dCS Bartok DAC and Headphone Amp Review

One ring (DAC) to rule them all

by Ed Selley
Hi-Fi Review

16

Best In Class
dCS Bartok DAC and Headphone Amp Review
SRP: £14,499.00

Introduction - what is the dCS Bartok?

The dCS Bartok is a DAC and digital preamp with on board streaming module and built in headphone amp. This is a respectable functionality set for a digital product, even judged by the evolutionary flux that products of this nature currently exist in. It will not have escaped many people’s attention though that the price of this functionality is no less than £14,499. By way of quick reference, you can have 126 Topping E30s for that. One hundred and twenty six. Then, as if to ensure that confusion is still more apparent, I need to go on to say that the Bartok is the entry level dCS product. The range goes up from here. This is the most affordable point at which you can enjoy a dCS.

We’ll cover off what the Bartok does and how it does it at length but it is worth putting a little bit of context in early. dCS is not a ‘normal’ Hi-Fi company (if indeed such a thing exists). The company was founded in 1987 and, initially at least, audio did not feature in the their activity. Data Conversion Systems, as the company was originally known, was heavily involved in radar and telecommunications. From there, it moved into professional audio with both D-A and A-D products before launching their first domestic product, called the Elgar, in 1996. At the time, the Elgar was the first domestic audio product anywhere that could handle 24/96 (later updated to 24/192). As an opening gambit, it was an impressive one.

As such, the pedigree of the Bartok is probably not open to doubt but pedigree only counts for so much. Can it do justice to the range of functions it offers and can it make sense in a world where £115 DACs are actually pretty good? We had best get cracking.

Specification and Design

dCS Bartók DAC
The Bartok is big but uncluttered in design 

Key to what makes the Bartok and every other dCS DAC different to other devices is the decoding. Rather than contacting a chip manufacturer and asking for the best chip they have, popping it into a circuit with some nice components in it, residing in an even nicer box, dCS implements its own decoding. We have seen this before in products we’ve reviewed here. Chord Electronics is equally committed to this process and the MMM system of the Marantz SACD 30N is another example of such a thing. What dCS does though is different again.

The system is called the Ring DAC and, as is often the case when I review things, I have kindly been supplied a fair bit of written information on how it works. All power to dCS, they could never be accused of patronising anyone or assuming they are an idiot but it does mean that the information given is fairly involved. In summary, the Ring DAC runs on an FPGA and takes elements of a ladder DAC in its operation but then, in crucial aspects, differs again.

dCS Bartók DAC
Connectivity is, as you might expect, extensive

There are 48 current sources fed into a current bus. Each source works in such a way that component errors are summed out of the result by calculating the weighted result of each bit of information from several current sources at once. These current sources ‘fire’ on the command of a custom Mapper. The sequence is extremely complex and has evolved over thirty years of study. Interestingly, dCS notes that the signal to noise performance of this arrangement - while pretty impressive - can be equalled or even bettered by some rival systems. The company's counter is that headline chasing SNR is less important than distortion in terms of audio perception and it’s here that the Ring DAC excels. Of course, if you are feeling hard done to by someone saying they have a better SNR measurement, you can console yourself with the sample rate that the Ring DAC runs at. The information being sent to the Mapper is running between 2.822mHz and 6.14mHz (you will note that when discussing most digital sources here, we talk in kHz). Some of you will have clocked that the lower figure is the same as that for DSD but where that is 1bit, the stream the Bartok creates is 5 bits. This is, in short, decoding like nothing else we’ve ever seen on the site.

This is made available to eight digital inputs. Two are AES, two coax (one on RCA, one on BNC), one optical, a USB A connection for reading drives and sticks and one USB-B connection. The last input is the ethernet connection for streaming. In a perfect world, I’d like a second optical connection but it’s still fairly comprehensive. There are some other more specialist connections too. The network sockets are looped (an underrated option when you have limited ethernet socketry in your rack) and there are additional connections for connecting the Bartok to an external word clock (a rabbit hole we shall leave for this review). Outputs are RCA and XLR, able to work at fixed and variable levels.

The Mosaic app offers streaming and control

The Bartok is able to handle PCM to 384kHz and DSD128. I’ll save someone the bother of pointing out that these are lower numbers than some significantly more affordable devices because they are. I’ll go on to say that in terms of natively available content, it is entirely sufficient and that intending to use the Bartok with an external upsampler seems unlikely given that as soon as it hits the Ring DAC, the sample rate heads off to frequencies beyond that of any such device.

These specs are matched within the UPnP streaming section of the Bartok. Called Mosaic, it is a fully app controlled system with native support for Qobuz, Tidal, Deezer and Spotify. The Bartok is also a full MQA renderer and decoder so Tidal has a great deal of potential here. As you might expect at this sort of price, if you wish, you can use the Bartok as a Roon Endpoint too. I will say though that dCS has done a good job with Mosaic. It’s well laid out, easy to use and entirely stable. All too often, products like this can feel undone by the software but this really isn’t the case here.

