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dCS Bartok DAC with Headphone Amplifier Review

An Elegant and Sophisticated One-Box Solution for Digital Audio Playback


Sometimes, a name says it all. "Bartok" perfectly conveys the sense of luxury and refinement that this DAC/headphone amplifier from dCS possesses. Like other dCS products, the Bartok is named for a classical composer - in this case, the 20th Century Hungarian composer perhaps most well known for his Concerto for Orchestra. Having died in 1945, Bartok was a relatively modern-day composer, hence the Bartok being called the "Modernist" of the dCS product line. Yet the technology and functionality behind the dCS Bartok were far from the horizon during Bartok's lifetime.

The dCS Bartok ($18,500) is a single component consisting of an upsampling DAC, preamp, music streamer, and headphone amplifier. The headphone amp is optional (the Bartok costs $16,000 without the headphone amp), but Moon Audio sells the version with the headphone amp included. While the Bartok is the least expensive product in the dCS line, it's very much a premium component for the discerning audiophile. The Bartok features the latest generations of technology from dCS' Vivaldi and Rossini systems, including dCS' own Ring DAC™, Digital Processing Platform, and clocking architecture.

The Bartok lets you play music from streaming services, personal audio devices, Apple devices via AirPlay, and storage devices. It's the perfect solution for those who listen to music from a variety of sources. The streaming interface supports all major lossless codecs as well as DSD in native and DoP formats. The network interface can perform full MQA™ decoding and rendering. Playback is managed through the Mosaic App (iOS and Android), or you have the option of using Roon.


Pros:

  • Elegant, one-box solution for digital playback
  • Profound levels of resolution and realism
  • Crisp and musical sound signature
  • Headphone amp works with low and high impedance headphones
  • Flexible, "futureproof" design

Cons:

  • Heavy and large
  • Price may be a deterrent

 


Materials & Build Quality

The Bartok takes design cues from dCS' award-winning Rossini range. Available in black or silver, it's got an elegant, minimalistic aesthetic. It's crafted from aerospace-grade machined aluminum with internal acoustic damping panels to reduce sound-degrading mechanical vibration and magnetic effects. Multi-stage power regulation is employed, with twin mains transformers to isolate the DAC circuitry from the headphone amplifier.

Physically, the Bartok takes up a fair amount of real estate. It measures 17" deep, which makes it slightly deeper than the "L" section of my desk where it's currently living. It's 4.6 inches high and 17.5 inches long. At 36.8lbs, I don't intend to move it anytime soon. And really, it sounds so good, I have no desire to part with it. Its edges are quite sharp, which I suppose could lend an industrial look, but I don't think that's the case. I think the aesthetic is elegant.

The front panel, while large, has a clean and uncluttered appearance. It features a hi-resolution display screen, several buttons (power, menu, filter, input, output, and mute), two headphone inputs (4-pin balanced XLR and 6.3mm [1/4-inch] RCA), and a small volume knob. I note the size of the volume knob because it seems disproportionately small in comparison to the size of the unit.

The rear panel of the Bartok contains the connections for balanced and unbalanced analog audio outputs as well as S/PDIF (coaxial and TOSLINK), AES, and USB inputs for connection to the computer and/or formatted flash drive or NAS drive. There are also Ethernet and IEC connectors as well as connectors for adding an external master clock should you choose to do so.


Key Features


  • Latest generation dCS Digital Processing Platform brings state-of-the-art signal processing and flexibility
  • dCS Ring DAC fitted, as used in the dCS Vivaldi digital playback system
  • High-quality streaming from TIDAL, Qobuz, Deezer and internet radio via the dCS Mosaic Control app
  • Roon Ready, AirPlay, Spotify Connect and UPnP compatible
  • USB, AES, Dual AES and S/PDIF digital audio inputs
  • Headphone amplifier with balanced and unbalanced outputs, suitable for high and low impedance headphones
  • Accepts encrypted SACD data from dCS Transports via Dual AES inputs. Oversampling design with switchable DSD upsampling; user-selectable PCM and DSD filters
  • Multi-stage DXD oversampling design with switchable DSD upsampling; user-selectable PCM and DSD filters
  • Auto clocking system improves ease of use and minimizes jitter
  • Multi-stage power regulation and twin mains transformers to isolate the DAC section from the headphone amplifier

A great thing about the Bartok is its flexible, "futureproof" design: As with all dCS products, Bartok firmware can be easily updated via CD, USB or the new automated download and update facility. This lets dCS add new features and improve the performance of the Bartok over its lifetime.

