dCS Bartok – First Contact
The dCS Bartok is a UK manufactured high-end desktop integrated streaming-capable DAC and headphone amplifier. It is priced at $15000.
Disclaimer: The dCS Bartok sent to us was purchased and does not have to be returned to the company. We thank dCS for this opportunity.
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I guess there are many levels of high-end in this headphone, desktop, and portable audio hobby. A lot of it is subjective in terms of what you the reader considers to be affordable and expensive.
In the last few years, I considered the sweet spot still to be just a shade under $1000. Others may see it as higher or lower. However, increasingly my own personal marker is being tested by stellar products way above that price point.
DAPs can now cost over $3000, IEMs that perform in the 2-3k range and higher as well as electrostatics systems around 8k. I won’t include statement products like the Shangri-La from Hifiman and Sennheiser’s HE-1 in that consideration.
The dCS Bartok, however, by all definitions, is truly high-end for this hobby or sector of audio. This is an integrated DAC, streamer and headphone amplifier selling for around $15000. You can buy the DAC on its own for around $12500 which might tell you where the bulk of the investment is going.
And yet the Bartok is not the flagship of dCS’s range despite the price point. In fact, it is on the low-end of the dCS range with products such as the Rossini starting around $23000 upwards and the Vivaldi stack, which consists of 4 separate units, close to $115,000 all in.
And we complain that portable audio is becoming expensive, well welcome to an entirely new level, my friends.
What Can It Do?
Well, it can do quite a lot of things apart from the obvious analog out for headphone audio.
Headphone DAC & Amp
At the narrow end of things, it can act as a standalone integrated DAC and headphone component desktop system offering balanced and unbalanced inputs and outputs. It has enough digital inputs to handle pretty much any transport or source you want to plug into it such as USB, SPDIF, coaxial, AES, and USB-OTG.
Pre-amp & Pure DAC
Beyond that, the Bartok can also act as a pre-amp by bypassing the integrated headphone amplifier with a set of balanced and unbalanced analog outputs. You can connect the Bartok as a pure DAC to any amplifier of your choice that can receive dual RCA unbalanced or XLR 4-pin balanced.
One more interesting feature is the Word Clock input system that is designed to integrate with dCS’s high-end Master Clock module. Three two word clock inputs on the back panel that are compatible with an industry-standard word clock system.
They are intended to be driven with 44.1 and 48kHz word clocks from a dedicated Master Clock ( such as their high-end Rossini or Vivaldi versions).
The final feature is more current for this generation and that is the ability to tap into any networked source of audio and stream directly to the Bartok via a set of ethernet inputs. dCS has also launched an app for iOS and Android that allows you to set up and control this feature from your smartphone or iPhone. The Bartok is also Roon Ready which is a very attractive option for me personally.
I should mention that whilst streaming seems like a catchy add-on, the use of Ethernet is canny. Ethernet is often considered a superior transporter of ‘audio’ compared to USB because it does not deal with both the time and data aspects of that signal but rather simply the data.
Therefore, aspects such as jitter are being pitched by dCS as being better controlled by the Bartok via an ethernet connection rather than USB where more correction may be required. In short, a superior quality audio signal is going into the DAC.
Now I did say the dCS Bartok was on the low-end of their product range. However, what is very welcoming is that a lot of the technology inside is trickled down from the unobtanium end of the product range.
This does include their proprietary and highly-regarded Ring DAC™ as well as the ability to integrate with their dedicated Word Clock and Upsampler component system which sells for a whole lot more.
dCS Ring DAC™
This is the exact same DAC deployed in their 100k Vivaldi stack and from what I have read about it, a highly rated proprietary DAC implementation. If you are coming from Chord Electronics products some of this will sound fairly familiar.
dCS do not use off-the-shelf delta-sigma DAC blocks or chipsets such as Sabre, AKM or Cirrus Logic. Rather, they use a network of FPGAs (Field Programmable Gate Arrays) preloaded to execute dCS proprietary software that does all the digital filtering and digital-to-analog conversion.
This gives dCS complete control of the implementation process. They set the parameters rather than being forced to work within any preset off-the-shelf chipset confines. That includes bit rate and sample rate limits, codecs, as well as deeper engineering aspects such as clock control, (jitter), power demands, and noise.
And because the code is designed and written in-house it can be continually revised and upgraded via firmware updates. That is a hugely important aspect because going the delta-sigma chipset route may be cheaper but rarely is it upgradeable. New features require new chipsets and invariably locked into new products.
Obsolescence planned or otherwise is a moot point with the dCS Bartok’s firmware upgradeable Ring DAC. That may also be a relief to those scratching their head at the decoding specifications also because the Bartok has some surprising omissions including a current ceiling of just 32BIT/384kHz PCM and native DSD128. That is right, no DSD256/512 or PCM 768kHz.
I say surprisingly because this hobby is all about the numbers game of late and the higher you can go the more competitive you seem. However, let’s face it, about 1% of most people’s collection is going to be DSD256 and its commercial viability is rather low. The vast majority of anyone’s collection is at best a digital 24/192k or a physical 16/44.1k.
