and naturally more progressive and projected in these senses. It is quite possibly more musical in these regards? Is it a case of opening the pod doors for DAVE? The Bartók adds meat to the bones of the DAVE. It’s not slow with electronic music that is my preference – like the arpeggiated synths of Todd Terje’s Preben Goes to Acapulco.….. the Bartók is incredibly fast and dynamic which stands out at least as much as other traits.  And you could run riot with superlatives on its sonic traits, as there are so many good ones! More ‘over-egging’ than Edwina Curry perhaps, but that’s fine as this thing will stand up to anything being thrown at it!

Soundstage wise it is very big indeed and another stand out trait of what the best converters can achieve. Wether class leading at this price I’m not so sure as direct A to B comparisons would be required, but it certainly has more than you need in this area to satisfy to the stratosphere. It would just be too hard to envisage conversion being better than this! It’s certainly more resolving that a Chord Hugo TT2 and Hugo M Scaler combination I tried, and at least as wide as I can recall but definitely more natural and better with bass.

Paying a large chunk of money for the streaming capability isn’t put to any waste at all. Against my £2,300 Innuos the sound is a little more defined in treble and raw using the Bartók, but in a good way with the exquisite treble on offer. No issues there at all, and I could easily ditch the Innuos if I didn’t need its Roon functionality, such is how the Bartók’s DAC copes with incoming streamed audio. 

The Bartók with HIFIMAN HE1000 version 2 headphones is a tremendous combination. These headphones match the Bartók for their resolution and naturalness and the way they present music in a very balanced way without any harshness or overt smoothness at opposite ends of the spectrum. It is a combination to die for, but that would be problematic as you’d not get to hear it.

My HiFi system is more than resolving and good enough to get an idea of what the Bartók can do whilst of course it will show itself more in pricier HiFi. But the fact I can draw these parallels between what it achieves for headphones and HiFi, like I could with the Chord DAVE, cements my view as to what the Bartók is about.

I tell you what though, if you are intending to spend more on various brand 2-channel HiFi Gear, forget spending all that money. Just get yourself a Bartók and a decent set of headphones! The Bartók, although a big chunk of money, makes a case for a less expensive headphone system being all you need. After all only two components needed. With good headphones it is competing with much more expensive 2-channel audio systems and a reason why the market for Audiophile headphones is so huge at the moment. The Bartók is a feather in the cap of this new renaissance.

In this context as an aspirational purchase, it ticks all these boxes and would be as achievable a purchase to spending more on multi brand / box 2-channel audio systems.

The fact you get a balanced headphone output and network card too for the *relatively* slight increase in price makes it a hugely appealing proposition against the Chord DAVE, albeit bigger in size and maybe not as ‘deskable’.

Getting to the end I indulged in another review. Maybe the nice man with the glasses and beard is right ; don’t spend your money on a car – get one of these instead! With the horrendous traffic around where I live I’d take the musical experience every day of the week. It is expensive at any stretch, but with this performance the Bartók represents value for money if you want amongst the best. It has no faults too and is an extremely accomplished product.

No matter how many superlatives you throw at it, you still maybe won’t be able convey how good it is. Frankly products as good as this is why I’m into great sounding audio…….vive dCS!

Manufacturer Details

Data Conversion Systems Ltd (dCS), Unit 1, Buckingway Business Park, Swavesey, Cambridgeshire, CB24 4AE, United Kingdom.
Tel : +44 (0)1954 233950
Email : [email protected]
Website : https://www.dcsltd.co.uk

Price

  • Bartók DAC / Network Streamer – £9,999
  • Bartók DAC / Network Streamer / Headphone Amp – £12,500
  • Optional IR remote control can be ordered from dCS dealers

Specifications

  • Type : Up-sampling Network DAC with Headphone Amplifier
  • Colour : Silver or Black
  • Dimensions : 444mm / 17.5” x 430mm / 17.0” x 115mm / 4.6“. Allow extra depth for cable connectors.
  • Weight : 16.7kg / 36.8lbs
  • Digital Inputs : AES/EBU, Coaxial BNC, Coaxial RCA, Toslink/Optical
  • DSD64/128, PCM up to 24bit 384kHz
  • Analogue Outputs : RCA/XLR
  • Headphone Outs : 1 x 6.35mm (1/4″), 1×4 way male XLR
  • Conversions : DXD / DSD
  • Headphone Output : 1.4W rms into 33 ohms

Test Components

dCS Bartók used with Cyrus Mono X200 signature power amps, PMC twenty5 23 speakers, Innuos Zenith Mark 2 Roon server, Isotek Aquarius power conditioner, Chord company and AudioQuest interconnects and speaker cables, HIFIMAN HE1000 v2 planar magnetic headphones with balanced connection.

Written by Simon Price

I'm an AUDIO-LOVER who likes sharing experiences of faithfully reproduced audio in a CREDIBLE way. I am primarily interested in products; their looks, functionality and features, and most importantly how they sound! My reviews are not overly technical and I don't use pretentious language, as I believe great audio is non exclusive and is to be enjoyed by all! It's all about the music!

The UK HiFi Show Live ; 26th-27th October 2019

In Pictures : dCS Factory Tour