The Headphone Amplifier


HeadFi Reimagined:

The Bartok’s custom headphone amplifier is the embodiment of our uncompromising approach to design. Starting with the dCS analogue output stage, benchmark performance is maintained with true Class A operation through its balanced and unbalanced outputs. Engineered to deliver a spectacular experience on both high and low impedance headphones, in balanced and unbalanced formats, it is able to handle a vast range of headphone models regardless of efficiency or impedance. Its design also features dedicated power supplies for analogue and digital processing, which are isolated from the DAC section of the system for enhanced precision with minimal crosstalk and noise. This unique architecture allows us to deliver a powerful and transparent performance that uncovers the unique character and potential of your chosen headphones.

Headphone use is simple: just plug in your chosen pair, switch the line output and adjust volume levels using the volume dial or our Mosaic control app (no need for a separate preamp). With a choice of four adjustable gain settings, you can adjust its performance to suit your setup, ensuring optimal sound across a vast range of systems. Along with its groundbreaking amplifier, the Bartok Headphone DAC features a unique processing platform that reimagines how sound is optimised for headphones. Expanse is an optional feature that can be engaged with a wide range of stereo recordings to provide a heightened sense of realism, and a greater sense of space and depth. -dCS Audio

With more and more audiophiles listening to headphones, it's wonderful that dCS chose to include a headphone amplifier option with the Bartok. This Class A headphone output stage uses an all-discrete transistor design along with its own dedicated power supply. The headphone amplifier is a custom design that works extremely well with both high and low impedance headphones in balanced or unbalanced formats. All of the outputs can be set to one of four maximum levels to enhance system compatibility. It's got dedicated power supplies for analog and digital processing (isolated from DAC section). With dCS' patent-pending Expanse technology, the headphone experience moves closer to the studio experience. Its unique processing method replicates the effects of studio listening, where sound is projected into the space around us rather than inside our heads, without altering the reverb in a recording or affecting a system's performance.

dCS Expanse: Rethinking the Headphone Experience

When we listen to music on headphones, sound is projected inside our head, where it forms an arc between both ears. Sounds from the left channel of a stereo recording are sent to our left ear, and sounds from the right channel are sent to our right ear. Listening on loudspeakers is different because sound is projected into the room around us, where it reflects off of various surfaces before arriving at our ears. The signal from each speaker is also heard by both ears. In a loudspeaker setup, the reverberation that is generated from sound bouncing around and reflecting off of surfaces plays a crucial part in helping us to identify where in the image that a particular sound is coming from.

For headphone listeners, the absence of these spatial cues can result in a soundscape that feels unnatural. Depending on how a recording has been mixed or produced, we can be left with an experience where sounds appear to come from inside our head, or right next to one ear. For some listeners, this can cause fatigue during long listening sessions. Various technologies have set out to address this issue, including a technique known as crossfeed, which involves blending sound from the left and right channels of a stereo recording to simulate the effects of sound from each channel arriving at both ears. But from our research, we discovered that most existing processes are implemented at the expense of reverberation.

Expanse uses a multi-stage processing method to replicate the effects of stereo listening - where sound is projected into the room around us, rather than inside our heads - without damaging or altering reverberation or affecting a system's performance. This is achieved through widening audio signals prior to the crossfeed phase. Expanse also delays the delivery of crossfeed signals to recreate the effect of left and right audio signals arriving at our ears at different times. Together, these methods help to bring the headphone experience closer to loudspeaker monitoring, while preserving the unique sound and character of a system and a listener's own headphones.

In a further stage of optimization, Expanse draws on a vast range of data to equalize audio and simulate the effects of sounds reverberating off our bodies including our heads, torso or ears, without using methods that would favor one particular set of physical characteristics over another. This technique allows dCS to recreate the original soundscape in a recording while preserving the unique tone and timbre of a performance. Because the effects of headphone optimization are dependent on how a recording is mixed or produced, Expanse isn't suitable for all types of music, but when used with the right track, such as those featured in the Expanse playlist, it can provide a heightened sense of space and depth, and a more natural and immersive soundscape.