Remember though, the Ring DAC is upgradeable so if the demand is there, dCS can bring in DSD256 and beyond. That is what I would call real future-proofing. And they have done that with the Bartok by bringing in switchable upsampling and full MQA decoding/rendering from either a network or USB. That means TIDAL and TIDAL via Roon is definitely game on with the Bartok Ring DAC.
Class A Amplifier
Inside the Bartok is Class A amp with balanced and unbalanced outputs for pre-amp and headphone duties. Need to note also that internally, the Bartok runs two separate toroidal power supplies separating digital and analog duties. This multi-stage power regulation helps isolate the DAC circuitry from the headphone amplifier and also contributes to the huge 16.7kg weight of the Bartok.
Headphone output numbers on paper are reasonable if not earth-shattering at 1.4W per channels into a 32Ω load stepping down to 0.15W on a 300Ω load. I suspect this is from the balanced XLR output rather than the 6.35mm unbalanced alternative.
I actually think that might be a bit conservative in terms of driving power because out of the box with the gain setting to 0, the Bartok had no issues driving the Susvara. Perhaps not quite as much current headroom as the Xi Audio’s Formula S flagship Class A but still loud and dynamic for my tastes.
Gain levels are adjustable within the system menu and they are configured in terms of dB rather than low-min and high etc. The system default is -30dB and that’s not enough for old school planars which do need that 0dB setting, (Read Susvara, Abyss Diana Phi, and Hifiman’s HE6).
Unboxing & Accessories
I knew it was big but I have to be honest I struggled to cleanly unbox this beast because the 16.7Kg weight is not exactly the easiest to work with unassisted. That being said the packaging survived an 8,000km roundtrip so you will be pleased to know that weight is well secured, (unless your local courier decides to drop it from a great height!).
This is kind of old school HiFi packaging for me and honestly, that’s fine. It takes me back 20 years ago when I was unboxing home ents Arcam and Pioneer kits. The outer is the courier brown box and the inside is the retail outlet white box. Inside is more some rock-solid cushioning foam contoured to hold the Bartok, accessories and an excellent manual and guide kit folder.
Aside from the very helpful technical manual and quick setup sheet you also get a single AC power cable and a 1.5m USB-AB cable for connecting to your PC or Mac. You also receive a 1M ethernet cable which I am looking forward to trying out in the main review once our modem arrives specifically for the Bartok.
Units this big and heavy are, to me, very reassuring. Building a component system in the 90s back home in Europe I am used to 16-17kg of weight and honestly, the heavier the more confident I felt I was getting my monies worth. I still have my Meridian CDP 506 20-BIT player and it is a dense unit for the size also. Others may feel differently and prefer something lighter but not me.
The size does mean that front and back controls, inputs and outputs are beautifully spaced out. I have quite a lot of smaller thinner racks with plenty of ins and outs but they look very cramped compared to the Bartok’s layout.
The casing is nothing flimsy either and it needs to be to carry that multi-stage toroidal set up inside. This is aerospace-grade machined aluminum with internal acoustic damping panels using design cues lifted from the Vivaldi line-up. Screws are discreet on the underside and rear so most visible areas are very cleanly finished. Corners are sharp though so watch your pinkies when handling.
The matching potentiometer on the far right of the front panel is just superbly smooth and even-handed in delivering an ever-increasing amount of current to whatever headphone you have jacked in. I am not detecting any channel imbalance either at this early stage.
The rear is clean, spacious and chock full of I/O with analog unbalanced and balanced outputs to the left and a cascade of digital I/O from there to the power sock on the far right. Each terminal is either gold-plated, covered for dust or inset very cleanly into the main aluminum housing. I have not seen finishing to this level in years.
Between the power switch and the 3-prong AC socket, there is also a little dual fuse box which is vital for me. Our area has some seriously dirty electrical supply which is prone to surging. I do have an AVR and line conditioner but even then sometimes you get a freak out from the transformer outside and those fuses are the last line.
Thankfully, dCS has supplied two spare fuses in the box so if they blow you can slide out the tray and replace them in a couple of minutes.
The one break in the monotone anodized grey finish of the panel is the LCD panel to the far left. This is a good one with clear legibility at reasonably wide angles and huge fonts for critical information such as volume and current active inputs.
The menu system is actually pretty in-depth with plenty of interesting features I have not seen on regular DAC and headphone amps. Options such as Burn-in which runs a continuous sine sweep are more than just for the curious.
Aside from that, you have the ability to tweak some crossfeed into your headphone output, introduce some PCM and DSD filtering, control upsampling on DSD and switch USB driver classes. Most, if not all of this, is really useful.
Navigation is through the front mechanical panel control buttons which allow you to quickly rotate through the input and output options available as well as plow through the myriad of features on the GUI menu on the LCD panel.
Of course, the dCS Mosaic app is where I hope the real magic of the Bartok interface comes to the fore. I say hope because I have yet to set it up on our network.
