dCS Bartók Review
dCS or Data Conversion Systems have, over the past three decades, established an enviable reputation in the audio world that the vast majority of Hi-Fi manufacturers can only dream of. This hasn't been by chance but through thorough research, design and in-house manufacture in the UK. It is a truly British company, established in Cambridgeshire, dCS first began producing high-end domestic units in the early 90's. Prior to that time, they had produced high performance digital systems for telecommunication companies and the military.
Back in time, I was lucky enough to own the company's flagship Elgar DAC, which I used with in conjunction the Verdi CD transport and Verona Masterclock. It was all quite a stack but was the gold standard at the time. Then, in the early noughties, in came the Paganini DAC and matching up-sampling CD/SACD into my living room. Again, beautifully constructed, oozing quality and setting a standard for CD reproduction for the industry. Not only were the products true reference level units, I can speak from first-hand experience about truly exceptional after-sales service provided - the personal visits to my home by dCS personnel if a problem arose, superb phone support (both usually required owing to my own failings) and automatic software updates regularly sent to my home unprompted on CD's!
I'm a little late to the party with regards to the Bartok DAC. I first came across one in the flesh as it were, at the High-End show in Ascot last year. Generally unassuming in external dimensions and design, it nonetheless is clearly a quality constructed product. Very solid and quite heavy (22Kg), it inspires confidence for its lack of “flashiness” and fancy external design which can consume a disproportionate sum of the total cost of a product. The Bartok does use aerospace grade machined aluminium for the build, but this is for rigidity and stability. In addition there are internal acoustic damping panels to reduce mechanical vibration and magnetic effects.
What particularly caught my attention was that this unit was a quality up-sampling DAC, streamer, a digital source pre-amp and an optional High-End headphone amp, all in a single box. Not the usual dCS approach! It is expensive but certainly not outrageously so for what is on offer. The cost is £10,000 for the non-headphone amp option plus an extra £2000 for the full headphone amp version which has both balanced and un-balanced headphone feeds. I longed to hear/play with this machine which was not on demo at the show, so I had to make alternative arrangements to satisfy my desire. …. “Hi there, is that Hi-Fi Corner? Hi Struan....”
Now down to business. This DAC follows the well established up-sampling approach that dCS have successfully pioneered and employed in the past. In its simplest terms, up-sampling increases the original sampling rate by adding zero-valued samples, a form of interpolation if you will. This is said to have the net effect of increasing the audible resolution over and above the basic CD Red Book standard of 16 bit/44.1 Khz. However, the Bartok will support sampling rates up to 24 bit, 384kS/s and DSD 128, as well as DSD in DoP (DSD through USB ports that do not normally support DSD), as well as native DSD formats. The network interface can also perform full MQA decoding and rendering.
Digital (only) inputs support UPnP, asynchronous USB and Apple Airplay sources plus AES and S/PDIF. The unit will accept SACD data from dCS transports via the dual AES inputs. The Bartok has balanced and unbalanced outputs to connect as a digital pre-amp directly to a power amplifier. My fear of doing this is that one could accidentally change the output level to catch-a-speaker-cone proportions, but to counter this, dCS provide output limiting settings on the control app (max 0.2v or 0.6v) which radically reduces the risk of blown speakers. The risk is greatest when using Apple Airplay from which the output can be quite hefty. Normal line output is also selectable from the dCS app as max 2v or 6v if using a pre-amp. For this review, I did use an analogue pre as, in my experience it can provide a smoother result regardless of the DAC manufacturer/ model.
As mentioned earlier, dCS design and manufacture all their own processing circuitry and this unit is no exception, employing the dCS Ring DAC as used in the flagship Vivaldi playback system. This is said to improve resolution, particularly with low level subtleties. Multi-stage power regulation with twin transformers isolates DAC circuitry from the headphone amp section.
Streaming services supported include Tidal, Spotify Connect, Deezer and Qobuz. There is also the ability to stream directly numerous Web radio stations, including ones with Hi-resolution output such as Linn Radio and Hi On Line. These are accessible via the control app which is available for both Apple and Android devices. During my time using the app, I found it entirely stable and intuitive with minimal/no time lag before a selection became active. In fact, setting up the Bartok and hearing audio, took less than 5 minutes! The unit had been previously used so wasn't brand new straight out of the box, but there were no hitches connecting to my internet (despite the 500 miles of ethernet cable to the router), or downloading the app onto my oldish Sony Xperia phone.
The dCS control app allows access to all the Bartok menu settings and substitutes for a physical remote. In addition to a “slider” volume and the other usual functions one would expect, 2 sets of digital filters are selectable via the app. These “fine tune” the sound to your preference. One set of filters is for the DXD (Digital eXtreme Definition) format used by some online HD music providers, and the other set for DSD. The excellent hard copy manual provided with the Bartok details the menu options and gives recommended settings for the filters. Other less common settings on the app allow for system testing, channel and phase checking.
I normally use Deezer to stream music which offers 16 bit/44.1 Khz but in tis instance, up-sampled by the Bartok. However, I used the unit with Tidal and Qobuz too which provide Hi-res streaming. Some replay track selection functionality was lost when used through the dCS app as opposed to the actual Deezer app, but this was not a big issue at the end of the day.
After an hour or so warm-up time (the unit was straight out of the box), I began my listening. I realised I'd hit the jackpot pretty well straight away. I couldn't help myself listening to entire symphonies and albums rather than jumping from track to track, so absorbed was I with what I heard. The sound-stage was truly huge with instrumentalists and singers clearly placed. All the subtleties such as long reverberation and low level harmonics were all there. Vocals were so clean, clear and separated within the mix. The stage had great depth, often lacking with digital replay. No “Wall of Sound” here for sure. Low frequencies were particularly extended, and at the other end of the spectrum, massed strings – often a killer for digits stayed smooth. The very slight hardening of HF at very high recorded levels I heard can be attributed to my system which is cabled out with silver wiring with the pre is silver wired too. Silver wiring is quite unforgiving in this respect ofter giving a “steely” quality. Were there any downsides? Not really. The unit was superb with CD quality and Hi-Res recordings, with up-sampling clearly worker for the former.
All in all, a great product as one would expect from dCS. Although pitched at “entry level” by dCS, it's nonetheless an excellent DAC/streamer which performs as a true High-End product. After extensive listening, I wondered how it could have done its job better. The wild variations experienced between the quality of recordings and mastering must surely be of greater significance than the diminishing returns obtained by paying for a much more expensive DAC/streamer. And you would have to pay a lot more to beat the performance of the Bartok. For myself , currently not owning a stand-alone DAC, this all-in-one unit is perfect. In addition to treating ones ears to such a high performance unit, you can be safe in the knowledge that dCS is a manufacturer that will not leave you in the lurch after a couple of years. Couple this with the excellent back-up you'll receive from Hi-fi Corner, and you need to look no further!