The Mosaic App

Mosaic is dCS' proprietary software that allows you to browse and play music from any device running iOS or Android. Mosaic consists of three elements:

  • dCS Mosaic is the name for the audio streaming and networked control functionality of dCS products.
  • dCS Mosaic Control is the name of the iOS and Android software application for music management and product control.
  • dCS Mosaic Processor is the physical hardware component and associated software that is installed in the dCS product to provide streaming functionality.

Mosaic brings together audio from multiple sources into a single, unified interface, making multi-source playback simple. You can use Mosaic to tailor settings on your dCS device. Mosaic also has enhanced streaming functionality, allowing you to stream with TIDAL, Qobuz, Deezer, or internet radio. You can also use Spotify via the Spotify Connect app.

Now, if you don't want to use Mosaic to stream TIDAL or Qobuz, you also have the option of using Roon. Why might you opt to run Roon instead of Mosaic? It comes down to user experience. Mosaic is more of a minimalist approach. Calling up Qobuz on Mosaic, for example, gives me a bare-bones, clutter-free screen. Roon provides a more curated experience, with lots of rich metadata including extensive bios, music suggestions, visual elements, and much more. When I call up the Roon home screen, I'm greeted with stats, recent activity, suggestions, playlists, and more. When I click on a track, I get tons of info right there, including an album review. Now, some of this information is available with Mosaic, but you have to click for it. Using Qobuz, for example, I clicked on the three vertical dots that appear next to each track listing. From there, you can access artist, track, and album information. You can also go to the album or artist, add track to playlist or queue, or play directly. A great thing about Mosaic is that it's a custom code developed by dCS that can be upgraded and enhanced over time. Neither Roon nor Mosaic is the better choice; it all comes down to user preference. And it's great to have the option to use either.


Ring DAC

"The Ring DAC is a proprietary digital to analog conversion system that lies at the heart of all dCS products. Designed like no other DAC, it uses a combination of powerful hardware and ingenious software to deliver a transcendent experience where all aspects of sound are resolved, from the finest of musical details, to the sense of time and harmonic movement. With its unique architecture and ultra-wide bandwidth, it is able to process even the most challenging recordings with ease, while minimising signal errors and variations that can lead to distortion. The result? A performance that is unrivalled in its precision, depth, range and faithfulness to the music." - dCS

The heart and soul of the Bartok is dCS' proprietary Ring DAC. dCS builds its Ring DACs from the ground up; there are no off-the-shelf DAC chips. Now, as you probably know, digital-to-analog conversion is fundamental to our being able to enjoy digital audio. Sound is analog. When sound, or music, is recorded, it is then converted into digital files that can be stored on your device. In order to play back that music, it needs to be converted back to analog. This is where a DAC comes in. A DAC translates digital audio into analog voltage that is used to drive your headphones or speakers.

Digital audio is stored in binary format (1's and 0's) as a series of "samples." The number of consecutive binary digits that are used to represent the original sound wave is called a bit depth. 16-bit audio, for example (as in CDs) has 16 consecutive binary digits, all either 1's or 0's. Now, a DAC needs to translate these binary numbers into analog voltage - this is what drives your headphones or speakers to make sound. A DAC does this by using a series of current sources -- electronic component that each generate an amount of analog voltage.

In one type of DAC, called a ladder DAC, one current source is always working for one of the digital audio bits exclusively. Think of it this way: One current source will always be following what the first bit in the digital audio signal is doing, and so on for as many current sources as are needed. As the current sources go on, the amount of energy they must generate gets smaller and smaller. If you look at a diagram of this process, it will resemble a ladder. There are two types of ladder DACs: binary weighted and R-2R. But there are inherent issues with ladder DACs. Resistors (like all electronic components) have an element of error in their values. For resistors used in a ladder DAC, the current generated by that section of the DAC could be lower or higher than needed. This, plus another issue with ladder DACs called Zero Crossing Point Distortion, leads to linear distortion in ladder DACs.

dCS' Ring DAC seeks to correct the issues that are inherent in ladder DACs.