Once we have the main modem ethernet connection sorted we will bring you the low-down on how useful that app is with the Bartok and what it can do in the main review. dCS Mosaic will allow users to tap into the likes of Qobuz, internet radio and Deezer with ease as well as deliver OTA firmware upgrades on the go.
Given the Bartok is already Roon Ready the OS side of this platform feels quite advanced already. Just a pity there is no wireless feature which would make this neigh on perfect for features.
Initial Sound Impressions
Noise For Monitors
The noise floor on the Bartok is insanely low for such a big beast of a desktop amplifier. Normally Class A can deliver a bit too much noise to efficient monitors, especially at 1.4W into low loads. Not the Bartok, not least until we started using the Campfire Audio Solaris did we detect any hint of background hiss.
For example, a 64 Audio U4SE pairing delivered a pitch-black background with the Bartok and that is rated at just 12Ω and a fairly sensitive 116dB SPL rating. The channel balanced at -80dB upwards was impeccable. Now mind you, you do have to set the gain level down to -30dB to get enough control on current but the volume was beautifully controlled all the way up.
Based on this, something like the oBravo Ra C-Cu and Audeze’s LCDi4 seems tailor-made for monitor noise testing with the Bartok so we may throw those into the main review for synergy purposes. Especially the LCDi4 which has a Roon profile so we can test both the Bartok and the LCDi4 under the one media roof.
As for headphones, so far we tested the Hifiman Susvara and Meze’s Empyrean and the Empyrean had loads of headroom whereas the Susvara did need the gain set at the highest which is 0dB. From there, it did still need plenty of current at around -20dB but still quite manageable.
At the moment I can only give you an initial impression of both the DAC and Class A in tandem as an integrated unit. I will separate out the DAC and amp performance in various scenarios in the main review. For now, the performance is nothing short of breathtaking.
To define the timbre as neutral to natural is a complete understatement. The level of dynamic range combined with a huge dollop of textural detail and spatial detail coming at you from all angles is just unreal.
The most important statement I can say at this early stage is just how natural and lifelike the Bartok sounds with our tested headphones. There is no hint of artificiality, forced brightness or thinning out of instrumental timbre to etch out space. It makes a mockery out of any perception solid-state amp energy will come at a price of sounding cold and clinical.
With something like the Susvara the Bartok sounds almost tonally transparent instead focusing on giving me huge levels of resolution and a superb black background that just draws you right into whatever you are listening to.
I have always felt the Xi Audio Formula S was as good as it gets for delivering a tonally balanced signature in a solid-state headphone amp. The Bartok so far beats it handily by delivering that balanced tonality but with a lot more perceived power and dynamic range. Addictive stuff!
Wow! 3000 plus words for an introduction is something else. Then again, I have not had quite the initial impressions experience with any other product in for review quite like what I have had with the Bartok. We are only a few days into the process and I am expecting the Bartok to open up and give me even more which is surely an exciting prospect in its own right.
So, what to do next? Set up ethernet audio for one thing. That is a new concept for me and one I am looking forward to trying out and comparing with regular Class 2 USB audio from the Windows setup. Installing the dCS Mosaic is another feature I am anxious to explore and closely related to the ethernet challenge.
I am also keen to separate out the amp and DAC performance as I think this Ring DAC™ may well be the star of the show here. The amp noise floor is brilliant but I do not know the impedance of the 6.35mm output stage so there are some questions there to be answered properly in the main review. For now, phew! Stay tuned!
dCS Bartok Specifications
- Type: Upsampling 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
- DAC: dCS proprietary Ring DAC™ topology
- Power Supply: Factory set to either 100, 115/120, 220 or 230/240V AC 50/60Hz
- Power Consumption: 30 Watts typical / 50 Watts maximum
- 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.
- 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.
- Output impedance is 3Ω, the maximum load is 600Ω (10k-100kΩ is recommended).
- Unbalanced outputs: 1 stereo pair on 2x RCA phono connectors. Output impedance is 52Ω, the maximum load is 600Ω (10k-100kΩ is recommended).
- 1 x 4-way male XLR connector, 1 unbalanced pair on 1 x 6.35mm (1/4”) 3-pole jack.
- 1.4W rms into 33Ω per channel
- 0.15W rms into 300Ω per channel
- Output gain levels: 0, -10, -20, -30dB, set in the menu.
- 2x AES/EBU on 3-pin female XLR connectors accepting PCM at up to 24 bit 192kS/s or DSD/128 in DoP format individually and PCM at up to 384kS/s, DSD/64 & DSD/128 in DoP format or dCS-encrypted DSD combined.
- 2x SPDIF, PCM at up to 24 bit 192kS/s or DSD/64 in DoP format.
- SPDIF optical on a Toslink connector will accept PCM at up to 24 bit 96kS/s
- BNC connectors PCM at up to 24 bit 192kS/s or DSD/64 in DoP format.
- Dual-RCA unbalanced output
- 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.
- USB- OTG capable up to 24 bit 384kS/s plus DSD/64
- FLAC, WAV & AIFF at up to 24 bit 384kS/s native sample rate
- DSD/64 & DSD/128 in DFF/DSF format
- WMA, ALAC, MP3, AAC & OGG
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