And then there’s the customisation. Want user selectable filters? The dCS has six of them for sample rates below 176.4kHz and two for above, four DSD filters and an MQA one. Variable output levels? Yep - anything you like between 0.2 and 6v (six volts!). You can adjust balance to compensate for issues further down the signal path, invert the phase, reverse the channels and have the Bartok tell you how hot it is running. This is unquestionably a purist solution but it is not a minimalist one.

Functionality you had no idea you needed is here

If you wish, you can order your Bartok without a headphone amp for £11,499. This sample is equipped with the headphone amp because it is no less technically obsessive than the rest of the Bartok. The headphone section itself outputs over both 6.35mm and four pin balanced connections and uses the same decoding and volume adjustment as the rest of the Bartok. What it also uses is a system called Expanse and calling it a crossfeed system is like referring to Citizen Kane as ‘The sled film.’

Expanse is nothing less than a root and branch revisiting of the principles of stereo when applied to headphone listening. This means that there is indeed crossfeed - a mixing of left and right channels to reflect that when sat in front of a pair of speakers our right ear doesn’t solely hear the right channel. There’s also an attempt to recreate some of the effect of the room itself on the performance you hear. It even models something called Head Related Transfer Effects - or to put it more bluntly - how big your ears are. The long and the short of it is that the Bartok is, and by a considerable amount too, the most sophisticated headphone amp I’ve ever tested.   

All of this technical wonderment is fitted inside a chassis that is beautifully finished but, dare I say it, subtle almost to the point of being dull. The small display is surprisingly easy to read and everything from the knob to the rear connectors feels like it will last forever but there’s not much in the way of theatre to how the Bartok works. There are some operational quirks too. As standard, the Ring DAC operates with a buffer which means, if you try and watch TV through it, the latency is hilarious - some way beyond ‘bad kung fu movie dub’ (the buffer can be switched out in Mosaic). Nevertheless, once you are attuned to its way of working, this is a very easy device to live with.

dCS Bartók DAC
Black is also available

 

Rather than contacting a chip manufacturer and asking for the best chip they have, popping it into a circuit with some nice components in it, residing in an even nicer box, dCS implements its own decoding

How was the Bartok tested?

The dCS has been connected to an IsoTek Evo 3 Sigmas mains conditioner and been given an ethernet feed from the looped out of a Melco N1A NAS drive, allowing it to run directly controlled via Mosaic and as a Roon Endpoint, taking control via a Roon Nucleus. Some testing has been undertaken via LG 55B7 OLED via optical. It has been connected to a Chord Electronics CPM 2800MkII amp via XLR and Rotel Michi X3 over RCA. Speakers used have been the Kudos Titan 505 and Focal Kanta No1. Headphone testing has been via the Focal Clear MG and T+A Solitaire P-SE (the more affordable version of the astonishing Solitaire P. Material used has been FLAC, AIFF, DSD, Tidal (with the Bartok running as MQA renderer) and Qobuz as well as 15 minutes of Spotify for the novelty of sending it to a fourteen grand DAC. Some on demand TV was also used.

More: Audio Formats

Performance

dCS Bartók DAC
The display is small but fairly easy to read

First, if you will, an anecdote. The Bartok was on test for much the same period of time as the Rotel Michi X3, arriving three days before the Rotel did. The Rotel has an integrated DAC system built around an AKM chipset and it’s a very competent and capable piece of engineering indeed. After a few days of life with the Bartok, my first response on listening to the USB input was to assume it might be broken in some way. It took some quick checks with other equipment to establish that it was fine and, judged on its own merits, rather good. It’s just not a dCS.

If you’re looking for shock and awe though, via the XLR and RCA connection at least, that is not what the Bartok, or dCS as a company is seeking to do. Nothing is embellished, given undue emphasis or tweaked for any hint of a move from what’s on the recording. Instead, like a fourteen thousand pound tin of Ronseal, the Bartok gives you what’s in the file. This may well sound underwhelming but it isn’t. To hear the Bartok play something you know well is to realise that the times you’ve heard that piece before were approximations, very close ones but approximations nonetheless. Without accentuating or exaggerating things, let alone changing them, there is simply a perception of unvarnished realism that is maddeningly hard to convey if you haven’t experienced it yourself.

The standout element though is the bass. I live with seriously talented digital sources that have fabulous low end but the Bartok does things that are beyond even that. Listening to Public Service Broadcasting’s Live at Brixton, the live version of Sputnik has bass that begins gently and gradually gains weight across the performance. With the Bartok, it still does that but there’s the perception of weight from the outset. With the dCS in the system, both the Kudos Titan 505 and Focal Kanta No1 have demonstrated a level of low end shove that I’ve simply not extracted from them before. Like everything else the Bartok does though, it’s gloriously unshowy. It’s only when you switch to something else that is not so supremely capable that you appreciate the heft that the Bartok wields.