The Ring DAC uses a network of FPGAs (field programmable gate arrays) that are running proprietary dCS software that performs the digital to analog conversion as well as the digital filtering. A couple of things to note about the Ring DAC that makes it different from a ladder DAC. A key point here is that the ladder DAC removes the link between the original signal and the physical resistor value errors associated with specific sample values.

  • The Ring DAC uses current sources of equal value
  • The Ring DAC does not use the same current source(s) for the same bit every time

One of the key advantages of the Ring DAC is its upgradeability via firmware updates. Unlike the Ring DAC in the Vivaldi and the Rossini, the one in the Bartok uses a double power supply, one of which powers the headphone amplifier.

Featuring DXD upsampling as standard, the Ring DAC's multi-stage oversampling design offers optional DSD upsampling plus an extensive selection of DSP filters to suit individual taste and music choice. You've got four filters with DSD content, plus six filters with PCM. I played around with PCM filtering and found the differences to be subtle, with Filter 4 offering a discernible lift in warmth and fullness to the sound.


Digital Clocking

 "Our pioneering approach to clocking ensures all dCS systems are synced to a precise and stable reference source which sets world class standards for accuracy and jitter control. The absolute precision in a dCS system ensures that no subtle timing or spatial cues are lost during the conversion stage, providing a lifelike and three-dimensional sound." -dCS

dCS is a pioneer in the use of external clocks in digital audio systems, using quartz crystal oscillators as the basis of its clocking systems. The Bartok includes the clocking architecture from the dCS Vivaldi master clock. In audio systems with multiple units, an external clock helps to ensure that all of the components, like DACs and streamers, are operating in sync. This is important for reducing the occurrence of jitter. Jitter refers to time distortions in the playback of a digital audio signal, which can significantly degrade audio quality. In the digital world, everything operates at the sample rate; this is how frequently "snapshots" of bits of digital information are taken. In the case of a DAC, for example, one of its main tasks is to convert digital audio samples into analog signals. The timing of this process is crucial to ensuring the audio we hear is an accurate representation of a musical event. If audio signals aren't converted by the DAC at just the right moment, you get an artificially distorted version of the music.

When you're running multiple audio devices that are processing the same audio, you need something that will keep playback in sync, regardless of the sample rate. That something is a master clock. While the DAC in the Bartok could be configured to act as a master clock, tests have shown that there is no substitute for having a dedicated clock. Having an external master clock allows dCS to isolate a clock's sensitive circuitry from the other circuits within a system and ensure that the clock signals aren't affected by crosstalk (electromagnetic leakage), physical movement (such as the act of a disc spinning), or power interference (which can occur when multiple circuits are fed with the same power supply). With a master clock in place, all aspects of the sound are enhanced, from detail and imaging to rhythmic movement and flow.

Now, you do have the option of adding the Vivaldi (or other) external clock to the Bartok. That is a personal as well as a financial decision, but anecdotal evidence points to significant gains in sound quality in what is generally considered to be an already top-tier DAC.


Sound Quality

"Well do you ever get the feeling that the story's too [darn] real and in the present tense? Or that everybody's on the stage and it seems like you're the only person sitting in the audience?"

Jethro Tull, "Skating Away on the Thin Ice of a New Day"

This quote from Jethro Tull comes from a song that I used for much of my testing with the Bartok (and many of the other products I test). I find it to be particularly appropriate for the Bartok, because when listening, you will have the feeling not of being trapped in the audience, but of being on the stage with your favorite performers.

 

If "realism" were a quality that could be captured, packaged, and sold, the Bartok would be the vessel. Of course, "realism" in digital recordings is achieved by degrees. Most high-end audio products deliver a realistic, lifelike sound. You might think you've heard "the one," and then you hear something else that sounds even more realistic. The Bartok is "even more." The level of realism is such that it might even sound "over real," if that's even a thing. (And if it is a thing, it most certainly isn't a bad thing, right?)

The Bartok's signature leans analytical, but it's not sterile. It's got some natural musicality to it. The sound is crisp, clear, immersive, dynamic, powerful, and detail rich. I'm talking layers upon layers of detail. Subtleties are revealed, emotions are triggered. Highs are airy and sweet, mids are immersive and present, and bass is clean, deep, and robust. If one frequency was crowding out or dominating the others, I couldn't hear it.

Listening to "Skating Away," I felt like I was hearing it for the first and not the 200th time. Let's start with the opening sequence, where Ian Anderson is making tea. This hit me on a whole new level of immediacy and realism. My mind had no doubt that I was at a small table with him while he clinked his teaspoon against the side of his cup and slurped his freshly brewed tea.

The Bartok showed its chops with the instrument separation on this song, allowing flute, bells, guitar, and more to coexist and shine without getting in each other's way. It was an auditory delight. When guitar blasts were juxtaposed with delicate flute, neither lost its footing. Now, it's difficult to describe realism as a sound; you know it when you hear it. Something turns on in your brain and says, "Wow, this sounds as much like a flute as I've ever heard." And that's the experience I had. Vocals were simply out of this world, rich with texture, dimension, and emotion.

Listening to Bartok's Violin Concerto No. 2, I was blown away by the clarity and sweetness of the sound. The violins weren't just playing notes, they were evoking images of billowing sheets of satin swaying dreamily in my mind. During the most quiet, spare sections of the piece, as well as during the louder, more aggressive sections, the Bartok kept everything cohesive and dynamically stable, such that I never had to adjust the volume knob. In this piece and everything else I listened to, the sound was projected generously out to either side.

On a whim, I called up The Final Cut from Pink Floyd, one of my favorite albums from yesteryear. The Final Cut is Roger Waters' tribute to his father, who died during Rogers' infancy during World War II. The album is full of scathing songs and gut-wrenching reminiscences, with searing vocals, gorgeous melodies, and tons of lifelike sound effects (birds, motors, etc. The first track, The Post War Dream, left me dumbfounded and reaching for my coat to warm me up from the chills that were making their way up my arms. The song opens with a motor whizzing, followed by a radio dial being tinkered with. Waters' vocals enter with such force, such emotion. You can hear every single thing happening inside his mouth, from his teeth hitting his lips to the enunciation of consonants like "d" and "t." Those are the things that really bring music to life and make you feel like you have a front-row seat to a personal performance.

One thing that strikes me about the Bartok is that individual elements of compositions - the pluck of a guitar string, a piano note, an intake of breath - seem to have bodies and lives all their own. It's like they are at once contributing to a larger whole while also being their own separate entities worthy of examination and enjoyment. The fact that I am noticing this points to the fact that the Bartok has a more analytical sound, one where a focus on details and nuance is inherent. Listening to the Bartok with the Focal Utopia, which is a highly detailed and analytical headphone, would very much appeal to people who enjoy critical listening. Objectively, this combination sounded amazing. However I preferred the Bartok paired with the HiFiMan SUSVARA, which is also a detailed headphone but has a more musical sound than the Utopia.

 

Test tracks:

Bartok's Violin Concerto No. 2, Sz. 112: I. Allegro non troppo - Hanna Lintu/Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Diamonds and Rust - Joan Biaz

Dock of the Bay - Otis Redding

Pachelbel's Canon and Gigue in D Major - Herbert Von Karajen/Berliner Philharmoniker

The Post War Dream - Pink Floyd

Skating Away on the Thin Ice of a New Day -Jethro Tull

Pictured: Composer Bela Bartok in 1927, courtesy of Wikipedia


The Verdict

What are we hoping for - what are we really hoping for - when we listen to music? For a good number of us, I think we are hoping to have our senses and our emotions aroused. And we know that our favorite music will only sound as good as the components that we use to listen to it. For owners of high-end headphones who enjoy streaming music, the Bartok offers a one-box playback solution that combines elegance, functionality, and amazing depth of sound. The Bartok will make your music sound astonishingly clear and lifelike, with spine-tingling layers of resolution and an "I'm there" in the concert hall or studio feeling. While I enjoyed the Bartok with every type of music, I found vocals and complex instrumentals to be particularly strong points. Chock full of features and firmware upgradeable, the Bartok could well be your ticket to audio nirvana, now and for years to come.