The album browsing in Mosaic is slick and stable

Interestingly, not every aspect of performance is a whitewash for the dCS. Compared to the Chord TT2 and Mscaler duo that resides here, the Bartok’s soundstage and imaging has to be content merely being seriously good. The stereo image is spacious and consistently believable but some of the extraordinary front to back depth that the Chord does so well is absent. If you listen to the Bartok in virtually any other context though, it’s going to see off pretty much anything else I can think of.

In one other area though, the Bartok has an attribute I’ve yet to see rivalled elsewhere. If you are a heavy user of MQA content, this is - and not by a small margin either - the best MQA decoder I know of. Feeding it various segments of Tidal, it finally delivers some of the promises that have been floating around the format since its inception. I still find some of the evasiveness of how it functions to be unsettling. I also still feel it doesn’t necessarily solve any other issues that couldn’t have been solved without it but it does indisputably sound very very good.

There’s something else too. My earliest experiences of dCS equipment were impressive but not always as exciting as you might have expected. The brilliance was all there but when you played something that you knew to be a laugh a minute, the result wasn’t always the same. In the ensuing years, without even a hint of compromise being made to the performance, the Bartok can have a bloody good time when you want it to. I’m not sure what the Venn diagram intersection of dCS ownership and enthusiasm for the collected works of The Shamen might be (you have to assume it is a fairly small one) but the way it tears into the live version of Comin’ On on Boss Drum is a thing of unbridled joy. All the technical ability is there but the frenetic energy that I loved as a twelve year old (and still love now to be honest) isn’t ever impinged in the process.

dCS Bartók DAC
All the connections are usefully spaced out which is helpful

And then, there is the headphone amplifier. Let me be blunt. Discounting oddities like the Sennheiser Orpheus (which I’ve heard and may or may not be better but in the absence of sitting down and having direct access to both, has to remain an imponderable) this is comfortably the best headphone amp I’ve ever heard. When you read the white paper on the Expanse software, there is the slightest concern - almost subconscious but present nonetheless - that all that processing and cleverness has to be audible in some way. When you happen upon sentences like;

“We might try to emulate ITDs by delaying a sound between the left and right ear feeds, for example but the delay could cause interference in the case of an original centrally-placed signal, creating a comb-filtering effect but such an effect also occurs in nature.”

As well as accepting that I am a neanderthal by comparison to the people who throw that sort of thing around, you worry that the result won’t sound real or you will, at the very least, hear huge amounts of processing at work.

That’s not the case. The Bartok takes the already superlative Focal Clear MG and proceeds to extract performance from it that wasn’t even hinted at on anything else. Eyelids by Paris Jackson (who it might be fair to say, has taken a rather different musical path to her father Michael but clearly inherited a fair bit of his talent) emerges from this duo in a manner that I promise will momentarily make you look up and go “what?!” the first time you hear it. All of that decoding horsepower is roped, corralled and shaped into something that is utterly impossible to comprehend without hearing it. It is like sitting down to a well placed pair of stereo speakers… but a pair of speakers that have all the technical advantages (flat response, no crossover etc) of headphones. With the more expensive T+A Solitaire P-SE, the Bartok has redefined what I felt headphone systems are capable of.

dCS Bartók DAC
Where do we go from here?

 

To hear the Bartok play something you know well is to realise that the times you’ve heard that piece before were approximations, very close ones but approximations nonetheless

Verdict

Pros

  • Simply astonishing performance across all media and outputs
  • Comprehensive specification
  • Very well made

Cons

  • Could do with an extra optical input
  • Looks a little prosaic
  • Significant asking price

dCS Bartok DAC and Headphone Amp Review

Ignoring for a moment that it is in the foothills of the dCS range, the Bartok still exists in a world so far removed from what most of us will actually be shopping in that it’s the supercar segment of Top Gear or the episode of Grand Designs where the couple with no discernible job proceed to build a Bond villain lair. Nevertheless, it does exist and I have the unenviable task of trying to reconcile where it sits in the wider scheme of things.

And, where it sits is at the top of the tree. We’ve seen that good digital - even very good digital - is more affordable than ever before but the Bartok does more to justify its existence than I had honestly believed it could. It has sprung surprises from the moment I started listening and redefined some elements of what I felt to be possible. It’s not twice as good as the Chord duo that resides here - that’s an impossibility in itself - but there is clear air between them. If you’re one of the subset of members reading this in the market for a Trinnov, Lyngdorf or similarly exotic AV processor, you need to know that this is the sort of device that could be selected to ‘handle the music’ and do extraordinary things.

And then, if you’re part of another subset - those that use headphones as their primary listening group - you need to know that this is Everest, the ultimate closed listening experience I know of (and one that is not present in this form on other dCS devices). In this situation, where the only other pieces of kit needed are file storage and the headphones themselves, the calculation of the worth of the Bartok changes because it the only device you need and indeed, may ever need. Yes, it’s a whole lotta money, but it’s peerless and an indisputable Best in Class. 

Best In Class

Scores

Build Quality

10

Connectivity

.
9

Ease of Use

.
9

Features

.
9

Audio Performance

10

Value for Money

.
9

Verdict

.
9
9
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

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