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What's in the Box

  • dCS Bartok DAC
  • Black fabric drawstring bag
  • Manual
  • Quick Menu Guide
  • dCS Mosaic Control Quick Reference Guide
  • AC Power Cable
  • Spare Fuses

Specifications

  • Type: Upsampling Network DAC with Headphone Amplifier

  • Color: Silver or Black

  • Dimensions: 17.5” x 17.0” x 4.6“. Allow extra depth for cable connectors.

  • Weight: 16.7kg / 36.8lbs

  • Converter Type: dCS proprietary Ring DAC™ topology

  • Digital Inputs: Network interface on an RJ45 connector – acts as a UPnP™ renderer in Asynchronous mode, streaming digital music from a NAS or local computer over a standard Ethernet network, decoding all major lossless formats including FLAC, WAV & AIFF at up to 24 bit 384kS/s native sample rate, plus DSD/64 & DSD/128 in DFF/DSF format. Other formats include WMA, ALAC, MP3, AAC & OGG. Some formats are limited to lower sample rates. Supports Apple AirPlay at 44.1 or 48kS/s. Network Loop Out connector on a second RJ45 connector. USB 2.0 interface on a B-type connector operating in Asynchronous mode, will accept up to 24 bit PCM at up to 384kS/s plus DSD/64 & DSD/128 in DoP format. Operates in Class 1 or 2 mode. USB-on-the-go interface on type A connector operating in Asynchronous mode, streams digital music from a flash drive at up to 24 bit 384kS/s plus DSD/64. 2x AES/EBU on 3-pin female XLR connectors. Each will accept PCM at up to 24 bit 192kS/s or DSD/128 in DoP format. Used as a Dual AES pair, it will accept PCM at up to 384kS/s, DSD/64 & DSD/128 in DoP format or dCS-encrypted DSD. 2x SPDIF on 1x RCA Phono and 1x BNC connectors. Each will accept PCM at up to 24 bit 192kS/s or DSD/64 in DoP format. 1x SPDIF optical on a Toslink connector will accept PCM at up to 24 bit 96kS/s

  • Analog Outputs: Output levels: 0.2, 0.6, 2 or 6V rms for full-scale input, set in the menu. Balanced outputs: 1 stereo pair on 2x 3-pin XLR male connectors. These outputs are electronically balanced and floating. Output impedance is 3Ω, maximum load is 600Ω (10k-100kΩ is recommended). Unbalanced outputs: 1 stereo pair on 2x RCA phono connectors. Output impedance is 52Ω, maximum load is 600Ω (10k-100kΩ is recommended).

 

 

  • Headphone Outputs: 1 stereo balanced pair on 1x 4-way male XLR connector. 1 stereo unbalanced pair on 1x 6.35mm (1/4”) 3-pole jack. Full-scale output levels are 1.4W rms into 33Ω, 0.15W rms into 300Ω. Output levels are 0, -10, -20, -30dB, set in the menu. Minimum headphone impedance is 33Ω.

  • Wordclock I/O: 2x Word Clock Inputs on 2x BNC connectors, accept standard word clock at 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4 or 192kHz. The data rate can be the same as the clock rate or an exact multiple of the clock rate. Sensitive to TTL levels. Word Clock Output on 1x BNC connector. In Master mode, a TTL-compatible word clock appears on this output.

  • MQA: Full decoding and rendering of MQA data from the Network and USB2 inputs. Final rendering of unfolded MQA data only from the other inputs.

  • Residual Noise: 24-bit data: Better than –113dB0, 20Hz - 20kHz unweighted. (6V output setting)

  • L R Crosstalk: Better than -115dB0, 20Hz – 20kHz

  • Spurious Responses: Better than -105dB0, 20Hz – 20kHz

  • Filters: PCM mode: up to 6 filters give different trade-offs between the Nyquist image rejection and the phase response. DSD mode: 4 filters progressively reduce out-of-audio band noise level.

  • Conversions: DXD as standard or optional DSD upsampling

  • Software Updates: Download and update functionality available via Bartók App

  • Local Control: dCS Bartók app for unit configuration and playback. RS232 interface (controlled by a 3rd party automation system). dCS Universal IR remote control is available as an optional extra.

  • Power Supply: Factory set to either 100, 115/120, 220 or 230/240V AC 50/60Hz.

  • Power Consumption: 30 Watts typical / 50 Watts maximum.


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